Skip to main content

Five (5) Reasons for the January 15 1966 Coup in Nigeria

INTRO:  The January 15, 1966 military coup in Nigeria happened because of corruption by the officials, Western Nigeria crisis, intention to install Awolowo as the Head of State, the domino effect from coups outside Nigeria, and personal ambition of the coup plotters for joining the army. It was the first military coup in Nigeria.
In its simplest terms, coup d'etat can be defined as the unconstitutional and violent overthrow of an incumbent government, especially, by the armed forces. Coup d'etat is more often than not, treated with scorn in the international comity of nations perhaps because it is believed that military in politics is an aberration. Nigeria, this central disapproval of military rule notwithstanding, has witnessed several coups and counter coups starting from January 15, 1966 when the military made its debut in the politics of the country. The coup toppled the coalition government of Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) and National Congress of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) led by Alhaji Tafawa Balewa and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as the Prime Minister and President in that order. No fewer than eleven persons died in the bloody coup; and they include: Alhaji Tafawa Balewa (the Prime Minister), Sir Ahmadu Bello (Premier of the Northern Region), Festus Okotie-Eboh (Finance Minister), Samuel Ladoke Akintola (Premier of  the Western Region). Also, Brig. S.A. Ademulegun, Major S.A. Adegoke, Lt. Col. J.Y. Pam, Brig. Zakari Maimalari and Col. Kur Mohammed died. Others who lost their lives included Lt. Col. Largema, S/Lt. James Odu, Col. S.A. Shodeinde and Lt. Col. A.G. Unegbe.

Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was away in London when it happened; while the Premier of the Eastern Region, Dr. Michael Okpala was hosting Archbishop Macarious, the President of Cyprus when the mutineers stormed his house, and they decided to respect the presence of the international figure. The survival of the two Igbo persons above from the coup strengthened accusations that the coup was an Igbo coup. The accusations were far from the truth. Below are the reasons for the 1966 coup in Nigeria.

The topmost reason for the first military coup was because of the official corruption. The Army pulled the trigger against the elected and appointed officials of the First Republic on accounts of brazen corruption by the officials.  Soon after that intervention, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu offered reasons to justify their action. In his broadcast, he identified as enemies "the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand ten per cent, those that seek to help the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those who have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds."
Indeed, there were several cases of financial misappropriations in the First Republic Nigeria. For instance, Nnamdi Azikiwe was investigated by Foster-Sutton Tribunal and found guilty of using his official power to finance his distressed African Continental Bank (ACB). In Western Region, Coker Commission in 1962, found Obafemi Awolowo, the first Premier of the Western Region guilty of financial mismanagement in Western Region Marketing Board. Other First Republic government officials looted public funds with impunity. KO Mbadiwe, the Minister of Aviation flaunted his wealth by building a palace in his hometown. When asked where he had gotten the money to build such a mansion, KO replied, ”From sources known and unknown.” Festus Okotie-Eboh in a reply to charges of corruption went biblical, saying that “To those that have, more shall be given. From those that do not have, shall be taken even the little they have.” He was notorious for flamboyant and weird wardrobe as virtually all his clothes trailed several yards behind him wherever he moved. Of a similar wardrobe was the Sarduana of Sokoto and the Premier of the Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello whose wardrobe was one of the most elaborate in the world. Furthermore, a report from the inquiry into the corruption practices in Nigeria Ports Authority and other corporations of the First Republic by Ironsi government revealed that a number of ministers, including Okotie-Eboh, Ribadu, and R.Njoku had formed companies and used their influence to secure contracts. KO Mbadiwe was reported to have gone to the extent of securing a contract for a non-registered company. The jubilant Nigerians following the news of coup pointed the fact that the coup was a welcome development.

Another notable reason for the January 1966 military coup was the Western Nigeria crisis. The famous political unrest that bedeviled the Western Region was a fallout of personality issues and ideological differences of the duo of Obafemi Awolowo and Samuel Ladoke Akintola, in the leadership of Action Congress (AG). Awolowo favoured socialism as epitomized in his free education programme; but SL Akintola now on saddle as the Premier of the Western Region increased school fees as well as other anti-socialist policies; and refused to make amends as directed by Awolowo. possibly, due to influence by Chief Awolowo, the Western House of Assembly passed a vote of no confidence on Akintola and the Governor of the Region, Sir Adesoji Aderemi, removed him as the Premier and appointed Alhaji Dauda Adegbenro as a replacement. Crisis erupted in the region to the extent that the region became known as the "Wild Wild West." The Federal Government declared a state of emergency (which was the first ever in Nigeria) in the region and appointed Moses Majekodunmi as the Sole Administrator. Awolowo protested the action of the Central government citing crisis such as in Okirika, Eastern Region in which the Central government did not make such intervention. He accused the Central government of foul play in support of the Ladoke's faction. Instead of a fresh election for the Region as advised by Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa reinstated Akintola in December 1962 and capped his political stroke with the arrest and detention of Chief Awolowo for treason and coup plotting. By the 1964 election, the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), a breakaway party from AG, led by Akintola had entered an alliance with NPC and formed Nigerian National Allance (NNA). The splinter party won the Western Region election through massive rigging. The announcement of the result was greeted with widespread arson and killing (Operation Wetie). Perhaps because the favoured candidate won the election, there was no state of emergency declared on this second wave of the Western Region's crisis; instead the Federal government sent security forces to support the victory of Chief Ladoke Akintola and Chief Remi Fani Kayode's NNDP. This state of warre persisted in the Region until 1966 when dissatisfied young majors pulled the trigger against the political malaise.

Also, one of the reasons for the January 1966 military coup in Nigeria was the intention to install Awolowo as the Head of State. The revolutionaries of the January 15, 1966 coup by and large were disinterested in ruling Nigeria after the coup. Their plan included detailing an officer who would fly to Calabar and release Chief Awolowo from prison and fly him to Lagos to install him as a head of state, "whether he likes it ot not." This fact is contained in Awolowo's prison diary entries and the book: "The Five Majors" by Ben Gbulie. The coupists obviously must have felt bad about the victimization that Awolowo suffered in the hands of the government in Lagos.

Furthermore, the 15 January 1966 military coup in Nigeria happened due to the domino effect from coups outside Nigeria. News about the successes of coups especially in other African countries is another reason for the January, 1966 coup in Nigeria given that majority of the army officers were mates in military training schools abroad. They had felt that if their mates could succeed there, then they would succeed here. The very first coup on African soil was on July 23, 1952 when Lt. Col Gamal Abdel-Nasser terminated the reign of King Farouk in Egypt. Two years later, the same Nesser man, overthrew General Naguib. Thence, the floodgate of coups and counter coups was opened in Africa. It hit Sudan in 1958. From Sudan to Benin Republic (then Dahomey), Algeria, Zaire, Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta) and on to Liberia and Ghana among others, including Nigeria, the nationals woke up to martial music highlighting the coming of a new government; so that from Nasser of Egypt in 1952 till date, Africa has seen no fewer than 40 forceful overthrows of government.

Personal ambition of the coup plotters is also one of the reasons for the first 1966 coup. Some of the coupists right from Adam, joined the army simply to carry out a coup to correct political errors which they disliked in the seat of power. This fact is available in the account of the coup as given by Adewale Adegboyega in his work, "Why We Struck."