Military Coups in Nigeria; All to Know

Military Coups in Nigeria
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This article covers the military coups in Nigeria right from the first one to the last military coup the country experienced. It also highlights their causes and everything you need to know about Nigeria’s coup d’etat since the country gained independence.

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Military Coups in Nigeria – An Introduction

Nigeria, as a country, has experienced several military coups since the country got her independence in 1960.

There have been both successful and unsuccessful military coups in Nigeria, but one thing is sure – these coups have helped chart the course of the country.

With the rise in corruption and other factors post-independence, it sometimes became crucial for the military to take over power and restore sanity.

However, what began as an emergency intervention soon became a permanent feature in the Nigeria political atmosphere. 

Between 1966 and 1999, the Nigerian army held power in the county without interruption, except from a short-lived return to democracy between the years 1979 and 1983.

This fact shows how deep coup d’etats are a part of the history of Nigeria post-independence.

Related: Security Agencies in Nigeria; Functions, Duties, Uniform, Everything to Know

What is a Military Coup?

A military coup is a situation when the military violently or non-violently overthrows an existing political regime. It also goes by the terms, ‘ousting,’ ‘overthrow,’ ‘putsch,’ or ‘takeover.’

No matter the term it bears, it’s typically illegal, and unconstitutional and involves the seizure of power by the military, political faction or a dictator.

A coup is successful when the coup organizers seize and hold power for at least seven days and a coup in the works or unsuccessful coup is term a ‘coup attempt’. 

Causes of Military Coups in Nigeria

Military coups in Nigeria link to various factors revolving around one word – corruption.

Following independence, Nigeria had democratically elected leaders; however, with the rise in corruption, the military stepped in to set things straight, thus the first military coup in Nigeria.

After that, there were a series of military coups leading the country to where it is today.

Comprehensively, the top reasons for military intervention in Nigeria include;

  • Socio-economic Underdevelopment
  • Corruption and Political Underdevelopment
  • The Centrality of the Military
  • Conflict Based on Societal Issues
  • Ethnic and Regional Differences

Related: Nigerian Coat of Arms; History, Meaning, Symbols, Facts, All to Know

Top Reasons for Military Intervention in Nigeria

Socio-economic Underdevelopment

This reason suggests that military intervention sometimes happens because of disbelief in the socio-economic development of the country.

Countries that are socially and economically stable are less prone to military coups and any country having instabilities in socioeconomics is likely to experience one.

Military interventions often happen in countries with low-income status, with the military trying to seize power and take situations back to normal. 

Corruption and Political Underdevelopment 

Political underdevelopment and crises is another reason the military might intervene.

This is a common cause of a military coup, and the coup is often to eliminate the corruption and crises from the political sector.

These political crises and corruption weakens the government and increases the chances of a military coup happening. 

The Centrality of the Government

This cause of military coup is based on the amount of power the military has in a country. This theorizes that the greater the power and resources the military have, the greater the chances of a military coup. 

A weak government may provoke strong military forces to take over the rule of the country. 

Societal Conflict

Conflicts about societal issues can be a prevalent cause of a military coup. These conflicts may include ethnic and religious issues. This is typical because Nigeria has several tribes and three major religions.

When these ethnic and religious conflicts are not controlled, it can lead to military intervention.

Regional Differences

Nigeria has several tribes and geopolitical zones with different regional and ethnic differences. These differences may lead to political instabilities and lead to military coups if not handled well. 

This is why the government must provide ways to foster peaceful interrelationship and coexistence between the different regions in Nigeria.

Military Coups in Nigeria

Nigeria has experienced several military coups since independence in 1960. Some of this coup d’etat include;

  1. The January 1966 Coup
  2. The July 1966 Coup
  3. The 1975 Coup
  4. The 1976 Coup
  5. The 1983 Coup
  6. The August 1985 Coup
  7. The December 1985 Alleged Vatsa Coup
  8. The 1990 Coup
  9. The 1993 Coup

The January 1966 Coup

The January 1966 Nigeria military coup began on January 15th, 1966.

It started when some Nigerian soldiers led by Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna killed 22 persons.

The persons killed included the Prime Minister, several senior politicians, senior army officers, and their wives, and sentinels on protective duty. 

The coup plotters attacked Ibadan, Kaduna and Lagos and blockaded the Niger and Benue River within 48 hours before the plotters were subdued.

Following the coup, Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army, took charge of the country.

This put democracy in Nigeria on hold. 

The casualties of the coup included the country’s Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Belewa, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Samuel Akintola, the finance minister, the Premier of the Western Region, Festus Okotie-Eboh and many others.

