The Inside Story of Nigeria's First Military Coup (Part 1)


Max Siollun



We all know that Nigeria’s first military coup took place on January 15 1966.  However the actions and motivation of the principal actors has been the subject of misintepretation over the years.  In this article (the first of a two part series), my intention is to accurately describe the sequence of the events that guided and led to that tragic event, and to correct some of the misconceptions about that coup. This article is part one of a two article series on the coup.   Part two will follow in a few weeks time. A special branch “police report” on the coup was commissioned by Maj-Gen Ironsi.  The report was compiled by Lt-Col Yakubu Gowon, Captain Baba Usman of Military Intelligence and Alhaji Yusuf.  Copies of this report were leaked and although the report is extremely detailed, it contains errors in some places. 


The coup was so complex that one needs to understand the political situation at the time to appreciate the reasons for the coup.  After Nigeria gained independence from the UK, its domestic politics TRIED to emulate those of its former colonial master by adopting a Westminster style parliamentary democracy.  There the similarities ended.  Instead of the cultured debate and sophisticated party political culture of the UK, Nigeria’s politics fragmented on regional and ethnic lines.  Due to the splitting of the country into three geo-political regions, party politics (and political parties) took on the identity and ideology of each of the three regions.  The northern region was represented by the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) whose motto of “one north, one people” gave a realistic and accurate assessment of its objectives.  Southerners viewed the NPC as the party of the Hausa-Fulani.  The western region’s dominant party was the Yoruba led Action Group (AG) and the east’s the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) which was controlled by the Igbos.  These regional based parties assured two things: firstly that none of the parties could govern Nigeria on its own, and secondly that ethnic conflict was only a matter of time away.


The NPC took control of the Federal Government with the NCNC as the junior partner in a shaky coalition (the NPC’s deputy head Tafewa Balewa became the Prime Minister and the NCNC’s leader Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe took the ceremonial role of President).  The AG led the opposition.   The make up of the Government was odd.  The NPC’s leader Sir Ahmadu Bello could have become Prime Minister but chose to instead become leader of the northern region, and handed over the Prime Minister’s chair to his deputy Tafewa Balewa.  Rightly or wrongly, many southern politicians viewed Balewa as Bello’s puppet and resented the fact that (in their opinion) the government was being ruled by proxy by a regional ruler and viewed Bello as the real power beyond the throne. This may have led southern politicians to have a disrespectful attitude toward Balewa.   This perception was not helped when Bello referred to Balewa as “my lieutenant in Lagos”.


At independence the northern region was given more seats in parliament that the two southern regions put together.  This meant that no meaningful governmental decision affecting Nigeria could be taken without the consent of the north.  Southern rulers belatedly began to appreciate that northern politicians were not as naďve as they thought and that the lopsided parliament meant that the north would politically control Nigeria forever.  The only way to alter the north’s control of the country was via a constitutional amendment (unlikely since the north controlled the parliament )….or violence.  The conviction and imprisonment of the AG leader and western region premier Chief Obafemi Awolowo for treason seemed to suggest that some southerners had chosen the latter option.  In a controversial trial Awolowo was convicted of hatching a plot to overthrow the government by force of arms.  Awolowo’s incarceration was followed by the installation an unpopular government led by Chief Samuel Akintola of the NNDP.  The NNDP has very close links to the ruling NPC and was regarded by many as a local western “branch” of the NPC.   Akintola was elected as premier of the western region in a bitterly controversial election that was widely regarded as massively rigged.   Popular resentment against the NNDP spilled over into wide scale violence, protests arson and murders that placed many parts of the western region into a state of near anarchy which earned the region the nickname of the “wild west”.  The Ibadan based 4th battalion of the army (commanded by Lt-Col Abogo Largema) was deployed to restore order.  Most of the soldiers in the 4th battalion were of northern origin and the battalion itself was perceived as being pro-NPC and highly politicised.   One of the officers who carried out the January coup accused Lt-Col Largema of giving training to Akintola in the use of firearms.  If this allegation is true, then getting firearms training was probably a wise move on the part of Akintola given how many enemies he had. 


