The Fall of the First Republic

In popular discourse, Nigeria’s First Republic is often portrayed as an untarnished Eden; the archetype of an ethical, developmental, democratic and stable polity. How accurate is this picture?

Nigeria's founding fathers, and the leading personlities of the First Republic. From Left to Right: Obafemi Awolowo (Leader of the opposition); Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (Federal Prime Minister); Ahmadu Bello (Premier of the Northern Region); Nnamdi Azikiwe (President of the Federation).
Other leading personalities that dominated the politics of the First Republic. Left: Samuel Ladoke Akintola (Premier of the Western Region and the political rival of Awolowo); Michael Okpara (Premier of the Eastern Region); Alhaji Dauda Adegbenro (Became leader of Awolowo's party in 1963 after Awolowo went to jail).

2016 invited reflections on a seminal moment in Nigerian history. The year marked 50 years since the violent collapse of the ‘First Republic’ – Nigeria’s first democratic polity[1].

The First Republic lasted from the 1st of October 1960[2], when Nigeria became independent, to the 15th of January 1966, when a section of the army mutinied, abducted and killed the federal Prime Minister, Finance Minister and several other senior political office holders and military officers, in an attempted coup d’état – or “military revolution”[3], as the mutineers termed their action. 
Despite its short life and bloody demise, a warm afterglow still bathes our reflections of that turbulent polity five decades after it passed into history.

Illustrating the general tendency to idealise the First Republic and its politics, in Pathway to a New Nigeria, the electoral manifesto for his failed 2011 presidential bid, Nuhu Ribadu states that our “founding fathers … laid the foundations for a united Nigeria … [a]nd they tried to nurture a fledgling democracy” only to see “[t]heir aspirations … abruptly terminated in January 1966”[4].

At least two factors explain Nigerians’ rose-tinted view of the First Republic.

The first is the fact that it was led by the nation’s “founding fathers”[5] – individuals whom Nigerians hold in high esteem. Inevitably their stardust rubs off on the republic they led. With contemporary Nigerian politics mired in corruption and sleaze, it is not surprising many Nigerians seek solace in the ‘good old days’ by re-imagining the First Republic as an untarnished Eden led by saint-leaders.

The second stems from our other worldly perception of pre-Civil War Nigeria. Christopher Clark, in his captivating account of the origins of world war one[6], poignantly observes how the “effete rituals and gaudy uniforms” of the men of pre-world war one Europe has imbued present-day recollections of their era with “a kind of period charm”, seemingly signalling “that the protagonists were people from another, vanished world”. Viewed through this lens, he notes, it’s easy to miss the “raw modernity” of the events of 1914. His description of the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne – the tragedy which sparked WW1 – is striking for the parallel it evokes with contemporary terrorist operations:

[The assassination] began with a cavalcade of automobiles and a squad of suicide bombers: the young men who gathered in Sarajevo with bombs on 28 June 1914 had been told by their handlers to take their own lives after carrying out their mission... Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organisation with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge: extra-territorial, secretive, scattered in cells across political borders, its links to any sovereign government were oblique[7].

A similar phenomenon filters how Nigerians reflect on the first half-decade of independence. Much like the “effete rituals and gaudy uniforms” of the men of 19th century Europe, the elegant, black and white images through which we know our founding fathers, similarly exerts a “distancing effect” on our collective memory of their period, eliding from view the continuities between their world and our time.

Popular recollections side, there is a broad consensus within the scholarly literature that the First Republic was a structurally weak and crisis ridden polity led by ethno-regional champions who failed to rise to the historic responsibilities of nation-building[8].

This essay is divided into two parts. In the first, I analyse the four main structural weaknesses which formed the background conditions for the political crises of the First Republic. In the second part, I turn my attention to the five political crises which progressively eroded its legitimacy and brought down that polity.

Structural Weaknesses

The First Republic was born on the 1st of October 1960. It collapsed, just over five years later, on the 15th of January 1966. Four structural weaknesses made it prone to instability.

Ethnically based Federal Regions, with uneven size and power

The first structural weakness which primed the First Republic for political crisis was its ethnically based federal regions and the asymmetry in size and power between them. Upon independence, Nigeria was composed of three federating regions: Northern, Eastern and Western regions.

(In 1963 a new region – the Mid-West – was carved out of the West following a crisis in that region, but more on that in the second section).

These three regions were largely autonomous from the federal centre, and were constitutionally very powerful[9]. Each of the regions was dominated by one of the country’s three largest ethnic groups: Hausa-Fulani in the North, Igbo in the East and Yoruba in the West. This tripodal ethno-federal arrangement presided over by the dominant ethnic groups placed minorities at a considerable disadvantage in the competition for jobs and resources at the regional level[10]It also allowed the elites of the three largest ethnic groups to monopolise access to federal patronage, which they leveraged for political support. As Sklar[11], an historian of Nigeria's political parties during this period, puts it:

In their respective regions, the leaders of these dominant nationality groups controlled the means of access to wealth and power… [T]hey tended to equate their private interests with the objective interests of their nationality groups; conversely, they exploited the sentiments of their groups to promote their private interests.

Of the three regions, the North was much larger demographically and geographically (See Fig. 1 & Chart 1). Consequently, it was allocated more than half the seats in the federal parliament (See Chart 2). This meant that a party could potentially govern the country by winning votes from the North alone. This had the double effect of reinforcing the regional outlook of the Hausa-Fulani elites and heightening the fear of northern hegemony amongst Yoruba and Igbo elites. 

Figure 1: Nigeria's three federal regions, with the federal capital of Lagos. The figures inserted are their populations based on the 1952-53 census. SOURCE: Map: Wikipedia; Population[12]: Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 133. Note: The figure for the Western region includes Lagos’ population which was 300,000. TOTAL POPULATION: 30,400,000.

The fact that the country’s federal regions broadly coincided with – and reinforced – the nation’s ethnic cleavages, the exclusion of minorities from each region’s political and economic structures, and the structural tensions which resulted from the Northern region being large enough to dominate its two southern counterparts in parliament, set the scene for the political conflicts which consumed the First Republic.

Ethno-Regional Political Parties

The second structural weakness which afflicted the First Republic was the emotive association between political party and ethno-regional identity. This meant politics largely “revolved around ethnic-based regional…parties”[13]

Reflecting the tripodal ethnic balance, three parties bestrode the political scene like titans and thus shaped the destiny of the First Republic: Northern People’s Congress (NPC), the Action Group (AG), and the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC).

All three parties originally emerged out of ethno-cultural associations[14]:
  • ·         NPC from Jam’iyar Mutanen Arewa (Association of Peoples of the North)
  • ·         AG from Egbe omo Oduduwa (Society for the Descendants of Oduduwa. In Yoruba folklore Oduduwa is described as the ancestral progenitor of the Yoruba people)
  • ·         NCNC from the Igbo State Union
As a result, these three parties and their leaders reflected, shaped, and intensified the nation’s ethno-regional cleavages.

The three dominant parties

The Northern People’s Congress (NPC) was a “Hausa-Fulani dominated party” which held sway in the North[15]. Of the three parties, it was the most entrenched in its regional identity. Nothing illustrates this more than its name, and the fact that in the 1959 eve of independence general election it did not field a single candidate in the other regions – hence, as Table 1 below shows, all its seats were won in its home region.

The NPC’s foundational aim was to protect the conservative social hierarchy of the North from the “winds of radical change sweeping up from the south”[16]The party chairman, who was also the Regional Premier (Premiers were the political leaders of the Regions, analogous to Governors today), was Ahmadu Bello, a titled prince from the region’s aristocracy.

Having won the largest number of seats in the ’59 elections, the party gained the privilege of forming Nigeria’s first post-independence government. However, as it fell just short of winning the majority needed to govern alone (i.e. 157 seats), it had to form a coalition with one of the two main southern parties. Illustrative of the constitutional power of the Regions, Ahmadu Bello, who should have been Prime Minister – being NPC’s party leader – instead chose to remain as Regional Premier, instead preferring to send his deputy, Tafawa Balewa, to Lagos to lead the federal government[17]. This would be analogous to a politician today passing up the opportunity to become President, choosing instead to remain a state Governor.

134 (43%)
8 [18]
89 (29%)
73 (23%)
16 (5%)
Table 1: The parliament had 312 seats and these show the distribution of seats won by the major parties after the 1959 General Elections. The election determined “which parties were to control the federal government” after independence. Source: Osaghae (1998; p. 32 & 33).

