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Military Coups in Nigeria

Nigeria has experienced five military coups since its independence in 1960. The military government ruled Nigeria without interruption from 1966 to 1999; with an exception of a brief return to democracy under the Second Nigerian Republic from 1979 to 1983. The most recent coup attempt took place in 1993. There have been no significant further attempts since the Fourth Nigerian Republic restored multi-party democracy in 1999.

List of coups and coup attempts

Successful coups

1. The 1966 coup

On January 15, 1966, a group of young military officers toppled Nigeria’s government, effectively destroying the brief-lived First Nigerian Republic. Kaduna Nzeogwu commanded the group. Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, Northern Region Premier Ahmadu Bello, Western Region Premier Ladoke Akintola, and Finance Minister Festus Okotie-Eboh were all killed. The coup leaders openly promised to clean up corruption, put an end to the bloodshed, and organise fresh elections. Major General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi intervened to establish military discipline and was appointed ruler of the state. He suspended the constitution, disbanded all parliamentary parties, outlawed political parties, and established an emergency federal military administration.

A counter-coup began on July 29, 1966, and Ironsi’s dictatorship fell by August 1. Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon was installed as the President of Nigeria. Ironsi and the Western Region’s governor, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, were among those killed.
Muhammadu Buhari was also among the officers who led the coup. Both the coup and the counter-coup took on an “ethnic tint.” They fueled ethnic bloodshed, contributing to the events that led to Nigeria’s civil war.
Following the war’s end in October 1970, Gowon renewed his earlier commitment to ensure that military rule would cease on October 1, 1976. However, in 1974, he postponed democratisation.

2. The 1975 coup

Colonel Joseph Nanven Garba, a close friend of Gowon, said on Radio Nigeria on July 29, 1975, that he and other commanders had chosen to depose Gowon as head of state and commander-in-chief. The coup was bloodless and happened while Gowon was away for a conference in Kampala. Murtala Muhammed took over his position while Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo became the deputy head of state. The “true architect of the coup” was General Hassan Katsina, a former Chief of Army Staff. Gowon before the coup had dismissed Hassan from the army.

3. The 1983 Coup

On December 31, 1983, a group of senior military officers conducted a coup that brought the Second Nigerian Republic to an end. The coup deposed President Shehu Shagari’s democratically elected administration. Brigadier Sani Abacha described the Shehu administration as “inept and corrupt” in the first military broadcast following the coup. Abacha played “a crucial part” in the coup.

4. The 1985 Coup

Major General Ibrahim Babangida, the army chief of staff, launched a palace coup on August 27, 1985, while Buhari was away from Lagos and his top advisor, Major General Tunde Idiagbon, was on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Babangida subsequently addressed the nation, claiming that Buhari’s rule had been “strict and unyielding,” as well as displaying “inconsistency and ineptitude.”

Related Article: The Last Nigerian Coup – the Rebirth of Democracy

5. The 1993 Coup

The 17 November 1993 coup was led by General Sani Abacha. The 1993 Nigerian coup d’état was a bloodless military coup that forced democrat Interim President Chief Ernest Shonekan to resign. Abacha cited the stagnant nature of Shonekan’s government and his inability to manage the democratic process as the reason for his coup. He had promised to restore a more active democratic system, but Abacha didn’t leave up to his promise. Abacha, however, issued a decree that placed his government above the jurisdiction of the courts. This effectively gave him absolute power over any law. Another issued decree gave him the right to detain anyone for up to three months. The coup also became the bloodiest Nigeria has ever witnessed.

Attempted Coup

1. The 1976 coup attempt

On 13 February 1976, Muhammed was assassinated at the outset of an abortive coup attempt. In a radio broadcast, a number of officers referred to themselves as “young revolutionaries,” but they lacked civilian and military backing. The coup was however suppressed. Lieutenant Colonel Bukar Suka Dimka spearheaded the coup, in an attempt to restore Gowon’s dictatorship. 125 individuals were detained, and 32 people were sentenced to die in March for participating in the coup.

2. The 1980 Attempted Coup

On 22 April 1990, military officers led by Major Gideon Orkar attacked Dodan Barracks in an attempt to overthrow Babangida’s administration. Babangida escaped successfully, and the 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.

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