The NPC government decided to authorise a massive security crackdown to curb the lawlessness in the west.  To carry out the crackdown, the government first had to reshuffle the upper echelons of the security establishment.  The Inspector-General of police Louis Edet was sent on leave and replaced by Kam Salem.  The army’s General Officer Commanding: Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was also to be sent on indefinite leave and replaced by Brigadier Maimalari.  These reshuffles (by fault or design) would result in the replacement of two eastern officers (both of whom may have been suspected of having NCNC sympathies) from the NCNC power base of the east by northerners.  Additionally the corruption of certain government ministers drew public condemnation.  The ostentatious lifestyle of government ministers such as Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh raised eyebrows to say the least.


It became clear that a violent conflict was inevitable.  Despairing at the lack of political of a political horizon, many openly began to call for the army to intervene to break the political deadlock.  The army responded in deadly fashion.  A group of radical army officers had decided that the only means of breaking the political logjam in the country was to execute a coup d’etat to overthrow the government.  Their plan was to overthrow the government, release opposition leader Obafemi Awolowo from prison and install him as the Prime Minister. 


There were rumblings of possible military coup as early as 1964.  Then President Azikiwe (in his position of commander in chief of the country’s armed forces) had openly called on the army to intervene to break the political deadlock in the country after Azikiwe refused to call Balewa to form a new government following scandalous elections that were marred by massive rigging, thuggery, intimidation and murder.  The heads of the army, navy and air force all met with Azikiwe and made it clear that they would not intervene.  Azikiwe also obtained legal advice from the Attorney-General which indicated that the service chiefs were right to disobey his call to intervene.  Azikiwe therefore eventually called on Balewa to form a new government after the nation tottered perilously in uncertainty. In 1964 some of the same group of soldiers that eventually carried out the 1966 military coup had planned to take advantage by using the distraction of a senior officers’ course to stage a coup.  However the plan was cancelled when rumours of the plot leaked.




The table below shows the rank and background of the Nigerian army’s high command as at January 14 1966.





Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi

GOC – Nigerian Army

East: Igbo

Commodore Joseph Wey

Commanding Officer – Nigerian Navy

Mixed Yoruba/eastern minority heritage

Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun

CO – 2nd Brigade – Kaduna


West: Yoruba

Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari

CO – 1st Brigade – Lagos


North: Kanuri

Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe

Nigerian military attaché in London


West: Yoruba

Colonel Thimming

CO – Nigerian Air Force

German expatriate officer

Brigadier Varma

CO – Nigerian Military Training College – Kaduna


Indian expatriate officer

Colonel Kur Mohammed

(Acting) Chief of Staff at Army HQ – Lagos (in place of Colonel Robert Adebayo)


North: Kanuri

Colonel Ralph Shodeinde

Deputy-Commander, Nigerian Military Training College: Kaduna


West: Yoruba

Colonel Robert Adeyinka Adebayo

Attending a course in London


West: Yoruba

Lt-Colonel Yakubu Gowon

Preparing to take over command of the 2nd battalion from Hilary Njoku


North: Angas

Lt-Colonel Francis Fajuyi

(was on leave in his home town of Abeokuta during the coup)

CO – 1st Battalion - Enugu

West: Yoruba

Lt-Colonel Hilary Njoku

CO – 2nd Battalion – Lagos

East: Igbo


Lt-Colonel George Kurubo

CO – 3rd Battalion – Kaduna


East: Rivers

Lt-Colonel Abogo Largema

CO – 4th Battalion – Ibadan


North: Kanuri

Lt-Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu

CO – 5th Battalion – Kano

East: Igbo

Lt-Colonel James Pam

Adjutant-General of the Nigerian Army

North: Birom (his father was the Chief of Jos and his brother was in the air force)

Lt-Colonel Arthur Unegbe

Quartermaster-General of the Nigerian Army

Mid-West: Igbo

Lt-Colonel Ime Imo

CO – Lagos Garrison

East: Igbo

Major Hassan Usman Katsina

CO – 2nd Reconnaissance squadron - Kaduna

North: Fulani

Major John Obienu

CO – 1st Reconnaissance squadron – Abeokuta

East: Igbo


Those whose names are italicised in the above table were killed in the coup of January 1966.  May their souls rest in peace.


Before indigenous soldiers took control of Nigeria's army, the four most senior officers of Nigerian origin were Brigadiers Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, Samuel Ademulegun, Babafemi Ogundipe, and Zakariya Maimalari (in that order). When it was announced that the British soldiers would soon depart, it became obvious that the veteran trio of Ironsi, Ademulegun, and Ogundipe were favourites to land the job of GOC.