The National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) was the southern party which entered into coalition with the NPC as a junior partner in government. It was a decision for which it was richly rewarded. “Party stalwarts got plum ministerial and ambassadorial posts”[19]. The Presidency[20] (then a largely ceremonial role) for example, which went to Nnamdi Azikiwe[21], one of the party’s founders, and the Finance ministry went to Festus Okotie-Eboh, the party’s national treasurer[22]

The NCNC, as its name indicates, originally hoped to project a nationalist, pan-Nigerian image, but the ethnic regionalism which the country’s federal structure encouraged gradually shrivelled the party’s political horizons and it increasingly became the “voice of Igbo nationalism”[23]Like the NPC, the party’s chairman, Michael Okpara, chose to remain as Regional Premier after the ‘59 election rather than take up a seat in the federal cabinet. But unlike the NPC, the NCNC campaigned in the other two regions during the election; it won seats in the West and – in alliance with the Aminu Kano-led Northern Elements Progressive Union – won seats in the North as well.

The Action Group (AG) is the last party which completes our tripartite list. The AG, like its southern counterpart, the NCNC, initially aspired to be more than a regional party. It’s advertised political ideology was “democratic socialism”[24] which it hoped would gain it cross-regional support. However, trapped by the nature of the political terrain, party elites soon concluded that “the only certain avenue to power was a regional political party”[25]. Consequently, the AG similarly shrank into its ethnic enclave and never managed to shake off its image as a platform “to safeguard Yoruba interests”[26].

Like the NCNC in ‘59, it also campaigned outside its region and won seats through alliances with ethnic minority parties[27]: United Middle-Belt Congress (UMBC) in the North and Dynamic party in the East.

Having won the smallest share of seats among the three major parties, and having similarly performed the poorest in its region (it only won 53% of the seats in the Western Region. NPC won 77% of Northern seats and NCNC won 79% of Eastern seats), the AG thus went into opposition upon independence. Awolowo, the party chairman, became the official leader of the opposition in the federal parliament. He was the only party chairman who “opted to go to the [federal] centre” and leave his deputy, Ladoke Akintola, to become Regional Premier. This decision however was to cost Awolowo as it left him “particularly vulnerable”[28] to a leadership challenge from his deputy.

The decision of both southern parties to step out of their ethnic enclaves to field candidates across the federation in 1959 reflected their aspirations that the nation would be an open constituency for all parties to compete in. It was however also a reflection of political reality. Because of the sharp disparity in parliamentary seat allocation, “only the NPC could dominate the federation from its regional base alone”[29]. An advantage neither of the other two parties enjoyed. Consequently, even as the nature of the First Republic’s political culture strongly anchored the AG and the NCNC to their ethnic base, the asymmetry of parliamentary power in the republic necessarily forced them to reach out to minorities beyond their regions.

The political alignment which formed after the 1959 election

It can be argued that the political constellation which emerged after the 1959 election was the most potent of the young republic’s structural weaknesses. It had huge impacts on the stability of the soon to be independent nation. The North-South governing coalition between the NPC and the NCNC, variously described as “unnatural”[30], a coalition of “strange bedfellows”[31], only accentuated the republic’s structural imbalances.

On immediate observations, it was certainly a partnership of unequals – with the NPC being by far the more powerful of the two governing parties. This meant the NCNC was always acutely sensitive to the tenuousness of its share of power. Further aggravating the latent tension between the governing duo was the fact that politicians from either party viewed members from the other side with suspicion, condescension, and even hostility. This was a microcosm of the North-South cleavage within wider the Nigerian society just after independence whereby Yorubas and Igbos “sincerely saw the North as feudal and backward, a brake upon nationalist progress”, and the Hausa-Fulanis “sincerely perceived the prospect of Southern domination as a threat to [their] … cultural values”[32]The deep cultural gulf between the two parties therefore led to a governing coalition that was wracked by “tension and mistrust”[33], such that when multiple crises came the governing alliance repeatedly broke down under the strains.

Akin Alao, a professor of History at Obafemi Awolowo University, notes that the political culture of the First Republic was predicated on a “zero-sum game”, compounded by a “winner-take-all” mentality[34].  Thus, another facet of the structural tension caused by the post-1959 political alignment is the misfortune which befell the AG in opposition.

Defeat in the election left the AG “stranded in opposition…without a firm base of power resources”[35]; by extension, it also meant that Yoruba elites lost their bargaining power over the distribution of federal patronage to their region. To illustrate this point: Apparently, part of the “bargain” which the NCNC secured upon joining government was “enhanced entry and promotion for Easterners in the public service and [the] armed forces”[36]‘Relegation’ to the status of opposition and loss of access to patronage would eventually split the AG into two camps. The disintegration of the AG into factions was the first crisis which shook the republic early in its life – accentuating all its structural tensions, as we will see in the second section.

The fear of ethnic domination

The last, and deepest of the structural weaknesses, was the fear of ethnic domination which pervaded the politics of the First Republic. The Yorubas and Igbos in the two southern regions feared that the Hausa-Fulanis would use the North’s demographic preponderance to perpetuate northern hegemony and monopolise federal resources for their region; Hausa-Fulanis in turn feared that in an open contest, the Yorubas and Igbos, being the more educated[37], would dominate the political and economic structures of the federation.

Similarly, within the south the powerful undercurrent of tribalism placed the Yoruba and Igbo elites at logger heads. And within the three regions, minority ethnic groups lived under the suffocating embrace of the three dominant groups.

Thus, upon independence in 1960, Nigeria had a tense, fractured and conflictual socio-political landscape which resembled what Crawford Young has characterised as a “three-player ethnic game”[38]This ethnically charged political competition hindered national unity and progress. As Falola and Oyebade eloquently put it:

Party politics in [the First Republic], thus, necessarily focused on achieving narrow regional and ethnic political security, and not national interest. In the prevailing atmosphere of mutual suspicion and antagonism, regional politics inevitably led to destructive power struggles among the dominant ethnic parties to gain control of federal power for their respective regions. Given this political dynamic, Nigeria drifted from one crisis to another, compromising national stability, unity and development[39].

Political Crises

I now turn to the five crises which gradually eroded the foundations of the First Republic, leading to its fall.

The disintegration of the AG, 1962-63

The collapse of the AG’s political power between 1962 and 1963 produced far-reaching effects. The crisis that engulfed the party stemmed from its “staggering defeat”[40] in 1959. It had been ‘relegated’ to the opposition. The NCNC had made impressive inroads into its regional heartland, securing for itself 21 seats in the AG’s political turf (see Table 1) by exploiting minority discontent within the Western Region[41]Most damagingly for Awolowo’s leadership of the party, leading Yoruba personalities interpreted the AG’s opposition role as a defeat for the entire ethnic group[42].

Under the crushing weight of disappointment, it didn’t take long for the party to fracture. Throughout 1960 and 1961, a simmering tension developed between Awolowo and his deputy, Akintola, who was also the Premier of the Western Region.

The first source of tension was over the ideological orientation of the party. Defeat in the election had led Awolowo to conclude that the AG could revive its fortunes and broaden its support base by sharpening its socialist rhetoric, radicalising its message and stepping up attacks on social inequalities. Awolowo reasoned that such an ideologically radical posture would enable the party to break out of its regional box and draw cross-ethnic support from workers and the underprivileged across the country. This placed him at odds with Akintola and many of the party elites who were regionalist in outlook and status-quo oriented. It also placed him at odds with the “Yoruba businessmen and merchants at the party’s financial core” who worried that Awolowo wanted to take the AG down the route to communism[43].

Disputes over party strategy further placed Awolowo and Akintola at loggerheads. Awolowo and his faction argued that only a twin strategy of confronting the NPC in parliament, and of luring the NCNC into a “progressive coalition”, could act as a brake on Northern power and therefore secure for Yoruba elites a place at the federal table[44]Akintola and his faction, on the other hand, countered that moderation toward the NPC – being the dominant party in government – was the best strategy for Yorubas to gain access to the “privileges and benefits in the federation” [45].

Aggravating the emerging party split was the clash over regional and party control between Awolowo who kept a firm hand in the Western Region to keep his deputy from “wrest[ing] control of the party”[46], and Akintola who wished to strike out on his own and emerge from under the shadow of his party boss. Akintola was said to have bitterly complained about Awolowo’s “insatiable desire to run the government of which I am head from outside”[47].

In February 1962, the festering tension finally erupted at the party congress as Awolowo moved to reassert his dominance in the AG. He orchestrated a series of motions which led to “critical changes” in the running of the party. For example, the party constitution was amended to weaken the Regional Premier’s (Akintola) role, and strengthen the party President’s (Awolowo) role in the “Federal Executive Committee” (FEC)[48] – the party’s key decision-making body. In addition, Awolowo’s allies “scored a clean sweep of the elections for major party offices”[49].

