Rumored, Attempted and Successful Coups

by Sabella Ogbobode Abidde

Was this a ruse to get at the opposition; or there indeed was some substance to the coup rumor that swept the nation last week? Whether it was a hoax or the real-deal does not surprise me, or surprise most keen observers of the Nigerian political scene. Strange things do happen in Nigeria; and in fact, stranger things have happened in our land before. And whether it was a coup or a security breach, well, it doesn’t matter; what matters is that one or both was bound to happen sooner or later considering recent events in Abuja and Lagos. Our politicians and political leaders have been courting disaster since the day they arrived Abuja.

Rumored coups, attempted coups, or successful coups have become a staple of Nigeria’s culture and political history. The first coups in Nigeria happened in 1966. And since then, there have been some two-dozen or so rumored coups, attempted coups and successful coups. Constitutional means is the preferred method of changing government; in Nigeria and indeed in most of Africa however, the coups d’etat were much more preferred until very recently. Even so, coups can never be ruled out as was evident in the recent Sao Tome and Principe affair.

The first coup in Africa was led General Neguib, Colonel Abdel Nasser and Colonel Anwar Sadat in Egypt, in 1952. The first in West Africa was in Togo in 1963. Military coups d’etat are not limited to Africa as there has been coups – whether successful or not – in Spain, Greece, Portugal, the defunct Soviet Union and a host of Latin American and Asian countries. Rumored coups, attempted coups and successful coups are almost non-existent in Southern Africa and in the industrialized nations of the West.

Military Coup d’etat, as Harvey Kebschull noted, is a speedily executed extralegal takeover of government by a conspiratorial group, usually consisting of military officers who use force or the threat of force to remove the government and assume power for itself. Samuel Huntington provided three classifications of coups: Break-through Coups; Veto Coups; and Guardian coups. Mike Hough and Pieter Esterhuysen provided three classifications of military regimes when coups are successful: Indirect Rule Regimes; Dual Rule Regimes; and Direct Military Regimes.

There are several explanations for coups. For instance, Morris Janowitz offered the Corporatist interpretations; while Samuel Huntington proffered the Structuralist view (ineffectual or lack of viable democratic institutions). Samuel Finer on the other hand attempted to mesh both the corporatist and structuralist views. Over all coups happen because of a mix of political, economic, ethnic, cultural, military and personal factors. Therefore, except in very few cases, it is difficult to pinpoint why certain conspiratorial groups prefer this extralegal and extrajudicial method of gaining control of state apparatus.

Successful coupists reap the positive reward of their “risky business” by assuming the mantle of leadership; while those who fail are charged with treason. The penalty for failed coups is generally very severe. It can lead to lose of career, government imposed or self-imposed exile, long-term imprisonment, or even death.

Coups may fail because of a combination of reason: (1) the intelligence services of the government may detect the coup in its infancy; (2) there may be a “rat” within the group; (3) a friendly foreign intelligence service may detect the coup in its planning stage and inform the targeted government; (4) the officers that were not co-opted may resist the coups and repel the “invading forces”; (5) one of the vital units may not reach its intended destination; (6) loyal government troop may repel the coupists; (7) and in rare cases, the general public or the international community may protest the coup, condemn the coupist and refuse to recognize the “new government” thereby forcing the renegade soldiers to return to the barracks. For instance the coup in Sao Tome and Principe “failed” because of Nigeria and the international community’s objection to the overthrow of the incumbent government.

Over the years, some very brilliant officers have lost their lives, or had their career cut-short because of their perceived or actual participation in failed coups. Many Nigerians still mourn the tragic lose of General Mamman Vatsa and Colonel Michael A. Iyorshe (considered to be two of the finest men the Nigerian military ever produced). At the opposite end are General Murtala Mohammed and Colonel Ibrahim Adetunji Taiwo. Both officers lost their lives in an attempted coup against their government on February 13, 1976. Colonel Taiwo was the eternally brilliant and efficient governor of Kwara State.

