This is an investigation in order to answer the question: To what extent did the failure of the January 1966 coup lead to the outbreak of the civil war? I will evaluate the extent to which the failed coup of January 1966 made war inevitable. I will also evaluate the extent to which ethnic tensions between the mainly Hausa-Fulani Northerners and the Igbo Easterners of Nigeria and the 1966 anti-Igbo pogrom in Northern Nigeria, caused primarily by the failed coup, led to the secession of Biafra from Nigeria thus making war inevitable. I will also look at the state of the economy before the war.

Two of the sources used in this investigation-Nigeria 1966: The Turning Point by Chukwudum Ikeazor and Africa: A Modern History by Guy Arnold will be evaluated with respect to their origin, purpose, value and limitations.

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At independence, Nigeria had been divided into three regions- the Northern Region which was populated by mainly those from the Hausa-Fulani tribe, the Eastern Region, consisting mostly of those from the Igbo tribe and the Western Region which consisted mostly of the Yoruba tribe1. Each region had its own government but they felt that the central government in Lagos did not safeguard their interests enough2. The Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa came from the Muslim north and the Yorubas and the Igbos complained of northern domination due to the fact that the Northern Region was the most populated region in Nigeria3. The Hausa-Fulani were themselves resentful of the fact that about two million Igbos were living in the Northern Region and holding many jobs4.


There was an economic recession which saw prices had risen 15 per cent by 1964 with unemployment increasing and wages remained very low5. This lead to the government being heavily criticised and Balewa decided to reply by arresting Chief Awolowo, Prime Minister of the Western Region6. The central government had also been accused of attempting to rig the 1964 elections7.


The first coup, led by Lieutenant Kaduna Nzeogwu, was mounted in 15 January 1966, overthrowing a political class associated with corruption, nepotism and inefficiency.8 Under General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, a military government was established and army governors were appointed in the regions, with Lieutenant-Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, holding this position in the Eastern Region.9 Ironsi proposed a unitary constitution instead of a federal one which Nigeria had been under.

10 The Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa was murdered by the perpetrators and the premiers of the Western and Northern regions, Chief Samuel Akintola and Sir Ahmadu Bello received the same fate.11 However, the regional premiers of the East and Mid-West did not receive the same fate along with the General Officer Commander of the Nigerian Army, who was an Easterner, and the Southern axis of the coup was aborted thus arousing suspicions of an Eastern conspiracy.12 Nevertheless, the coup was greeted with widespread jubilation as people were tired of the corruption and constant crises of the First Republic.13

Ironsi chose Major Hassan Katsina, the son of a powerful Northern emir, to be the Northern Military Governor in what was an attempt to overcome the regional antagonisms that had bedevilled Nigeria.14 However, Ironsi’s honeymoon did not last as his proposal of a unitary constitution had been treated as an Igbo trick to gain dominion over the North.15 Indeed the army officers responsible for the coup had denied that they had been motivated by ethnic considerations but the fact remained that the coup had failed to deliver balanced ethnic representation in both participation in the coup and execution16.


Indeed on the 29th July 1966, a counter coup which began as a rebellion in Abeokuta barracks, in the Western Region, claimed the lives of two lieutenants and a major.17 General Ironsi and Colonel Fajuyi were abducted in Ibadan, also situated in the Western Region, by troops led by Major Theophilus Danjuma and taken to the outskirts, where they were brutally beaten and shot dead.18 By the time the coup was completed and power was in the hands of a Northerner, the army had been purged with 43 officers as well as 170 other ranks, the vast majority of whom were of Eastern origin, had been killed.19 The Northerner and Chief of Staff, Yakubu Gowon was made Head of State and being a convinced federalist, swiftly reversed Ironsi’s abrogation of federal constitution.20


Between Tuesday 24 May and the following weekend, hundreds of Igbos were killed in both spontaneous and organised pogroms in the Northern cities Kano, Kaduna and Zaria thus confirming the anti-Igbo sentiment as a result of the seemingly Igbo coup.21

A second pogrom was to begin against the Igbo in the North with between 10,000 and possibly 30,000 perishing from the End of September into October.22 This resulted in a huge movement of population into the East with an influx of one million Igbos.23 The Igbos obstructed Gowon’s attempts to produce a new system of government and found a leader in Colonel Ojukwu who declared the Eastern Region independent in May 1967.24 With the Igbos rallying around the new Republic of Biafra, Gowon did not want to lose such an oil rich region and so war with the federal government and thus Nigeria, began on 6 July 1967.25


Nigeria 1966: the Turning Point by Chukwudum Ikeazor (1997, New Millennium)

The purpose of this source is to offer in-depth analysis of the first coup of January 15th 1966 as well as the politics, bloodshed and the subsequent counter coup in July. Ikeazor addresses the fact that the failure of Nigerians to reconcile and recover from 1966 led to the outbreak of war on July 6th 1967. The value of the source lies in the evaluation of the mentality of the Nigerian people at the time which affected the way in which the coups were received. Ikeazor made enquiries of living witnesses, victims and participants of the events of 1966-1967 and spoke to various military and civilian participants from both sides, meaning that there is an element of fairness. The origin of the source lies in the author’s Igbo ethnicity and therefore the limitation is that the author may have, construed the events in a way which would be more sympathetic to one side than another. Ikeazor himself addresses this with his admission that “I fully recognise that our different environments and backgrounds shape our perceptions to a great degree and therefore, certain things are often seen differently by different people.”26

Africa: A Modern History by Guy Arnold (2005, Atlantic Books)

The purpose of the source is to document the history of Nigeria as well as Africa, since independence. The limitation of this source is that the book is not about just Nigeria but the entire modern history of Africa. Therefore, one may question the level of expertise which the author Guy Arnold would be able to apply to the topic of Nigeria and Biafra since he is also covering other African topics. The origin of the source and the value of the source is that Arnold has travelled around Africa for 40 years and his analysis of the coup is relatively detailed and offers an unbiased commentary on the failings of the coup and its perpetrators. In his travels, Arnold has drawn upon knowledge from a range of people whom have, states “Influenced my own growing understanding and attachment to Africa.”27


How far did the failure of the coup lead to war?

