Military coups in Nigeria

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There have been a large number of successful and failed military coups in Nigeria since the country's independence in 1960. A military coup is the violent or non-violent overthrow of an existing political regime by the military. Between 1966 and 1999 the army held power in Nigeria without interruption apart from a short-lived return to democracy between 1979-1983[1].

The January 1966 coup[edit]

The January 1966 coup was carried out by mostly Igbo army officers including Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna among others. The casualties of the coup included the Prime Minister Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Sardauna of Sokoto Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the Western Region Samuel Akintola, the finance minister Festus Okotie-Eboh among others.[2]

The July 1966 coup[edit]

Popularly known as the Nigerian Counter-Coup of 1966, in July, saw Major-General Gowon succeed Ironsi. It lasted from July 28 to July 30th 1966.

The 1975 coup[edit]

General Yakubu Gowon was ousted in a palace coup on July 30, 1975, which brought then Brigadier Murtala Muhammed to power as Head of State.

The 1976 coup[edit]

Popularly and erroneously known as the 'Dimka Coup', this bloody and aborted coup led to the assassination of General Murtala Muhammed[3]. Upon General Muhammed's death and the foiling of the coup, then Lt General Olusegun Obasanjo became Head of State.

The 1983 coup[edit]

The Nigerian Military Coup of December 31, 1983 was led by a group of senior army officers who overthrew the democratically elected government of President Shehu Shagari. Participants included Majors General Ibrahim Babangida and Muhammadu Buhari, Brigadiers Ibrahim Bako, Sani Abacha, and Tunde Idiagbon. Major General Buhari was appointed Head of State by the conspirators.


Ibrahim Bako (then Director of the Army Faculty at the Armed Forces Command and staff College, Jaji[4]) and acting GOC 1 Mechanised Division, Kaduna[5] was tasked by the coup conspirators (see below for list of conspirators) with arresting President Shehu Shagari presumably after Shagari's Brigade was Col Tunde Ogbeha. Author Max Siollun notes that Bako was chosen for the arresting role because Bako's father was a personal friend to Shagari. Unknown to Bako was the fact that the coup plot had leaked to President Shagari whose guards were on high alert. After arriving at the Presidential residence (in non military attire) with an armed detachment to arrest the President,[6] Bako was shot dead, while sitting in the passenger side of a UNIMOG utility truck,[4] in an ensuing fire fight between troops from Bako's detachment and the Brigade of Guards soldiers under the command of Captain Augustine Anyogo.[7] The UNIMOG utility truck that Bako was killed in is on display at the Nigerian Army Museum in Zaria, Nigeria.

The sole men who headed the coup of 1983 were:[8]

  • Major General Muhammadu Buhari* (General Officer Commanding, 3rd Armored Division, Jos) others who assisted him are
  • Major General Ibrahim Babangida (Director of Army Staff Duties and Plans)
  • Brigadier Ibrahim Bako (Brigade Commander)
  • Brigadier Sani Abacha (Commander, 9th Mechanized Brigade)
  • Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon (Military Secretary, Army)
  • Lt Colonel Aliyu Mohammed (Director of Military Intelligence)
  • Lt Colonel Halilu Akilu
  • Lt Colonel David Mark
  • Lt Colonel Tunde Ogbeha
  • Major Sambo Dasuki (Military Assistant to the Chief of Army Staff, Lt-General Wushishi)
  • Major Abdulmumuni Aminu
  • Major Lawan Gwadabe
  • Major Mustapha Jokolo (Senior Instructor, Basawa Barracks - Zaria)
  • Major Abubakar Umar.

The August 1985 coup[edit]

This was a palace coup led by then Chief of Army Staff, Major General Ibrahim Babangida who overthrew the administration of Major General Muhammadu Buhari.

The alleged Vatsa coup of December 1985[edit]

Hundreds of military officers were arrested, some were tried, convicted and eventually executed for conspiring to overthrow the Babangida administration. The conspirators were alleged to have been led by Major General Mamman Jiya Vatsa.[9]

The 1990 coup[edit]

Major Gideon Orkar staged a violent and failed attempt to overthrow the government of General Ibrahim Babangida.

