1966 Nigerian coup d'état

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1966 Nigerian coup d'etat
Date January 15-January 16, 1966
Location Nigeria
Flag of Nigeria.svg Government of Nigeria Flag of Nigeria.svg Rebel Army Officers
Commanders and leaders
Abubakar Balewa 
Ahmadu Bello 
Samuel Akintola 
Festus Okotie-Eboh 
Kaduna Nzeogwu
Timothy Onwuatuegwu
Emmanuel Ifeajuna
Adewale Ademoyega
Chris Anuforo
unknown unknown
Casualties and losses
13 dead 0

The 1966 Nigerian coup d'état began on January 15, 1966, when mutinous Nigerian soldiers led by Kaduna Nzeogwu assassinated 11 senior Nigerian politicians and two soldiers as well as kidnapping three others. The coup plotters attacked the cities of Kaduna, Ibadan, and Lagos while also blockading the Niger and Benue River within a two-day span of time before the coup plotters were subdued. The General Officer Commanding, of the Nigerian Army, Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi then used the coup as a pretext to annex power, ending Nigeria's nascent democracy. It was one of the events that led to the Nigerian Civil War.


In August 1965 a group of officers (one Yoruba and four Igbo) Majors began plotting a coup d'état against incumbent Prime Minister Abubakar 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 under them were living flamboyant lifestyles and looting public funds at the expense of ordinary citizens.

The President of Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe left the country in late 1965 first for Europe, then on a cruise to the Caribbean. Under the law, Senate President Nwafor Orizu became Acting President during his absence and had all the powers of the President.


In Kaduna[edit]

In the weeks leading up to the coup Maj. Kaduna Nzeogwu, who was the Chief Instructor at the Nigerian Defence Academy in Kaduna, carried out reconnaissance on Ahmadu Bello's mansion in Kaduna.[citation needed] Nzeogwu often took his men on a night-time training exercise known as "Exercise Damisa" which was in actuality a practice run for a military coup. The commander of the 2nd Brigade, Brig. Samuel Ademulegun, became irritated with the night-time exercises and reprimanded Nzeogwu in a telephone call to keep exercises a safe distance from Bello's mansion. Although Ademulegun complained about the commotion he had no idea of the exercise's true purpose. Nzeogwu's control over his troops was so little that he had to conscript young soldiers from the Nigerian Military Training College at Kaduna.[citation needed]

In the early hours on January 15, 1966 Nzeogwu decided to turn "Exercise Damisa" into a full blown military coup. Nzeogwu led his men to a bush adjacent to the mansion gates and informed them of their real mission. Nzeogwu then led his men, blowing open the mansion gates and conducted a search of the residence, hunting for Bello. After losing his temper at his initial failure to locate Bello. He conducted a door to door search with his troops and found Bello hiding in the midst of some women and children in one of the rooms and brought him up to the palace gates, where he was shot.[citation needed]

Nzeogwu's co-conspirator, Maj. Timothy Onwuatuegwu, personally led a detachment of soldiers to Ademulegun's house. Onwuatuegwu made his way up to the Brigadier's room where he was laying beside his wife. Upon seeing Onwuatuegwu enter the room, Ademulegun shouted at him "Timothy, what the devil do you think your doing?".[citation needed] Onwuatuegwu told Ademulegun that he was under arrest. Ademulegun reached for a drawer beside his bed, and as he did so, Onwuatuegwu shot him dead in his bed, along with Ademulegun's wife who was laying beside him.[citation needed]

The head of the NMTC Col. Ralph Shodeinde was killed, however the manner of his death is unclear. His wife testified that he was shot by several soldiers that included Maj. Nzeogwu and Maj. Onwuatuegwu. Other accounts claim that a grenade was tossed at him. It is not clear if Nzeogwu was involved with Shodeinde's death since presumably he was pre-occupied at the time with killing Ahmadu Bello. Most accounts place responsibility for Shodeinde's murder with Onwuatuegwu. The same Onwuatuegwu, who shot both Shodeinde and Ademulegun along with his wife, kidnapped but did not harm the Governor of the Northern Region Kashim Ibrahim. When released Ibrahim vouched that he had been treated with the utmost respect by the men who kidnapped him.[citation needed]

