Military coups in Nigeria

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Since Nigeria became independent in 1960, there have been five military coup d'états in Nigeria. Between 1966 and 1999, Nigeria was ruled by a military government without interruption, apart from a short-lived return to democracy under the Second Nigerian Republic of 1979 to 1983.[1] However, the most recent coup occurred in 1993, and there have been no significant further attempts under the Fourth Nigerian Republic, which restored multi-party democracy in 1999.

List of coups and coup attempts[edit]

January 1966 coup[edit]

On 15 January 1966, a group of young military officers overthrew Nigeria's government, ending the short-lived First Nigerian Republic. The officers who staged the coup were mostly young soldiers , led by Kaduna Nzeogwu,[2] and they assassinated several northerners, including Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, Northern Region Premier Ahmadu Bello, Western Region Premier Ladoke Akintola, finance minister Festus Okotie-Eboh, and the four highest-ranking northern military officers.[3][4][5] The coup leaders publicly pledged to eliminate corruption, suppress violence, and hold new elections. Major General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, also an Igbo but not party to the original conspiracy, intervened to impose discipline on the military and became head of state. He suspended the constitution, dissolved all legislative parties, banned political parties, and formed an interim federal military government, though without specifying the date on which civilian rule would be restored.[1]

July 1966 counter-coup[edit]

On 29 July 1966, a counter-coup commenced, and Ironsi's regime had fallen by 1 August. Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon became head of state. Ironsi and the governor of the Western Region, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, were among the casualties. Muhammadu Buhari, who was himself installed as head of state in the 1983 coup, was one of the officers involved.[3] Both the coup and the counter-coup assumed an "ethnic colouration"[4] and they fuelled ethnic violence, contributing to events which ultimately led to the Nigerian civil war.[1][2][6] After the end of the war, in October 1970, Gowon reiterated an earlier pledge to ensure that military rule would be terminated on 1 October 1976. In 1974, however, he postponed democratisation, explaining that Nigerians had not yet demonstrated "moderation and self-control in pursuing sectional ends".[7]

1975 coup[edit]

On 29 July 1975, Colonel Joseph Nanven Garba, a close friend of Gowon's, announced on Radio Nigeria that he and other officers had decided to remove Gowon as head of state and commander-in-chief.[8][9] The coup was bloodless: Gowon was abroad, attending a meeting of the Organisation of African Unity in Kampala.[10] He was replaced by Brigadier Murtala Muhammed, with Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo installed as deputy head of state. The New York Times reported that General Hassan Katsina, a former Chief of Army Staff who had been demoted by Gowon, was said to be "the real author of the coup".[10] On 1 October, Muhammed, like Gowon, pledged a return to civilian rule: following the drafting of a new constitution and various institutional changes, elections would be held, allowing for a transfer of power on 1 October 1979.[7]

1976 coup attempt[edit]

On 13 February 1976, Muhammed was assassinated at the outset of an abortive coup attempt. His driver and aide were also killed; as was Ibrahim Taiwo, the military governor of Kwara state.[11] The coup was led by a group of officers who called themselves "young revolutionaries" in a radio broadcast; however, they lacked both civilian and military support.[11][12] The coup was denounced by division commanders and government leaders outside Lagos and was quickly suppressed.[11] Obasanjo became head of state. The Nigerian government reported that the coup had been led by Lieutenant Colonel Bukar Suka Dimka and had aimed at restoring Gowon's regime.[13] 125 people were arrested in connection with the coup attempt and, in March, 32 people received death sentences, among them Dimka and the defence minister, Major General Illiya D. Bisalla.[14]

1983 coup[edit]

On 31 December 1983, a group of senior military officers led a coup which ended the Second Nigerian Republic.[15] The coup deposed the democratically elected government of President Shehu Shagari, which, in the first military broadcast after the coup, Brigadier Sani Abacha called "inept and corrupt".[16] Abacha, who was himself appointed head of state a decade later, was said to have played "a key role" in the coup.[17] The sole reported casualty occurred when Brigadier Ibrahim Bako was killed in a fire fight during Shagari's arrest in Abuja.[18] Major General Muhammed Buhari was installed as head of state.[19][20]

1985 coup[edit]

On 27 August 1985, officers led by Major General Ibrahim Babangida, the army chief of staff, usurped Buhari's government in a palace coup while Buhari himself was away from Lagos and his chief aide, Major General Tunde Idiagbon, was on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.[21] The coup was announced on the radio in the morning by Major General Joshua Dogonyaro, and Babangida later addressed the country, saying that Buhari's regime had been "rigid and uncompromising" and had demonstrated "inconsistency and incompetence".[22][23]

1990 coup attempt[edit]

