Naija Politics

SPECIAL REPORT: Insights Into Nigeria’s 1966 Coup d’etat

The 1966 Coup d’etat

The Prime Minister, Abukakar Tafawa Balewa was adopted only to be found dead six days later. The Premiers of the Northern and Western regions, Ahmadu Bello and Ladoke Akintola were shot at close range in their respective residences. The Finance Minister as well as top Military Generals were in turn murdered in coordinated attacks across the regional capitals. The nation’s president, Nnamdi Azikiwe was on a cruise in the Caribbean and many miles back home, the country was in an upheaval.

‘In the name of the Supreme Council of the Revolution of the Nigerian Armed  Forces, I declare martial law over the Northern Provinces of Nigeria. The Constitution is suspended and the regional government and elected assemblies are hereby dissolved.”

The striking voice of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, the arrowhead of the mutinous soldiers came through the radio in a live national broadcast. He has just pierced the nascent democracy of Nigeria, declaring a new twist of fate for the nation. It was 12:00am January 15, 1966 and Nigeria just recorded it first coup d’etat.

Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu – Leader of the 1966 coup


Timeline: 1960 – 1966

Five years after Nigeria broke ties with colonial rule to form a regionally homogeneous democratic government, an overwhelming proposition of public opinion still held that the country was being mismanaged by the homegrown politicians and public office holders.


The five army majors who conspired and led the 1966 coup d’etat

  • Major Kaduna Nzeogwu
  • Major Timothy Onwuatuegwu
  • Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna
  • Major Chris Anuforo
  • Major Humphrey Chukwuka
  • Major Adewale Ademoyega
  • Major Don Okafor

“Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places, that seek bribes and demand 10%; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs.”

Major Adewale Ademoyega, one of the five soldiers who went rogue and masterminded the coup wrote in his memoir ”Why We Struck” published in 1981.

Major Ademoyega also gave reviewers an interesting twist to the coup plotters’ affinity, given that he was the only one in the group outside of Igbo extraction.

Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa whose government was perceived to be corrupt by the coupist. He was adopted and killed.


The Five Goals Of The 1966 Coup d’etat

  • To simultaneously strike across regional capitals
  • To arrest leading politicians and only kill those who resist
  • To avoid reprisals by killing all senior army officers
  • To prevent troop movement by blocking Niger and Benue
  • To form a new government.

Similar to Ademoyega’s revelation in his memoir, Nzeogwu who spearheaded the mutiny in his radio broadcast announcing the coup on January 15 emphasized how perceived corruption in the incumbent government catalyzed their resolve overthrew it. He said:

“The aim of the Revolutionary Council is to establish a strong united and prosperous nation, free from corruption and internal strife”.

Throughout the planning stage, the coupists were convinced by the evidence surrounding them that those entrusted with the responsibility of the nation were corruptly converting the commonwealth for their personal aggrandizement.

Why We Struck. Published in 1981. A first hand account of the 1966 coup d’etat authored by Major Ademola Ademoyega, one of the coup’s coconspirators.


The estimated timeline of the coup from planning to execution was approximately 6 months. From August 1965 – January 1966.


Date: Thursday 15 January, 1966

Exercise Damisa would become the pseudonym for what was described as Nigeria’s bloodiest coup d’etat.


The word “Damisa” is rooted in Hausa etymology, meaning Tiger. Maj Nzeogwu himself being Igbo has firm allegiance with them. His middle name, Kaduna was Hausa, meaning Crocodile.

Exercise Damisa was a combat training that begun weeks before the zero hour. Maj Nzeogwu was setting up a small command of selected junior soldiers for the coup and nobody else except him was in knowledge of it true motive.

The exercise was held daily at night fall and was a few meters from the perimeters fencing of of Premier of the North, Ahmadu Bello’s mansion. Unbeknownst to any, that strategic positioning wasn’t a coincidence because the first causality Maj Nzeogwu gunned down was the Premier.