The 1993 coup[edit]

Facing pressure to shift towards a democratic government, Babangida resigned and appointed Chief Ernest Shonekan as interim president on 26 August 1993. Shonekan's transitional administration only lasted three months, as a palace coup led by General Sani Abacha overthrew the Interim government. In September 1994, Abacha issued a decree that placed his government above the jurisdiction of the courts, effectively giving him absolute power[10]

Current status[edit]

Nigeria today is seemingly democratic with there having been no military coups since 1999, however the decades under military rule have had a resounding impact on the nation with all today’s 36 states created by the military and there still being a considerable military influence evident.[11]


According to notable Nigerian historian Max Siollun, “Military coups and military rule (which began as an emergency aberration) became a seemingly permanent feature of Nigerian politics."[12] There was a recurring pattern of coups and counter-coups, that were a succession of increasingly authoritarian and corrupt governments all full of false promises of democracy and new starts. ‘Decalo lists the following reasons for African military coups: ethnic rivalries, intramilitary quarrels, personal jealousies and ambitions and personal fear’.[13]

Role of regional rivalries[edit]

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.” [14] Therefore, there was no centralised opposition to military rule; when a coup occurred, it was therefore just another faction of military rule.

Ogoni Bill of Rights[edit]

However, one exception to this recurring pattern of factions was the Ogoni people (Mosop), who managed to articulate their grievances into the Ogoni ‘Bill of Rights’ in October 1990[15]. They worked closely with the campaign for democracy as well as attracting the attention of the UN and the support of international NGOs to protest against the Abacha regime. Despite these unified efforts, the military reacted with forceful violence, terrorising villages and holding a corrupt trial with no right of appeal; this resulted in the hanging of 9 activists in 1994.[16] This demonstrates that even when unified support did challenge military rule, the military had the totalitarian power to suppress this opposition.

Effects of military rule[edit]

The economic effects of military rule were disastrous. The traditional agricultural based economy was abandoned and they became extremely dependent on exports of oil which due to frequent fluctuations in oil prices led to an unstable economy.[17] The Babangida regime of 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”.[18] Essentially the focus was on the private sector as opposed to the good of the nation. 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.[18] The instability and dissatisfaction caused by these policies was one of the causes of the consistent pattern of coups.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Nigeria - RETURN TO MILITARY RULE". Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  2. ^ Omoigui, Nowamagbe. "SPECIAL BRANCH REPORT: "Military Rebellion of 15th January 1966". Retrieved 1 May 2020.
  3. ^ "Col. B. Dimka Failed Coup Attempt of 1976 In Nigeria". Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  4. ^ a b "Nigerian Army Museum: a slice of Nigerian military history". Beegeagle's Blog. Beegeagle. Retrieved 5 January 2015.
  5. ^ Augustine, Agbo-Paul. "We've Forgiven Our Father's Killers – Prof Bako". Leadership Nigeria. Leadership Nigeria. Archived from the original on 9 January 2015. Retrieved 9 January 2015.
  6. ^ Omoigui, Nowa. "The palace coup of August 27, 1985 Part I". Uhrobo Historical Society. Retrieved 5 January 2015.
  7. ^ Max Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976), (New York: Algora Publishing, 2009), p. 16-17.
  8. ^ Siollun, p. 13
  9. ^ "How Babangida Murdered Mamman Vatsa -". The NEWS. 2018-06-18. Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Siollun, p. 16.
  12. ^ Siollun, p. 11
  13. ^ Chuka Onwumechili, African Democratization and military coups (Westport: Praeger, 1998), p.40.
  14. ^ Siollun, p. 12.
  15. ^ People, Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni (2015-10-10). "Ogoni Bill of Rights | Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP)". Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) & Ogoni News and Resources. Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  16. ^ Julius O. Ihonvbere, ‘Are Thing’s Falling Apart? The Military and the Crisis of Democratisation in Nigeria’ in The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2, (1996) p. 214.
  17. ^ Siollun, p. 2.
  18. ^ a b Ihonvbere, p.196.


  • O. Ihonvbere, Julias, ‘Are Thing’s Falling Apart? The Military and the Crisis of Democratisation in Nigeria’ in The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2, (1996)
  • Onwumechili, Chuka, African Democratization and military coups (Westport: Praeger, 1998)
  • Siollun,Max, Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966–1976), (New York: Algora Publishing, 2009)