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1966 Nigerian coup d'etat
DateJanuary 15-January 16, 1966
Flag of Nigeria.svg Government of Nigeria Flag of Nigeria.svg Rebel Army Officers
Commanders and leaders
Abubakar Balewa
Ahmadu Bello
Samuel Akintola
Festus Okotie-Eboh
Kaduna Nzeogwu
Timothy Onwuatuegwu
Emmanuel Ifeajuna
Adewale Ademoyega
Chris Anuforo
unknown unknown
Casualties and losses
13 dead 0

The 1966 Nigerian Coup d'état began on January 15, 1966 when rebel soldiers led by Kaduna Nzeogwu assassinated 11 senior Nigerian politicians and two soldiers as well as kidnapping three others. The coup plotters attacked the cities of Kaduna, Ibadan, and Lagos while also blockading the Niger and Benue River within a two-day span of time. Before the coup plotters were able to take control of Nigeria a senior Nigerian General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was able to make the coup plotters flee to Kaduna. Although the government was able to drive to coup plotters away they succeeded in installing a Head of State from the Eastern Region. The coup was the spark that erupted into the Nigerian Civil War.


In August 1965 five Igbo Majors were beginning to plot a coup against incumbent Prime Minister Abubakar Balewa. The coup was planned because the Majors were dissatisfied with the governments actions and that most Nigerian politicians were of Hausa or Fulani descent. In a memoir written by coup plotter Adewale Ademoyega he wrote

"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."

The coup plotters had five goals to achieve, to Strike simultaneously in regional capitals, arrest leading politicians-kill any who resist, avoid reprisals-kill all senior army officers, prevent troop movement-block Niger and Benue, and form a new Government. They planned to strike right before the Commonwealth Conference so that Balewa would be distracted from any suspicious army movements.


In the weeks leading up to the coup Maj. Kaduna Nzeogwu carried out reconnaissance on Ahmadu Bello's mansion in Kaduna. Nzeogwu often took his men on a night-time training exercise known as "Exercise Damisa" which was in actuality a practice run for a military coup. The commander of the 2nd Brigade, Brig. Samuel Ademulegun, became irritated with the night-time exercises and reprimanded Nzeogwu in a telephone call to keep exercises a safe distance from Bello's mansion. Although Ademulegun complained about the commotion he had no idea of the exercise's true purpose. Nzeogwu's control over his troops was so little that he had to conscript young soldiers from the Nigerian Military Training College at Kaduna. In the early hours on January 15, 1966 Nzeogwu decided to turn "Exercise Damisa" into a full blown military coup. Nzeogwu led his men to a bush adjacent to the mansion gates and informed them of their real mission. Nzeogwu and his men blew open the mansion gates and conducted a search of the residence, hunting for Bello. After losing his temper at his initial failure to locate him, Nzeogwu found him hiding with his wives. Bello was shot along with one of his wives who tried to shield him with her body. Bello's faithful bodyguard came to defend him with a bow and arrows but was also shot.

Nzeogwu's co-conspirator, Maj. Timothy Onwuatuegwu, personally led a detachment of soldiers to Ademulegun's house. Onwuatuegwu made his way up to the Brigadier's room where he was laying beside his wife. Upon seeing Onwuatuegwu enter the room, Ademulegun shouted at him "Timothy, what the devil do you think your doing?". Onwuatuegwu told Ademulegun that he was under arrest. Ademulegun reached for a drawer beside his bed, and as he did so, Onwuatuegwu shot him dead in his bed, along with Ademulegun's wife who was laying beside him.

The head of the NMTC Col. Ralph Shodeinde was killed, but the manner of his death is unclear. His wife testified that he was shot by several soldiers that included Maj. Nzeogwu and Maj. Onwuatuegwu. Other accounts claim that a grenade was tossed at him. It is not clear if Nzeogwu was involved with Shodeinde's death since presumably he was pre-occupied at the time with killing Ahmadu Bello. Most accounts place responsibility for Shodeinde's murder with Onwuatuegwu. The same Onwuatuegwu, who shot both Shodeinde and Ademulegun along with his wife, kidnapped but did not harm the Governor of the Northern Region Kashim Ibrahim. When released Ibrahim vouched that he had been treated with the utmost respect by the men who kidnapped him.

