Tue. Mar 21st, 2023

Tribalism has always been one of Nigeria’s major problems since the 20th century. The first coup in the country was also seen as a tribal agenda, and this led to the second coup d’état, and eventually led to a civil war within the country. Let’s take a look at the first coup d’état in Nigeria.

The 1966 Nigerian coup d’état began on 15 January 1966, when insurgent Nigerian soldiers led by Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna, killed 22 people including the Prime Minister of Nigeria, many senior politicians, many senior Army officers (including their wives), and guards on protective duty. The coup plotters attacked the cities of Kaduna, Ibadan, and Lagos. While also blockading the River Niger and River Benue within two days before the coup plotters were restricted.

The General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army, Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, was compelled to take control of the government of a country in upheaval, inadvertently putting Nigeria’s newborn democracy on hold. His ascendancy to power was regarded as a strategy by the coup plotters, who were mainly Igbo officers, to pave the way for General Aguiyi-Ironsi to be Head of State of Nigeria. Thereafter, the retaliatory events by Northern members of the Nigerian Army that led to the deaths of many innocent Igbo soldiers and civilians caused the Nigerian Civil war.

Table Of Content

  • Cause of the coup
  • Victims
  • The aftermath of the coup

Cause Of The Coup

Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu
(1937 –1967). He played a leading role in the coup.

In August 1965 a group of Army majors namely Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Timothy Onowuetuegwu, Chris Anuforo, Don Okafor,  Humphrey Chukwuka, and Adewale Ademoyaga (the Majority are Igbos) began forming a coup d’ètat, against incumbent Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa. 

The coup was planned because according to the majors, the men at the helm of affairs, were running Nigeria aground with their corrupt ways. Ministers and the Premier of Regions under them were living flashy lifestyles and ripping off public funds at the expense of ordinary citizens. 

Azikwe was the first major political figure investigated for questionable practices In 1944, a firm belonging to Azikiwe and his family bought a bank in Lagos. The bank was procured to strengthen local control of the financial industry. Albeit, a report about transactions carried out by the bank showed though Azikiwe had resigned as chairman of the bank, the current chairman was an agent of his. The report wrote that most of the paid-up capital of the African Continental Bank was from the Eastern Regional Financial Corporation.  

In the Western region, politician Adegoke Adelabu was investigated following charges of political corruption leveled against him by the opposition. The premier of the western region, Samuel S.L. Akintola bought a bulletproof Mercedes Benz and he was the first to do that in the country.

In the Northern region, against the backdrop of corruption allegations leveled against some native authority officials in Borno. The Northern Government enacted the Customary Presents order to forestall any further breach of regulations.

 Later on, it was the British administration that was accused of corrupt practices in the results of elections which enthroned a Fulani political leadership in Kano, reports later linking the British authorities to electoral irregularities were discovered. 

The prominent politicians of the First Republic (1960-1966) were flamboyant, rode in Pontiacs and Chevrolets, and lived in big houses. Although corruption was not an issue, regional rivalry and inter-party wrangling were the dominant themes during this era. Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, the man who directed their overthrow, nevertheless described them as “ten-percenters”, i.e., they demanded 10 percent of the value of contracts they awarded. Many politicians, both at the regional and federal levels of government, were indicted by the military administration that eventually took over the reins of government.

The civil unrest in the west was also one of the causes of the coup d’état. In the western region, there were riots, looting, and murder. Political opponents and their properties were burned alive. The event came to be known as operation wet-ie and the Western Region was nicknamed Wild, Wild-West.

