The reality of  the Nigerian Military Rule  2

Nigeria’s crude oil wealth paradoxically became an impediment to its democratic development,

as it incentivized the country’s military to seize and retain political

power. Within 18 months of seizing power, the Nigerian military threatened the cor-

porate existence of the country as two different factions of the army attempted to

secede, replicated Nigeria’s political and societal cleavages within itself, and plunged

the country into the brutal famine ravaged Biafran civil war that claimed over a mil-

lion lives, and presented Western viewers for the first time, with their now prototyp –

ical imagery of the emaciated and starving African child.

 

The excesses of the Nigerian  military were largely ignored by Western governments which

were anxious not to interrupt a generous supply of crude oil. Nigeria’s “Bonny Light” crude oil is

highly attractive to its Western importers as it has a low sulfur content and is easy to refine.

Therefore Western relations with Nigeria are largely dictated by economic interests rather than

by any sense of altruism or adherence to democratic principles.

 

It is often said that history is written by victors. In many cases in Nigeria, history

is not written at all. A combination of official reluctance to divulge combustible past

events in a country permanently poised on an ethnic and religious powder keg, and

the determination of the dramatis personae to avoid having their misdeeds exposed,

means that early Nigerian post-independence history is in many places a collection

of folk tales and fables. This has also caused Nigeria to be greatly misunderstood

and misrepresented overseas, especially in the area of the Nigerian military’s pivotal

interference in the politics and governance of Nigeria.

 

Nigerians are aware that their military ruled them for 30 out of the country’s first 40 years after

independence. Yet there is little situational awareness of how the military became so politically

powerful. Even though ostensibly democratic today, Nigeria is still dominated by the same

military cabal that over four decades sporadically overthrew democratically elected

governments, fought the Biafran civil war and imposed an economic blockade that

caused famine and a million deaths, recklessly squandered the country’s oil wealth,

and played the greatest role in disrupting the country’s political evolution.

 

The decade between 1966 and 1976 was the most politically explosive decade of

Nigeria’s history during which it almost disintegrated, and Nigerian governments

mastered the art of taking their country to the edge of an abyss and pulling back at

the last moment. Most of the prior books on this time period were written by the

protagonists, and their accounts are sometimes tainted by their embittered personal

experiences and grievances.

 

There is a substantial readership that desires a balanced,  impartial and full account of that crisis

racked decade. This book seeks to educate the reader about the dynamic that existed within the

military and which influenced its conduct and interference in Nigerian politics. Rather than

giving the sanitized version of coups that is in other books, the author has deliberately given

extremely graphic accounts of events in order for the reader to appreciate the ruthless brutality

that often accompanies military coups d’états.

 

 

Nigeria’s return to civilian democratic rule in 1999 has encouraged greater free-

dom of expression and political debate regarding topics that were considered taboo

in the days of military rule. This has presented a welcome opportunity to discuss pre-

viously taboo topics, in order that future generations can learn from them and avoid

the mistakes of the past. Those that do not heed history are doomed to repeat it.

Nigeria  recently  celebrated  50  years  as  an  independent  nation.

 

As it passed this milestone there is renewed interest in its history. Although modern

Nigeria cannot be understood without reference to its era of military rule, there is

little objective literature on the fifteen years of military rule (1984 –1999) that

preceded the current civilian  government.  The  small  body  of  literature  on  the  era

of military  rule  consists  largely  of  hagiographic  biographies  by,  or about, some

of the key personalities of the era.

 

The  second  period  of  military  rule  between  1984  and  1993 crafted modern

Nigerian society, and effected cataclysmic changes in Nigeria’s political, economic

and religious character that nearly tore the country apart on several occasions.

There is need for stock taking and objective analysis of the mistakes of the past.

The story  of Nigerian military rule is an untapped  vault for the non-academic

audience,  with  few  scholars  devoting  serious  effort  to  accurately recording it.

Little is known of Nigerian military political history due to an almost Mafia-like code

of silence by its leading figures. The result  has  been  public  discourse  dominated  by  JFK-esque conspiracy theories, rumour and innuendo. Official sources

have been  reluctant  to  divulge  details  of  Nigeria’s recent  past

largely because most of the key dramatis personnae are still alive,

and to avoid inflaming passions in an already volatile country.

 

 

Powerful personalities behind Nigeria’s military governments are

still active and influential in political positions, even if they have

removed their uniforms and transformed themselves into civilian

rulers. David Mark (former Senate President and the third most

powerful person in Nigeria’s political hierarchy) is a retired army

brigadier. His former military colleagues include active politicians

such as former governors Murtala Nyako, Olabode George (both retired

navy officers), and Jonah Jang (a retired air force officer).

The retired military even constitute the most significant opposition

figures. The present Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari  is a

former military head of state with a rank of a Major-General .

 

Even some of the most powerful traditional rulers in Nigeria are

former military officers. The current Sultan of Sokoto,

Amir-ul  Mumineen 2   Muhammadu  Sa’adu  Abubakar,  was

formerly Colonel Abubakar of the Nigerian army’s armoured corps.

The current Emir of Zuru, Sani Sami is a retired major-general, and

the Etsu Nupe Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar is a former army colonel.

There are very few Emirs without sons or nephews in the military.

This continues a long tradition of blue bloods in the military first

pioneered by Major-General Hassan Katsina, the late Chief of Army

Staff and son of the former Emir of Katsina, Usman Nagogo. Major-

General  Shehu  Musa  Yar’Adua,  older  brother  of  Nigeria’s  former

President Umaru Yar’Adua, was also of aristocratic origin. His father

Mallam Musa Yar’Adua was the Mutawallen Katsina (custodian of

treasury of the Katsina Emirate Council).