The commander of the 2nd Reece squadron in Kaduna, Hassan Katsina, was not harmed during the coup. Shortly before the coup started, Katsina bumped into Nzeogwu. It is speculated that the conversation between the two men may have saved Katsina's life as Nzeogwu's familiarity with Katsina's family may have led him to exclude Katsina from the coup out of empathy. When the two men met again shortly after the coup, Nzeogwu asked him directly "Are you with us or against us?". Seeing that Nzeogwu was holding a gun, Katsina wisely replied "you know I am with you."

At around 2am Maj. Emmanuel Ifeajuna and some lieutenants from the 2nd Brigade HQ made their way to Prime Minister Abubakar Balewa's residence. They overpowered, but did not kill, the police officers standing guard there. Ifeajuna then kicked down the door of the Prime Minister's bedroom before leading him out at gunpoint. Elsewhere in Lagos, Maj. Don Okafor attempted to arrest Brig. Zakariya Maimalari but he managed to escape by jumping over a wall behind his house. As he was escaping on foot, he came across the car of his Brigade Major, Emmanuel Ifeajuna. Maimalari recognized Ifeajuna and had no idea that he was part of the coup plot. Erroneously believing that Ifeajuna could be trusted, Maimalari waved down the car, and was promptly shot by Ifeajuna. The commanding officer of the Ibadan-based 4th battalion, Lt. Col. Abogo Largema, was a guest at the Ikoyi hotel on the night of the coup. Ifeajuna arrived at the hotel and forced the desk clerk at gunpoint to inform Largema that he had a phone call. When Largema emerged from his room Ifeajuna and a subaltern emerged from their hiding place in a corridor and shot Largema dead. The army's GOC Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was tipped off about the coup by a telephone call from Lt. Col. James Pam. Shortly after ending his telephone call with Ironsi, Pam was abducted from his house and shot dead by Maj. Chris Anuforo. The only Igbo to die in the coup, Lt. Col. Arthur Unegbe, was shot by Anuforo because he was known to be close to Brig. Maimalari and had to be silenced in order to avoid him from raising the alarm. Balewa, Col. Kur Mohammed, and Minister of Finance Festus Okotie-Eboh were initially kidnapped, but were later killed.

In Ibadan the premier of the Western Region Chief Samuel Akintola had been forewarned that soldiers were coming to get him. Akintola heard rumors of a coup and traveled to Kaduna to warn the premier of the Northern Region, Ahmadu Bello. After failing to raise any urgency in Bello, Akintola returned to Ibadan and armed himself with a rifle. His deputy Chief Fani Kayode was first arrested by the coupists. After his arrest, Kayode's wife informed Akintola of what had happened. Shortly afterward a detachment of soldiers led by Capt. Emmanuel Nwobosi arrived at Akintola's residence. Upon sighting the soldiers, Akintola opened fire, wounding a few of them including Capt. Nwobosi. After fighting for his life and engaging the soldiers in a gunfight, Akintola was shot dead by Nwobosi's men.


The commotion caused by the murders of other officers alerted Ironsi to the coup and was able to rally troops who helped him put down the coup. On his way to commence moves to crush the coup, Ironsi encountered a checkpoint manned by junior officers involved in the coup. Ironsi simply stepped out of his vehicle and roared "Get out of my way!", an order which they promptly obeyed, before continuing his journey. When it became obvious the coup wasn't going to succeed, Nzeogwu handed over control of the Northern Region to Ironsi's appointed designee, Hassan Katsina, before being escorted to Lagos by Lt. Col. Conrad Nwawo, where he surrendered to Ironsi. The coup leaders, except for Ifeajuna who had fled to Ghana, were placed under arrest. The surviving members of the Federal cabinet handed over the reigns of government to Ironsi who suspended several parts of the constitution, banned all political parties, and formed a new military government with a Supreme Military Council.

Officers involved[]

The list below shows the officers involved on both sides of the coup as well as their ethnic backgrounds.


Government officials[]


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