Coups d'etat in Nigeria


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Culled from Vanguard of March 13, 1999.



THE mere mention of coup d’etat, the unconstitutional and violent overthrow of incumbent governments, sends down shivers and evokes traumatic memories from any country’s nationals. It recreates those anguished images that overwhelmed the populace when the finger pulled the trigger.

Every citizen is haunted by mortal fear of the day’s uncertainty and discusses it in hushed tones, cautious that nobody eavesdrops. The penalty for participation is maximum: death. It, therefore, makes it a condemnable high risk venture. But some initiators still damn the consequences. It is all because it possesses limitless attractions and guarantees inexhaustible opportunities.

Its charm is almost irresistible. Those who get hooked hardly would divorce their other collaborators. They, somewhat, lose every sense of reason and would muster whatever resources to actualise such a dream. When successful, they become instant heroes.

Conversely, they are society’s villains once the plot is aborted by superior strategies or gun-power of the man in the saddle. Curiously, the coupists seek escape routes. Once arrested, investigated and convicted, they begin the final journey to the firing range or long periods of incarceration.

Suddenly, the world invokes sympathy from all quarters to avoid blood-letting. Coups have their prizes and the other prices.

Usually, in every attempt, there are victims and the survivors. Afterall, human beings in authority are the targets. The mission is almost always to eliminate the regime’s henchmen and take over power or to simply shove them aside without wasting lives. In this case, a coup can either be bloody or bloodless.

Coup making is, certainly, not a Nigerian creation. Neither is it an African origination. According to Encyclopaedia Americana, one of the first modern coup d’etats was initiated and executed by Napoleon Bonaparte 200 years ago, precisely on November 9, 1799. Showing awesome trickery, he deceived the first French Republic to a Paris suburb where they were surrounded by battle-ready soldiers and the council sacked.

Africa was initiated into the coup cult 47 years ago. The ugly monster reared its ugly head on July 23, 1952 when Lt. Col Gamal Abdel-Nasser led the putsch which terminated the reign of King Farouk in Egypt, ironically the cradle of civilization. Two years later, Gen. Mohammed Naguib’s administration became history, no thanks to Nasser again.

Suddenly, the flood-gate of coups had been thrown wide open. Sudan embraced it in 1958 before Gnassingbe Eyadema, a sergeant pushed aside the government of Mr. Sylvanus Olympio. Thus, mutinies found their ways into the West African sub-region in 1963. The whirlwind was to swirl to the Central African Republic two years after to allow East Africa taste the bitter pill.

Between 1952 when Nasser’s experiment put the continent on world focus and September 1, 1969 (a period of 17 years), African nations had incredibly witnessed 26 forceful take-overs! There were expressed worries: Is Africa, indeed, the Heart of Darkness or is it being taken back to the dark age?

From Sudan to Benin Republic (then Dahomey), Algeria, Zaire, Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta) and on to Liberia and Ghana among others, the nationals woke up to martial music highlighting the coming of a new government.

In 1980, Sergeant Samuel Doe had stormed the stage to "liberate Liberians" but the whole globe was perplexed when the octogenarian former President, William Tolbert and members of his family were tied to the stakes and primarily executed! Nine years later, Doe was killed in such ridiculous fashion. Within the same period, Capt. Thomas Sankara who commanded amazing followership from Burkinabes, was similarly killed in a coup that brought the incumbent President, Blaise Compaore to power.

Today, Nigerians are celebrating the release and selective pardon granted convicts of the 1990, 1995 and 1997 alleged coup plots by the Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar-led regime. From Lagos to Odogbolu, Ilorin, Kaduna and Ehor (Edo), families and relatives of the freed men have been rejoicing and supplicating to God for sustaining the lives of their beloved ones until this day. Though, the Yar’Aduas and the Akinyodes were not as lucky.