In all cases, military coups d’etat can never be justified not only because the broadcasted reasons for staging such coups are usually bogus and anomalous; but also because military governments usually end up exacerbating the socio-political and economic conditions of the country. In Nigeria for instance, successive military governments plundered the nation’s resources and goodwill, and also plunged the country into an abyss of larceny and corruption, sectionalism, and political ruthlessness to the point where all the gains made in terms of democracy and liberalization either vanish or are stunted.

Does political instability cause military coups; or do coups bring about political instability? I am not going to make correlations here, and neither will I attempt to make causal arguments. Still, it is safe to safe that in situations where you have incessant rumored coups, attempted coups and successful coups – that such environments engenders lost of faith in the political, economic and social system of the country which in turn discourages investments (especially Foreign Direct Investments).

No matter the yardstick one may use to measure development – there is one incontrovertible truth: Nigeria is vastly underdeveloped. Even in terms of human development – we are also immeasurably underdeveloped.

There are several reasons for our underdevelopment of which this article will only touch a few: successive corrupt governments; illiterate citizenry most of whom have their lives bounded and blinded by superstitions and enslaving religious believes; lack of viable political culture and democratic institutions; third-rate leadership at all levels of government; failed educational and economic policies; the twin-negatives of coups and violent ethnic conflicts; and the lingering effects of colonialism, neocolonialism and the imperialistic policies of Western nations. Although as a nation-state, we have had time to correct some of the imbalances brought about these isms; unfortunately, we moan and groan and complain and cry and beg for aids and handouts and crumbs even as we steadily steal and mismanage our resources.

Of all the aforementioned contributory factors – third-rate leadership, violent ethnic conflicts and military coups are especially detrimental to the well-being of the society because these phenomenons are the tripartite-negatives responsible for our political instability which in the long run causes capital flight, mass migration, general apathy and discontinuity in governance all which inhibits economic growth and prosperity.

Since the end of the Cold War, military coups d’etat have become less frequent. There seems to be a global awareness and affinity for democracy and liberalization of both the economic and political system. Even so, Nigeria, and indeed Africa is a long way from a time when extra-legal means of government changeover will become a thing of the past. Nigeria especially is a long way from getting to a period of coups-free-utopian-zone because Nigeria is still enveloped by poor and ineffectual political institutions, economic shortfalls, and bad public policy formulation and implementation.

What is the situation in Nigeria today? Well, it is instructive to conclude with Julius Ihonvbere, who posited in an article he penned for The Journal of Modern African Studies in December 1991:

“…military intervention in Nigeria has been part of the on-going class struggle…virtually all the successful and attempted counter-coups have taken place during periods of mass disaffection and action against the state, characterized by demonstration, strikes, and riots, as well as by alienation and intense competition for power…”

Nigeria has not changed since the Days of Umaru Diko and Shehu Shagari. If anything…things are getting worse with the passage of each day. Any wonder then that there was a security breach/coup rumor?
Norman, Oklahoma 73072
April 3, 2004

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Anonymous February 27, 2018 - 6:16 am

could you please send me the impact of modernization by harvey kebschull?
if you have here is my gmail account

Sabella Abidde September 27, 2005 - 11:37 am

Send your request to my email address ( or post your email address and I will send you academic materials — including references on military coups in Africa. To make my job easier: what is the question you are trying to answer or the puzzle you are trying to solve. There are several dimensions to coups so I need to know what you are working on. Good luck!

Anonymous September 27, 2005 - 11:27 am

i rated a 4 because i am doing a report on milirary coups in africa and this is the first site that i have found any useful info. This project is due thursday so if u can tell me anywhere else to get useful info on military coups/ revolutions in africa then please help!!

Anonymous May 12, 2005 - 12:25 pm

eloquancy and familiarity with the nigerian military relations,history and culture which made me to consider the paper original,sincere&objectve!


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