Democracy and the Military


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Democracy and the Military


Lt. Gen. Alani Akinrinade

Monday, June 07, 2004


What Nigeria needs badly is a purposeful political reorganization to bring into play our unity in diversity. We need to restore power to the people effectively at the grassroots and unleash their energy for development. We need to honestly and dispassionately without shame, go back to the drawing board and re-engineer our country. We must admit that tribes and tongues differ and there lies our strength and not our shame. We must, when time still permits listen attentively to the heartbeat of our charge before it gives up the ghost on us…

Let me start by thanking General Joshua Dongoyaro for deciding that I deserve the space on this platform to kick off the discuss on this subject for two reasons.

One - I looked at the array of respected intelligentsia, political scientists and professional soldiers paraded to partake in this discuss and I feel deeply honoured not just to participate but occupy the longest period of uninterrupted jabbering on the programme. I hope I do not disappoint you because in difference to the distinguished panel, I will not take 40 minutes, I will rather listen to them.

Two, I read carefully your synopsis for this session. But in John Rawls School, "There are firm constitutional protections for certain liberties particularly freedom of speech and assembly, and liberty to form political associations". There is the principle of loyal opposition, the clash of political beliefs and of the interests and attitudes that are likely to influence them, that are accepted as a normal condition of human life. I believe also that a lack of unanimity is part of the circumstances of democracy and justice, since disagreement is bound to exist even among honest men even when they desire to follow same political principles. Without the conception of opposition, and an attachment to constitutional Rules which express and protect it, the politics of democracy cannot be profoundly conducted or long endure. A democratic regime presupposes freedom of speech and assembly, and liberty of thought and conscience. These are basic if political affairs are to be conducted in a rational fashion. All citizens, civilian and military alike, must have access to the means of being properly informed about political issues. We should be in a position to assess how legislative proposals affect our well-being and which policies advance our conception of the public good. We should have a fair chance to add alternative proposals to the agenda for political discussion.

Democratic political process is at best regulated rivalry. It does not answer, even at best, to the desirable properties that price theory dictate to truly competitive markets. The effects of injustices in the political system are much more grave and long lasting than market imperfections can inflict. We have watched political power rapidly accumulating to points of inequality by making use of the cohesive apparatus of state and its laws, and those who have gained the advantage assure themselves of a favoured position. Universal suffrage is therefore insufficient to maintain democracy, for when political parties and elections are financed not by public funds, but by private contributions, the political forum is inextricably constrained by the dominant interest. The liberty provided by the principle of participation should not be eroded by permitting those who have greater private means to use that advantage to determine and control the course of public debate. For when the less favoured members of society have been effectively prevented by their lack of means from exercising their fair degree of influence, they would withdraw into apathy and resentment.

So, the President of RANAO Club, you gave me this podium free of charge, I therefore take my chance to deviate from your brief, and in the furtherance of democracy, I urge you to turn this evening's session into a memorable discourse. I hope I have your leave to proceed.

Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill after him pinned democracy down to the government of the people, by the people and for the people. Churchill in later years, out of experience concluded that of all forms of government, mankind has not discovered one that can replace or is superior to democracy.

Plato in The Republic Book viii advanced his own definition - "Democracy which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike". I have the feeling that he was influenced by the Athenian democracy, the Greek City State, Socrates likened to mob rule. But Alexander Pope, in his Epistle III of his 'Essays on Man' retorted, "For forms of Government, let fools contend. Whatever is best administered is best".

These quotations represent two philosophical schools of thought on governance. But they do not seen as divergent as one might often think. I suppose Pope went straight to what is supposed to be the end-game of Democracy and concluded that the purpose of governance should be the greatest good for the greatest number of people. I believe he did not extend it to "The End justifies the means," apologies to Lenin. I have no quarrels with Pope as long as he meets the prescription of Professor S.A. de Smith who defined Constitutionalism as "Where the government is genuinely accountable to an entity or organ distinct from itself, where elections are freely held on a wide franchise at frequent intervals, where political groups are free to organize in opposition to the government in office and where there are effective legal guarantees of fundamental civil liberties enforced by an independent judiciary." If we substitute the word Democracy for Constitutionalism, then Smith might have produced the closest one gets to an exhaustive and inclusive or an all-embracing definition of Democracy.

Democracy however does not equate Licence to Licentiousness, whether on the part of the government or the governed. In fact all governments whether democratic or not, wield enormous powers over the people. The difference with a democracy is that the powers are exercised with the consent of the people, or the governed. It follows therefore that the representatives of the people must be mindful always that they have authority to determine the direction of basic social policies. That they are there for limited time and accountable to the electorate. That they have law-making powers and not simply a disorderly and unfocused forum of delegates from various sectors of the society to which the executive merely explains its actions and discerns the direction of public sentiments. Nor should political parties become mere interest groups petitioning the government in their own behalf. They must advance some conception of the public good and aspire to gain enough public support to win office.

