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Military coups in Nigeria focuses on both failed and successful military coups in Nigeria. Military coups in Nigeria examines lessons gained from past military coups in Nigeria. After Nigeria independence from the British Empire on October 1st 1960 there were successful and unsuccessful military coups in Nigeria. A military coup or coup d’etat is the violent or non violent overthrow of government in power. Overthrowing a democratically elected government is illegal. It’s also regarded as an act of treason. As a result of this, coupists make sure that they succeed at all cost. If not, they will regret what will happen after the coup d’etat. Military coups in Nigeria is never encouraged. The worst civilian government is far better than military government. When military take over, they suspend the country constitution and rule with Decree.

In this article, I will examine lessons gained from past military coups in Nigeria.

I can hear you asking, how and what do I stand to gain?

This article will:

  • Enable you to learn from the mistakes of pasts regime or administration.
  • Assist you in strategic thinking.
  • Point out how different government handle their personal security.
  • Show you the negative impacts of military involvement in politics.
  • Examine the benefits of military professionalism through what happened in the past.
  • Explain steps taken to prevent military coups in Nigeria and make Nigerian military become apolitical or non partisan.

Oh ! I have split this write up into different headings for better understanding.

Military Coups in Nigeria: Memory Lane

Brigade of Guards emblem

Military Coups in Nigeria

In August 1962, the Federal Guards (presently known as the Brigade of Guards) was established and 150 of initial 200 elite fighters were deployed from Enugu battalion to Lagos. It was the then largest battalion in the country with 26 officers and 843 non-commissioned officers (NCOs). From the inception of Brigade of Guards between 1962 to 1964. It was commanded by several officers including Lt. Col. Ogunewe, Captain Mobolaji Johnson (who was later appointed Lagos State Military Administrator) and Obioha before Major Donatus Okafor was made the Commanding Officer (CO). Major D. Okafor was one of the January 15, 1966 plotters of military coups in Nigeria.

When Major D. Okafor left for Britain in 1965 temporarily for a course. Captain Joseph Garuba (Yakubu Gowon in-law) took charge as the CO. When Major Okafor returned from Britain he took over his position.

According to Lt. Col (Dr.) Ibrahim Yakasai in 2011. He said the security at the Villa consist of three major arms

(a) the Brigade of Guards (BG)

(b) the Strike Force (SF) and

(c) the Military Police.

According to him, the major arms are the Brigade of Guards and the Strike Force.


In Nigeria politics and in the Nigerian military, it is those to whom one entrust is safety one needs to fear most. The Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was guarded by only six police guards at his residence. In fact he may had thought that he was ‘protected’ by the Guard Company. The Guard Company was commanded by Major Donatus Okafor who with Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna abducted and shot Balewa, near Mile 27 on the Lagos – Ibadan Road on the January 15,1966.


When Major General Johnson Thomas Ummunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi declared a unitary state in May 1966, he changed the Federal Guards name to National Guards. The soldiers who abducted, tortured and shot dead both Aguiyi -Ironsi and Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi near Ibadan on July 29,1966 were from his own entourage and were supported by elements from the 4th Battalion in Ibadan.


General Yakubu Gowon was overthrown in July 29, 1975 in connivance with officers and men from the Federal Guards. Gowon may had placed great faith in the personal security apparatus around him and his security concious ADC Colonel William Walbe who was so effective at isolating Gowon to the extent that Gowon didn’t know the numbers of his own internal telephone lines. At the center of the coup were a group of Colonels who fought in the civil war and felt excluded from the corridors of power. They were Lieutenants and Non Commissioned Officers (NCO’s) that carried out the military coups in Nigeria that brought Gowon to power. Among the officer that took in the then military coups in Nigeria then were: Colonels Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Ibrahim Taiwo, Abdullahi Muhammed, Ibrahim Babangida, Paul Tarfa and Brigadier General Gibson Jalo, Ibrahim Haruna and Illaya Bissala.