By the early hours of January 15, 1966 Nzeogwu turned “Exercise Damisa” into a full blown military coup d’etat. Leading his men inside the mansion, Nzeogwu first shattered the mansion’s protective gate with dynamite and headed straight for Bello’s bedroom.  

After several moment of frantic search, the Premier was found sandwiched between his wives. The trigger was pulled on him and he fell alongside one of his wives who attempted  to shield him with her body.

Ahmadu Bello became the first casualty of the coup. And it was just the beginning.

1966 coup
Finance Minister Okotie Eboh, adopted and killed. Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, adopted and killed. Premier of Northern Region, Ahmadu Bello killed alongside one of his wives.

Elsewhere In Lagos, the nation’s Seat of Power, Nzeogwu’s coconspirators comprising some lieutenant led by Maj. Emmanuel Ifeajuna had taken position at the  Prime Minister Abubakar Balewa’s residence. He was dragged out of bed and led away at gunpoint. The lifeless body of Nigeria’s first and only Prime Minister was later found six days later on the street of Lagos.

Meanwhile, In Ibadan, Samuel Akintola, the premier of the Western Region had few days before January 15 had a foreknowledge that a detachment of mutinous soldiers were heading his way  led by Capt. Emmanuel Nwobosi.

The Premier had secured himself a rifle but he couldn’t hold his assailant for too long as he eventually fell to their rain of bullets.


The major casualties of the 1966 coup d’etat

  • Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa
  • Premier Ahmadu Bello
  • Premier Samuel Ladoke Akintola
  • Finance Minister Festus Okotie-Eboh
  • Brig. Samuel Ademulegun
  • Brig. Zakariya Maimalari
  • Col. Ralph Shodeinde
  • Col. Kur Mohammed
  • Lt. Col. Abogo Largema
  • Lt. Col. James Pam
  • Lt. Col. Arthur Unegbe


Date: Saturday January 17, 1966 The pandemonium caused by the spree of murders of senior army officers and the government leadership galvanized Ironsi into action.

1966 Nigerian coup d'etat
Major General Johnson Aguyi-Ironsi, (Middle), Head of State with Major Hassan Usman Kastina, Lt Col Adekunle Fajuyi, Lt Col Odumegwu Ojukwu, Lt Col D Ejoor.

Ironsi rallied troops within immediate reach with a single command to neutralise the coup, it took until January 17 before the uprising was crushed.

Seeing that the chips were down; his plans punctured and lieutenants caving in, Maj Nzeogwu and all three leaders except for Ifeajuna who fled the country surrendered to Ironsi and were put in military custody. With the president, Nnamdi Azikiwe on vacation in Europe, Nwafor Orizu the Senate President constitutionally takes up the acting capacity for the presidency.


Aguiyi-Ironsi’s reluctance to persecute the coup plotters immediately he became Head of State gave rise to suspicions mainly from Hausa soldiers who suffered the most casualties. And with the entire coupists (except Maj Ademola Ademoyega) being of Igbo origin as well as Ironsi himself, the Hausa soldiers decided to stage a counter coup in July 1966.

In a nationwide broadcast, acting president Orizu announced that the Democratic government had voluntarily transmitted power to the Armed Forces commanded by Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi.

In a separate broadcast acknowledging and accepting the invasion, Ironsi quickly setup a Supreme Military Council and suspended the constitution, setting the stage for Nigeria’s first military rule.

55 Years After….

The 1966 coup extensively exposed the evidential vulnerability of Nigeria, bringing to fore the ethnic and religious divide that has remained a characteristic of the country till now. 

Even more telling was how the coup introduced a catastrophic civil war and successive eras of repressive military regimes, until democracy restored in 1999.

And despite the resuscitation of democratic rule, the plague of the coup still haunt the nation. The distrust, marginalisation of the Igbo, misappropriation of public funds, chauvinism and ethno religious crisis are present day realities f what was sown in 1966.

Meanwhile, we reported earlier that the Nigerian government has directed all telecommunication operators to deregister all SIM cards that are not synchronized with the National Identity Number (NIN) by December 30th 2020.

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