But these aborted plots, as declared by the last two military administrations, did not herald the introduction of coup making in Nigeria’s political lexicon. Rather, it all began in the early hours of January 15, 1966 when Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu conspired with four other majors to strike. And with the summary sacking of the First Republic by these Five Revolutionaries, the course of Nigeria’s political history was irreparably altered. Soon after that intervention, Nzeogwu offered reasons to justify their action.

His broadcast identified as enemies "the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand ten per cent, those that seek to help 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 who have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds."

Nigerians, today, harbour sundry perceptions about the Nzeogwu coup which marked the beginning of a new era in Nigeria’s history, certainly negatively. However, there is still an agreement that before the putsch, there were barely tolerable acrimonies and dichotomies along tribal lines.

Commentators continue to question the propriety and timeliness of that action even as the topic remains open to individual interpretations and rationalisations.

However, ascertainable facts can only aid our collective appreciation of where coups have left Nigeria as a nation. Prior to January 15, 1966, there were blatant electoral malpractices. There was palpable distrust and tribal hatred. The future was uncertain. Then dramatically, five army majors decided that it was time to effect change at the centre. When they finally struck, it was damn bloody.

Victims of Jan. 15, 1966 coup

The citizens were terribly shocked when top-ranking government functionaries including the Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, were killed in a selective elimination that tended to give the whole exercise an ethnic coloration. Others who died were the premier of Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello; the premier of Western Nigeria, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola and the Finance Minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh.

Also, Brig. S.A. Ademulegun, Major S.A. Adegoke, Lt. Col. J.Y. Pam, Brig. Zakari Maimalari and Col. Kur Mohammed died. Others who lost their lives included Lt. Col. Largema, S/Lt. James Odu, Col. S.A. Shodeinde and Lt. Col. A.G. Unegbe.


Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was at this time the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria but he had shortly left for overseas shortly before the coup. This way, he survived. But tongues were sent wagging as to whether his trip was a result of any privileged information. Dr. Michael Okpara, the premier of Eastern Region was also a survivor of the first military intervention in Nigeria, among others.

But despite the resistance mounted by troops loyal to the incumbent regime, Chief Nwafor Orizu who was the then Senate President and acting President would not be convinced that there was enough peace for democratic governance. As a result, he handed over power to Major-Gen. Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi. The latter’s introduction of a unitary system of government was most ill-advised and roused some ill-tempers.

Owing to the high number of Northern casualties, the intervention was seen as one directed at that tribe. And when the North took its pound of flesh on July 29, 1966, it was such a colossal tragedy for the Igbos.

Victims (July 29, 1966)

The then Head of State, Ironsi was assassinated in Ibadan with his host, Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, the governor of Western Region who would not give up his guest. Other officers of Igbo extraction suffered similar fate. They comprised Lt. Col. I.C. Okoro, Majors Dennis Okafor, Nzegwu, P.C. Obi, J.K.

Obienu and lieutenants E.C.N. Achebe, Ekedingyo, Ugbe, S.A. Mbadiwe and A.D.C. Egbuna.

Equally sent to the great beyond were other officers in J.O.C. Ihedigbo, E.B. Orok, I. Ekanem, A.O. Olaniyan, B.Nnamani, A.R.O. Kasaba, F.P. Jasper, H.A. Iloputaife, S.E. Maduabum and J.I. Chukwueke. In addition to these 42 officers killed plus no less than a hundred non-commissioned officers who died, thousands of innocent civilians mostly of Eastern Nigeria origin lost their lives as a consequence of this coup.


Yakubu Gowon, a 32-year-old lieutenant colonel then and Chief of Army Staff was to mount the throne. He was one main survivor and key beneficiary. Add to this list other Northern officers of the same rank in Murtala Muhammed and Theophilus Danjuma. As Major-Gen. David Ejoor, the Chief of Staff, Nigerian Army between 1972 -1975 was to react later; "the reaction of the Igbos to this coup culminated in the bloody civil war that lasted for about 30 months."

For nine years, Gowon pioneered the affairs of the country. During the days of the oil boom, he occasioned some developments even though there were whispers about corrupt enrichment by some of his officials.