Shortly before Gowon departure for an Organization of Africa Unity (OAU) summit in Uganda, Gowon decided to speak to Colonel Joseph Garuba who was the then Commander Guards of Brigade about the rumours of a coup plot. Garuba denied all knowledge of, or involvement in any, coup plot. Before Gowon departure, he told Garuba that if he was part of any coup, he should make sure that there’s no bloodshed. When Colonel Abdullahi Muhammed, on the eve of the coup told Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo that there would be a coup. Obasanjo asked Abdullahi Muhammed to make sure that there’s no bloodshed. On July 29, 1975 Gowon was toppled in a bloodless military coup announced by Colonel Garuba while Gowon was still away in Uganda.


While examining military coups in Nigeria one will discover that Murtala made some costly mistakes while riding the crest wave of personal popularity. When Murtala came to power in 1975, he ordered the retirement of all officers who were superior seniority to him in rank. After some months, in 1976 Murtala Muhammed promoted himself to a FOUR STAR GENERAL while the duo of Olusegun Obasanjo his deputy and Theophilus Danjuma, the then Chief of Army Staff were both promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General. This promotion exercise leaped frog some officers above their seniors. A good example was that of Federal Commissioner of Defence, Illaya Bissala who was promoted from Brigadier General to Major General. Danjuma who was Bissala junior got double promotion. Danjuma was promoted above senior officers like Muhammed Shuwa, Gibson Jalo, Ibrahim Haruna and Olufemi Olutoye.

Besides, senior officers who were not in good terms with the coupists or with Murtala were not included in the Supreme Military Council (SMC). Evidently, Murtala didn’t take his personal security serious. He mingled with the masses in highly populated Lagos street. He drove around without security escort. He went to different locations without notice and security. In early 1976, Lieutenant General Olusegun Obasanjo advised Murtala Muhammed to beefed up his security. He replied Obasanjo that if anyone was planning to overthrow his government, then “if they succeed in killing all of them, good luck to them” in running the affairs of Nigeria and many problems associated with it. Unknown to Murtala he had sealed his own fate with those statements.

READ: Obasanjo Cabinet from 2003 to 2007


If Shehu Shagari had taken a look at Nigeria’s history books, he would have noticed military coups in Nigeria had almost been carried out by similar group of soldiers. The young NCO’s and Lieutenants that booted out Ironsi in 1966 from power became Colonels who overthrew Gowon in 1975. They also became Brigadiers and Major Generals that later overthrew Shagari. Had Shagari acted decisively early during his first term in office and retired these officers, his government may had survived. The known officer retired by Shagari was Major General Joseph Garuba (Gowon brother in-law) who read the 1975 coup speech.

Moreso, President Shagari tried to build the Nigeria police with armoured vehicles but was interuptted in December, 1983 by Brigadier General Sani Abacha and conspirators. Shagari Guards Brigade Commander in Lagos tried to resist (then Colonel Bello Khaliel) was arrested and subsequently retired together with the Battalion Commander in Keffi (Lieutenant Colonel Eboma) whose detachment at Abuja had initially frustrated the coupists. Had Shagari paid great attention to sensitive military postings of most of the officers who took part in the coup were stationed close to the proximity of the nation nerve center in Lagos.


Major General Muhammadu Buhari maintained Brigade of Guards but he didn’t realize that Major General Ibrahim Babangida had pre – positioned his boys in key positions waiting as “sleepers” ready for when they will be called upon by their principal to act. Brigade of Guards was not of great use to him in August 1985 (although the acting Commander, Colonel Sabo Aliyu as well as Buhari’s ADC , Major Haruna Mustapha Jokolo tried in vain to stand by him only to end up strongly beaten and detained that made Buhari overthrew easier.


According to Babangida he said:

When I became the President, there were 23 of us who were the coup plotters at that time and immediately that coup was successful. I sat the 23 of us together and said: CONGRATULATIONS! We made it but remember one thing, just like we took up guns and toppled a government, we also have to watch because someday would one want to topple us and this is because I understood the nature of Nigerian person.