However, the people usually tolerate the excesses of government provided they have their say and their way at regular, honest, free and transparent elections.

Witness the Great Ghandi's Congress party out of power for over two decades unexpectedly rumbling back to power in India, led by an Italian born Indian Lady Sonia Ghandi. The left decisively won and ascended to government in Spain in an overnight turn around against a confident and successful Prime Minister. However, the power of the people is not unlimited. It is limited by the corps of rights called human rights, the source of which is not the constitution but divine. Constitutions merely encapsulate it. The US declaration of independence drove it home succinctly.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness - that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute new government, laying the foundation on such forms, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." (Action of Second Continental Congress July 4, 1776).

From the beginning of human affairs, two opposite tendencies have been prevalent, Reason and Force. In fact Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan, wrote "During the time men live without a common power to keep them in awe, they are in that condition which is called war: and such a war as is of every man against every man ………."

From the day God placed a one man Army (The angel with the flaming sword) to keep just two inquisitive and rather intransigent people (Adam and Eve) out of the Garden of Eden, it appears He, the Good Lord Himself, recognized the need that power i.e. military power will be required to keep man in line and in step - Genesis 3 vs. 4.

In the democratic state, the military only obeys government. That is invariably the constitutional position. Even the Roman Army participated in the burning of Rome on the orders of the decadent Nero. At the Bridge of Thenophalae, General Leonidas sent his runner back to Athens to reassure his government, and the people:

"Go tell our people at home, that we are lying here carrying out the orders which they have made".

The dilemma of the military establishment heightens when democracy has irretrievably broken down as a result of constitutional violations by the government, all other sundry reasons, including bad government, ineptitude, election rigging and the people are organized enough to wish to enthrone popular democracy from the street. We now know that a number of options exist courtesy of contemporary history. There are generally three options I can think of and I am sure the distinguished scholars and the audience will take this up and enlighten us.


The military has the purely constitutional option to support the government of the day and endeavour to suppress the people's uprising by force of Arms. There are some instances when this course of action has worked. The Tiv uprising in the 60s, the western operation Wetie in the 60s, the Aba riot of the 20s, Maitasine of the 80s, the June 12 uprising of the 90s, Warri, Odi Sarki Biam, Yelwa, Jos etc of the 21st century. It is the same constitutional dictation that pitched the Native Armies against the political forces fighting colonialism be it Kenya, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Malaya, India, Burma etc.


The second option is the Military to support people's democracy by remaining neutral. We have watched this development in the Philippines, Venezuela, Haiti, Pakistan, Georgia etc in very recent times. This option is unconstitutional but weighs heavily on the moral scale. Should the military mutilate the tax payers that employ them? Should the military in the name of democracy and constitutionalism side with a delinquent elite, hell bent on the road to tyranny and perfidy?

This option also has the variation of direct support for the people's revolution. The Russian Navy participated in firing at the winter's palace that resulted in a long spell of dictatorship in the Soviet Union, just like in China, Haiti and Cuba to mention a few. But this option also may be useful in a particular case when an incumbent government loses election and refuses to step down, then military support for a people's revolution might lead to an immediate restoration of democracy.


The third option is the middle ground where the military refuses to obey the government and aborts the peoples' revolution by staging a coup-de-tat.

Let me state for the sake of controversy that it is not a coup-de-tat that overthrows democracy. It is when democracy has been demolished through corrupt and dishonest elections and the people have lost hope of upholding their choices that the people themselves look up to the military to break its oath of allegiance to the government and support a people's revolution which the military then appropriate to itself. For Nigeria 1966 and 1983 are cases in point. In 1966, and indeed 1983, the military, the intelligentsia, and the foreign powers got the diagnosis wrong and covertly opted for a military coup-de-tat.

When democracy breaks down, and governments become illegitimate, any action taken by the Military short of supporting the government is a violation of its oath of allegiance. If the military supports an illegitimate government, it is not democratic. If it supports a people's revolution, it is not democratic and if it installs itself in government it is not democratic. This is the dilemma for the military when democracy is destroyed. Quo Vadis?

Of the three options I have put forth, option three is by far the worst. The first two options have succeeded in the restoration of democracy, by and large; the third has compounded the people's misery.

Abdul Gamel Nasser and Atar Turk have succeeded in laying foundation for unity and good governance of their people but failed to establish democracy. Both worked in fairly monolithic nations, history, ethnic stock, language, religion, culture and tradition, the compelling ingredients for nation building were largely present. What was required was a visionary leader and both had that in abundance.