Having accomplished the return of the political adminsitration of Nigeria to the North, Gowon set out to restore the Nigerian federalism and created 12 states to decentralise and bring government nearer to the people.

Again, his administration had fashioned a democratisation process that was designed to enthrone civilian governance but when he played the midwife in aborting that dream, he had won more enemies, relentless critics and unyielding cynics.

July 29, 1975

And while Gen. Gowon was attending an OAU Heads of Government summit in Ethiopia, some disenchanted officers in a broadcast by the then Col. Joseph Garba took over the reins of power in a bloodless coup d’etat on July 29, 1975.

Consequently, Gowon and his other surbodinates were the major victims in the change of baton that took the nation, as usual, by surprise.

Gen (then Brig) Murtala Ramat Muhammed became the biggest beneficiary as he was installed the next ruler. Born in Kano, he climbed the rostrum in style and endeared himself to the national heart, courtesy of his crusade against corruption and the war he waged to ensure accountability.

Bloody Feb. 13, 1976

The coming of Murtala was short-lived. On February 13, 1976, he became the second Head of State after Ironsi to be assassinated while in office. The nation grieved over this overthrow which was orchestrated by Col. Bukar Sukar Dimka. He had other collaborators in mostly young officers of the Middle Belt origin.


Muhammed was the ultimate loser. He lost his life as well as the headship of Africa’s giant. Having lost their bread winner, his family became a major victim in the bloody coup. Col. Ibrahim Taiwo, who was at that time the governor of Kwara State was also killed by the coupists.

Between the Hausa/Fulani muslims and the Middle Belt christians, there was evident tension that spread to the nooks and crannies of the country. One, Gowon who is a christian Middle Belter was replaced by Murtala, a Hausa/Fulani Muslim while officers from the former geo-political area had planned a coup that toppled and killed Muhammed.

A military tribunal was set up to try the coup suspects. When the trial was over, no less than 30 officers mostly from the Middle Belt were summarily executed. These included Dimka who led the coupists, Defence Commissioner, Major-Gen. I.D. Bisalla and the Benue-Plateau Governor, Joseph Gomwalk.

There were also Colonels A.D.S. Wyas, A.B. Umoru, Isa Bukar; Majors Dabang, J.K. Afolabi, K.K. Gagara, J.W. Kasai, Ola Ogunmekan, I.B. Rabo and M.M. Mshella as well as Lieutenants Mohammed, Wayah, William Seril and O. Zagmi.

Plus Captains J.F. Idi, Austin Duwarang, M.R. Gotip, A.A. Aliyu and Parvwang among others.


Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, the second-in-command was not hit by the coupists’ bullets. He was also a stabilising factor that would cool the tempers and avoid any confrontation between the Middle Belt and the Muslim North. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, a young Hausa/Fulani Colonel was promoted to a Brigadier and subsequently a Major-General as he became the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, only next to the incumbent helmsman, Obasanjo. There were other key members of the cabinet who survived the February 13 coup. Such included Major-Gen. T.Y. Danjuma and Major-Gen. Joe Garba who was the Federal Commissioner of External Affairs. Other generals in Martin Adamu (GOC 2 Mechanised Division, Ibadan), Emmanuel Abisoye, Alani Akinrinade came out unscathed in the scare. So did Vice Admiral Alani Adelanwa, the Chief of Naval Staff, Air Marshal Yisa Doko, the Chief of Air Staff and Alhaji M.D. Yusufu, the Inspector-General of Police.

Obasanjo was to set up a transition programme which he religiously implemented until Alhaji Shehu Shagari was sworn in as the first Executive President of Nigeria, notwithstanding the controversies which accompanied the election result announcement and inauguration.

Putsch of Dec. 31, 1983

Having been installed on October 1, 1979, Shagari ended his first term four years after. It was a turbulent period for the ruling National Party of Nigeria and the incumbent Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Nigeria’s economy had taken a downward slide and the standard of living was nothing to be discussed in the open. There were other allegations of reckless squandering of the national wealth.

