Military


1964-1965 Elections

The federal parliamentary election campaign in December 1964--the first since independence--was contested by two political alliances incorporating all the major parties. The Nigerian National Alliance (NNA) was composed of the NPC, Akintola's Western-based Nigerian National Democratic Party, and opposition parties representing ethnic minorities in the Midwestern and Eastern regions. It was opposed by the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA), which joined the NCNC and the remnants of the Action Group with two minority-based northern allies, the Northern Elements Progressive Union and the United Middle Belt Congress.

Not surprisingly, the NNA adopted a platform that reflected the views of the northern political elite and, hence, was an attempt by the NPC to gain firmer control of federal politics through an alliance with the Western Region. Its appeal to voters outside the north was based essentially on the advantages to be gained from associating with the party in power. The NNA preyed on Yoruba fears of Igbo domination of the federal government. The UPGA was employed in an attempt by the NCNC to use the two regional governments that it controlled as a springboard to domination of the federal government. Strategically it offered a reformist program, combining a planned economy that endorsed increased public spending while also encouraging private enterprise. The UPGA proposed to divide the country into states that reflected ethnicity. Its proposals were intended to undermine the existing regional basis of political power by creating a sufficient number of states in each region so that none of the mayor ethnic groups--Hausa, Yoruba, or Igbo--could dominate region. The UPGA presented itself as an alternative to northern and, more specifically, to Hausa-Fulani domination of the federal government. Convinced that it would win if the election were held in an atmosphere free from interference by ruling parties in the Northern Region and the Western Region, the UPGA spent most of its efforts denouncing what it regarded as NNA intentions to rig the election in those regions.

The election was postponed for several weeks because of discrepancies between the number of names on voting rolls and on census returns. Even then the UPGA was not satisfied and called on its supporters to boycott the election. The boycott was effective in the Eastern Region, where polling places did not open in fifty-one constituencies that had more than one candidate running for office. In other constituencies in the region, UPGA candidates ran unopposed. Nationwide, only 4 million voters cast ballots, out of 15 million who were eligible. The NNA elected 198 candidates, of whom 162 represented the NPC, from the 261 constituencies returning results. After an embarrassing delay, President Azikiwe agreed to ask Balewa to form a government with the NNA majority. The boycott had failed to stop the election, and in March 1965 supplementary elections were held in those areas in the Eastern Region and in Lagos where the boycott had been honored. UPGA candidates were elected in all these constituencies, bringing the NCNC-dominated coalition a total of 108 seats in the House of Representatives. The UPGA became the official opposition.

After this decisive defeat, the UPGA prepared for the November 1965 legislative election in the Western Region in an attempt to gain control of the three southern regions and the Federal Territory of Lagos, the region surrounding the capital. If successful, the NPC-dominated NNA still would have controlled the House of Representatives, but it would have given the predominantly southern UPGA a majority in the Senate, whose members were chosen by the regional legislatures.

Once more NCNC strategy failed. Amid widespread charges of voting irregularities, Akintola's NNDP, supported by its NPC ally, scored an impressive victory in November. There were extensive protests, including considerable grumbling among senior army officials, at the apparent perversion of the democratic process. In the six months after the election, an estimated 2,000 people died in violence that erupted in the Western Region. In the face of the disorders, the beleaguered Balewa delegated extraordinary powers to the regional governments to deal with the situation. By this time, Azikiwe and the prime minister were scarcely on speaking terms, and there were suggestions that Nigeria's armed forces should restore order.

In January 1966, army officers attempted to seize power. In a well-coordinated action, the conspirators, most of whom were Igbo, assassinated Balewa in Lagos, Akintola in Ibadan, and Bello in Kaduna, as well as senior officers of northern origin. In a public proclamation, the coup leaders pledged to establish a strong and efficient government committed to a progressive program and eventually to new elections. They vowed to stamp out corruption and to suppress violence. Despite the bloody and calculated character of the coup, these sentiments appealed directly to younger, educated Nigerians in all parts of the country.

The army's commander in chief, Major General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, quickly intervened to restore discipline within the army. In the absence of Azikiwe, who was undergoing treatment in a London hospital, Balewa's shaken cabinet resigned, leaving the reins of authority to the armed forces. Ironsi, also an Igbo, suspended the constitution, dissolved all legislative bodies, banned political parties, and as an interim measure formed a Federal Military Government (FMG) to prepare the country for a return to civilian rule at an unspecified date. He appointed military governors in each region and assigned officers to ministerial positions, instructing them to implement sweeping institutional reforms.

Ironsi and his advisers favored a unitary form of government, which they thought would eliminate the intransigent regionalism that had been the stumbling block to political and economic progress. A decree issued in March abolished the federation and unified the federal and regional civil services. Civilian experts, largely Igbo, set to work on a new constitution that would provide for a centralized unitary government such as the NCNC had favored since the 1950s.

Although the decree contained a number of concessions to regional interests, including protection of northerners from southern competition in the civil service, Ironsi's action showed dangerous disregard for the nuances of regional politics and badly misjudged the intensity of ethnic sensitivities in the aftermath of the bloody coup. The failure of the military government to prosecute Igbo officers responsible for murdering northern leaders stirred animosities further. Igbo civil servants and merchants residing in the north made the situation even worse through their triumphant support for the coup. Furthermore, Ironsi was vulnerable to accusations of favoritism toward the Igbo. The coup was perceived not so much as an effort to impose a unitary government as a plot by the Igbo to dominate Nigeria. Likewise, many Muslims saw the military decrees as Christianinspired attempts to undermine emirate government.

Troops of northern origin, who made up the bulk of the infantry, became increasingly restive. Fighting broke out between them and Igbo soldiers in garrisons in the south. In June mobs in the northern cities, abetted by local officials, carried out a pogrom against resident Igbo, massacring several hundred people and destroying Igbo-owned property. Some northern leaders spoke seriously of secession. Many northerners feared that Ironsi intended to deprive them of power and to consolidate further an Igbo-dominated centralized state.

In July northern officers and army units staged a countercoup, during which Ironsi and a number of other Igbo officers were killed. The Muslim officers named thirty-one-year- old Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) Yakubu "Jack" Gowon, a Christian from a small ethnic group (the Anga) in the middle belt, as a compromise candidate to head the FMG. A young and relatively obscure officer serving as army chief of staff, Gowon had not been involved in the coup, but he enjoyed wide support among northern troops who subsequently insisted that he be given a position in the ruling body. His first act was to repeal the Ironsi decree and to restore federalism, a step followed by the release of Awolowo and Enahoro from prison.



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