The commander of the 2nd Reece squadron in Kaduna, Hassan Katsina, was not harmed during the coup. Shortly before the coup started, Katsina bumped into Nzeogwu. It is speculated that the conversation between the two men may have saved Katsina's life as Nzeogwu's familiarity with Katsina's family may have led him to exclude Katsina from the coup out of empathy. When the two men met again shortly after the coup, Nzeogwu asked him directly "Are you with us or against us?". Seeing that Nzeogwu was holding a gun, Katsina wisely replied "you know I am with you."[citation needed]

Late in the morning of January 15, 1966, at a meeting with some local journalists in Kaduna seeking to find out what was going on, it was brought to Major Nzeogwu's attention that the only information about the events then was what was being broadcast by the BBC. Nzeogwu was surprised because he had expected a radio broadcast of the rebels from Lagos. He is said to have "gone wild" when he learnt that Emmanuel Ifeajuna in Lagos had not made any plans whatsoever to neutralize Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi who was the Commander of the Army. Therefore, Nzeogwu hurriedly drafted the following speech which was broadcast on Radio Kaduna sometime around 12 a.m.:[1]

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. All political, cultural, tribal and trade union activitites, together with all demonstrations and unauthorized gatherings, excluding religious worship, are banned until further notice.

The aim of the Revolutionary Council is to establish a strong united and prosperous nation, free from corruption and internal strife. Our method of achieving this is strictly military but we have no doubt that every Nigerian will give us maximum cooperation by assisting the regime and not disturbing the peace during the slight changes that are taking place.

I am to assure all foreigners living and working in this part of Nigeria that their rights will continue to be respected. All treaty obligations previously entered into with any foreign nation will be respected and we hope that such nations will respect our country's territorial integrity and will avoid taking sides with enemies of the revolution and enemies of the people.

My dear countrymen, you will hear, and probably see a lot being done by certain bodies charged by the Supreme Council with the duties of national integration, supreme justice, general security and property recovery. As a interim measure all permanent secretaries, corporation charimen and senior heads of departments are allowed to make decisions until the new organs are functioning, so long as such decisions are not contrary to the aims and wishes of the Supreme Council. No Minister or Parliamentary Secretary possesses administrative or other forms of control over any Ministry, even if they are not considered too dangerous to be arrested.

This is not a time for long speech-making and so let me acquaint you with ten proclamations in the Extraordinary Orders of the Day which the Supreme Council has promulgated. These will be modified as the situation improves.

You are hereby warned that looting, arson, homosexuality, rape, embezzlement, bribery or corruption, obstruction of the revolution, sabotage, subversion, false alarms and assistance to foreign invaders, are all offences punishable by death sentence.

Demonstrations and unauthorized assembly, non-cooperation with revolutionary troops are punishable in grave manner up to death.

Refusal or neglect to perform normal duties or any task that may of necessity be ordered by local military commanders in support of the change will be punishable by a sentence imposed by the local military commander.

Spying, harmful or injurious publications, and broadcasts of troop movements or actions, will be punished by any suitable sentence deemed fit by the local military commander.

Shouting of slogans, loitering and rowdy behavior will be rectified by any sentence of incarceration, or any more severe punishment deemed fit by the local military commander.

Doubtful loyalty will be penalized by imprisonment or any more severe sentence.

Illegal possession or carrying of firearms, smuggling or trying to escape with documents, valuables, including money or other assets vital to the running of any establishment will be punished by death sentence.

Wavering or siting on the fence and failing to declare open loyalty with the revolution will be regarded as an act of hostility punishable by any sentence deemed suitable by the local military commander.

Tearing down an order of the day or proclamation or other authorized notices will be penalized by death.

This is the end of the Extraordinary Order of the Day which you will soon begin to see displayed in public.

My dear countrymen, no citizen should have anything to fear, so long as that citizen is law abiding and if that citizen has religiously obeyed the native laws of the country and those set down in every heart and conscience since 1st October, 1960. Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 percent; those that seek to keep 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 that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds. Like good soldiers we are not promising anything miraculous or spectacular. But what we do promise every law abiding citizen is freedom from fear and all forms of oppression, freedom from general inefficiency and freedom to live and strive in every field of human endeavour, both nationally and internationally. We promise that you will no more be ashamed to say that you are a Nigerian.

I leave you with a message of good wishes and ask for your support at all times, so that our land, watered by the Niger and Benue, between the sandy wastes and Gulf of Guinea, washed in salt by the mighty Atlantic, shall not detract Nigeria from gaining sway in any great aspect of international endeavour.

