First Military Coup In Nigeria.

By Adeola Jesuye

When Nigerians went to bed on Friday’s eve, January 14, 1966, little did they know that they would wake up to events that would radically alter the destiny of their nation. They were going to witness the first of many coups and be dispossessed of their hard-earned democracy.

The first military coup which was led by Majors Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna saw the death of the Prime minister, Tafawa Balewa; the Finance minister, Festus Okotie-Eboh; the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello and the Premier of the Western Region, Samuel Akintola among others.

The coup was so complex that one needs to understand the political climate at the time in order to appreciate the reasons for it.


Nigeria Before The ‘January Coup’.

Nigeria before 1966 was divided along ethnic lines and this was reflected in the nature of its national politics. The influence of ethnicity on the three political parties was such that no single party could command nationwide support.

Furthermore, many Southerners perceived Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister, as a puppet of Ahmadu Bello. This perception was not helped when Bello referred to Balewa as ‘My lieutenant in Lagos’.[i] Besides during independence, the Northern Region was given more seats in parliament than the two Southern Regions put together. This, of course, created feelings of disaffection in the country. To top it all, the Western Region was plagued by political violence of such magnitude that a state of emergency was declared. All these reveal how precarious the political situation of Nigeria at that time was.

It must be noted at this point, that the coup attempt by Major Nzeogwu and his crew might have been done with noble intentions. The Majors seem to have been fedup with the Nigerian situation and wanted to inspire change. Their actions however brought about such results that no one could have concieved .

By 1964, there had been hints of a possible coup, but Tafawa Balewa paid no attention to it. The plot to execute a coup in 1964 however, failed when the plans leaked. Many of the plotters were those who eventually carried out the coup of January 15, 1966.[ii]


The Coup.

First military coup in nigeria

Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. (One of the Coup Plotters)

Like a wolf circling its prey, Nzeogwu had been scouting the premier of the northern region, Ahmadu Bello’s lodge for weeks. He had been taking his men on a night-time “training exercise” known as “Exercise Damisa”.  At that time, he was the Chief Instructor at the Nigerian Military Training College in Kaduna and not even his men knew that the “training exercise” was a practice run for a military coup to overthrow the government.[iii] When Brigadier Ademulegun, the commander of the 2nd Brigade in Kaduna heard of Nzeogwu’s activities, he reproved him over the telephone and prohibited him from carrying out military exercises near the premier’s house. Ademulegun, however, did not take further steps on the matter especially since he did not know the real motive of Nzeogwu for carrying out the training.


first military coup in nigeria Sir Ahmadu Bello. Premier, Northern Region

Sir Ahmadu Bello. (Premier, Northern Region)

In the early hours of January 15th 1966, Nzeogwu turned “Exercise Damisa” into a full-blown coup. He led soldiers into a bush adjacent the Premier’s lodge and right then and there, told the soldiers their mission; ‘attack the Premier’s lodge’.[iv] The men did not object and eventually, they killed the Premier. By the time Ademulegun found out that a coup was being executed right under his nose, it was already too late for him and the nation. Ademulegun and his wife were shot dead in their bedroom while lying beside each other.


first military coup in nigeria

Chief Samuel Akintola (Premier, Western Region)

In Ibadan, the Premier of the Western Region, Samuel Akintola had earlier heard rumours of a coup and thus travelled to Kaduna to warn the Premier of the North. Frustrated that his warnings failed to elicit the required degree of urgency from Bello, Akintola returned to Ibadan and armed himself with a rifle.[v] When the coupists got to Akintola’s house, he was brave enough to engage them in a fire exchange, wounding some of them including Capt. Nwobosi (the leader). Unfortunately, Akintola met the same fate as Ahmadu Bello: Death.


Sir Tafawa Balewa (Prime Minister, Nigeria)

Major Emmanuel Efeajuna led the coup in Lagos. The coupists subdued without killing the guards at Tafawa Balewa’s residence but they kidnapped the Prime Minister at gunpoint. Evidences suggest that it was not initially the intention of the coupists to kill Tafawa Ballewa. The fact that in the aftermath of the coup, Nzeogwu rattled off a list of names that were on the hit list corroborates this point. He mentioned the usual unsurprising suspects as Bello, Azikiwe and Akintola, but Tafawa Balewa’s name was not on the list. It thus would appear that the coupists did not kill the Prime minster until it was apparent that the coup was doomed to fail.[vi]

Although a number of key government officials were killed on the 15th January 1966, the Majors failed to take over power and thus, the event was a failed coup. The failure of the coup could be attributed to a number of reasons, which cannot be analysed here due to lack of space. However, failure of organisation and lack of experience is among those reasons. In the words of Emeka Obasi, a journalist, “The First Military Coup pioneered by Nzeogwu was therefore bound to fail because his (Major Nzeogwu) three years as an Int. Officer did not teach him to embark on such grandiose dream with more grandiloquence and mere grandstanding”.[vii]


Gen. Aguyi-Ironsi (First Nigerian Military Head of State)

Eventually, the military led by Aguyi Ironsi, the then General Officer Commanding the Army (GOC) overcame ‘The Majors’ and sent many of them fleeing.

It must be noted at this point that the coup got popular support from many Nigerians at that time, especially given the circumstances before the event. If only they had known what was in store, perhaps their disposition would have been different.

Since the first military coup of January 15th 1966 failed, an important question must be asked; “Why did power not return to a democratically elected government?” The fact remains that although the Prime Minister and the Premiers of the Northern and Western Regions were killed, the government was still in place, the parliament was still functional and the armed forces (excluding the coupists) were still loyal to the government. In fact, the President, Nnamdi Azikiwe was still alive.

The reality is that, irrespective of what we choose to believe as our history, what may be referred to as a second coup was carried out by more senior military officers (who were different in ideology from the “Majors”) the following day (January 16, 1966). This time, it was successful. Aguyi Ironsi had rallied loyal troops but in the course of this, the top hierarchy of the military had become opportunistic like parasites and decided to seize power for itself.[viii]

In his book, “Nigeria and Biafra: My Story” by Philip Effiong, the author wrote that when Lieutenant Colonel Victor Banjo briefed him and other army officers in Lagos on the mutiny, he told them that he (Banjo) and some senior military officers “…had tried to influence Ironsi to assume the leadership of the Government”.[ix]

Chief Richard Akinjide who was at that time the Minister of Education made a narration of the coup in the following words “Having nominated ZANA Diphcharima as our acting Prime Minister in the absence of the Prime Minister… We approached the acting President, Nwafor Orizu to swear him in… Nwafor Orizu refused….The GOC said he wanted to see all the cabinet ministers. And so we assembled at the Cabinet Office. Well, I have read in many books saying that we handed over to the military. We did not hand-over… Ironsi told us that “You either hand over as gentlemen or you hand-over by force”. Those were his words… He was controlling the soldiers”.[x]

From the above, we can see how the military institution which was equipped to protect the democracy of Nigeria destroyed it instead. The army did what they were trained to do, but this time, their mandate was against the nation they swore to protect.