The first ever military coup in Nigeria took place in 1966 when some young majors made up of primarily South-easterners overthrew the incumbent government leadong to a military take over. This coup d’etat was led by Kaduna Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna.
The major casualties were the Prime Minister of Nigeria, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the premiers of the Northern and Western regions as well as many senior officers and politicians.
First military coup in Nigeria: Historical details
The coup plotters attacked Kaduna, Ibadan and Lagos and blockaded the Niger and Benue Rivers over a period of two days before they were eventually subdued.
According to reports, the planning of thIS coup began a year earlier. The group of plotters included young army majors namely Kaduna Nzeogwu, Ifeanyi Ifeajuna, Timothy Onwuatuegwu, Chris Anuforo, Don Okafor, Humphrey Chukwuka and Adewale Ademoyega. Major Adewale was the only Yoruba major among this group of Igbo majors.
Their reason for plotting this coup was the manner with which the Prime minister and the Premiers at that time were managing the affairs of the country. Particularly, the ministers under them were living extremely flamboyant lifestyles and looting public funds and they seem to ignore their obviously corrupt practices.
In the words of Nzeogwu, “We wanted to get rid of rotten and corrupt ministers, political parties, trades unions and the whole clumsy apparatus of the federal system. We wanted to gun down all the bigwigs on our way. This was the only way. We could not afford to let them live if this was to work. We got some but not all. General Ironsi was to have been shot, but we were not ruthless enough. As a result, he and the other compromisers were able to supplant us.”
In the wee hours of that Saturday morning of January 15, 1966, Kaduna Nzeogwu decided to turn their training session known as Exercise Damisa into a full blown coup.
He was the one that would later announce the coup on Radio Nigeria in Kaduna.
The whole of Nigeria was interrupted with his speech that fateful morning. Below is the introductory paragraph of that speech:
“In the name of the Supreme Council of the Revolution of the Nigerian Armed Forces, I declare martial law over the Northern Provinces of Nigeria. The Constitution is suspended and the regional government and elected assemblies are hereby dissolved…”
Unfortunately, his announcement didn’t affect one of the senior Army officers at that time, General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi using the opportunity to annex power and become the first military head of State.
Nzeogwu would later point to his co-plotter as the reason why they couldn’t stop Aguiyi-Ironsi from usurping power. This was the uncompleted part of the coup as Col Ifeajuna had done nothing to neutralize the Commander of the Army – Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi.
The vice President, Albert Osakwe had quickly briefed the President Nnamdi Azikwe who was on vacation at that time and the Presidency issued a nationwide broadcast indicating that it was a voluntary decision of the cabinet to transfer power to the armed forces.
The new Head of State, General Ironsi followed up with another broadcast. The transcript of the speech is shown below
“The Military Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria wishes to state that it has taken over the interim administration of the Federal Republic of Nigeria following the invitation of the Council of Ministers of the last Government for the Army to do so.
For some time now there have been escalating political disturbances in parts of Nigeria with increasing loss of faith between political parties, and between political leaders themselves. This crisis of confidence reached a head during the elections in the Western Region in October last year. There were charges by the opposition parties rigging of the elections and general abuse of power by the regional government in the conduct of the elections. Riots, arson, murder and looting became widespread in Western Nigeria since October. The situation deteriorated and certain army officers attempted to seize power.
In the early hours of the morning of January 15 , 1966, these officers kidnapped the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance and took them to an unknown destination. The revolt was widespread throughout the country and two Regional Premiers and some high-ranking army officers were killed. The whereabouts of the Prime Minister is still unknown. The vast majority of the Nigerian Army under the command of the General Officer Commanding the Nigeria Army remained completely loyal to the Federal Government and immediately took steps to control the situation.
The Council of Ministers of the Federal Government met and appraised the problems confronting the government. They appreciated the immediate need to control the serious situation which threatened the Federation. They also saw quite clearly a possible deterioration of the situation in the light of developments on Saturday, January 15, 1966. On Sunday, January 16, the Council of Ministers unanimously decided to hand over voluntarily the administration of the country, with immediate effect, to the Nigerian Army.”
Long after this first ever military coup, one of the ministers at that time, Chief Richard Akinjide would later confirm that indeed the coup wasn’t a voluntary hand over as Nigerians were made to believe at that time but a forceful takeover.
The comprehensive list of casualties of the January 1966 coup includes:
- Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa
- Premier Ahmadu Bello
- Premier Samual Ladoke Akintola
- Festus Okotie-Eboh (Minister of Finance)
- Ahmed Ben Musa (Senior Assistant Secretary for Security)
- Hafsatu Bello the wife of Ahmadu Bello
- Latifat Ademulegun, the wife of Brigadier General Samuel Ademulegun, the GOC 1st Division, Kaduna
- Zarumi Sarduana
- Ahmed Pategi, the driver to the Northern Premier
Also, the military and police officers that died during this coup include:
- Brigadier Sam Ademulegun,
- Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari,
- Colonel Ralph Shodeinde,
- Colonel Kur Mohammed,
- Lt-Colonel Abogo Largema,
- Lt-Colonel Yakubu Pam,
- Lt-Colonel Arthur Unegbe,
- Sergeant Daramola Oyegoke,
- PC Yohana Garkawa,
- Lance Corporal Musa Nimzo,
- PC Akpan Anduka and
- PC Hagai Lai.