As Akintola licked his wounds, having emerged from the party congress with his pride and power dented, Awolowo moved in for the kill. The opportunity seemed ripe to remove his weakened rival from office. In May, just three months after the party congress, he incited the party into deposing Akintola as Premier and party deputy[50]Unsurprisingly Akintola refused to go down quietly. He challenged the constitutionality of his removal in court, “vowing a fight to the finish”[51].

By now the disintegrating AG, and the deepening split in Yoruba elite cohesion, was clearly becoming a “threat to peace and order in the West” [52]. Violent riots erupted throughout the region as the power struggle between the two men and their factions spilled out into the streets. The NPC and NCNC watched the deepening fragmentation of their Western rival with cautious optimism. They believed that the intra-party conflict would open up the West, allowing them to extend their influence into the region. Ahmadu Bello, the NPC party chairman and Premier of the North went as far as issuing a public statement of support for the embattled Akintola[53].

The struggle between the two factions reached its climax on the 25th of May when the Awolowo faction attempted to vote in a new Regional Premier, Alhaji Adegbenro, in the regional parliament. The parliamentary procedure descended into physical violence. Calculating that in any vote they would lose as they were in the minority, parliamentarians from the Akintola faction, supported by NCNC members of the Western regional assembly, resorted to violent disruption to block Adegbenro from being sworn in. John Mackintosh, a British political scientist, then lecturing at the University of Ibadan, described the scene in parliament:

The House of Assembly met at 9 a.m. and after prayers, as Chief Odebiyi rose to move the first motion, Mr E. O. Oke, a supporter of Chief Akintola, jumped on the table shouting ‘There is fire on the mountain’. He proceeded to fling chairs about the chamber. Mr E. Ebubedike, also a supporter of Chief Akintola, seized the mace, attempted to club the speaker with it but missed and broke the mace on the table. The supporters of Alhaji Adegbenro sat quiet as they had been instructed to do, with the exception of one member who was hit with a chair and retaliated. Mr Akinyemi (NCNC) and Messrs Adigun and Adeniya (pro-Akintola) continued to throw chairs, the opposition joined in and there was such disorder that the Nigerian police released tear gas and cleared the House[54].

The Prime Minister, Sir Tafawa Balewa, gave an even more graphic account of events:

The whole House was shattered, every bit of furniture there was broken … some persons were stabbed[55].

Twice the Awolowo faction tried to convene the Regional Assembly, twice the Akintola faction violently disrupted the session, and twice necessitating the police to clear the Regional parliament with tear gas. The parliamentary brawls finally drew the two governing parties directly into the fray. Lured by the opportunity to destroy the AG and win the West for themselves, the NPC and NCNC wasted no time in capitalising on the chaos. Using their control of the federal government, they imposed a six-month state of emergency in the region on the 29th of May, suspended the AG led regional government, dismissed the Regional Assembly, and installed an Emergency Administrator to rule with sweeping powers[56]Max Siollun, for example, in his seminal book, Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture 1966-1976, describes the imposition of the State of Emergency in the west by the NPC-NCNC-led federal government as “suspiciously prompt”[57]. Similarly, Eghosa Osaghae, in his book, Crippled Giant, a sweeping overview of Nigeria’s history since independence, argues that the parliamentary fracas was merely used as a “pretext” for the federal government’s actions[58].

As the AG reeled from this assault, the two governing parties stepped-up the offensive by instituting a commission of inquiry in June – “the Coker Commission” – to investigate allegations of misuse of public funds in the Western Region[59]. The Commission found Awolowo guilty of embezzling millions in cash and over-draft from government companies and parastatals, and of “trying to build a financial empire through abuse of his official position”[60]Such was the drain on regional funds by Awolowo and AG party stalwarts that by 1962 the Western Region Marketing Board – the wealthiest of the three regional marketing boards – “had to borrow to perform its own routine operations”[61].

While there was “little surprise or shock among AG supporters” at the extent of the fraud uncovered, and while few doubted Awolowo’s pivotal role in the scandal, many however felt that the findings of the Commission were selective and driven by a political agenda[62]. For a start, its complete exoneration of Akintola from any of the financial misdemeanours struck many as absurd as he was the party deputy and Regional Premier while the region’s funds were being siphoned off to fund party activities[63]. Also, most observers felt that had a similar investigation been done over the finances in the other two regions, the same level of abuse of public funds would have been uncovered[64].

With Coker Commission’s revelations inflicting damaging blows on Awolowo and the AG’s prestige, the Emergency Administrator’s restrictions on AG members were gradually relaxed for Akintola’s supporters and that for Awolowo’s tightened[65]. This allowed Akintola to regroup his supporters; setting the stage for his eventual return as Premier[66].

Under the unrelenting pressure, many Awolowo supporters defected to Akintola’s side in a bid to save their political careers[67]. As indications multiplied that Akintola, backed by federal might, would be reinstalled as Regional Premier without a re-election after the Emergency period expired, some Awolowo supporters began secretly plotting the government’s overthrow. The plot however was uncovered by a police informant.

Six decades later, at a workshop on Nigerian history in 1993, the AG Secretary General, Samuel Ikoku, said this of the plot:

We were fed up with the way the Nigerian system, the Nigerian state and the Nigerian government were operating, we were deeply committed to a change of government and we saw that waiting for elections would not produce any solution to the problem... We started preparations for it and the preparations had gone very far and I believe we would have pulled it off. But unfortunately for us, our leader was so kind to the Nigerian police that he had a police informant among his planners and so the police knew every move we were making. And so it was easy to trip us up… So, all I am saying is that, yes, there was an attempt to overthrow the government. Yes, I took part in the attempt. Yes, it failed[68].

In September 1962, the Prime Minister “revealed to a stunned nation” the uncovered plot[69]. In November, Awolowo and the decimated leadership of the AG, now languishing in prison, were charged with “treasonable felony” and “conspiracy to stage a coup d’état”[70]. In December, the NPC-NCNC federal government announced that it would no longer recognise the party as the official opposition[71].

1963 brought no respite for the rapidly collapsing AG. On the 1st of January, to the surprise of few, Akintola was re-installed as Regional Premier without an election. An election would have revived the flagging fortunes of the AG as Alhaji Adgbenro, the party candidate, would almost certainly have won. Akintola’s return was only made possible by his alliance with one of the governing duo – the NCNC. In return, Akintola rewarded his Eastern ally with a “generous share of power in the West”, resulting in the NCNC scooping up numerous regional ministerial portfolios[72]More seriously for the Yorubas, particularly in view of the ethno-regional balance-of-power, Akintola was forced, as part of the bargain, to accept the partition of the West. This would eventually lead to the creation in August of a new region – the Mid-West (see Fig. 2) – for the minorities in the West[73].

Figure 2: Nigeria's four federal regions, with the Mid-West which was created in August 1963. The figures inserted are their populations based on the 1963 census which was published in February 1964. SOURCE: Map: Wikipedia; Population: Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 141. Note: The figure for the Western region does not include Lagos’ population which was 665,000. TOTAL POPULATION including Lagos: 55,665,000.
Though the Mid-West’s creation meant there were now four federal regions, the ethno-regional and political balance, however, remained essentially tripolar as the region quickly fell under the control of the East; an NCNC member, for example, became its Regional Premier. The NCNC had repeatedly tried to break up the Western Region in the past, but had failed to pull it off in parliament when the AG was then strong enough to act as an effective bargainer for Yoruba interests[74]With Akintola’s hold on the West dependent on NCNC backing, however, he had no choice but to accept the partition as a fait accompli.

While the governing duo of the NPC and NCNC presented the partition as a benevolent act to free victimised minorities in the West from Yoruba domination – the act was certainly popular with the Western minorities who voted resoundingly, by over 90%, for the creation of the new Region in a referendum[75] – no one doubted the political undertones which influenced the act. NCNC chieftains knew they were “all but certain to control”[76] the new Mid-Western Region as their party’s penetration of the West in 1959 was made possible by winning minority votes in that area[77]. They also calculated that with their “foothold in the Western regional government”, and with a new region entirely under their control, they could now be able to mount a “formidable challenge to the NPC” at the federal centre[78].

All the regions had their minority troubles. In the East for example, the Ibibios, Efiks and Ijaws, to name but a few, all harboured separatist sentiments against their domineering Igbo overlords[79]. And in the North “escalating political repression” twice plunged the region’s Tiv areas into open rebellion, in 1960 and 1964[80].

