from Africa in Transition

The Fiftieth Anniversary of Nigeria’s First Military Coup

January 15, 2016

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

It is almost a cliché that history determines the options available to a society. But, the 1966 string of bloody military coups, starting with that of January 15 by “junior officers” (mostly majors) in Nigeria still effects the country today. It was against a civilian, ostensibly democratic government widely regarded as corrupt. There were counter-coups and massacres of Christian Igbos in the Muslim north. Igbo efforts to secede from Nigeria and establish an independent state, Biafra, led to the 1967-70 civil war in which it is estimated that at least one million died, mostly from starvation and disease, before Biafra was defeated.

The civil war was then followed by a generation of increasingly authoritarian and corrupt military governments until the restoration of civilian, ostensibly democratic, government in 1999. But, the coups and the civil war continue to shape Nigeria. Much scar tissue from the 1966-1999 era remains, and few Nigerians can write dispassionately about the civil war.

One who does is Nigerian military historian Max Siollun. His books on Nigerian political culture, coups, and oil provide a deep, sophisticated analysis. On the fiftieth anniversary of the first coup, he has published on the BBC website a short distillation for a general audience on the continuing influence of the coups and resulting civil war: it is “what the general reader needs to know” about how those episodes continue to shape Nigeria. It may be brief, but Siollun’s piece is deep. This blog post can only urge those who love Nigeria and Africa to take a look at it.

Siollun in a few, succinct paragraphs lays out the story of the coups, the civil war, and the subsequent military governments. He then turns to the lasting consequences: alienation of many Igbos, oil wealth and resulting corruption and their political and economic deformation of Nigerian life, winner-take-all politics, sclerotic political leadership, and fear of future coups, which led to the run-down of the Nigerian military. The latter contributed to the recent successes of Boko Haram.

January 15 is a sobering anniversary.