But all these did not stop Shagari from being re-elected in 1983 even with protests of electoral fraud by the other parties. Barely three months into the second term of that regime, the overthrow bug crawled back to suck the blood of Nigerians. Amid national outcry of wasteful spendings by some government functionaries, Brig. Sani Abacha came on air, December 31, 1983 to announce the administration’s death.


Though Brigadier Ibrahim Bako was recorded to have died in that change of power, the intervention of the military in another democratic dispensation, was one in which blood was not shed. Most of the civilian administrators voluntarily reported at the offices of the security agencies from where their journeys to long agonising imprisonments started. In the usual cycle, the man who is overthrown becomes the biggest loser. In this regard, Shagari was the topmost casualty. Then, there was Dr. Alex Ekwueme, the Second Republic Vice-President as well as Drs. Olusola Saraki, Joseph Wayas and Chief Edwin Umezuoke, the leaders of the National Assembly (Senate and House of Representatives).

At the state levels, the governors as well as their deputies and assemblymen also were forced to say bye to their dreams of running their full term. It was the same fate for NPN, NPP, UPN, GNPP and PRP, the five parties that were proscribed following the mutiny.


Major-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari took over from where Shagari left. He had Major-Gen. Tunde Idiagbon as the man next to him. There were also collaborators in Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha plus others. But the beauty of the take-over was that again, it was bloodless. And so was the one which brought in Gen. Babangida two years later.

Coup of Aug. 27, 1985

Marial music at dawn had become a familiar tune to the ears of Nigerians, and when one blared from radio speakers in the morning of August 27, 1985, the nationals knew that another batch of soldiers had struck. They were not mistaken. When the identities of those behind the plot finally emerged, Gen. Babangida had forcefully snatched the baton from his former boss, Buhari.

Again, both Buhari and Idiagbon had lost out in the military intrigues and in like manner, there were all accusations of high-handedness and insensitive to the sufferings of Nigerians as justifications for seizing power.

IBB’s regime toyed with the idea of having Nigeria as a member of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) as well as taking the IMF loan and later the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). At each point, the government encouraged the public to debate such measures. Babangida ruled the country for eight years, earning for himself the sobriquet "Maradona" for his deft dribbles in administering Nigeria. The anti-climax of his regime was the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election presumably won by late Chief M.K.O. Abiola.

But in all these, the beneficiaries of his ascension to power were Admirals Augustus Aikhomu, Ebitu Ukiwe (who fell out with the administration at a point and had to go) plus numerous Nigerians who benefitted either by appointments or being awarded lucratrive contracts.

Vatsa’s coup

At every point, the former Head of State, Gen. Babangida would not cease to say it loudly that Major-Gen. Mamman Vatsa (late) was his good friend. But when both crossed their different parts in a treasonable felony allegation, friendship took the back bench. Vatsa was accused of planning to violently overthrow IBB’s government in 1986. A Special Military Tribunal was set up to try him and co-conspirators. At the end of it all, they were found guilty of the act as charged.

There were pleas for clemency by well-meaning Nigerians and other international figures and bodies. But they were to pay the maximum price. No less than 13 officers were shot.

These victims included Major-Gen. Vatsa, Lt. Col. Bitiyong, Lt. Col. Mike Iyorshe, Major D.I.Bamidele, Lt. Col. C.A. Oche and Naval Cdr. A.A. Ogwiji.

Others were Lt. Col. M. Effiong, Sqdn. Ldr. Marthin Luther, Wing Cdr A.C. Sakaba, Sqdn. Ldr. A. Ahura, Wing Cdr. B. Ekele and Lt. P.Odoba.

IBB and his entire cabinet as well as their families and other military governors are those who gained from the plot that was foiled.

Bloody coup of April 22, 1990

Perhaps, no overthrow bid has been as bloody in recent times as the one embarked upon by Major Gideon Orkar and his collaborators on April 22, 1990.

Lagosians were shaken to their marrows with the bombardments that sent Obalende and its environs quaking.