Ironsi was the most decorated of the three. A tall and physically imposing man – he looked like a soldier (a stark contrast to the pot bellied Generals of later generations) yet was easy going and spoke in a slow, measured tone.  His father was from Sierra Leone and his mother an Igbo.  He had been the premier soldier of his generation and was considered good enough to command a United Nations peacekeeping force (the first African to do so) in the Congo – twice. While Ironsi was in the Congo, he took on the rank of Major-General, but reverted to Brigadier when he returned to Nigeria. During the Congo peacekeeping mission, Ironsi sent Maimalari (who was then two ranks below him) home to Nigeria after a disagreement over military tactics. The words of retired Maj-Gen Ike Nwachukwu (then a second lieutenant) give an indication of Ironsi’s stature at the time. Nwachukwu said that the first time he saw Ironsi "it was like seeing a God....he was the God of all us soldiers".   To gauge the integrity of army officers back then, Ironsi had debts of 18,500 Naira (after almost twenty five years of service), having risen to the rank of Major-General, having commanded a UN peacekeeping force, and having become Head of State with access to the nation’s treasury.


Brigadier Maimalari was a notoriously fiery disciplinarian who "would brook no insubordination". For this reason, he "exacted unqualified discipline from all his subordinates" (See Gbulie: "Nigeria’s Five Majors").  He was widely respect in the army and was tipped to become a future GOC.    Like his military colleagues from the north: Colonels Mohammed, Pam and Largema, he was an alumni of the famous Government College in Zaria. 


Brigadier Ademulegun was another sticker for discipline, and was the most controversial of the Brigadiers. While acknowledged as "a first class soldier" (see Gbulie) he was personally unpopular in the army – especially among junior officers. His open friendship with the Sardauna of Sokoto won him few friends in the military and accepting a gift from the Sardauna (a horse) irritated many junior officers (who ignored the fact that Ademulegun was not really in a position to refuse gifts from the most powerful politician in the land).  Ironically, Ademulegun felt that his political links would land him the job of GOC. For this reason, he may have been a little overconfident about his chances of securing the job. Thus when he did not get the job, he became jealous of the new GOC and was not shy about pointing out the inadequacies of the man picked in preference to him.


Brigadier Ogundipe’s personality was more sedate than those of Brigadiers Ademulegun and Maimalari.  When recommending his successor, the departing British GOC, Major-General Welby-Everard said that Maimalari "was younger and considerably more junior to the others (Ironsi, Ademulegun, Ogundipe) and I also considered him to be militarily immature. He never entered seriously into my considerations". Everard went on to recommend (without success) Brigadier Ogundipe as his successor. Everard regarded Ogundipe as "A very capable and efficient officer…Unlike Ademulegun he was very popular within the Army and greatly respected both as a senior officer and as a man. He was also noticeably non-political" (the quotes of Maj-Gen Welby-Everard are reproduced in Chuks Iloegbunam’s "Ironside"). The Federal Government ignored the advice of its GOC and gave the top job to Ironsi.



The ideological circle of for the January coup seems to have consisted primarily of officers who had embarked upon military careers after completing university degrees. The late former military governor of the Northern Region: Hassan Katsina once commented on the presence of some “bookish people” who had joined the Army for rather different reasons from the normal military crowd.  Katsina was probably referring to the graduates that had begun to join the Army.  These graduates may have been exposed to the left wing political doctrine which was sweeping across much of Africa, Asia, and South America at the time. In January 1966, the Nigerian Army had six graduates: Lt-Cols ‘Emeka’ Ojukwu and Victor Banjo, and Majors Olufemi Olutoye, Adewale Ademoyega, Emmanuel Ifeajuna, and Oluwole Rotimi.  Three or four of these graduates were involved conceptually, or physically in the January coup. Of the direct participants, Ademoyega had a degree in History from the University of London, and Ifeajuna was a graduate of the University of Ibadan. 