On 22 April 1990, military officers led by Major Gideon Orkar attacked Dodan Barracks in an attempt to overthrow Babangida's administration.[2] Babangida escaped successfully, and fighting stopped ten hours later, when senior military commanders elsewhere in the country announced their support for Babangida. 42 men convicted of involvement in the coup attempt were executed by firing squad in July 1990.[24]

1993 coup[edit]

Facing pressure to shift towards a democratic government, Babangida resigned and appointed Ernest Shonekan as interim president on 26 August 1993. Shonekan's transitional administration lasted only three months: on 17 November 1993, it was overthrown in a palace coup led by General Sani Abacha.[25][26] This followed the annulment of the presidential elections which had been advertised as the beginning of a Third Nigerian Republic. In September 1994, although he had pledged to restore democracy,[27][28] Abacha issued a decree that placed his government above the jurisdiction of the courts, effectively giving him absolute power.[29][30]

Coup plots[edit]

In recent decades, there have been several high-profile arrests in connection with alleged coup plots:

  • In December 1985, Babangida's government announced that it had thwarted a coup attempt and had arrested those responsible, including Major General Mamman Vatsa.[31] Thirteen military officers received the death penalty for conspiracy to commit treason,[32] and ten of them, including Vatsa, were executed by firing squad in March 1986.[33]
  • In July 1995, Abacha's government convicted 40 people of plotting a coup. Obasanjo, a former head of state, was among those imprisoned, as was Musa Yar'Adua.[34]
  • In December 1997, Abacha's government announced that it had thwarted a coup attempt planned by his deputy, Lieutenant General Oladipo Diya, who had recently narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.[35][36] Also arrested were three other generals, five colonels, and three other senior officers. Critics suspected that the alleged coup was a cover for a purge.[37]
  • In April 2004, Obasanjo's democratically elected government said that it had arrested several military officers in connection to a coup plot. Hamza al-Mustapha, Abacha's chief of security, was suspected of involvement.[38][39]


According to Nigerian historian Max Siollun, "Military coups and military rule (which began as an emergency aberration) became a seemingly permanent feature of Nigerian politics."[40] The abundance of natural resources have also been cited as a reason for the prevalence of military coups in Nigeria's history.[41]

The regional rivalries which have played such a large part in recurrence of coups were a result of colonialism creating an artificial state encompassing several different distinct ethnic groups. These distinct ethnic groups were represented by regional parties, which ensured that "none of the parties could govern Nigeria on its own, and… that conflict was only a matter of time away."[42] Therefore, there was no centralised opposition to military rule; when a coup occurred, it was therefore just another faction of military rule.[clarification needed]

Effects of military rule[edit]