The intent, of course, was to dislodge Babangida and his lieutenants. The coupists had taken over the radio station from where they were able to broadcast to a panicky nation. In what the majority saw as extremist in conception, the plotters were condemned for excising some parts of Nigeria in their broadcast.

A strategist in matters pertaining to coup d’etats himself, IBB succeeded in crushing that rebellion. But it was not without a scar. Lt. Col. U.K. Bello, the ADC to Babangida was felled by the coupists’ bullet and it was one that left obvious bitterness in the mouth of the Minna-born General. And soon, the perpetrators were rounded up to face trials being sentenced. Orkar and his fellow "dissidents" were forwarded to the shooting range. This was outside other Nigerians who were reported to have died in connection with the mutiny.


Major Orkar, Lt. Cyril Ozoalor, Capt. Perebo Dakolo, Lt. E. Akogun, Lt. A. Mukoro and Capt. Harley Empere paid the maximum penalty for treason. Also executed were Sergeants M. Ademokhia, Pius Ilegar, J. Itua and Lt. N. Odey.

No less traumatised by the deaths handed over to their husbands and fathers were the wives, children and even dependent relations of those killed.

Again, Babangida and his cabinet ministers, state governors, service chiefs and their families were the survivors of that deadly attempt to overthrow the government.

Abacha’s days

After he assumed power as a military Head of State when Chief Ernest Shonekan "resigned" as the Head of the Interim National Government, Gen. Sani Abacha was a character that amazed as he dazed his subjects.

Oftentimes, he was under-estimated. And it took time for Nigerians to appreciate that behind those dark glasses was a man of steel who would not blink to get his act done.

In his own words, he came in as a "child of circumstance" but the pro-democracy groups mounted pressures on the Kano general to revalidate the mandate of Chief Abiola. At a time, MKO was to announce himself "President" and that was when the citizens came face-to-face with the reality that their ruler was one tough being. Abiola was arrested and later incarcerated and never returned until he died in prison.

Like it happened under Babangida, there were two alleged plots to remove Abacha from power. But the characters behind the two stories made one more awesome. Aside Major-Gen. Vatsa, there was no other military man of note in the two coups of 1986 and 1990 that confronted IBB’s administration.

In the case of Abacha, it involved the heavyweights. In the alleged plot of March 1995, a former Head of State, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo and his second-in-command, Major-Gen. Yar’Adua were hounded into prisons in what they all termed to be a "phantom coup." Then, there was Col. Lawan Gwadabe, a former Niger State governor and Principal Staff Officer to Abacha himself.

Will they be killed? Can Abacha kill Obasanjo and Yar’Adua? Was there really a coup? The civilian populace did not dare dabble into the last issue because coup making is an entirely military business.

Throughout the investigations, trials and pronouncement of the sentences, Nigeria seemed to be sitting on a keg of gun powder. Will it explode?

Outside the trio, the best brains in the military like Cols. Bello Fadile, Roland Emokpae among others were also implicated in the alleged plot.

Death sentences were handed over to the key convicts but worldwide appeals for the government to temper justice with mercy, saw Abacha and his men commutting the death verdicts to various years of jail terms. In a twinkle, all the convicted coupists were distributed to different prisons all over Nigeria. Thus, they began to languish in jails.

In December 1997, Nigerians woke up to another bafflement when Lt. Gen. Oladipo Diya, the Chief of General Staff; Major-Gen. Abdulkareem Adisa, former Works Minister and Major-Gen. Tajudeen Olanrewaju, ex-Communications Minister were all handcuffed and brought before the Special Military Tribunal for plotting to overthrow their boss, Abacha. Col. Yakubu Bako, a former military admninistrator was among those who were to be jailed for their alleged complicity in the putsch.

Abubakar’s coming

Following the death of Abacha via no coup, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar was to inherit his predecessor’s assets and liabilities. Obasanjo, Diya, Adisa, Olanrewaju, Gwadabe fell in the latter category.

