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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
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.