After the partition, and with its destruction nearing completion, two events finally finished off the AG as a credible force on the national scene. 

The formal publication of the Coker Commission report in January 1963 gave the NPC-NCNC-led federal government and the Akintola-led Western Regional government the legal cover they needed to confiscate the assets of the AG, and break up its “commercial [and] financial” networks – steps which did “real damage” to the party[81]. And on September 11, Awolowo and his co-conspirators were finally found guilty of the treasonable felony charge and sentenced to 10 years in prison[82]. This effectively wiped out the top echelons of the AG.

The eminent Stanford political scientist, Larry Diamond, in his Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, described the collapse of the AG thus:

The breadth and magnitude of the defeat inflicted upon Chief Awolowo and his AG supporters by the NPC and the NCNC was simply staggering. Not only did the Awolowo Action Group lose the power struggle in the West, it was also…destroyed…as an effective opposition force[83].

The collapse of the AG immediately led to realignments in the political constellation. With his regional rival in jail and his grip over the West consolidated, Akintola shook off his alliance with the NCNC, dismissed their members from the regional cabinet, formed a new party – the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) – and realigned it with the NPC. This was arguably where he had always wanted to be, as close as possible to federal power. He probably calculated that under the nourishing embrace of the dominant party in government, he could rebuild the shattered position of the West and restore the Yorubas to parity in the ethno-regional balance. More fundamentally, the collapse of one pole (the AG) transformed the contest from a tripolar struggle to a bipolar one. With the disappearance of the AG as a national political force, the two governing parties now faced each other in direct and increasingly acrimonious confrontations. Like the breaking of the ground after an earthquake, deep fissures opened between the NPC and the NCNC.

As the dust settled from the crisis, it became manifestly clear that the NPC had reaped the biggest windfall. With a dependent ally in Akintola’s NNDP now in control of the Western Region, the southern dream of an east-west ‘progressive alliance’ against Northern hegemony was shattered. And with 16 independent parliamentarians having earlier in 1961 joined the NPC, their party now had a slim working majority in parliament[84]These developments meant the NCNC effectively lost its leverage over the federal government, and therefore its “extractive capacity”[85] – denting its power and confidence[86].

The Northern Region now stood poised to bring Nigeria under its sole captaincy. John Stuart Mill, in his 1861 Considerations on Representative Government, set out several conditions for a stable federation, one of which was that “there should not be any one State [or Region] so much more powerful than the rest as to be capable of vying in strength with many of them combined. If there be such a one … it will insist on being master of the joint deliberations”[87]

Eastern Regional Premier, Michael Okpara, belatedly recognising that the emerging political balance would be unfavourable to the East, tried to “draw back” from the “total extinction” of the AG[88]. Maitama Sule, then an NPC Federal Minister, however, observing the changes taking place, remarked with breath-taking confidence: “In a very short time, the NPC will rule the whole of Nigeria”[89].

It was against this background that the First Republic’s next crisis played out.

Census Crisis, 1962-64

In May 1962, as the AG crisis was reaching its peak, the nation prepared for its first census as an independent country. The last census, which had been conducted in 1952-53 under the auspices of the British, had been the basis for the distribution of parliamentary seats prior to the 1959 election. Northern power, and the NPC’s dominance, largely resulted from this census. Consequently, when a new census became due in 1962, implications for the ethno-regional balance-of-power inevitably shaped its meaning.

Yoruba and Igbo elites, in particular, viewed the census as an opportunity to change the unfavourable situation by reducing the demographic gap between the North and the South. They reasoned that if the population count could be turned in favour of the South, power relations between the three regions would equalize and the “basis of Northern domination would be permanently removed”[90]The census would also determine the revenue allocation formula going forward, and the quota for recruitment into state structures, such as the Armed Forces and the Federal Civil Service. Given such stakes, it wasn’t surprising that the census generated an atmosphere of “feverish competition” as ethnic champions mobilised their constituencies for the coming contest[91]In the South, for example, Diamond states that:

Politicians were touring their constituencies urging the people ‘not to be left out’. It was suggested that besides the distribution of seats, amenities and scholarships would be shared on a popular basis, so…there was every advantage in obtaining ‘a good result’. Politicians and ethnic-group leaders were ‘out to win’ and ‘their campaign was only too successful’[92].

Expectations of a ‘good result’ in the South were also heightened by the fact that many southerners believed that the 1952-53 census, which had been conducted by the colonial authorities, were “grossly inaccurate…and deliberately falsified by the British to ensure Northern dominance”[93]There remains a widespread belief that British colonial officers were “naturally inclined towards the North”[94]Adding to the south’s positive expectations was also the belief that with generally better health care than the North, and a more “rapid decline in infant mortality”, the southern regions combined could expect better population numbers[95].

The counting of the census took place over two weeks in early May 1962. As the figures came in, it became immediately evident that some implausible increases had occurred between the last census and this. While the North’s increase of about 33% broadly tallied with the UN’s demographic projections[96], the East and West had scored staggering increases of 72% and 70% respectively. Some areas in the Eastern Region, for example, were posting increases of between 120% and 200%[97]With such astounding increases, it was either the southern regions had broken all known records of human reproduction, or else “statistical surgery” had taken place[98]. The chief census officer opted for the latter explanation. Commenting on the particularly unbelievable figures coming in from the Eastern Region, he stated:

In the five Eastern divisions which had shown increases of over 120 per cent in ten years, several checks could be applied … [Most] telling, the biggest increase was in children under the age of five, and calculations showed that the women of child-bearing age could not have produced this number of births had they all been pregnant for all of the five previous years[99].

The report of the chief census officer submitted to government confirmed the massive population inflation that had attended the process and proposed verifications be carried out in certain areas to rescue the credibility of the census[100]As the government prepared for the verification checks, it imposed a veil of secrecy on the fraudulent census result to quell potential riots over the new figures.

Casting aside the secrecy, Michael Okpara broke ranks and announced that the Eastern Region now had 12.4 million people as per the census, and insisted that his Regional government would be sticking to this figure regardless of the conclusions of any verification exercise[101]Verification checks and recounts went ahead nonetheless, and northern leaders promptly restored the balance by “discovering” an extra 8.5 million northerners[102]. This brought the north’s population to a new total of 31 million, up from the 22.5 million in the initial count – comfortably large enough to maintain its preponderant advantage. The NCNC led the south in completely rejecting the results of the verification exercise. The governing alliance broke down as the NCNC pushed for the release of the original census result, while the NPC backed the authenticity of the verification checks. Given this impasse, the 1962 results were cancelled and a fresh census was announced for the second half of 1963.

The 1963 census turned out to be an even greater debacle. The political stakes attached to this new census were even more pronounced. With the 1964 general election just under a year away, and with the heightened insecurity felt in the south over the NPC’s growing power, ethnic political security took centre stage. In the Eastern and Western Regions, ethnic champions once more mobilised their constituencies to deliver a ‘good result’. Restraints from the first-time round were abandoned. In the North, having been late comers to the inflation game in 1962, regional leaders there were determined not to be caught napping in the 1963 rerun. Eastern inspectors on their way to verify Northern numbers, for example, reportedly had their trains derailed[103]. Livestock were apparently counted in some places as part of the human population[104]. And “travellers and passers-by” were counted as part of the settled population[105]. Double counting took place in all the four regions (by now the Mid-Western Region had been created).

Once again, amidst bitter recriminations that each region had massively inflated their numbers, the government refused to immediately release the results of the 1963 census. While the official figures for the ‘63 census were never released, reports quickly circulated however that the figures had totalled up to an incredible 60.5 million[106] – meaning an extra 15 million Nigerians had been added unto the total of the notoriously inflated 1962 census. While publicly the government pleaded for time so it could carry out “exhaustive tests” on the data it had received, privately ethnic elites from all the regions were engaged in hard bargaining to secure the best numbers for their constituencies[107].

On the 24th of February 1964, the result of the compromise was announced to the public: there were to be 55.6 million Nigerians – 10 million larger than the notorious figures of 1962.  The East kept its 12.4 million figures from the 1962 count; the North reduced the 8.5 million Northerners it had ‘discovered’ to a more respectable 7.3 million, bringing its total population to 29.8 million; the West added an extra 2.5 million to its 1962 figures, bringing its population to 10.3 million; the Mid-West was allowed to inflate its numbers by 300,000, to bring its population to 2.5 million; and a population of 665,000 was ‘counted’ for Lagos. The North had kept its comfortable demographic preponderance (see Fig. 2 & Chart 3 below).

