Reasons for the First Military Coup in Nigeria

A lot of factors led to the first coup in Nigeria. The events in the historical evolution started to develop gradually and reached its peaks in Nigeria in 1966 when the political bomb exploded. Major Nzeogwu and his colleagues struck, the reasons are summarized below.

Colonial Heritage:

The British throughout her rule in Nigeria (1990-1960) paid more attention on the exploitation of Nigerian natural resources. The colonial policy was more of divide and rule. The North saw the South as a different entity. There was no serious effort by the British to unify the two.

The separate regions were centres where power radiated. Much of the federation policies were on compromise. Some regions had their own police force distinct and different from the federal police. This made the administration of justice difficult. The north followed the Islamic law and applied little English laws while in the South, English Legal System was in operation.

Changes of Alliance and Breakdown of Centre:

In 1966 the NCNC and NPC entered into alliance and had a coalition government at the federal level while A.G became opposition party. The 1962 census as well as the 1963 census, the creation of Mid-Western State, the imprisonment of Chief Awo and the fight of supremacy of the federal level led to the breakdown of the alliance. The 1964 general election were rigged.

The Tiv Crisis:

The peasants in the land revolted over the corrupt practices of the local government councils in Tivland in 1960. The Tivs did not support NPC. The Premier, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, insisted on imposing the party officials on the natives. The 1960 crisis was settled but in 1964 the crisis started again.

Many supporters of the UMBC, a party formed by J.S Tarka and aligned to the A.G were imprisoned. Many houses were burnt down. The federal troops were moved to Tivland to quell the revolt.

The movement of the troops to Tivland did not receive the blessings of top officers of Nigeria army. Some of the soldiers were brutal to the civilians. The Tiv men in army were not happy on how weapons were used against the Tiv rioters. This generated controversies in the army hierarchy.


One of the weaknesses of the colonial administration was the re-enforcement of tribalism in Nigeria. The early political elites climbed to power by resorting to ethnic sentiments. Political powers later became ethnic instruments for achieving ethnic goals, camouflages by the interest of the elites.

Official Corruption:

The elites saw to it that the nation treasury was looted, contracts were inflated and awarded. Two publics were created. Hence the notion that stealing public money is not sin or offence gained public attention and prominence.

Attitude of Belewa Regime:

This regime took more interest in international politics than at home. the regime was hosting commonwealth Heads of States Conference in Nigeria while thousands of people were killed in the west. The government felt less concerned. This action infuriated some army officers and concerned elites and citizens alike.

The Western Regional Crisis

The corrupt victory by Akintola in 1965 angered the majority of the Yorubas. The intellectuals who benefitted from Chief Awolowo’s free education were disillusioned. The masses saw Awolowo as a symbol of Yoruba unity and progress. At last, the masses exploded and went to the streets; they drove the party’s representatives from the villages, killed amny of them and burnt down the houses.

They also mounted road blocks, destroyed cars and in some cases petrol was used burn houses. There was general insecurity in the West that it was nicknamed the “Wild West”

Promotion in the Army:

Promotions in the army were irrational and bred indiscipline among the ranks and files of the army. Northern army officers were promoted rapidly. The army officers from the South complained but got no positive result.

Some of the Nigeria Army officers then sought the assistance of the regional Premiers and their parties in order to get promoted to next rank. The army was politicized to a high degree. Efficiency was relegated to the background. Ethnic and party allegiance became glaring to the public.

In conclusion, all these factors collectively led to the 1966 military coup in Nigeria. The army officers involved in the first military coup in Nigeria are: Major Nzeogwu, Anufooro, Ifeajuna, Ademoyega, Chukwuka,  Okafor, Onwuatuegwu, Obienu Captains, – Nobosi, Oji, Tide, Adeleke, Gbulie, Oyewole, Oguchi, Okaka, Ezedigbo, Igweza, Azubuogu, Nweke, Wokocha.

On the night of 14th-15th January these army officers staged a coup d’etat which was led by Major Nzeogwu. It succeeded in Kadunaa but failed to capture Lagos. The Prime Minister and Alhaji Ahmadu Bello were killed in the military attempt. The Federal Finance Minister Chief Okotie Eboh, the Western Regional Premier were also killed. The coup leaders were arrested and detained in Kaduna. Some senior army officers from the North were also killed.

Major-General J.T.U Ironsi became the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of Nigeria and the Head of the State. He ruled for six months before he was over thrown by the Northern Soldiers headed by Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon.


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