Although not physically involved in the January coup, Lt-Colonels Ojukwu and Banjo had been accused of showing a greater than average interest in political matters.   Ironsi also noticed the increasing political sophistication of his men and moaned “I asked for soldiers and am being given politicians dressed in uniform”.  Security reports concerning coup plotting by Banjo were passed to Prime Minister Balewa, who ignored them.   Major Ademoyega claims that the Majors had at some point in time, floated the idea of a coup to Ojukwu and Banjo, and also to Lt-Colonels Hilary Njoku and Francis Fajuyi.  The four Lt-Colonels were not opposed to a military coup, but Njoku and Ojukwu were “unsure” about whether to participate (see Ademoyega: “Why We Struck”).  None of the four Lt-Colonels got physically involved when the Majors eventually struck and three (Njoku, Ojukwu, Fajuyi) actually played a role (to varying degrees) in crushing the coup, while Fajuyi and Ojukwu became military governors in Ironsi’s military administration.  Many northern soldiers suspected Fajuyi of at the very least being sympathetic to the Majors’ coup, and at worst to have assisted them in the planning of the coup.  Katsina once referred to Fajuyi as an “Action Grouper” in sarcastic reference to Fajuyi’s perceived support for the AG.




Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was a promising, charismatic and slightly rebellious officer that worked as the Chief Instructor at the Nigerian Military Training College in Kaduna (the city of his birth).  Nzeogwu was a devout catholic, a teetotaler, a non-smoker, and despite being a bachelor, did not spend much time chasing women like many young men of his age.  Yet he was prepared to kill civilians in a military coup that he believed to be just.  His charisma was such that even his detractors were prepared to admit that he was “an incorruptible idealist without ambitions of power….in many ways a man born before his time” (see Muffet : “Let Truth Be Told”).


Some claim that Nzeogwu’s participation in the January 1966 coup was part of a grand Igbo agenda to “dominate” the country.   This argument overlooks the fact that Nzeogwu was an Igbo in name only.  Nzeogwu was born in the Northern region’s capital of Kaduna to Igbo immigrant parents from the Mid-West Region.  Such was his family’s affinity to the city of Nzeogwu’s birth that they and his military colleagues called him “Kaduna”.  When not in his army uniform he wore northern mufti and frequently referred to himself as “a northerner”.  Nzeogwu spoke fluent Hausa (the lingua franca of the Northern Region) “like a native” (Forsyth). In fact Nzeogwu’s command of Hausa was better than his command of Igbo.   It is a mark of Nzeogwu’s popularity that when his body was discovered during the Nigerian civil war by federal soldiers, they took his body away for burial with full military honours (but not before his eyes had been plucked out).  Although one account claims that a northern soldier swore at the minister that performed Nzeogwu’s burial ceremony (see Luckham: The Nigerian Military).  So what possessed a puritanical, bible bashing, innocent young man like Nzeogwu to murder the nation’s most powerful northern politician in the middle of the night?    Nzeogwu’s reasoning is chilling in its simplicity: “We wanted to get rid of rotten and corrupt ministers, political parties, trades unions and the            whole clumsy apparatus of the federal system.  We wanted to gun down all the bigwigs on our way.  This was the only way.  We could not afford to let them live if this was to work.  We got some but not all.  General Ironsi was to have been shot, but we were not ruthless enough.  As a result he and the other compromisers were able to supplant us”.


What is clear is that Nzeogwu had harboured some anti-government sentiment for several years before 1966.  Nzeogwu’s boss at the Nigerian Military Training College: Colonel Ralph Shodeinde, had in the past reported Nzeogwu to Army Headquarters for allegedly disseminating anti-government rhetoric to junior officers.  Shodeinde’s report claimed that Nzeogwu had been attempting to poison junior officers’ minds against the Government (see Obasanjo: “An intimate portrait of Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu”).  Nzeogwu was so disillusioned with the farcical vote rigging that he exclaimed “it is impossible to vote out a Nigerian minister”.  


Nzeogwu was recruited into the conspiratorial group by the fellow Sandhurst trained Major Chris Anuforo. Nzeogwu in turn tried to recruit others into the plot. Nigeria’s former Defence Secretary: Lt-Gen Theophilus Danjuma was aware of Nzeogwu’s coup recruitment policy.   As a former colleague of Nzeogwu, Danjuma noted that “Nzeogwu was a very charming person.  He had his method, he would start by criticizing government and then watch your reaction…..if you joined him in criticising the government…..then he would say well, we would (sic) fix them one day.  That’s how he recruited”. Major Tim Onwuatuegwu bought Nzeogwu’s anti-government line.  Onwuatuegwu was an Igbo from Nnewi and a colleague of Major Nzeogwu at the Nigerian Military Training College, where Onwuatuegwu was also an instructor.  Onwuatuegwu was tagged a dull, parade ground “goody two shoes” type by one his own course-mates at Sandhurst but fell under Nzeogwu’s spell and was convinced enough to break into the house of, and shoot his own Brigade commander during the coup.