Ahmadu Ibrahim Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto(12 June 1912– 15 January 1966) first and only premier from 1954 until his assassination in 1966


Viewing the victims, the coup conspirators insisted their purge post-coup targeted members or supporters of the anterior government and had been targeted for purely political reasons instead of being a racial purge focused on certain ethnic groups or clans; furthermore, they also claimed the list of people targeted was small and composed of only 8 people, half of them foreigners who were to be arrested not killed, and that the victims had occurred as collateral destruction of the coup. These claims were clarified by a member of the trio that formed the coup,  Adewale Ademoyega, who published them in Nigeria in 1981 in a book titled ‘Why We Struck’ outlining their reasons and motivations in which he mentioned: 

” There was no decision at our meeting to single out any ethnic group for elimination. Our intentions were honorable, our views were national and our goals were idealistic. Even those earmarked for arrest, four were Northerners, two were Westerners and two were Easterners.”  

However, Adewale Ademoyega said they targeted 8 people but 22 people were killed, and below is the full list of the killed victims. 


Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa 

Premier Ahmadu Bello

Premier Samuel Ladoke Akintola

Finance Minister Festus Okotie-Eboh

Ahmed Ben Musa (Bello’s Senior Assistant Secretary for Security)

Hafsatu Bello

Mrs. Latifat Ademulegun

Zarumi Sardauna

Ahmed Pategi (Bello’s driver) 

Military and Police

Brig. Samuel Ademulegan

 Brig. Zakariya Maimalari

 Col. Ralph Shodeinde

 Col. Kur Mohammed 

 Lt. Col. Abogo Largema

 Lt. Col. James Pam

 Lt. Col. Arthur Unegbe

 Sergeant Daramola Oyegoke (assisted Nzeogwu in the attack on the Sardauna’s lodge and according to the police report was murdered by Nzeogwu) 

  PC Yohana Garkawa

  Lance Corporal Musa Nimzo

PC Akpan Anduka

PC Hagai Lai

Phillip Lewande

Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (1912 – 15 January 1966)first and only Prime Minister of Nigeria upon independence.

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The Aftermath of the coup

The commotion caused by the murders of other officers alerted Ironsi to the coup and was able to rally troops who helped him put down the coup. On his way to commence moves to crush the coup, Ironsi encountered a checkpoint manned by junior officers involved in the coup. Ironsi simply stepped out of his vehicle and roared “Get out of my way!”, an order which they promptly obeyed, before continuing his journey.

When it became obvious the coup wasn’t going to succeed, Nzeogwu handed over control of the Northern Region to Ironsi’s appointed designee, Hassan Katsina, before being escorted to Lagos by Lt. Col. Conrad Nwawo, where he surrendered to Ironsi. The coup leaders, except for Ifeajuna who had fled to Ghana, were placed under arrest. 

The surviving members of the Federal cabinet led by Acting President Nwafor Orizu made a nationwide broadcast after he had briefed President Nnamdi Azikwe on the phone about the conclusion of the cabinet, announcing the cabinet’s “voluntary” decision to transfer power to the armed forces.] 

Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi then made his own broadcast, endorsing the “invitation”. On 17 January, Major General Ironsi suspended the constitution, banned all political parties, and formed a new military government with a Supreme Military Council.

The coup raised tension among the Northern elite, especially in the Army, that the Easterners were behind the coup, as the majority of the coup plotters were Easterners while the majority of the casualties were Northerners. In a bid to quell contentions in the Army, Ironsi made Gowon, the most senior Northern officer alive, his Chief of Army Staff. 

Whether the coup was Eastern favored or not, it brought to the fore a united Northern Region in the Army, regardless of tribe or religion. 

Decree Number 34 of May 24, 1966, promulgated by Ironsi was the beginning of the end for him. The decree made the central strong, thereby abolishing the powers granted to the regions. Another mistake Ironsi did was the non-trial of the coup plotters of January 15 which is against the military law which says all coup plotters must be killed after strict investigation.   

These caused huge unrest in the Northern part of the country, as the Northerners have gone against the delimiting of regional power, as far back as 1959. In June 1966, Ironsi began a tour of the country, and met with the northern and western elite, assuring them of a united Nigeria. Unfortunately, he never returned as he was killed in a counter-coup d’état in Ibadan.  


Wikipedia (Nigerian Coup D’état)

Wikipedia (Corruption in Nigeria)


The HistoryVille

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