 

After gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1960,

Nigeria’s parliamentary Westminster-style democracy collapsed on

January 15, 1966, when a group of radical young army majors staged

a military coup and overthrew the civilian government of Prime

Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Although the coup leaders did

not manage to seize power for themselves, the coup’s violent nature,

and  assassination  of  key  government  personnel  such  as  Prime

Minister Balewa, Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello (Premier of the Northern

Region),  Samuel  Akintola  (Premier  of  the  Western  Region),  and

Festus Okotie-Eboh (Finance Minister) was enough to topple the

government and persuade the rump cabinet to cede power to the

General  Officer  Commanding  (GOC)  the  army,  Major-General

Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi.

 

Although Ironsi had suppressed the coup and was not among its

planners, he was unable to escape the stigma attached to it. Northern

soldiers were aggrieved at the coup’s lopsided nature and became

suspicious of it, and of Ironsi’s motives. Since most of the coup’s

planners were Igbo, their victims were non-Igbo, and its outcome

was a military government led by an Igbo army officer, northerners

suspected  that  the  coup  was  an  orchestrated  conspiracy  to  wrest

power  away  from  the  northern-led  civilian  government.  These

tensions and suspicions led to another coup by northern officers 3

in July 1966, during which Ironsi was assassinated and replaced by

Lt-Colonel Yakubu Gowon. Gowon governed until July 1975 when

he was deposed by the same soldiers who had staged the coup that

brought him to power in 1966.

 

The new military leader was Brigadier Murtala Muhammed, the

leader of the July 1966 coup. After Muhammed was assassinated

during  an  abortive  attempted  coup  in  February  1976,  he  was

replaced by his deputy, Lt-General Olusegun Obasanjo. Obasanjo

remained  in  power  for  almost  four  years,  leading  the  country

back to civilian democracy before stepping down in October 1979

after  multi-party  elections  were  won  by  Alhaji  Shehu  Shagari  of

the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). The voluntary surrender of

power was a source of great pride and prestige to the military, but

it amplified its political ambitions by giving it a self-righteous air of

being the nation’s political custodian and moral conscience.

 

The transfers of power from one military regime to another were

not random. Each coup and government had substantial continuity

of personnel. The same people have controlled Nigerian political and

military life since 1966. The group of officers that brought Gowon

to power in August 1966 formed the foundation of all succeeding

military  regimes  until  1998.  Although  leadership  of  the  regimes

changed, the personalities behind the coups and regimes did not.

 

The 1966 cadre created successive dynastic military regimes for the

next 32 years. The young non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and

lieutenants who blasted Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi from power

in  1966  became  the  colonels  who  ousted  his  successor  General

Gowon  in  1975,  and  they  became  the  Brigadiers  and  Major-

generals who overthrew President Shagari in 1983. These officers

included Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha, Muhammadu Buhari,

Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Aliyu Mohammed, Joshua Dogonyaro, Jerry

Useni and Ibrahim Bako.

 

Between  1966  and  1979,  Nigerian  military  regimes  ruled  with

a  deft  touch,  and  rarely  resorted  to  ruthless  force.  Apart  from

being unelected, they behaved little differently from the civilians

they replaced. Most regimes during this era would probably have

defeated  their  predecessor  civilian  government  in  an  election

and  were  generally  more  popular  than  civilian  governments.

The military was perceived to be an agent of order and stability,

in  contrast  to  the  institutional  chaos  that  accompanied  civilian

politicians.  The  military  governed  with  popular  appeal  and  little

opposition.  Each  military  government  was  welcomed

with  jubilation  and  great  optimism.  The  incoming  government

would then reciprocate that optimism with grandiose promises of

reform and an end to the ills of its predecessor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The army’s journey into politics was akin to sitting an exam prior

to  attending  lectures.  The  1980s  Nigerian  army  was  a  legacy  of

the civil war during which mass military recruitment swelled the

military’s manpower from 10,000 in 1966 to approximately 250,000

by the end of the war in 1970. A swollen military became a drain on

government finances, and an internal security risk. Nigeria faced

no external military threat from a foreign power, thus the army’s

role was largely devoted to the suppression of communal riots and

international peacekeeping missions. With no external enemies to

fight, military heroism tended to be sought in the political arena

rather  than  on  the  battlefield.

 

The  nature  of  military  governance changed greatly during the 1980s.

Coups became motivated by a desire for personal gain, rather than

by altruism or ideology. Public optimism about military rule dissipated

when the public realised that  only  the  leaders  had  changed,

but  the  underlying  problems which were cited as justifications for

military governance continued despite the change of personnel.

 

The military  doctor  became infected by  the  ills  it  came  to  cure.

Soldiers  were  corrupted  by  politics  as  quickly  and  absolutely  as

civilians had been. Although the military claimed to bring law and

order, communal, criminal and religious violence increased under its

watch. It continually promised to eradicate corruption, yet military

officers were indicted for corruption. As it extended its rule to attempt

resolution of these new issues, the military found itself engaged in

an  endless  merry  go  round  of  fire-fighting.  By  the  time  it  tackled

one  issue,  several  more  had  arisen.

 

As  the  military  became  more  politicised, ethnic and religious cleavages

in civil society replicated in the officer corps. Ultimately, the military

became overburdened by its workload of governance, political reform,

and transitioning back to  democracy,  while  simultaneously  trying

to  keep  its  own  house in order and protect itself against coups from within.

Military rule became more toxic than incompetent civilian rule, because

soldiers can  get  away  with  much  more  in  government  since  they

control the state’s instruments of violence, and do not have to worry about

becoming unpopular enough to lose elections.

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