My dear countrymen, this is the end of this speech. I wish you all goodluck and I hope you will cooperate to the fullest in this job which we have set for ourselves of establishing a prosperous nation and achieving solidarity.

Thank you very much and goodbye for now.

In Lagos[edit]

At around 2am Maj. Emmanuel Ifeajuna and some lieutenants from the 2nd Brigade HQ made their way to Prime Minister Abubakar Balewa's residence. They overpowered, but did not kill, the police officers standing guard there. Ifeajuna then kicked down the door of the Prime Minister's bedroom before leading him out at gunpoint.[citation needed]

Elsewhere in Lagos, Maj. Don Okafor attempted to arrest Brig. Zakariya Maimalari but he managed to escape by jumping over a wall behind his house. As he was escaping on foot, he came across the car of his Brigade Major, Emmanuel Ifeajuna. Maimalari recognized Ifeajuna and had no idea that he was part of the coup plot. Erroneously believing that Ifeajuna could be trusted, Maimalari waved down the car, and was promptly shot by Ifeajuna. The commanding officer of the Ibadan based 4th battalion, Lt. Col. Abogo Largema, was a guest at the Ikoyi hotel on the night of the coup. Ifeajuna arrived at the hotel and forced the desk clerk at gunpoint to inform Largema that he had a phone call. When Largema emerged from his room Ifeajuna and a subaltern emerged from their hiding place in a corridor and shot Largema dead.[citation needed]

The army's GOC Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was tipped off about the coup by a telephone call from Lt. Col. James Pam. Shortly after ending his telephone call with Ironsi, Pam was abducted from his house and shot dead by Maj. Chris Anuforo. The only Igbo to die in the coup, Lt. Col. Arthur Unegbe, was shot by Anuforo because he was known to be close to Brig. Maimalari and had to be silenced in order to avoid him from raising the alarm.[citation needed]

Balewa, Col. Kur Mohammed, and Minister of Finance Festus Okotie-Eboh were initially kidnapped, but were later killed. Balewa's body was discovered at a roadside near Lagos after six days.

In Ibadan[edit]

In Ibadan the premier of the Western Region Chief Samuel Akintola had been forewarned that soldiers were coming to get him. Akintola heard rumors of a coup and traveled to Kaduna to warn the premier of the Northern Region, Ahmadu Bello. After failing to raise any urgency in Bello, Akintola returned to Ibadan and armed himself with a rifle. His deputy Chief Fani Kayode was first arrested by the coupists. After his arrest, Kayode's wife informed Akintola of what had happened. Shortly afterward a detachment of soldiers led by Capt. Emmanuel Nwobosi arrived at Akintola's residence. Upon sighting the soldiers, Akintola opened fire, wounding a few of them including Capt. Nwobosi. After fighting for his life and engaging the soldiers in a gunfight, Akintola was shot dead by Nwobosi's men.


Acting President Nwafor Orizu made a nationwide broadcast, after he had brief President Nnamdi Azikiwe on the phone the decision 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, accepting the "invitation". On January 17, Major General Ironsi established the Supreme Military Council in Lagos and effectively suspended the constitution.[2]

All of the coup leaders, except for Maj. Ifeajuna who had fled to Ghana, were placed under arrest. Maj. Nzeogwu handed over control of the Northern Region to Ironsi's appointed designee, Maj. Hassan Katsina, before being escorted by Lt Col. Conrad Nwawo to Lagos where he surrendered to Maj Gen. Ironsi. General Ironsi used the coup as a pretext to suspend the Federal Government and bring an end to Nigeria's first republic.[citation needed]

In the months following the coup it was widely noted that four of the five army Majors who executed the coup were Igbo and that General Ironsi who took over power was also Igbo. It was feared that the Igbo had set out to take control of the country and in the North of Nigeria the fear of Igbo dominance became intense. This resulted in the massacres of Igbo which peaked on the 29 May, 29 July and 29 September 1966.

The Ironsi government's efforts to abolish the federal structure and the renaming the country the Republic of Nigeria on 24 May 1966 raised tensions and led to another coup by largely northern officers in July 1966, which established the leadership of Major General Yakubu Gowon.

Officers involved[edit]

The list below shows the officers involved on both sides of the coup as well as their ethnic backgrounds.


Government officials[edit]


  1. ^ Nzeogwu's Declaration of Martial Law - January 15, 1966
  2. ^ Abubakar Ibrahim (29 July 2008). "The Forgotten Interim President". Daily Trust. Retrieved 2010-02-28.