We all know that Nigeria’s first military coup took place on January 15 1966. However the actions and motivation of the principal actors has been the subject of misintepretation over the years. In this article (the first of a two part series), my intention is to accurately describe the sequence of the events that guided and led to that tragic event, and to correct some of the misconceptions about that coup. This article is part one of a two article series on the coup. Part two will follow in a few weeks time. A special branch “police report” on the coup was commissioned by Maj-Gen Ironsi. The report was compiled by Lt-Col Yakubu Gowon, Captain Baba Usman of Military Intelligence and Alhaji Yusuf. Copies of this report were leaked and although the report is extremely detailed, it contains errors in some places.
The coup was so complex that one needs to understand the political situation at the time to appreciate the reasons for the coup. After Nigeria gained independence from the UK, its domestic politics TRIED to emulate those of its former colonial master by adopting a Westminster style parliamentary democracy. There the similarities ended. Instead of the cultured debate and sophisticated party political culture of the UK, Nigeria’s politics fragmented on regional and ethnic lines. Due to the splitting of the country into three geo-political regions, party politics (and political parties) took on the identity and ideology of each of the three regions. The northern region was represented by the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) whose motto of “one north, one people” gave a realistic and accurate assessment of its objectives. Southerners viewed the NPC as the party of the Hausa-Fulani. The western region’s dominant party was the Yoruba led Action Group (AG) and the east’s the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) which was controlled by the Igbos. These regional based parties assured two things: firstly that none of the parties could govern Nigeria on its own, and secondly that ethnic conflict was only a matter of time away.
The NPC took control of the Federal Government with the NCNC as the junior partner in a shaky coalition (the NPC’s deputy head Tafewa Balewa became the Prime Minister and the NCNC’s leader Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe took the ceremonial role of President). The AG led the opposition. The make up of the Government was odd. The NPC’s leader Sir Ahmadu Bello could have become Prime Minister but chose to instead become leader of the northern region, and handed over the Prime Minister’s chair to his deputy Tafewa Balewa. Rightly or wrongly, many southern politicians viewed Balewa as Bello’s puppet and resented the fact that (in their opinion) the government was being ruled by proxy by a regional ruler and viewed Bello as the real power beyond the throne. This may have led southern politicians to have a disrespectful attitude toward Balewa. This perception was not helped when Bello referred to Balewa as “my lieutenant in Lagos”.
At independence the northern region was given more seats in parliament that the two southern regions put together. This meant that no meaningful governmental decision affecting Nigeria could be taken without the consent of the north. Southern rulers belatedly began to appreciate that northern politicians were not as naïve as they thought and that the lopsided parliament meant that the north would politically control Nigeria forever. The only way to alter the north’s control of the country was via a constitutional amendment (unlikely since the north controlled the parliament )….or violence. The conviction and imprisonment of the AG leader and western region premier Chief Obafemi Awolowo for treason seemed to suggest that some southerners had chosen the latter option. In a controversial trial Awolowo was convicted of hatching a plot to overthrow the government by force of arms. Awolowo’s incarceration was followed by the installation an unpopular government led by Chief Samuel Akintola of the NNDP. The NNDP has very close links to the ruling NPC and was regarded by many as a local western “branch” of the NPC. Akintola was elected as premier of the western region in a bitterly controversial election that was widely regarded as massively rigged. Popular resentment against the NNDP spilled over into wide scale violence, protests arson and murders that placed many parts of the western region into a state of near anarchy which earned the region the nickname of the “wild west”. The Ibadan based 4th battalion of the army (commanded by Lt-Col Abogo Largema) was deployed to restore order. Most of the soldiers in the 4th battalion were of northern origin and the battalion itself was perceived as being pro-NPC and highly politicised. One of the officers who carried out the January coup accused Lt-Col Largema of giving training to Akintola in the use of firearms. If this allegation is true, then getting firearms training was probably a wise move on the part of Akintola given how many enemies he had.
The NPC government decided to authorise a massive security crackdown to curb the lawlessness in the west. To carry out the crackdown, the government first had to reshuffle the upper echelons of the security establishment. The Inspector-General of police Louis Edet was sent on leave and replaced by Kam Salem. The army’s General Officer Commanding: Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was also to be sent on indefinite leave and replaced by Brigadier Maimalari. These reshuffles (by fault or design) would result in the replacement of two eastern officers (both of whom may have been suspected of having NCNC sympathies) from the NCNC power base of the east by northerners. Additionally the corruption of certain government ministers drew public condemnation. The ostentatious lifestyle of government ministers such as Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh raised eyebrows to say the least.
It became clear that a violent conflict was inevitable. Despairing at the lack of political of a political horizon, many openly began to call for the army to intervene to break the political deadlock. The army responded in deadly fashion. A group of radical army officers had decided that the only means of breaking the political logjam in the country was to execute a coup d’etat to overthrow the government. Their plan was to overthrow the government, release opposition leader Obafemi Awolowo from prison and install him as the Prime Minister.
There were rumblings of possible military coup as early as 1964. Then President Azikiwe (in his position of commander in chief of the country’s armed forces) had openly called on the army to intervene to break the political deadlock in the country after Azikiwe refused to call Balewa to form a new government following scandalous elections that were marred by massive rigging, thuggery, intimidation and murder. The heads of the army, navy and air force all met with Azikiwe and made it clear that they would not intervene. Azikiwe also obtained legal advice from the Attorney-General which indicated that the service chiefs were right to disobey his call to intervene. Azikiwe therefore eventually called on Balewa to form a new government after the nation tottered perilously in uncertainty. In 1964 some of the same group of soldiers that eventually carried out the 1966 military coup had planned to take advantage by using the distraction of a senior officers’ course to stage a coup. However the plan was cancelled when rumours of the plot leaked.
Max Siollun is a historian and commentator on Nigerian political and governmental issues, with a focus on those pertaining to Nigerian history and the Nigerian military’s participation in politics. He has written a number of articles and critiques regarding Nigerian history, politics and its military coups. He is also the author of a forthcoming book on the origins of military engagement in Nigerian politics. Mr Siollun welcomes reader feedback on his articles and may be contacted by clicking here. His website.