The Military Coup of 1975.

Deception and the element of surprise are two important ingredients in the execution of any coup and the Nigerian 1975 coup was no different. By 1975, the good people of Nigeria had suffered the malady of 9 years of uninterrupted military rule with democracy nowhere in sight. On July 29th of the same year, the military, in a familiar move, took it upon themselves to yet again remove a Nigerian government and install a new leadership of their choice.

The putschists had accused the then military government of Gowon, of non-consultation among other things and they felt he should be removed. But this coup was going to be different from the others; it was going to be bloodless.

By late 1974, the putschists had begun to connive to remove Gowon from power and they had started recruiting other military officers who had grievances with the Gowon regime or who simply wanted a taste of power. These people included Colonels Abdulahi Mohammed, Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Taiwo, and Anthony Ochefu, Lt. Cols. Shehu Yar’Adua, Ibrahim Babangida and Alfred Aduloju.

Perhaps, the most important recruit of the putschists was Joseph Nanven Garba, the Commander of the Federal Guards (the equivalent of the American CIA, sworn to die defending the Head of State). Garba had pledged loyalty to Gowon, but he had the most important qualification of a coup plotter: the willingness to betray trust.

Brigadier Murtala Mohammed, the Federal Commissioner for communications, was another important actor in this coup. The putschists had approached Murtala for his blessings and he reportedly told them that he would not actively join them but would do everything to ‘save their necks’ if they failed. It should be recalled that after the 1966 July coup, there was a power rivalry between Murtala Mohammed and Gowon over who would become the Commander in Chief. Because Gowon was more senior in rank, he was chosen over Murtala and this was to dog their relationship from then on.

On the 25th of July, the First lady, Mrs Victoria Gowon left the country for London to meet up with the summer sale and two days after, her husband, General Gowon left for Kampala in order to attend an OAU conference. It was while Gowon was in Kampala that the unthinkable happened. 

Gowon was to leave for Kampala on the 27th of July but while at the Ikeja airport, he realized that he had forgotten a briefcase containing some documents which were important to the conference he was going for. He wanted to send his ADC, Lt. Col. William Godang Walbe to retrieve the documents before leaving but his Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Wey, advised against it because such a delay might violate protocol. Eventually, plans were made for Walbe to return from Kampala to retrieve the documents after Gowon had been dropped off. Little did General Gowon know that he was embarking on a journey from which he might never return or at least, not as Head of State.

According to Nowa Omoigwu, it was alleged that two people, Lt. Col. Mustafa Amin and Alhaji Muhammadu Gambo were planted in Gowon’s delegation to Kampala as spies for the putschists. Rumours of a likely coup had also circulated to Gowon even before this time. Gowon however, like Tafawa Balewa of the first republic did not give adequate attention to the rumours and he was going to be sorry for this. First military coup

As soon as Gowon’s plane took off, the putschists, like actors, began to execute their plot. They quarantined the airport and began surveillance of key personnel of the Gowon regime, after which they began to co-opt all the divisional commanders with the assurance that there would be no bloodshed. They also went ahead to co-opt Brigadiers T.Y Danjuma and Olusegun Obasanjo. Evidence suggests that both Danjuma and Obasanjo said they would neither take an active role in the coup nor do anything to stop its execution. The putschists were contented with this and swung into action for evil prevails when good men do nothing.

In the afternoon of the 28th, Lt. Col. Walbe (Gowon’s ADC) arrived Lagos to pick up the briefcase that Gowon forgot but in his possession was a letter from Gowon to Vice Admiral Wey, written on an East African Airway Letterhead:

“Just to let you know that we arrived safely and we had a good journey right through and we also had a great welcome from Field Marshall Idi who was openly delighted to see us.

I forgot my briefcase and I am sending William to fetch it.  If you, therefore, have any message please send it through him.

My regards to all other colleagues.

Yours Aye, 

Y. Gowon (sgd)”.

Apparently, Gowon was suspicious of an impending coup and used the pretext of the ‘forgotten briefcase’ to pass a message to Wey so that any information about a coup could be secretly passed to him (Gowon) in time to return and crush it. Walbe however, did not understand the gravity of the situation and so, upon arriving Lagos, rather than deliver the letter, he went to play table tennis. Unfortunately, when Garba found out that Walbe was in town, he tricked him into going to the officers’ mess in Dodan Barracks and detained him there. 

By this time, Murtala Mohammed, knowing that the coup was in motion, arrived Nigeria from London. He had earlier declined an invitation to accompany Gowon on the trip to Kampala with the pretext that he had a prior commitment to represent the government at an event in London. This obviously was because Murtala was in on the coup and was trying to avoid going on the trip with Gowon. In fact, the plan was to make him (Murtala) Head of State.


In Kampala, Gowon was preparing for the day’s diplomatic functions, oblivious of the events that were happening at home. He, a former chairman of the OAU, had just given an inspirational keynote speech to the committee of African leaders titled “The Unity of Africa”. At this time, he was unaware that his executive jet and ADC had been detained in Lagos, and was even discussing the situation of Angola with Zaire’s General Mobutu. By the time Gowon got into the hall, Mr Mbow of UNESCO was giving a speech and it was then that the Commander in Chief got the dreaded news.

The Ugandan president, Idi Amin invited Gowon to the high table and gave him a note informing him of his overthrow. Secretly, Gowon felt that the Guard Brigade, led by his friend Garba, would stiffly resist the coup. Little did he know that it was Garba who spearheaded the coup. When Gowon eventually saw the full list of those involved in the coup, he was broken. He headed straight for his hotel room and according to accounts; he was contemplative and inquisitive but dignified.

By the time Gowon was removed from office, he had not built a single house for himself; neither did he have a penny outside Nigeria despite nine years of rule. He did not belong to the class of Nigerian leaders who aggrandized themselves at the expense of the nation. He was broke and worst of all, could not return home. Thus, members of the Nigerian delegation and staffers of the Nigerian High Commission in Kampala, in a display of compassion, donated 3000 pounds Sterling to enable him to start a new life. General Eyadema also donated 10 000-pound sterling to him.

Rather than go to Togo, where he had been offered permanent domicile, General Gowon traveled to re-join his family in London and began a new life. He had to stay with one of his friends for some time before eventually getting his own accommodation.

While in London, Gowon signed up for undergraduate studies in Political science at Warwick University, but unfortunately, Nigerian newspapers pictured him carrying trays in a student cafeteria in the UK. The Murtala regime was embarrassed with this and sent T.Y Danjuma to ask Gowon to adopt a supposedly more dignified stance. Gowon rejected the overture and reassured his “embarrassed sympathizers” that he was comfortable with his situation.  (Conceivably nothing could have been more embarrassing than to be overthrown while attending an OAU summit). His wife also registered as a catering student at a University College in London.

Meanwhile, back home in Nigeria, the putschists had started creating the political structure they wanted. Murtala was made the Head of State but he wanted absolute power. Fortunately, however, he was forced to share power with Obasanjo and Danjuma whom both became Chief of staff SHQ and Chief of Staff (Army) respectively.