The economic effects of military rule were disastrous. The traditional agricultural based economy was abandoned and they[who?] became extremely dependent on exports of oil which due to frequent fluctuations in oil prices led to an unstable economy.[43] The Babangida regime was characterised by "gross incompetence and unbridled, waste and mismanagement, the privatisation of public office and public resources, the neglect of non-oil sectors and misplaced priorities".[44] As a result of the military economic policy of the 1980s, 45% of foreign-exchange earnings were going into debt servicing and there was very little growth. This led to a rise in poverty, crime, child abuse, disease, institutional decay and urban dislocation.[44] The instability and dissatisfaction caused by these policies was one of the causes of the consistent pattern of coups.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Metz, Helen Chapin (1991). Nigeria: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress.
  2. ^ a b c Ihonvbere, Julius O. (1991). "A Critical Evaluation of the Failed 1990 Coup in Nigeria". The Journal of Modern African Studies. 29 (4): 601–626. doi:10.1017/S0022278X00005681. ISSN 0022-278X. JSTOR 161140. S2CID 154702810.
  3. ^ a b Siollun, Max (15 January 2016). "How first coup still haunts Nigeria 50 years on". BBC News. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  4. ^ a b Iloegbunam, Chuks (29 July 2016). "July 29, 1966 counter-coup: Africa's bloodiest coup d'état". Vanguard News. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  5. ^ "Targets of Nigerian Coup Have Held Wide Powers". The New York Times. 16 January 1966. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  6. ^ Gambari, Ibrahim Agboola (1975). "Nigeria and the World: A Growing Internal Stability, Wealth, and External Influence". Journal of International Affairs. 29 (2): 155–169. ISSN 0022-197X. JSTOR 24356680.
  7. ^ a b Phillips, Claude S. (1980). "Nigeria's New Political Institutions, 1975-9". The Journal of Modern African Studies. 18 (1): 1–22. doi:10.1017/S0022278X00009423. ISSN 0022-278X. JSTOR 160408. S2CID 154882236.
  8. ^ Collins, P.; Dixon, M.; Williams, G. (1975). "Nigeria: Capitalism and the Coup". Review of African Political Economy (4): 95–98. ISSN 0305-6244. JSTOR 3997888.
  9. ^ Dent, Martin (1975). "Nigeria's Third (and Last?) Military Coup". The World Today. 31 (9): 353–357. ISSN 0043-9134. JSTOR 40394873.
  10. ^ a b "Gowon Ousted in Nigeria; Coup Ends Nine‐Year Rule". The New York Times. 30 July 1975. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  11. ^ a b c Darnton, John (15 February 1976). "Nigeria confirms killing of leader". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  12. ^ "Nigeria: A Coup Fails". The New York Times. 16 February 1976. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  13. ^ "Nigeria Arrests Leader of Coup". The New York Times. 7 March 1976. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  14. ^ "Nigeria executes 30 for coup role". The New York Times. 13 March 1976. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  15. ^ Udo, Augustine (1985). "Class, Party Politics and the 1983 Coup in Nigeria". Africa Spectrum. 20 (3): 327–338. ISSN 0002-0397. JSTOR 40174220.
  16. ^ Othman, Shehu (1 October 1984). "Classes, crises and coup: the demise of Shagari's regime". African Affairs. 83 (333): 441–461. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.afraf.a097643. ISSN 0001-9909.
  17. ^ Adams, Paul (1 January 1994). "The army calls the tune". Africa Report. 39 (1): 47–50.
  18. ^ May, Clifford D. (4 January 1984). "Deposed Nigerian president is under arrest". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  19. ^ Graf, William D. (1985). "The Nigerian New Year's Coup of December 31, 1983: A Class Analysis". Journal of Black Studies. 16 (1): 21–45. doi:10.1177/002193478501600102. ISSN 0021-9347. JSTOR 2784104. S2CID 144489185.
  20. ^ "1983: Power seized in armed coup". BBC News. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  21. ^ Diamond, Larry (1985). "Nigeria Update". Foreign Affairs. 64 (2): 326–336. doi:10.2307/20042576. JSTOR 20042576.
  22. ^ Mohr, Charles (4 September 1985). "Nigeria coup tied to lack of power-sharing". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  23. ^ "Army officers said to overthrow Nigeria's ruling military council". The New York Times. 28 August 1985. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  24. ^ "Forty-two Convicted Coup Plotters Executed". AP News. 27 July 1990. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  25. ^ "Nigerian Military Leader Ousts Interim President". The New York Times. 18 November 1993. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  26. ^ "Another general: Nigeria". The Economist. Vol. 329, no. 7838. 20 November 1993. pp. 46–47.
  27. ^ "Settling in nicely: Nigeria". The Economist. Vol. 329, no. 7839. 27 November 1993. pp. 43–45.
  28. ^ Mustapha, Abdul Raufu (1999). "The Nigerian Transition: Third Time Lucky or More of the Same?". Review of African Political Economy. 26 (80): 277–291. doi:10.1080/03056249908704386. ISSN 0305-6244. JSTOR 4006567.
  29. ^ "Nigerian Military Ruler Assumes Absolute Power". The New York Times. 7 September 1994. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  30. ^ Lewis, Peter M. (1994). "Endgame in Nigeria? The Politics of a Failed Democratic Transition". African Affairs. 93 (372): 323–340. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.afraf.a098722. ISSN 0001-9909. JSTOR 723365.
  31. ^ "Nigeria Names Officers Arrested in Coup Plot". The New York Times. 28 December 1985. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  32. ^ "Tribunal Condemns 13 to Death in Nigeria". AP News. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  33. ^ Oredein, Obafemi (5 March 1986). "Nigeria executes 10 officers for plotting coup". UPI. Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  34. ^ "Forty Sentenced in Nigerian Coup Plot Trial". AP News. Retrieved 29 May 2022.
  35. ^ McGreal, Chris (22 December 1997). "Nigeria 'coup plot' foiled". Guardian: 3.
  36. ^ "In a Trojan horse". The Economist. Vol. 346, no. 8054. 7 February 1998. pp. 48–50.
  37. ^ McGreal, Chris (23 December 1997). "Nigeria set to make further 'coup' arrests". Guardian: 11.
  38. ^ Meldrum, Andrew (9 April 2004). "Nigeria foils plot to oust president". the Guardian. Retrieved 29 May 2022.
  39. ^ Jason, Pini (1 July 2004). "Nigeria: 16 soldiers for coup trial". New African (431): 24–25.
  40. ^ Siollun, p. 11
  41. ^ Thyne, Clayton L.; Powell, Jonathan (30 October 2019). "Coup Research". Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190846626.013.369. ISBN 978-0-19-084662-6. Retrieved 9 May 2022.
  42. ^ Siollun, p. 12.
  43. ^ Siollun, p. 2.
  44. ^ a b Ihonvbere, p.196.

Further reading[edit]