The 1966 Coups, Civil War, and Gowon's Government
By the time a disparate group of junior officers struck first in January 1966, the officers were still politically naive and had yet to master the art of coup planning and execution. This inexperience partly explains why Major Kaduna Nzeogwu and others who masterminded the coup, failed to take over state power. Instead, Major General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, commander in chief of the army, became Nigeria's first military ruler. Some of the remote causes of the coup included the use of soldiers to quell unrest, such as the riots among the Tiv people of the lower northern region, and calls on the military to supervise the 1964 elections. Whereas the latter involvement gave the soldiers a feeling of political efficacy, the beginnings of what came to be known as the "federal character" principle that sought to give each area some parity of representation, gave military personnel a sense of being sectional representatives. The coup of January 1966 was seen by many northerners as an attempt by the Igbo people of the east to dominate the federation. A successful countercoup six months later led by northern soldiers demonstrated the degree to which soldiers had become politicians in uniform.
The immediate reasons for the first-coup, however, concerned the nationwide disillusionment with the corrupt and selfish politicians, as well as with their inability to maintain law and order and guarantee the safety of lives and property. During the initial stages, Nzeogwu and his collaborators were hailed as national heroes. But the pattern of killings in the coup gave it a partisan appearance: killed were the prime minister, a northerner, the premier of the Northern Region, and the highest ranking northern army officers; only one Igbo officer lost his life. Also killed was the premier of the Western Region who was closely allied with the NPC.
General Ironsi, an Igbo, emerged as the head of state. In his policies and actions, Ironsi did little to allay the fears of Igbo domination. He failed to place the coup plotters on trial as northern leaders demanded, and he appointed Igbos to sensitive governmental positions. Against all advice, Ironsi promulgated Decree Number 34 of 1966, which abrogated the federal system of government and substituted a unitary system; he argued that the military could only govern in this way. Given the already charged atmosphere, this action reinforced northern fears. As the north was less developed than the south, a unitary system could easily lead to southerners "taking over control of everything," as a northern spokesperson put it. It was at the height of northern opposition to unitarism that the countercoup of July 1966 took place. Most top-ranking Igbo officers, including Ironsi, lost their lives; the "status quo" of northern dominance was restored.
Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Yakubu Gowon, a Christian from the middle belt, became the head of state after the coup. His first act was to reinstate the federal system, along with the four regions and their allotted functions. But relations between the federal government and the Eastern Region, led by military governor Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, were very strained. In addition to the elimination of many Igbo officers during the July coup, a massive pogrom against Igbos occurred in the Northern Region. In September Colonel Gowon summoned an ad hoc constitutional conference to deliberate on the country's political future. Most regional delegates to the conference, with the exception of those from the midwest, recommended a confederal system to replace the federal system. The delegates from the Eastern Region insisted that any region wishing to secede from the federation should be allowed to do so. The conference was ended abruptly by increased killings of Igbos in the north and the heightening of tensions between the federal government and the Eastern Region. A summit of military leaders at Aburi, Ghana, in January 1967 attempted to resolve the disagreements and recommended the establishment of a base confederation of regions. The Aburi Agreement became a source of contention, however.
In anticipation of eastern secession, Gowon moved quickly to weaken the support base of the region by decreeing the creation of twelve new states to replace the four regions. Six of these states contained minority groups that had demanded state creation since the 1950s. Gowon rightly calculated that the eastern minorities would not actively support the Igbos, given the prospect of having their own states if the secession effort were defeated. Many of the federal troops who fought the civil war, known as the Biafran War, to bring the Eastern Region back to the federation, were members of minority groups.
The war lasted thirty months and ended in January 1970. In accepting Biafra' unconditional cease-fire, Gowon declared that there would be no victor and no vanquished. In this spirit, the years afterward were declared to be a period of rehabilitation, reconstruction, and reconciliation. The oil-price boom, which began as a result of the high price of crude oil (the country's major revenue earner) in the world market in 1973, increased the federal government's ability to undertake these tasks.
The postwar Gowon government issued a nine-point transition program that was to culminate in the handing over of power to a civilian government on October 1, 1976. The agenda of the transition included the reorganization of the armed forces, the completion of the establishment of the twelve states announced in 1967, a census, a new constitution, and elections.
Gowon initiated several nation-building policies, the most notable of which was the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), a community service institution that required one year of service by each Nigerian immediately after graduation from university or other institution of higher learning. Each member of the corps had to serve in a state other than his or her home state. More than 1 million graduates had served in this program by 1990.
The Gowon years also saw the oil boom and a buoyant economy. The federal government was encouraged to take on some responsibilities formally allocated to the states, especially in the area of education. It embarked on major infrastructural projects to transfer control of the economy from foreigners to Nigerians. The Nigerian Entreprises Promotion decree of 1972, which was expanded in 1977, stipulated that only Nigerians could participate in certain categories of business. In those in which foreign involvement was permitted, controlling shares had to be owned by Nigerians.
The structure of government under Gowon was basically unitarian. At the apex of government was the all-military Supreme Military Council (SMC), which was the lawmaking body for the entire federation. Its decrees could not be challenged in any law court. Most members of the SMC under Gowon were state governors. There was also a Federal Executive Council composed of military and civilian commissioners. The states also had commissioners appointed by the governor. The states were practically reduced to administrative units of the federal government, which in several domains made uniform laws for the country. This basic structure of military federalism has, with amendments, remained the same during all military governments in the country.
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