With the support of Isreal, Babangida’s government divided National Security Organization (NSO) into the State Security Service (SSS) and National Intelligence Agency (NIA). He began plans to establish a National Guard (in addition and parallel to the Brigade of Guards). He tried to regionalize the Army, AirForce and Navy. He wanted to move the Army headquarters to Minna, AirForce to Lagos and Navy to Kano. This decision was vehemently resisted by many including General Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd.). Another military coups in Nigeria occured when Babangida was surprised by middle level young officers and soldiers. Though it failed, he lost his ADC (Lt. Col. Usman K. Bello) The regime later established a special protection unit.


The Interim National Government (ING), headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan was sworn in as Head of State and President. Surprisingly not as Commander – in – Chief of the Armed Forces. This made him not to have the operational control of the Armed Forces. Abacha waited patiently untill November 10, 1993 when Shonekan Interim National Government was declared illegal in a court ruling in Lagos. On 17, 1993 at about 10 am, General Sani Abacha, Lt. Gen. Oladipupo Diya and Lt. Gen. Aliyu Gusau arrived at the Presidential Villa in Abuja by truckloads of fearsome looking soldiers. These troops were under the command of two “Lagos Group” conspirators, namely Colonel Lawal Gwadabe of the National Guard and Brigadier General Bashir Salihi Magashi of the Brigade of Guards. Magashi was almost certainly there to make sure Gwadabe followed the Abacha script and no other. Following a ‘private meeting’  with Chief Ernest Shonekan, he graciously allowed to deliver a farewell speech to the nation after 82 days of controversy, following which he was flown to Lagos. This was how Abacha toppled Shonekan Interim National Government.


When General Sani Abacha became the Head of State, he created his own personal security outfits that were trained in Libya and North Korea. They consist of Special Bodyguards, Strike Force, et cetra. They operated separately from the Brigade of Guards and maintain command structures that is independent of the Army. Due to his fear of the Nigerian Army Armored Corps, he redeployed them to border regions. In 1995 and 1997, Abacha foiled two coups conspiracies before he died of cardiac arrest.


When General Abdulsalami Alhaji Abubakar came into power, he disbanded some of Abacha’s private units but maintain the traditional Brigade of Guards together with the SSS, NIA and Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) all of which were inherited by the present civilian administration. However, it seems from the reports from newspapers that the SSS does have a major part in VIP security in civilian government than in the past but does so as part of a concentric ring that still involves the military.


After President Olusegun Obasanjo left office, he said he owned nobody apology for retiring politically exposed military officers during Nigeria return to democracy in 1999. He made the disclosure in Abuja during the public presentation of a book titled “The First Regular Combatant: Brigadier Zakari Maimalari” authored by Haruna Poloma. Late Maimalari was one of the military officers killed on the night of January 15, 1966 during the military coup that brought Major General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi to power. He was the first regular Combatant of the Nigerian Army. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo paid tribute to late Maimalari son, Abubakar  Sidiq Zakari who was a retired Lieutenant Colonel. He was compulsorily retired by Obasanjo in 1999.



https://Nigeria scholars.com/tutorials/west-african-constitutional-development/military-coups-in-nigeria/

Nowa Omoigui: The Palace Coup of November 17, 1993 – Part 2.

Nowa Omoigui: Preventing Coups in Nigeria – Part 4.

Max Suollun: The Rollercoaster Life of Murtala Muhammed.

Sama’ila Awoyokun: Nigeria’s First Coup, Biafra: British Secret Files – Part Two, The News

Coups and Counter – Coups, Daily Trust, February 5, 2017.

General Sani Abacha, Major Mustapha And I – Lt. Col. (Dr.) Ibrahim Yakassai – Shahara Reporters.



Max Siollun: Buhari And Idiagbon: A Missed Opportunity for Nigeria.

We deligently research and continuesly update our information. Please let us know, if you find any error(s).

Thank you!

2 thoughts on “Military Coups in Nigeria”

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