Military Rule in Nigeria: History, Advantages & Disadvantages


Military rule in Nigeria first started on January 15, 1966, when a group or army officers overthrew the NPC-NNDP government and killed many of the country’s political rulers.

The military history of Nigeria since the colonial rule began precisely on the 1st October 1966. The country was at its infantile stage and was still trying to adapt to its new state of independence.

However, this process was shortlived by the military folks and less than 6 years after independence, Sir Ahmadu Bello; the post-independence leader of the country was overthrown. This happened on the 15th of January 1966 and that marked the beginning of military rule in the country.

The first ever coup was quite bloody and 11 senior Nigerian politicians and 2 soldiers were murders. Also, 3 soldiers were kidnapped in the course of the coup. The coup plotters attacked Ibadan, Lagos and Kaduna within a period of 2 days. However, these plotters were eventually subdued.

It was Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu that officially announced the successful coup on Radio Nigeria in Kaduna.

The whole of Nigeria was interrupted with his speech on the radio when he began by saying: “In the name of the Supreme Council of the Revolution of the Nigerian Armed Forces, I declare martial law over the Northern Provinces of Nigeria. The Constitution is suspended and the regional government and electd assemblies are hereby dissolved…”

However, the coup led to greater problems for the country. One of the senior Army officers at that time, General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi had used the coup as an opportunity and he was able to annex power to become the first military head of State.

But the manner with which Aguiyi Ironsi took over meant that his stay in power wouldn’t last for long. Also, there had been growing unrest among the ranks in military due to some reasons which will be mentioned later. This led to a counter coup six months later which resulted in the death of Aguiyi Ironsi and Adekunle Fajuyi who was hosting the Military Head at his residence in Ibadan.

The coup plotters went on to elect Lt Colonel Yakubu Gowon as the new head of State. Prior to this coup, many of the high ranking officials in the military felt that the first coup had been carried out to favour the Igbo people. Particularly, due to the fact that many of the leaders and military officers murdered during that coup were northerners. Coincidentally, many Igbo Majors were promoted soon after the coup which furthered confirmed these speculations.

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This led to the counter coup led by Muritala Muhammad. After this coup, Lt Colonel Yakubu Gowon was sworn in to power. As a way of forestalling any coup, he quickly established Supreme Military Council which was to manage affairs of the country.

Many of the prominent military men were a part of this council however; his stay in power didn’t last up to a year as another coup although bloodless led to his ouster.

This coup was also masterminded by Muritala Muhammed and he thereafter assumed power. These quick successions of coup would later serve as the foundation for the civil war

Gowon was succeeded by Muritala Mohammed but his administration was also shortlived and in February 1976, General Muritala Mohammed was assassinated by Buka Suka Dimka in a violent coup attempt.

The coup plotters were later arrested and duly executed. Altogether 38 soldiers and 1 civilian were executed by firing squad as a result of their involvement in this coup.

One of the survivors of the coup, Olusegun Obasanjo, succeeded Muritala Mohammed and he promptly set up civilian government and the state of affairs was maintained until 1983. So there was a break from military rule between 1976 and 1983.

Obasanjo had successfully handed over to Alhaji Shehu Shagari in 1979 but he was overthrown in the 31 st December 1983 by the General Muhammad Buhari. Shehu Shagari wasn’t killed but this coup led to the death of a loyal officer to the government in the person of Brigadier Ibrahim Bako.

However, the Buhari Government was in power for just 20 months as Major General Ibrahim Babangida would later stage a coup on the 27th of August 1985 leading to the ouster of the Buhari-led Government.

After this coup, the Military Government maintained its place over the next decade but this rule was not without some drama.

There were several failed coups. The first one was in 1986, just a year after Ibrahim Babangida was sworn into power, Major General Mamman Vatsa had led a coup to overthrow the government of President Babangida but this coup failed. This led to the execution of Mamman Vatsa and 10 other military officers that same year.

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In 1990, another coup was staged to unseat the Military Head. This coup was led by Major General Gideon Orkah but it failed again. There were 9 casualties as a result of this attempt. Subsequently, 69 soldiers of different ranks were accused of treason and were subsequently executed by firing squad.

After these failed coups, there was an alleged coup attempt but it seemed the government of Babangida at this point had decided to concede to the pressure of handover. This led to June 12 elections in 1993 but the result of this election was cancelled.

Nonetheless, Ibrahim Babangida handed over to a civilian government which was headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan on the 26th of August, 1993.

But on the 17th of November, 1993, General Sani Abacha staged a coup that overthrew the Ernest Shonekan administration.

Interestingly, the Ernest Shonekan led administration had been set up as an interim government due to pressures on the Babangida led administration from both international and local quarters.

There was a coup attempt during the Abacha led administration in 1995 and this led to the arrest and imprisonment of the likes of General Obasanjo, Major General Shehu Musa Yaradua and some other prominent soldiers.

Also, some of the civilians that spoke against these imprisonments were also imprisoned; prominent among them was Beko Ransome-Kuti

Finally in 1998, General Sani Abacha died in power as a result of a heart attack and this eventually signalled the end of military rule. Nigeria held a successful democratic election in 1999 which led to the election of Olusegun Obasanjo as the President on the 29th of May 1999.

The following is a list of the military presidents that ruled Nigeria in the past.

  • Major General J.T.U.  Aguiyi-Ironsi (January 16, 1966 – July 29, 1966)
  • General Yakubu Gowon (August 2, 1966 – July 29, 1975)
  • General Murtala Mohammed (July 29, 1975 – February 13, 1976)
  • General Olusegun Obasanjo (February 14, 1976 – September 30, 1979)
  • Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (December 31, 1983 – August 27, 1985)
  • General Ibrahim Babangida (August 27, 1985 – August 26, 1993)
  • General Sani Abacha (November 16, 1993 – June 8, 1998)
  • General Abdulsalami Abubakar (June 9, 1998 – May 29, 1999)

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