Not even this compromise was enough to calm frayed nerves as tensions erupted once more within the governing alliance. The NCNC accused the NPC of unilaterally releasing the figures before consultations were finished and final agreements reached[108]. Consequently, Michael Okpara in the East rejected the February 1964 figures as “worse than useless”[109].  Dennis Osadebay, the Mid-West’s Premier and an NCNC member, echoing his Eastern ally, similarly condemned the figures as “the most stupendous joke of our age”[110]. Akintola in the West, being dependent on the NPC for his position as Regional Premier accepted the results.

As the NCNC maneuvered to get the 1963 results cancelled, the NPC, using its control of the Federal Government, forced Osadebay into abandoning his Eastern ally and toeing the government line by threatening the Mid-West with withdrawal of federal aid – a move which would have financially crippled the new region[111].With the NCNC consensus broken and the Eastern Region isolated, Michael Okpara too was eventually forced to accept the new figures. The imbalance of power was now more acute than ever before.

As the nation breathed a sigh of relief at having survived another crisis which had severely strained the unity and stability of the republic, all attention focused on the next big event less than ten months away: the 1964 general election. Southern elites looked to the election as the one last chance to break the NPC’s momentum. Among northern elites however, there was the general expectation that the election would reproduce their federal dominance. As the parliamentary secretary of the Northern House of Assembly, Alhaji Kokori Abdul, said just a couple of months before the election:

I have no doubt whatever (sic) … that the Northern People’s Congress has come to stay and to continue to stay and is going to rule Nigeria forever[112].

With the reverberations from the previous two crises deepening the cracks within the system, it should have been evident to the nation’s leaders that the First Republic could not withstand another political crisis. And sure enough, the upheavals unleashed in 1964 and 1965 eventually led to the republic’s catastrophic end in 1966.

The General Strike, June 1-13, 1964

To all intents and purposes, by 1964, the First Republic stood at a critical juncture in its political life. Its birth pangs had been accompanied by political instability caused by the nation’s elites jockeying for state power. With the census crisis finally winding down in the beginning of the year, all energies were soon concentrated on the forthcoming general election to be held on the 30th of December. While the collapse of the AG as a national political force had opened deep cracks within the ruling coalition, the long running census crisis had progressively hardened the dividing line between the NPC and the NCNC. The general strike would finally shatter the fragile governing alliance.

On the 1st of June, after about a year of brinkmanship between the government and state employees over the issue of a living wage for workers, the country’s labour unions united under the banner of a Joint Action Committee (JAC) and declared a general strike. For thirteen days, economic activity was paralysed and “essential services [brought] to a virtual standstill” as about 750,000 of the nation’s estimated one million wage labourers downed tools and refused to work[113]. Of the 750,000 strikers, only about 300,000 were part of the labour unions that had called the strike[114], an indication of the strike’s mass support.

After a week of protests and strike action, the government entered talks with the JAC. On the 9th of June however, the talks broke down in stalemate. In defiance, the JAC demanded the Prime Minister return to the negotiating table or “resign within 48 hours”[115]NCNC leaders, calculating that the tidal wave of discontent unleashed by the strike action could be turned into an electoral advantage, abandoned the government line and openly sided with the striking workers[116]. The NCNC’s open support of the JAC all but permanently broke the governing alliance[117].

With the strikers gaining in confidence and expanding their support base, the government (by this time it was effectively the NPC alone) finally buckled under the pressure and gave into the demands for salary increases on the 13th – ending the 13-day strike. As an indication of how volatile the situation had become, Howard Wolpe, in his Urban Politics in Nigeria, advances the argument that, aside from the desertion of the NCNC and the growing dangers of a wider social revolt, another factor which forced the NPC’s hand was the threat of a “local police uprising in Lagos” in support of the striking workers[118].

On the surface, the strike was the result of workers’ demand for a new minimum wage in the private and public sectors. On a deeper level however, it was also a reflection of the dissatisfaction and discontent within the wider populace against corruption, widening economic inequality, and the seeming failure of the political elites to deliver the dividends of independence[119]By 1964, endemic corruption, ministerial profligacy, and the corrosive effects of ethnic politics had seriously eroded the First Republic’s legitimacy[120]. The “spreading virus of corruption and the enormous salaries at the bloated higher ranks of government” placed great strains on any “domestic capital that could be mobilised” for investment[121]. Bribes for government contract were rampant. The privileged flaunted their illegally acquired wealth, crystallising the general sense of moral decay and social injustice[122].

No one exemplified the First Republic’s problem with endemic corruption more than the Finance minister himself, Festus Okotie-Eboh. Such was his notoriety that a foreign official reportedly gave this witheringly unflattering portrait of him:

Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh was a fat, jovial character … [whose] name had become synonymous with corruption in Lagos… [He] was a squalid crook who dragged Nigeria down to his level… He dragged Nigeria into the sewer, but because of his corruption Nigeria has no sewers.  The money to pay for them is still in Swiss banks[123].

Diamond, in his penetrating assessment of the general strike, commented that:

More than just a strike by the nation's workers for higher wages … it was a sweeping challenge to the entire political class and its ruling authority … [and] … over the entire structure of inequality in Nigerian society. Union leaders fixed their protest … on the glaring levels of corruption and extravagant consumption by the nation's political elite. It was this larger issue that rallied the broad-based and spontaneous outpouring of popular support for the strike in most Nigerian cities[124].

The General Election, December 1964

Just as the mass popular appeal of the strike seemed to foreshadow a new dividing line hardening along class lines, a deeper, more fundamental, cleavage reasserted itself. Out on the campaign trail, the elites, to lock in their vote share, amplified their appeals to ethnic identity in ways that strained the fragile national bond.

In the Western Region for example, Akintola constantly stoked fears of Igbo domination to shore up the sagging support of his unpopular party, the NNDP[125]. With Yoruba elites stuck in the wilderness of opposition, he argued, Igbo leaders had used their access to federal patronage to muscle their ethnic kinsmen into senior government posts to the detriment of the Yoruba nation[126]. As he put it:

Notwithstanding our wealth and high social advancement, Western Nigeria has become a mere appendage in the community of the Federal Republic of Nigeria … and as a result they have been superseded by relatives, tribesmen and clansmen of the eastern NCNC chairman, who shout the slogan of one Nigeria more than anyone else[127].

Igbo leaders responded by calling on their ethnic kin to “rally to the defense of their embattled people” by voting for the NCNC. While AG leaders, not to be outdone by their rivals, moved to lock in northern minority votes by promising to “end … Hausa-Fulani domination”[128].

The political environment was made more volatile by the shift in party alignments taking place. The NPC-NCNC confrontations over the previous years, and the final collapse of the governing coalition after the June general strike, exerted a powerful gravitational pull on the political space. This led to the emergence of two opposing alliances for the coming election: Nigerian National Alliance (NNA) led by the NPC and comprising Akintola’s NNDP and other minority parties from the South, and the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA) led by the NCNC and comprising the AG and other smaller parties from the north[129].

Despite this seemingly national coalition, the two opposing alliances essentially represented a “North-South constellation of forces”[130]The pivotal core of the NNA was the NPC. Its alliance with ethnic minority parties beyond its region stemmed from the realisation on the part of the Hausa-Fulani elites that though hegemony in the Northern Region could deliver the Nigerian state to them, extending their power into the Southern regions by proxy would allow them to better consolidate their federal dominance. Similarly, while the central pillar of the UPGA was the NCNC, the acute fear of growing NPC power drove the NCNC’s strategy of reaching out to minorities and radicals in the northern region. For UPGA party bosses, this was a matter of ethnic political security. Simple arithmetic dictated that only by penetrating the north could they hope to, at the very least, block the NPC from gaining full control of the state[131].

Adding an extra layer of complexity and tension was the breakdown in Yoruba elite cohesion; a ripple effect of the Awolowo-Akintola power struggle. The shattered remnants of AG, now led by Alhaji Adegbenro, saw the election as a chance to re-establish the party’s control of the Western Region. The party, like most Yorubas, amongst whom it was still very popular, also concluded that full NPC control of Nigeria was dangerous to the interests of the Yoruba nation, hence its decision to join the UPGA coalition. The NNDP on the other hand, owing to its dependence on the NPC for its rule in the Western Region, and owing to Akintola’s belief that only an alliance with the NPC could secure the long-term interests of the Yorubas, unsurprisingly joined the NNA coalition. Akintola also saw the election as a chance to finish off the AG once and for all, and establish his hegemony in the Western Region.