Obasanjo was to lead the first batch of pro-democracy activists and journalists out of the cells, courtesy of a presidential pardon. He was later to join the political train and backed by retired generals and all, the Otta farmer stands in our midst today as the country’s president-elect.

On Thursday, last week, the prison gates were flung open once again for Diya, Adisa, Olanrewaju and no less than thirty other convicts to walk home as free men. Celebrations trailing their release still persist.

But the undying question remains; have we heard the last of coup making as a nation?

Everyone recognises its illegality and proffers that the Nigerian military must be re-orientated to appreciate their real functions and their true places in the barracks.

More than that, so much souls had been wasted and as the country embraces the Fourth Republic, it ought to cast a glance back and see that it has, indeed, paid so painful prices for coups.

Successful or aborted, bloody or bloodless, coups are undesirable and condemnable.

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List of those Killed in the April 1990 Coup Trial 

Major Gideon Orkar
?Major Charles Idele
Captain NH Empere
Captain PA Dakolo
Capt AA Nonju
Lt. AE Akogun
Lt. CO Odey
Lt. CO Ozualor
Lt. NEO Deji
2/Lt AB Umukoro
2/Lt EJ Ejesuku
SSgt Julius Itua
Sgt Martins Ademokhai
Sgt. Pius Ilegar
WO2 Monday Bayefa
L/Cpl Francis Ogo
L/Cpl Jepta Inesei
Cpl. Sunday Effiong
L/Cpl Sam Mbakwe
L/Cpl Albert Ojerangbe
L/Cpl Godfrey Deesiiyira
L/Cpl Emma Oyemolan
Sgt. Stephen Iyeke
Cpl. Joseph Efe
WO Afolabi Moses
L/Cpl Idowu Azeez
WO Jonathan Ekini
S/Sgt Solomon Okungbowa
Private Richard Iseghoei
Private Egwolo Makpamekun
L/Cpl Edogamen Friday
S/Sgt Jolly Agbodowi
Sgt. Etim Umoh
L/Cpl Sam Obasuyi
Ex. Serviceman LC Otajareiri
Ex. Pvt Osazuwa Osifo
Ex. Pvt CP Wasiu Lawal
Ex. Pvt Peter Unuyoma
Ex. Pvt Synalman Goodluck Emefe
Ex. S/Sgt Samson Idegere
Pvt. Emmanuel Onoje
Trooper Roland Odogu
Corporal Lateef Awolola
Pvt. Dickson Omenka
Corp Ehietan Pius
Private Iroabuchi Anyalewechi
Private Henry Eguaoyi
L/Cpl Martins Odey
L/Cpl Sunday Asuquo
Trooper Celestine Ofuoku
Pvt. Anthony Korie
Pvt Thomas Angor
Pvt Edem Basi
Pvt Joseph Odey
Trooper Obioma Esiworo
L/C Magnus Ekechi
WO2 Godwin Donkon
Sgt. Ojo Adegboyega
Pvt Peter Abua
Pvt. Phillip Akamkpo
Sgt. Shehu Onleje
Corp Olanrewaju Ogunshola
L/Cpl Luka Yang
Trooper Malkily Ayogu
L/Cpl Andrew Onah
Michael Ebeku
L/Cpl Ezekiel Akudu
Pvt Ibrahim Egwa
Sgt. John Alilu
Sgt. Andarich Eladon
L/Cpl David Amo Amo
L/Cpl Vitalis Udzea
L/Cpl  Celestine Nebo
L/Cpl  Wapami Adigio
L/Cpl  Mike Odeniyi
L/Cpl  Kingsley Aromeh
Sgt. Lawrence Ademola
Signal Man Fatai Daranijo
Pvt. Godwin Airomokha
Sgt. John Benson
L/Cpl  Vincent Ozigbo
L/Cpl  David Oke
Lt. Col. UK Bello (General Babangida's ADC)
NOTE:  Quite a number of other officers were retired vindictively for no just cause because of the coup attempt.


This page was last updated on 09/01/07.



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