The July 1966 Coup

The July 1966 Coup, also called the 1966 Nigerian counter-coup or ‘July rematch’ was the second of the several military coups in Nigeria.

The coup was masterminded by Lt. Colonel Murtala Muhammed and several other military officers. The coup, which was a counter-coup to the January 1966 coup, began at roughly midnight on July 28th, 1966, and lasted till July 30th, 1966.

The coup resulted in the killing of Nigeria’s first military Head of State, General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, and Lt. Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi who was a host to the Head of State at the time. 

The coup ushered in Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon as the Head of State. 

Related: What Currency Does Nigeria Use? Nigerian Currency; All to Know

The 1975 Coup

The 1975 military coup in Nigeria was the coup that saw General Yakubu Gowon removed from office. The coup was a palace coup, and Brigadier Murtala Muhammed took power as the new Nigeria Head of State. 

1975 coup was a bloodless one and took place on July 29th 1975. The coup overthrew General Yakubu Gowon who was at the time of the coup attending the 12th OAU summit in Kampala, Uganda. 

The coup plotters appointed Brigadier Murtala Mohammed as Head of state and Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo as his deputy. 

The 1976 Coup

The 1976 Coup was a military coup attempt that took place on February 13th 1976.

This happened when a faction of the Armed Forces officers, with Lt. Colonel Buka Suka Dimka, as the head, attempted to overthrow the government in power led by General Murtala Mohammed.

The Head of State – Murtala Mohammed – and his aide was assassinated in the coup.

Their car was ambushed in Ikoyi en route to the Dodan Barracks, by a group of soldiers led by Dimka. 

Dimka cited corruption, indecision, arrest, and detention without trial and weakness as the reasons for trying to overthrow the government.

The coup wasn’t successful because it was crushed several hours later by government troops.

Lt General Olusegun Obasanjo, the deputy, succeeded General Mohammed, as the Head of State.

Related: Geopolitical Zones in Nigeria; States, & Ethnic Groups

The 1983 Coup

The Nigerian 1983 military coup happened on December 31st 1983 and was coordinated by key officers of the force.

The coup led to the removal of the democratically elected government of President Shehu Shagari and the installation of a new military Head of State – Major General Muhammadu Buhari.

The 1985 Nigeria Military Coup

This coup was a military coup in Nigeria that took place on August 27th, 1985.

It happened when a faction of mid-level Armed Forces officers, led by the Chief of Staff, General Ibrahim Babangida, overthrew the government of Major General Muhammadu Buhari.

The coup was a palace coup that led to the detention of Buhari in Benin City until 1988. Babangida said the coup was because Buhari failed to tackle the country’s economic problems by implementing Buharism.

He promised to repair the country’s economy, which has been ravaged by years of government mismanagement and corruption. 

The Alleged Vatsa Coup of December 1985

This coup led to hundreds of military personnel being arrested. Some were tried, convicted, and later executed for conspiring to overthrow the Babangida administration.

The conspirators were alleged to have been under the command of Major General Mamman Jiya Vatsa.

The 1990 Coup

This was a violent and failed attempt to overthrow the government of General Ibrahim Babangida.

The military coup attempt was led by Major Gideon Orkar and took place on April 22nd, 1990.

The rebel troops seized the FRCN radio station and several military posts around Lagos, including the presidential residence and military headquarters, the Dodan Barracks. 

The Head of State, Babangida, was present but escaped by a back route.

The coup plotters were confronted and captured by government troops and were convicted of treason. They were executed by firing squad on July 27th, 1990.

Related: Functions of Central Bank of Nigeria You Didn’t Know

The 1993 Coup

In 1993, Babangida resigned and appointed Chief Ernest Shonekan as interim president on August 26th, 1993.

The administration lasted only three months before General Sani Abacha conducted a bloodless military palace coup that overthrew the interim government. 

The coup took place on November 17th 1993 and Abacha entered into power.

In September 1994, Abacha decreed that his government is above the jurisdiction of the courts.

This effectively gave him absolute power. 

The Impact of Military Rule in Nigeria

Although the country today enjoys democratic rule, the impact of military rule in Nigeria lingers.

There has been no coup since 1999, and the country has smoothly transitioned from one president to another.

It’s important to note that the military created all today’s 36 states.

The impact of military rule in Nigeria goes deep. Economically, military rule was disastrous.

The traditional agricultural-based economy was neglected and left to die off. The focus shifted to the export of oil which due to frequent oil price fluctuations, led to an unstable economy.

In various regimes, there were incompetence, waste and mismanagement, privatization of public offices and resources, neglect of non-oil sectors and misplaced priorities.