The electoral campaigns of both coalitions were marked by violence and strong-arm tactics. Thugs were freely recruited to intimidate opposition supporters. Political opponents were beaten up. The NPC especially, fully used its incumbency advantage – jailing opposition candidates or supporters for the slightest infractions[132]In strategic areas where the stakes were too high, both coalitions sometimes reportedly resorted to the “physical elimination of opposition candidates”[133]. The desperate appeal of the Inspector General of Police to the supporters of the contending parties illustrates the thuggery and hooliganism which characterised the run-up to the election:

Don’t arm yourselves with broken bottles, hatchets, sticks… Do not set fire to the motor vehicles of your political opponents[134].

With the situation seemingly escalating beyond control, there were the first “rumblings of a possible military coup” within the army[135]Disturbed by the unfolding events, Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Federal President, confided to an interviewer on his 60th birthday in November that “what is happening in Nigeria today does not inspire me to be optimistic that we shall survive as a nation”[136]He followed this with a dramatic dawn broadcast on the 10th of December warning that the unity of the nation was at risk:

I have only one request from our politicians … If this embryo Republic must disintegrate, then, in the name of God, let the operation be a short and painless one… And I have one advice to give our politicians: if they have decided to destroy our national unity, then they should summon a round-table conference to decide how our national assets should be divided before they seal their doom by satisfying their lust for office… It is better for us and for our many admirers abroad that we should disintegrate in peace and not in pieces[137].

Unfortunately, not even such a solemn intervention could stem the growing tide of violence and lawlessness. Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, supported by the Northern and Western Premiers – Ahmadu Bello and Akintola respectively – dismissed the accusations of electoral malpractices as “unjust” and “groundless”[138]. Given their party’s incumbency advantage at the federal level, they were supremely confident of out-rigging their UPGA rivals in the forthcoming election. With the determination of the NNA to hold the election unswayed by unfolding events, half of the members of the Federal Election Commission resigned in protest. UPGA leaders, frustrated by their inability to match the NNA’s disruptive tactics, decided to boycott the election. It turned out to be a hasty and unwise decision[139].

The elections went ahead as scheduled on the 30th of December. The UPGA’s absence left the field wide open for NNA candidates to sweep all before them. In the Northern region, the NPC won 162 seats of the 167 seats in that region (see Table 2 below). Should the results stand, the NPC could now govern the Federation alone – 157 seats were what was needed to form a majority in the Federal Parliament.

162 (52%)
36 (11%)
84 (27%)
21 (7%)
9 (3%)
Total Seats in Parliament: 312
Table 2: Distribution of seats won by the major parties after the 1964/65 General Elections. With the creation of the Mid-Western Region in 1963, seats were reallocated to it from the other Regions: 7 seats were taken from the Northern Region (it had 174 seats for the 1959 election); 5 seats from the Western Region (62 in 1959); 3 seats from the Eastern Region (73 in 1959). Those 15 seats were then divided as follows: 1 was given to Lagos, to bring its total to 4 seats; with the remaining 14 seats going to the Mid-West. 

In the Eastern Region, the NCNC was able to block any voting from taking place. While in the Western and Mid-West Regions, recognising it had seriously blundered, and alarmed at the prospect of being completely obliterated from the political map, UPGA leaders called off the boycott and sent out their candidates to contest[140]The call-off came too late to reverse the tide against the party. In the Western Region in particular, the “electoral process was so abused” that though intensely unpopular, the NNDP won a scarcely believable 63% of the seats in that region[141] (It won 36 seats out of 57 seats allocated to the region: see Table 2). UPGA leaders immediately rejected the results and called for new elections to be held.

With the NNA coalition having secured a historic ‘victory’ at the polls, Tafawa Balewa called on the President to reappoint him as Prime Minister. Sharply critical of the “conduct and outcome” of the election, on January 1, 1965, Azikiwe refused[142]; instead, informing Balewa that the elections were “unsatisfactory in view of the violations of freedom of recent weeks”, he threatened to resign if the results were not scrapped and new elections called[143]For four days, the First Republic “teetered on the edge of an abyss” without a government as both Azikiwe and Tafawa Balewa competed “for control and support of the armed forces”[144]. There were calls for Azikiwe to assume executive powers and nominate a Prime Minister of his choice, and Balewa confided to the Chief Justice his intention to nominate a new President to succeed Azikiwe[145]. Secessionist rhetoric grew louder and the dangers of a civil war loomed large[146].

With legal advice from the nation’s senior judges strongly indicating that in the event of conflicting orders the armed forces were legally obligated to obey the Prime Minister alone, and with rumours circulating that the Prime Minister was reportedly planning to orchestrate his removal by “having him declared medically incapacitated”, the President finally relented on the 4th of January[147]Under the so-called “Zik-Balewa pact”, Azikiwe agreed to invite Balewa to form a new government in return for Balewa agreeing to the following conditions: (1) form a “broad-based government” with members of the opposition incorporated into the cabinet; (2) reschedule the boycotted elections in the Eastern Region for March; and (3) hold new elections for the Western Region’s House of Assembly in October to choose a new Premier for the Region[148]

The rescheduled election took place in the Eastern Region without incident. The NCNC, appealing to Igbo unity, easily secured 91% of the seats in that Region. As per the arrangement reached in the ‘Pact’, many newly elected NCNC members were absorbed into the federal government, bringing the federal cabinet to the “unprecedented size of eighty ministers”[149]Commenting on this development, Falola, in his The History of Nigeria, remarks with biting sarcasm: “The government had now been converted into a holding company with every ‘big politician’ becoming a shareholder”[150].

The Western Regional Election, October 1965

The disaster of the 1964 election unfortunately failed to act as a salutary check on the “win-at-all costs mentality” of the nation’s leaders[151].

A rerun of the Western regional election was one of the main pillars of the Zik-Balewa pact. The NCNC had insisted that an election be held to choose a new Premier in the region as a precondition for accepting the results of the 1964 election. They were confident that in a free and fair election, their Western ally, the AG, would be able to dislodge the NNDP from the region – with Alhaji Adegbenro replacing Akintola as Premier. Their hopes were quickly dashed. Akintola was not ready to relinquish power without a bruising fight.  

Two factors combined to ensure that the fraud and violence which characterised the 1965 Western election surpassed the general election in 1964. First was the fact that unlike the other three regions – Northern, Eastern and Mid-Western – which were effectively “one-party states”, in the West, intra-elite conflict meant two parties (AG and NNDP) representing the contending elite factions were “engaged in a deadly rivalry” for political survival[152]. To quote Diamond:

If Chief Akintola's ruling party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), won a full five-year term, Action Group leaders knew it would continue to use regional power ruthlessly to extinguish their party. The Akintola forces, on the other hand, expected, in the case of defeat, to become the victims of their own methods, without a genuine base of popular support to sustain them.

The second factor was the fact that though the election was on the surface a Western regional affair, the outcome was, however, of “critical importance … to the game plans” of leaders in the Northern and Eastern Regions[153]. A pliant ally in the West would allow the NPC to consolidate its hold on the federal government. For the NCNC on the other hand, a revived and strong AG, in alliance with it, would provide the needed counterweight to forestall impending NPC hegemony.

Akintola, acutely aware of his weak hand, resorted to ethnic mobilisation to shore-up his support. He beamed his searchlight on public institutions in the region were Igbos held senior positions and led the calls for their dismissal. One such institution was the University of Lagos, where the Vice Chancellor was forced out and replaced by a Yoruba man[154].  However, knowing that the rhetoric of ethnic chauvinism on its own would not be sufficient to dent the AG’s chances of winning, Akintola also used his incumbency advantage to full effect: blocking AG candidates from campaigning and intimidating their supporters from holding rallies. There was no doubt within the NNDP camp that only “wholesale electoral fraud” could rescue them from humiliating defeat at the polls[155]Max Siollun says of the mood in the NNDP camp in the run up to the election:

NNDP officials barely bothered to conceal their intentions, declaring in advance that they would ‘win’ the election even if people did not vote for them[156].

When the election itself came, very few were surprised by the riggings that took place. But what angered many, and perhaps contributed to the orgy of violence that followed the election, was the sheer brazenness and impunity with which the NNDP went about the business of rigging its members back to parliament. For example, rather than bother with the logistical inconvenience of inflating disagreeable figures that had been announced at polling stations, the NNDP simply had many of its newly ‘elected’ parliamentarians declared “unopposed” winners in radio stations[157]. The Chairman of the Electoral Commission resigned in protest, declaring he “had no confidence in the conduct of the elections”[158].