The first coup failed to deliver balance in terms of participation or execution. For example, if the coup had succeeded in Lagos as opposed to Kaduna, with the relevant figures killed, since the perpetrators were from these regions, they would have seen this as an Igbo coup. The murder of senior officers in the army proved to be the most significant aspect of the coup since the Northerners amongst them had strong ethnic following of strategic numbers in the army. The coup’s only success came in the North as the premier and various officers had been killed. The failure of the coup in the East was the coups greatest political unravelling since it left questions about the intent of the coup.

28 The lack of significant representation from non-Easterners in the coup only helped to strengthen the beliefs of the other ethnic groups, notably the Hausa-Fulani, that the whole coup was an Igbo conspiracy. This was a critical failure because it meant that the Igbo people of Nigeria would become victims of revenge as those who were not of Igbo would have been deeply suspicious of these people. This meant that tribal conflict would eventually break out though perhaps none could have fathomed that the Igbos would then desire to become part of a separate state. Furthermore, the murder of the Northerner, Prime Minister Balewa was pointless since it only helped to deepen the wounds which had been left on Nigeria’s political psyche by the coup.29

Ethnic and religious tensions were also big factor

However, the failure of the coup was not the only reason why war break out- it was mostly a catalyst which caused all the underlying ethnic animosities in Nigeria to surface, meaning that the only people who they could take their frustration out were on each other. The three biggest tribes in Nigeria, the Yoruba, the Igbo and the Hausa-Fulani were all weary of each other and were constantly accusing one and other of oppressing the other tribe. The tribes which perhaps had the biggest cause for complaint were the Christian Igbos and the Yorubas since the Muslim Northern region was the most populated region and so would have been able to hold an advantage in making decisions for the whole of Nigeria, especially since the Prime Minister himself was a Muslim of Northern Origin.

The suspicions of each other meant that the coups were instantly subject to scrutiny- people would have obviously wanted to be aware if any ethnic group was trying to gain a dominant hand in Nigerian politics. Unfortunately, this meant that the fact that the coup was perpetrated by mostly Easterners was used as an excuse for the other tribes, most notably the Hausa-Fulani to vent their frustrations on the Igbo people, subsequently turning to pogroms and massacre. Therefore, it could be said that the reason for war breaking out was partly down to the fact that ethnic tensions were so severe that any minor incident would have triggered mass conflict. Indeed the Igbo had had enough and so felt that the only solution was stay within the Eastern Region and form their own country- a move which led to war.

Economic pressures and corruption also added weight to the likelihood of war

Though this had a minimal effect on the prospect of war, it was the reason why the coup was carried out in the first place. People were unhappy with corruption that was rife in the government and the economic recession only helped to add to this frustration. Therefore, it was only natural that a sympathetic group of military officials would want to take matters in to their own hands so as to bring stability to the country. This however, only served to cause further conflict.


The failure of the first coup can only be held partly accountable for the outbreak of war when one looks at the evidence. The failure of the coup acted as a catalyst to the problems which were brewing in Nigeria. Though there was a recession and corruption was rife, this could not have single-handedly led to war. Indeed, had ethnic and religious tensions not been so engrained in the political psyche of the Nigerian people then the coup would not have been interpreted in the way that it was. These tensions were the largest factor in the outbreak of war because these were the reasons why all the pogroms were carried out. Ethnic tensions are what led to the Igbo fleeing to the Eastern Region and forming Biafra. This meant that war was inevitable since it would have been crippling to the Nigerian economy if such an oil-rich region was lost. Therefore, in answer to this essays question, I say that the coup was only partially to blame; it was ethnic tensions which ultimately made war inevitable.


List of sources:

* Arnold, Guy. Africa: A Modern History (2005), Atlantic Books

* Ikeazor, Chukwudum. Nigeria 1966: the Turning Point (1997), New Millennium

* Lowe, Norman. Mastering Modern World History (3rd Edition), Macmillan

* Oliver, Roland and Anthony Atmore. Africa since 1800 (3rd Edition), Cambridge University Press

* Poulton, Richard. A History Of The Modern World, Oxford University Press

* Watson, Jack. Success In Twentieth Century World Affairs (3rd Edition), John Murray Publishers

1 Africa: A Modern History, Guy Arnold, Atlantic Books, p. 197

2 Mastering Modern World History (3rd Edition), Norman Lowe, Macmillan, p. 461

3 ibid

4 Arnold, p.197

5 Lowe, p.461

6 ibid

7 ibid

8 Arnold, p. 197

9 Africa since 1800 (3rd Edition), Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore, Cambridge University Press, p. 336

10 A History Of The Modern World, Richard Poulton, Oxford University Press, p. 323

11 Oliver and Atmore, p. 336

12 Nigeria 1966: the Turning Point, Chukwudum Ikeazor (1997), New Millennium, p. 68

13 ibid

14 Arnold, p. 198

15 Poulton, p. 323

16 Ikeazor, p.88

17 Ikeazor, p.115

18 ibid

19 ibid, p. 118

20 Poulton, p. 323

21 Arnold, p. 200

22 ibid, p. 202

23 ibid

24 Success In Twentieth Century World Affairs (3rd Edition), Jack Watson, John Murray Publishers, p. 388

25 ibid

26 ibid, p.6

27 Arnold, p. vii

28 Ikeazor, p. 90

29 ibid, p.63


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