One officer that seems to have been unaffected by Nzeogwu’s political rhetoric was a cadet named Salihu Ibrahim.   Ibrahim was training at the Nigerian Military Training College while Nzeogwu (chief instructor at the College) and company hatched the coup plot.  Despite being close to Nzeogwu, Ibrahim matured into a “vintage professional soldier” (Chris Alli: The Siege Of a Nation) who abhorred military participation in Government.  Ibrahim retired from the Nigerian Army in 1993 after rising to the rank of Lt-General, and serving as Chief of Army Staff.  Strangely for a man who disliked military coups and military governments, he served as a member of firstly Major-General Buhari’s Supreme Military Council from 1984-85, and in Ibrahim Babangida’s Armed Forces Ruling Council thereafter.


Prior to the coup Nzeogwu gave other cryptic clues about his intentions.  On one  occasion while discussing Brigadier Ademulegun, Nzeogwu told Major Alex Madiebo to “go easy with the Brigadier, for when the strong wind blows, all the grass bends low to allow it to pass”.  Madiebo did not immediately appreciate the significance of what Nzeogwu had said to him, but on January 15th 1966, Nzeogwu’s made his intentions explicitly clear.


Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna was an Igbo from Onitsha and the Brigade Major in Lagos.  He was an international athlete of some repute and held the Commonwealth record for high jumping.   He was also a graduate of the University of Ibadan (where he had subversive tendencies).  Ifeajuna was the “brains” behind the coup and wrote a manuscript on the reasons why he felt a military coup was necessary.  This manuscript has never been published.  




One enduring myth is that Nigeria’s first military coup was carried out by “five Igbo Majors”.   The source of this myth is the “we were five in number” comment, which the coup’s most visible, participant: Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, made in an interview with Dennis Ejindu (Africa and the world - May 1967) after the coup.    The “five Majors” myth was later perpetuated by Captain Ben Gbulie’s book on the coup entitled “Nigeria’s Five Majors”, the title of which he has admitted borrowing from a BBC play of the same name.


When Nzeogwu made his infamous “we were five in number” comment, he made no reference to the rank of the “five”.   He was merely referring to the five designated strategic regional commanders of the coup.  In fact, no less than nine Majors were originally billed to take part in the coup.  These nine were Majors Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna, Ademoyega, Okafor, Anuforo, Chukwuka, Obienu, Onwuatuegwu and Chude-Sokei.   Shortly before the coup, Chude-Sokei was posted overseas.  On the coup day itself, Obienu failed to show, leaving seven Majors as participants.  When it came to execution, the Majors designated five officers as regional commanders for the coup’s execution.  Of Nzeogwu’s “five”, there were “the two of us in the North” (Nzeogwu and Major Tim Onwuatuegwu), and three more in the South. 


The head of the Lagos operations was Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna.  That makes three Majors so far.   The squad, which killed Chief Samuel Akintola in Ibadan, was led by CAPTAIN Nwobosi.   That makes four (three Majors and one Captain). There was no coup in the Mid-West as no military formation was based in that Region.  However, Lieutenant Oguchi was dispatched to the east to arrest the Premier of the Eastern region: Dr Michael Okpara.  The identity of the fifth member is the most problematic.  Majors Don Okafor and Adewale Ademoyega were given much responsibility for the Lagos branch of the coup, and it is likely that one of these two men was the fifth commander.




Major Nzeogwu has since 1966, been touted as the leader of the January 1966 coup.  This has been widely presumed due to the visible role which Nzeogwu played during and after the coup.  Nzeogwu was the only Major to successfully execute the coup in his designated target region.   He then followed up his coup success with his infamous “our enemies are the…..” speech.   Thus the (false) assumption that he was the coup leader spread.   The truth may be somewhat different. It was not until the coup plot reached its logistical stage that Nzeogwu was brought in to the conspiratorial group.  The brains behind the coup was probably Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, however Ifeajuna was chased out of Nigeria’s then capital city of Lagos by Major-General Ironsi.  Realising that Ironsi was rounding up those that took part in the coup, Ifeajuna fled to Ghana, leaving Nzeogwu to hold the fort.


Part two of this article will follow in a few weeks time.  In part two I shall describe the execution of the coup itself.