All these led to a rise in poverty, child abuse, crime, disease, etc., and the country still feels the effect until today. 

Characteristics of Military Rule in Nigeria 

Military rule goes with many policies and decrees that are more in line with the military than the civil society.

In Nigeria, there were several characteristics of the military rule era.

Some of them include;

  • Dictatorial form of government
  • The suspension and modification of some sections of the constitution to fit the military rule.
  • A highly centralized system of government.
  • Rule by decrees
  • Absence of all forms of opposition.
  • A fusion of the legislative and executive arms of government.
  • Absence of election
  • Inclusion of a few civilians in the administration.
  • Use of coercion in po9licy implementation.
  • Closure of the country’s borders, airports and seas when the military is taking over.
  • The imposition of a dusk to dawn curfew whenever the military is taking over.
  • No tolerance for opposition
  • The monopoly of the instruments of violence
  • Discipline and obedience to higher commands.

The Structure of Military Rule in Nigeria

Although the military government didn’t conform to the democratically elected government’s structure of leadership, it had its structure.

The structure of military rule is according to this hierarchy.

  1. The Head of State
  2. The Supreme Military Council (SMC) or the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC)
  3. The National Council of States
  4. The Council of Ministers
  5. The Judiciary
  6. The Civil Service.

Achievements and Failures/Weaknesses of Military Rule in Nigeria.

As the saying goes, ‘anything that has merits, also have demerits.

Military rule in Nigeria had its achievement and areas where they failed.

Achievements of Military Rule in Nigeria

  • Infrastructural development
  • Keeping the country in unity
  • Creation of states and local governments.
  • Encouragement of regional cooperation
  • Local government reforms
  • Promotion of National integration
  • The new Federal Capital Territory
  • Growth in the Education Sector
  • Introduction of a new constitution
  • Change of Nigeria driving pattern from left to right.
  • Introduction of new currency
  • Mass orientation programme

The failures and weaknesses of military rule in Nigeria

  • Didn’t tolerate criticism
  • Was based on dictatorship
  • Was responsible for the Nigerian Civil War
  • Violation of human rights
  • Was undemocratic 
  • Had no press freedom
  • Had no respect for the rule of law
  • Laws were made by decrees
  • Inability to conduct a reliable and acceptable census
  • There was an absence of Judiciary independence
  • Mismanagement and wastage of public funds
  • Increase in crime rate

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Military Coups in Nigeria

What Led to the 1966 Coup in Nigeria?

According to the majors that planned the January 1966 Coup (the first coup in Nigeria), the men in leadership were running Nigeria to the ground with their corrupt ways. 

Ministers were allegedly living flamboyant lifestyles and looting public funds at the expense of the ordinary citizens.

Who led the first military coup in Nigeria?

Majors Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeanuja led the first military coup in Nigeria. Other co-plotters include;

  • Timothy Onwuatuegwu
  • Chris Anuforo
  • Don Okafor
  • Humphrey Chukwuka, and
  • Adewale Ademoyega.

When was the second military coup in Nigeria?

The secondary military coup in Nigeria happened in July 1966.

The coup was a counter-coup that lasted from July 28th to July 30th, 1966, and saw Major-General Yakubu Gowon succeed the Head of State

When was the last military coup in Nigeria?

The last military coup in Nigeria was a palace coup led by General Sani Abacha in November 1993.

The coup removed Ernest Shonekan, the interim president of Nigeria then.

Who was declared the new head of Nigeria after the July 1966 military coup?

Major-General Yakubu Gowon was declared the new Head of State in Nigeria after the July 1966 military counter-coup.

How many military coups are in Nigeria?

Nigeria has experienced nine military coups since independence in 1960.

While a majority of these coups were successful, a good number of them were coup attempts.

How many years was Nigeria under military rule?

Altogether, Nigeria has experienced 28 years under military rule.

Nigeria was under military rule following the first coup.

Military rule was from 1966 to 1979 (12 years) before Shehu Shagari became the president.

In 1983, a military coup removed Shehu Shagari, and Nigeria entered into another military rule era that lasted for ten years (1983 – 1993).

After handover to an interim government led by Chief Ernest Shonekan in 1993, another military coup occurred, putting the nation into military rule again.

The military rule, under General Sani Abacha, lasted from 1993 – to 1998 when he died and was succeeded by General Abdulsalami Abubakar who led for a year and handed leadership to a democratically elected president. This era of military rule lasted from 1993 to 1999 (6 years).

Final Thoughts on Military Coups in Nigeria

Nigeria has experienced tons of military coups and has eventually moved on to a democratic government. The country has enjoyed more than 21 years of democracy, and we expect it remains as a democratic country.

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