The military has always been an important element in African traditional political history. It was an instrument of achieving political objectives in as much as “war is a continuation of politics by other means”. The military which as at that time consisted of only the land forces (these days referred to as the army) was used in prosecuting wars against antagonising communities or states in achieving political as well as other benefits that go hand in hand with an exercise of political power. However, the pre- colonial days’ armed forces, besides being an important instrument of achieving political ends, did not participate in the political and decision making process of their individual kingdom or states.
It was thus with apprehension and alarm that Nigerians greeted the first military coup d’etat of January 15, 1966 when it occurred. Writers and scholars, both foreign and indigenous, have busied themselves in trying to find out the factors that led to the coup which ushered the military onto the Nigerian political scene. The factors can be grouped together under political, socio-cultural and economic main headings, while however interdependent, interacting and self-reinforcing.
The foundation for the political factors was laid with the advent of colonialism in Nigeria. With colonialism came different methods of administering the various political entities within the geographical barrier now identified as Nigeria. These numerous societies, not withstanding their differences in economic, political, social and cultural history were later fused together to form a Northern and Southern protectorates of Nigeria. In 1914, the Northern and Southern protectorates were in turn amalgamated to form a country, one political administrative unit. The British did this under the guise of an indirect rule system in order to cut down the cost of running the colonial units in terms of human and material resources. Indirect rule as a policy however led to different social, political, economic and cultural developments for both the North and the South, and thus the seeds for the political crisis that later rocked Nigeria were planted.
The divide and rule tactics of the British brought antagonism. Directly and indirectly, Nigerians became politically conscious and militant. Nationalism grew up, and its fierceness led to several constitutional arrangements for the country in 1922, 1946, 1951 and 1954. The 1946 Richard’s constitution significantly divided the country into four main units for administrative purposes. These were the Northern, Western and Eastern provinces, and the colony of Lagos. In effect, regionalism came into the Nigerian political system and the second step towards the coup d’etat came into being. The 1951 constitutional arrangement made the regions stronger, weakened the Federal government while the one of 1954 not only strengthened the divisions further, but also gave a legal backing to the formation of political parties based on regional hegemony through the domineering presence of each of the three major ethnic groups in the political parties based in their respective regions. Ethnic bickering therefore got on the increase. When it was not the East against the West, it would be the North against the rest of the South. The situation continued like this until the election of December 1959.
As each of the political parties reached out for the central reign of power, it naturally encroached on the others’ “sphere of influence and control” and this further aggravated the situation. Nevertheless, the political parties concurred together to make independence a reality on 1st October 1960.
The first post-independence political crisis resulted over the Anglo-Nigerian defence pact signed at independence. Violent demonstration ensued all over the country and the federal government was forced to abrogate the pact. Following was the 1962 Action Group (AG) crisis in which prominent Nigerian political leaders from the South – notably the leader of the party Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and others – were put under house arrest, later tried and imprisoned on charges of treasonable felony. This together with the creation of the Mid-Western region out of the Western region, the smallest of all the regions, did not go down well with Nigerians in the Western region, the political base of the Action Group. 1963 came with the national census which was alleged to be riddled with malpractice, inflation and falsification of figures. The census was re-conducted and later accepted, albeit, with some reservations. Between 1962 and 1965, the Tiv people began to demand for their own autonomous state in rebellion against the domineering presence of the Northern regional government under the control of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC). The 1964 general election came, and there were counter-accusations of rigging and corruption by each of the major parties against each other. The 1965 Western regional election with the attendant breakdown of law and order, arson and deliberate murdering of political figures finally broke the camel’s back politically.
Socio-culturally, the Nigerian society is made up of various ethnic groups each with its own different political, economic and cultural background. This was neglected or relegated into the abyss of forgetfiilness by the British when Nigeria was being put together as an entity. In as much as ethnicism results from the urge by a certain group of people who share the same political, economic and cultural orientation, to achieve either power, influence or wealth, ethnicism has always been a second nature to all societies in the world, Nigeria inclusive. However, the various constitutional arrangements enumerated above brought it into a greater foreplay in Nigerian politics, and in as much as Nigerian nationalists were able to master its use and dig deeper into their respective regions, it could not but lead to crisis.
Revenue allocation also played its own part, although not prominently, as an economic factor that shaped the smooth pathway for the coup. The process of determining the percentage to be paid to each region out of the federal purse created wrangling among the regions and political parties. Also, differences in recommended and actual disbursement of revenues generated a lot of bitterness and led to a fear of domination by one particular region over the others. Besides the issue of revenue allocation, the revenues that accrued to the regions through the sale of the three main regionally endowed export cash crops – Cocoa for the West, Palm Oil and Kernel for the East, and Groundnut for the North – only served to make the regions or rather, the regionally based political parties and their domineering ethnic groups more powerful by giving them the economic strength to wage the political war between them.
Thus, socio-cultural differences in the Nigerian society was reinforced by a series of political and economic developments, and all created a situation or state of political instability in the country. Since the military was part of a society that was politically conscious as well as politicised, most of its members got involved in the political crisis that rocked the country. With no hope of the civilians settling the conflict amicably, the military saw itself as an alternative to the political leadership, and came onto the scene to fill the leadership vacuum.
The break of dawn on January15 1966 indeed witnessed the break of a new dawn full of uncertainties and hopes in Nigerian history. The coup d’etat had as its ring leader a young but radical officer in the person of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. The coup itself was planned and executed under four main phases related to the four existing regions then, and the objective was their effective seizure and control by the troops carrying out the coup. While the coup was fully successful in the North where Nzeogwu himself was in command, it was partially successful in the East, Mid-West and West. However, it failed totally in Lagos, the political and administrative centre of the country. Because of this, the coup as a whole failed although it led to the demise of the then Prime Minister Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and a host of others who were especially members of the federal cabinet.
According to Nzeogwu in his broadcast from Kaduna, the coup aimed at establishing “a strong, unified and prosperous nation free from corruption and internal strife”, but succeeding events did not give Nigerians the chance to know whether this claim was the truth or a farce.
Although the coup did not succeed eventually into bringing into power the planners and the executors, it nevertheless opened a page of successive coups, countercoups, and the emergence of the military as political leaders as well as alternative political leaders in the annals of Nigerian history.
History is nothing more than “a register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind”, and for bringing the military onto the Nigerian political scene, January 15 1966 will always be a day to remember by Nigerians. And as it comes around once again, past, present and future leaders of this great country should think deeply and see whether the mistakes of the past have been corrected or not. For it is only by doing so that we can build that great unified country of our dream for which future generations will be grateful to us.
Published in “The Standard” of 16 January 1989 under the heading “Anniversary Essay”