Disregarding the brazenly fraudulent results being announced on the radio, the AG announced itself the true winner of the election and tried to swear Adegbenro as the Premier – leading to his arrest for “illegal assumption of office”[159]AG supporters poured into the streets. The spasm of violence which engulfed the entire Western region was unprecedented. There was widespread destruction of life and property. Political thugs took to setting fire to persons – especially targeting NNDP supporters and Hausa-Fulani settlers – and properties in what they called Operation Wetie, meaning to “wet with petrol and burn”[160].

As the Western Region slid into anarchy, the Prime Minister refused to impose a State of Emergency on the region, as he had done in 1962 during the AG crisis – or at the very least call in the army to restore order. Some have since argued that Tafawa Balewa refused to declare a State of Emergency because his party was allied to the NNDP, and therefore didn’t want to throw it out of power so soon after its ‘election’[161]. Others have similarly argued that his refusal to call in the army was influenced by his belief that many of the soldiers stationed in the region were sympathetic to the opposition’s cause[162]. Others still have suggested that the government was indecisive because it was “waiting for the crisis to escalate to a point that would justify the use of the armed forces as an army of occupation in the Western Region”[163].   

In any case, the 1965 October ‘election’, and the spasm of violence which accompanied it, turned out to be the last act in the First Republic’s tragic political drama. As Diamond argues:

If [the] various social elements had any faith left in the institutions of the First Republic, it was irrevocably shattered by the 1965 ‘election’ in the West, which seemed to obliterate any remaining vestige of the Republic’s democratic character[164].

On the 15th of January 1966, elements within the army, hoping to lead a military revolution, struck with lethal force and wiped out the top tiers of the Republic[165]On the 16th of January, the army chief took over as Head of State[166], formally ending the First Republic. By the 17th of January, when the last of the mutineers had surrendered to the new military government[167], the Prime Minister (Tafawa Balewa), Finance Minister (Okotie-Eboh), Premiers of the Northern (Ahmadu Bello) and Western (Akintola) Regions, and seven senior military officers, had all been gunned down[168].

The bloody coup of 15 January 1966 brought to an ignominious end a democratic Republic that had begun with much promise.


