Monday, July 30, 2018 marks the 52nd anniversary of the 1966 coup and the failure of the first republic.

It legacy and that of the first republic is planting seeds of persona and political tensions into the heart of Nigerian coexistence of cultures.

For one, the resulting grievances of the Igbo fueled their need for secession and in turn the civil war, led by Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, then the Military Governor of the Eastern Region.

His grievance reportedly originated from the conspirators passing over the most senior army officer after the Aguiyi Ironsi, Brigadier Babatope Ogundipe, and appointing Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon, who was of the same rank as him.

His fury was sealed after the terms of the January 1967 peace conference of the Nigerian Army leadership held in Aburi, Abuja were not upheld. He subsequently declared the Eastern Nigeria the sovereign state of Biafra on May 30, 2018.

Asides the civil war that lasted over 24 months, claiming lives and property through violence, military tactics and famine, the Nigerian history of tribally charged, political tensions was written by the event of 1967.

Nigerian history is littered with instances of tribalism. It’s shocking that despite our hypocritical focus on including “national character” into even the slightest things, we still struggle with our history of tribalism.

Destructive tribal bias is usually precipitated by ego, power thirst, paranoia and unresolved issues.

While coups de’tat are a fundamental part of military fabric, National character could have saved the bloodshed.

Nonetheless, the failing of the civilian government are well documented.

The first republic led by Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and President Nnamdi Azikiwe was littered with continued corruption and embezzlement in the upper echelons of Nigerian power.

Obafemi Awolowo was also found guilty of the financial misappropriation of the Western Region Marketing Board. There was also the issue of personality clashes between Chiefs Obafemi Awolowo and Ladoke Akintola. The timing was also off as military coups in Dahomey, Algeria, Egypt and other countries must have filled conspirators with confidence.

While Adewale Adegboyega later acknowledged the role of personal ambition to right wrongs in power as fuel to fire, calls to install Awolowo as President straight prison did not help matters.

Before July 1966

On January 15, 1966 an aborted coup, led by Kaduna Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna killed 22 people. It was majorly led by officers of the Igbo tribe.

Kaduna Nzeogwu reportedly began planning the strike in August 1965 against Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

Conveniently, the Igbo President, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was out of the country at the time.

The mutiny eventually led to Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi becoming Nigeria’s First Military Head of State. While Ironsi captured Nzeogwu, the seeds of tribal bad blood had already been planted; Ironsi was Igbo, Azikiwe was spared and Acting President, Senate President Nwafor Orizu, an Igbo was also spared.

A significant number of the casualties were Northerners.

What Happened in July 1966?

Following the events of January 15, 1966, the Northerners were aggrieved by the massacre of their kin.

Between July 28 and July 30, 1966, what was dubbed a “counter-coup” or the “July rematch” turned ruthless. It was masterminded by Lieutenant Colonel Murtala Muhammed and Lt. Colonel Akahan.

It was seen as the Hausa direct response to the events of January 1966 by a significantly Igbo conspirators against majorly Hausa Politicians. It resulted in the death of Military Head of State, Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi and concluded with Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon as Head of State.

Asides the obvious murders, Historian, Max Siollun pegs the Hausa inspiration as non-trial of January 1966 conspirators for treason, passage of the Unification decree and plans to rotate the military governors of the different regions.


The counter-coup triggered another era of bloodshed; the Nigerian Civil War. Till date, tensions still subsist between Hausa and Igbo. It even permeates in the lower rungs of Nigerian existence, away from the rooms of power.

What we do know is that it further planted an evil seed of tribal tensions into Nigerian fabric.

Those tensions do not look like subsiding soon. As recently as 2017, Igbo still made a move for secession, led by Nnamdi Kanu. We can blame people all we want, but our founding father should accept their fair share of the blame.

They might not have fanned the flames, but they definitely planted the seeds. They failed to see beyond their selfish interests into the future of the country they got entrusted with.

While arguments can be made for how they were not selfish because they were avenging their kin, it is still selfishness — the country comprises of 3 major tribes. Right decisions should be judged on how general benefits, not that of a tribe.

Though corruption and tribal entitlement has always formed a part of Nigerian politics, corruption, in part played the role of trigger for these coups. The height of the Nigeria Civil War was truly the height that the country has not returned from.

While the conspirators failed, the founding fathers; Awolowo, Azikiwe and Tafawa Balewa planted the seeds of corruption that served as impetus for discord, dissatisfaction and consequently, a thirst for power. The failure was collective, regardless of tribe and we all need to accept responsibility before we can heal as a nation.