Kogi, and Benue, the north encompassed nearly two- thirds of Nigeria’s sovereign territory and was inhab- ited by around half of all its citizens. And as a result, its voters were allowed to fill one out of every two seats in the National Assembly.
Indeed, it was the north’s large size that under- pinned its political preeminence. And the only way the leaders of the other two (later three) regions could con- strain it, was by working together, which they seldom did.37 But in the end, it was the very scale of the north’s preponderance that proved to be the First Republic’s undoing. Fearful of what they saw as the creeping northernization of Nigeria— the steady spread of both Islam and Hausa-Fulani cultural practices throughout the country— a group of mainly Igbo army officers overthrew the government on January 15, 1966. After arresting and then executing Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and Premiers Ladoke Akintola and Ahmadu Bello of the Western and Northern Regions respective- ly, the conspirators handed power to the army’s most senior officer and fellow Igbo, General John Aguiyi- Ironsi.
But if they hoped their actions would bring sta- bility and an end to the north’s political dominance, they were soon proved to be mistaken. For just under 6 months later, on July 29, 1966, Aguiyi-Ironsi was him- self ousted in a coup d’état led this time by a cabal of northern officers. They, in turn, installed the army’s most senior northerner, General Yakubu Gowon, as the country’s new head of state. And in so doing, they helped solidify the process of political succession that had begun with the overthrow of the First Republic, a process that was as violent as it was undemocratic. In- deed, since then, power has seldom been ceded peace- fully, and governments have rarely stood down vol-