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[1] Nigeria has experienced four democratic polities – i.e. polities led by democratically elected civilian governments, as opposed to military governments that came to power though coups: (i) First Republic, from 1960-1966; (ii) Second Republic, from 1979-1983; (iii) Third Republic, which was aborted at birth with the annulment of the June 1993 election; (iv) Fourth Republic, the current democratic order which came into being in 1999.
[2] The “First Republic” technically started on the 1st of October 1963 with the inauguration of the ‘Republican Constitution’, which made Nnamdi Azikiwe Nigeria’s first president, therefore formally making the country a Republic. Up until then, the British Queen was Nigeria’s Head of State. The historiography of the first republic however generally stretches its period back to 1960 when Nigeria became an independent country. See for example: Eghosa E. Osaghae. (1998), Nigeria since Independence: Crippled Giant. London: C. Hurst & Co., p. 31.; For an overview of Nigeria’s 1963 Republican constitution see: Benjamin O. Nwabueze. (1985), A Constitutional History of Nigeria. London: C. Hurst & Co., pp. 89-126.
[3] The officers who planned the coup considered their action a revolution. See: Alexander A. Madiebo. (1980), The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War. Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers. At the time of the coup, it was also widely viewed as a “military revolution” which aimed to establish a “revolutionary regime”. See: Max Siollun. (2009), Oil, Politics and Violence in Nigeria: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture 1966-1976. New York: Algora Publishing, pp. 31, 55, and 70.; See also Nnamdi Azikiwe’s (Nigeria’s deposed president who was abroad on medical treatment when the botched coup/abortive revolution happened) statement commenting on the coup by referring to it as a “violent revolution”: Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence in Nigeria, p. 71.; Also see the Federal Military Government’s “Supremacy Decree” of 1970 which explicitly refers to the “military revolution which took place on January 15, 1966”: Nwabueze. A Constitutional History of Nigeria, p. 175.; The supremacy decree provided the legal underpinnings for the three military regimes (Aguyi Ironsi, January-July 1966; Gowon, August 1966-July 1975; Murtala/Obasanjo, July 1975-October 1979) which followed the failed January 15, 1966 coup d’état. On this point see: Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence in Nigeria, p. 74.
[5] The most famous being Nnamdi Azikiwe (President of the Federation), Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (Prime Minister of the Federation), Ahmadu Bello (Premier of the Northern Region), Michael Okpara (Premier of the Eastern Region) and Obafemi Awolowo (Premier of the Western Region).
[6] Christopher Clark. (2012), The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London: Penguin.
[7] Ibid.
[8] See for example: Larry R. Jackson. (1972), ‘Nigeria: The Politics of the First Republic’, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3: pp. 277-302.; Larry J. Diamond. (1988), Crisis, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria: The Failure of the First Republic. New York: Syracuse University Press.; Osaghae, Nigeria since Independence, Ch. 2.; Toyin Falola. (1999), The History of Nigeria. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Ch. 7.; Falola and Oyebade, Hot Spot: Sub-Saharan Africa, pp. 69-76.; Emmanuel O. Ojo. (2012), ‘Leadership Crisis and Political Instability in Nigeria, 1964-1966: The Personalities, the Parties and the Policies’, Global Advanced Research Journals, Vol. 1, No. 1: pp. 6-17.
[9] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 34.
[10] Falola, The History of Nigeria, p. 99.
[11] Richard L. Sklar. (1965), ‘Contradictions in the Nigerian Political System’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2: p. 203.
[12] Populations have been rounded by this Author.
[13] Falola and Oyebade, Hot Spot: Sub-Saharan Africa, p. 69.
[14] For a comprehensive study on the formation of the three parties and the development of Nigerian nationalism in the years before independence, see: James S. Coleman. (1958), Nigeria: Background to Nationalism. London: Cambridge University Press.; and Richard L. Sklar. (2004), Nigerian Political Parties: Power in an Emergent African Nation. New Jersey: Africa World Press.
[15] Johannes Harnischfeger. (2008), Democratization and Islamic Law: The Sharia Conflict in Nigeria. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, p. 23.
[16] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 72.
[17] Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence in Nigeria, p. 13.; Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 34.; Jackson, ‘Nigeria: The Politics of the First Republic’, p. 281.
[18] These seats were won by the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) which was a radical party based in the North. It was led by the populist, Mallam Aminu Kano. It had been an alliance partner of the NCNC since 1953; hence they contested the 1959 election together as a coalition. See Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 57.
[19] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 33-34.
[20] He actually became President in 1963 when Nigeria became a Republic. Because of the NCNC joining the coalition, he first became the President of the Senate from the 1st of January 1960 till independence, 1st of October 1960. He then became the first indigenous Governor-General from independence till the 1st of October 1963, when he became President. 
[21] Azikiwe became President in 1963 when Nigeria became a Republic. Because of the NCNC joining the coalition, he first became the President of the Senate from the 1st of January 1960 till independence, nine months later. He then became the first indigenous Governor-General from independence till the 1st of October 1963, when he became President. 
[22] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 191.
[23] James Minahan. (2002), Encyclopedia of the Stateless Nations: Ethnic and National Groups around the World, Volume II D-K. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, p. 764.   
[24] “In September 1960, the AG’s Federal Executive Council adopted a programme of Democratic Socialism that pledged to get rid of the dead-weight of feudalism, aristocracy and privilege”. Quoted in: Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 79.; Also see: Falola, The History of Nigeria, p. 100.
[25] Coleman, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism, p 350.
[26] Jackson, ‘The Politics of the First Republic’, p. 282.
[27] Dibie and Uwazie, ‘Political Parties and National Integration in Nigeria’, pp. 48 & 49.
[28] Jackson, ‘Nigeria: The Politics of the First Republic’, p. 282.
[29] Ibid, p. 281.
[30] Douglas G. Anglin. (1965), ‘Brinkmanship in Nigeria: The Federal Elections of 1964-1965’, International Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2: p. 175.
[31] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 34.
[32] Larry Diamond. (1983), ‘Class, Ethnicity and the Democratic State: Nigeria, 1950-1966’, Comparative Study in Society & History, Vol. 25, No. 3: p. 473.
[33] Ibid, p. 38.
[34] Akin Alao. (2015), ‘The Republican Constitution of 1963: The Supreme Court and Federalism in Nigeria’, University of Miami International and Comparative Law Review,, p. 107.
[35] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 93.
[36] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 34.
[37] Sklar, for example, has noted that: “In 1963 there were 2,485,676 pupils in the primary schools of southern Nigeria – i.e. the Eastern, Western, and Midwestern Regions, and the Federal Territory of Lagos – compared with 410,706 in Northern Nigeria. At the secondary school level, including general education, technical, vocational, and teacher training schools, 231,261 pupils were enrolled in southern Nigeria compared with 20,312 in Northern Nigeria”. See: Sklar, ‘Contradictions in the Nigerian Political System’, fn. 2 in p. 210.
[38] Crawford Young. (1976), The Politics of Cultural Pluralism. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, p. 289.
[39] Falola and Oyebade, Hot Spot: Sub-Saharan Africa, p. 70.
[40] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 93.
[41] Young, The Politics of Cultural Pluralism, pp. 292-293.
[42] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 39.
[43] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 93-94.
[44] Ibid, p. 95.
[45] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 39.
[46] Ibid.
[47] Quoted in Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 95.
[48] Ibid, p. 98.
[49] Ibid, p. 99.
[50] Ibid.; Falola and Oyebade, Hot Spot: Sub-Saharan Africa, p. 71.
[51] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 100.
[52] Falola and Oyebade, Hot Spot: Sub-Saharan Africa, p. 71.
[53] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 101.
[54] Quoted in Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, 101-102.
[55] Falola and Oyebade, Hot Spot: Sub-Saharan Africa, p. 71.
[56] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria.; Osaghae, Crippled Giant.; Falola, The History of Nigeria.
[57] Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence in Nigeria, p. 15.
[58] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 40.
[59] Ibid, p. 119.
[60] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 105.
[61] Sklar, ‘Contradictions in the Nigerian Political System’, p. 206.
[62] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 105.
[63] Ibid.
[64] Sklar, ‘Contradictions in the Nigerian Political System’, fn. 2 in p. 206.
[65] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 103.
[66] Ibid.; Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 40.
[67] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy, p. 105.
[68] Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence in Nigeria, p. 16.
[69] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 105.
[70] Ibid.
[71] Ibid, p. 119.
[72] Ibid. p. 105.
[73] Ibid. p. 106.
[74] Ibid. p. 108.
[75] Ibid, p. 109.
[76] Ibid.
[77] Young, The Politics of Cultural Pluralism, pp. 292-293.
[78] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 40.
[79] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 24.
[80] Ibid, p. 88.; For a study which examines the Tiv riots of 1960 and 1964 see: Godwin A. Vaaseh and O. M. Ohinmore. (2011), ‘Ethnic Politics and Conflicts in Nigeria’s First Republic: The Misuse of Native Administrative Police Forces (NAPFS) and the Tiv Riots of Central Nigeria, 1960-1964’, Canadian Social Science, Vol. 7, No. 3: pp. 214-222.
[81] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 108.
[82] Ibid, p. 119.
[83] Ibid, pp. 118-119.
[84] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 38.
[85] Ibid, p. 39.
[86] Anglin, ‘Brinkmanship in Nigeria’, p. 176.
[88] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 130.
[89] Ibid.
[90] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 41.
[91] Diamond, Crisis, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria: The Failure of the First Republic, p. 132.
[92] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, pp. 132-133.
[93] Anglin, ‘Brinkmanship in Nigeria’, p. 176.
[94] Kwasi Kwarteng. (2012), ‘Nigeria’s Current Troubles and Its British Colonial Roots’, The Globalist.
[95] Diamond, Class Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 132.
[96] See statement of the Chief census officer in Ibid, p. 133.; Also see Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 42.
[97] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 133.
[98] Young, The Politics of Cultural Pluralism, p. 467.
[99] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 133-134.
[100] Ibid, p. 134.
[101] Ibid, p. 134.
[102] Ibid, p. 136.
[103] Ibid, p. 137.
[104] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 41.
[105] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 139.
[106] Ibid, p. 138.
[107] Ibid
[108] Ibid
[109] Ibid
[110] Ibid, p. 139.
[111] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 42.; Falola, The History of Nigeria, p. 105; Olayiwola Abegunrin. (2009), Africa in Global Politics in the Twenty-First Century: A Pan-African Perspective. New York: Palgrave Mac Millan, pp. 95-96.
[112] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 131.
[113] Diamond, ‘Class, Ethnicity and the Democratic State’, p. 480.; Jussi Viinikka. (2002), ‘“There shall be no prosperity”: Trade Unions, Class, and Politics in Nigeria’, in Leo Zeilig, Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa. Cheltenham: New Clarion Press, p. 129.
[114] Diamond, ‘Class, Ethnicity and the Democratic State’, p. 480.
[115] Viinikka, ‘“There shall be no prosperity”’, p. 130.
[116] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 189.
[117] Ibid, p. 189.; Ojo, ‘Leadership Crisis and Political Instability in Nigeria’, p. 7.
[118] Howard Wolpe. (1974), Urban Politics in Nigeria: A Study of Port Harcourt. California: University of California Press.; Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, fn. 5 in p. 336.
[119] Viinikka, ‘“There shall be no prosperity”’, pp. 129-131.
[120] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria.
[121] Ibid, p. 83.
[122] Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence in Nigeria.; Falola, The History of Nigeria.; Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria.
[123] Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence in Nigeria, p. 17.
[124] Diamond, ‘Class, Ethnicity and the Democratic State’, pp. 480-481
[125] Diamond, ‘Class, Ethnicity and the Democratic State’, p. 485.
[126] Abegunrin, Africa in Global Politics, p. 94
[127] Ibid.
[128] Diamond, ‘Class, Ethnicity and the Democratic State’, p. 485.
[129] For a list of the parties which joined the NNA and UPGA coalitions see: Osaghae, Crippled Giant, P. 42.
[130] Ibid, p. 43.; A Contemporary analyst also described the two electoral coalitions thus: “although each alliance was nominally nation-wide, the campaign became a North-South contest, and all the old fears of domination which have existed historically were given full play … [and] … were played upon by the politicians of both the NNA and the UPGA”. Quoted in Jackson, ‘Nigeria: The Politics of the First Republic’, pp. 284-285.
[131] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, pp. 42-43.
[132] Anglin, ‘Brinkmanship in Nigeria’, p. 180.
[133] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 44.
[134] Anglin, ‘Brinkmanship in Nigeria’, p. 180.
[135] Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence in Nigeria, p. 18.
[136] Akin Alao. (2015), ‘The Republican Constitution of 1963’, p. 99.
[137] Anglin, ‘Brinkmanship in Nigeria’, p. 181.; Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, p. 190.; Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence in Nigeria, p. 18.
[138] Ibid, p. 180.
[139] Ibid, p. 182.; Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 45.
[140] Anglin, ‘Brinkmanship in Nigeria’, p. 182.; Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 45.
[141] Falola, The History of Nigeria, p. 105.
[142] Anglin, ‘Brinkmanship in Nigeria’, p. 183.; Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 45.; Falola, The History of Nigeria, p. 105.; Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence in Nigeria, p. 18.
[143] Akin Alao. (2015), ‘The Republican Constitution of 1963’, p. 100.
[144] Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence in Nigeria, p. 18.; Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 45.
[145] Akin Alao. (2015), ‘The Republican Constitution of 1963’, pp. 99-100.
[146] Diamond, ‘Class, Ethnicity and the Democratic State’, p. 485.
[147] Ibid, p. 19.
[148] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 46.
[149] Ibid, p. 46.
[150] Falola, The History of Nigeria, p. 106.
[151] Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence in Nigeria, p. 18.
[152] Jackson, ‘Nigeria: The Politics of the First Republic’, p. 285.
[153] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 46.
[154] Abegunrin, Africa in Global Politics, p. 94.
[155] Diamond, ‘Class, Ethnicity and the Democratic State’, p. 482.
[156] Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence in Nigeria, p. 19.
[157] Ibid.
[158] Akin Alao. (2015), ‘The Republican Constitution of 1963’, p. 106.
[159] Ibid.
[160] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 46.
[161] Falola, The History of Nigeria, pp. 106-107.; Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 47.; Emmanuel Ojo presents another perspective on Tafawa Balewa’s refusal, arguing that it could be based on his reluctance to call another State of Emergency in the same Western region so soon after the first Emergency period in 1962. This is an argument which seems scarcely plausible given the total breakdown in law and order in the Region in 1965. See: Ojo, ‘Leadership Crisis and Political Instability in Nigeria’, p. 13.
[162] Osaghae, Crippled Giant, p. 47.
[163] Akin Alao. (2015), ‘The Republican Constitution of 1963’, p. 106.
[164] Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria, pp. 287 & 289.
[165] Siollun, Oil, Politics and Violence.
[166] Ibid, p. 62-63.
[167] Ibid, p. 66.
[168] For a list of the individuals that were killed see: Ibid, p. 237.

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