Lee Kwan Yu brought Singapore from third world to first world. Indonesia, Malaysia, India when Pakistan left, all enjoyed to a large extent developments but they are very much like the situation in Egypt and Turkey minus the Kurds.

African Nations cobbled together by rampaging colonials suffer from the absence of these ingredients. Wherever the colonial explorers and their armies met became inviolate Borders of African countries. Old established empires got dismembered in the name of booty sharing and peace at Berlin in 1884. It is not only in Nigeria, a peep at all the trouble spots in Africa today - Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote-de-Voire, Uganda, both Congos, Angola, Rwanda and elsewhere is the same. In 1960 Nigeria had established democracy and it was working until the leaders got swept off by Nationalism. Their dream of a giant black Nation, their ambition not to be outdone by Nkrumah of Ghana and overshadowed by Abdul Nasser of Egypt in the leadership of Africa took hold and the scramble for power at the center heated up. Regional competition moved to the center and the diversity came into play - culture, tradition, language, territorial spread and ethnicity hitherto contained, blossomed.

The military intervened in the ensuring fracas and brought in its own brand of Nationalism - the goose step syndrome. The military ignored the plurality and attempted to keep the people in line by share force, rhetoric and jingles on unity, the hallmark of the barracks.

The military was now expected to give what it did not have. Democracy! Democracy is anathema to military culture, they are strange bed fellows. Do we honestly believe that it was possible to subject the taking of an enemy machine-gun post to a debate between officers or between officers and rank and file? In the military we can distill what our soldiers want and what we must do to maintain an effective fighting force, but we are not equipped to distill what the generality of our people want and so we are unable to give it to them. We are not in the business of listening to a cacophony of complaints and riotous debate that is the realm of the politicians.

The Nations that had built empires, Sokoto, Kanemi, Oyo, Benin, Calabar, Jukun etc in our estimation, suddenly became ethnic groups and metamorphosed into tribal enclaves to be demolished, as they are no more relevant to modernism. I submit that they are of no less historical and administrative importance and relevance than Wales, Scotland, England, and Northern Island forming the United Kingdom. We abandoned our languages and adopted a foreign language as our national first language. It is as if we can point to any nation that has succeeded in making salutary contribution to learning in science, mathematics, technology and dug itself out of poverty to partake genuinely and enmasse in the match towards the frontiers of science and technology using someone else's language. We built in the image of the military a monstrosity called Federal Government. So large and unmaneuverable, remote, impersonal with all its colonial trappings untouched that it has become an obstacle to development, while the government is taken further away from the people who own the franchise.

Today, our people have been deprived of their history, their pride in their anthems, flags, dance, language, culture and even our religion has been desecrated and substituted by foreign religions in the name of the elusive unity, peace and progress.

In our culture soldiers and warlords lived outside the city gates. Ancient Rome kept its Armies at the peripheral of the city; the ancient empires making up Nigeria had the same culture. It was to preserve their system of governance and keep the soldiers at their job - defense of the realm. One of the greatest casualties of this tragedy is the military itself. Even today it is a pale shadow of what it was before 1966. The Camaraderie was dealt a fatal blow, the professionalism has waned. Since the end of the civil war, governments, especially military governments, have severely neglected the building of the Armed Forces. For them 1966 had been an unforgettable and insurmountable water shed. Which other profession has suffered as much haemorrhage as the military?

Executions, long jail terms, dismissals, and retirements in the vicious circle of dog eat dog had destroyed its morale. We have not lost sight of those who by share looting of the treasury have introduced pollution to the barracks fuelling the propensity to take over governments. It was derogatorily described once by a respected general as "An Army of anything goes". Unable to practice the profession once out of the loop, infantrymen, artillery corps, armored corps officers unlike Engineers, Architects, Masons etc, are the greatest dependents on pensions and the situation is to say the least, abominable. We are not entitled to start our own army and farming has become a millionaire's sport.

In my valedictory speech to Alhaji Shehu Shagari's government on 30 September 1981, I said "I have toured the military formations extensively and I have explained and warned the officers and men against military interference in governance, but Mr. President the only armour against a military takeover is good governance". While I still hold tenaciously to this view, I believe, there is a requirement to examine the root cause of bad government. The weakness of the institutions that sustain democracy, viz the bureaucracy, judicial system, policing, purposeful representative legislatures, a ferocious press, civic institutions that serve as watch dog against infractions of the constitutions and abuse of human rights, etc do not bode well for the building and sustenance of democracy. Most of these institutions have been beaten down by long spells of military rule and have not recovered. The national economy has been over burdened by the share weight of our inefficient bureaucracy that has taken the wind out of the sails of any development effort. A chronic debt overhang that has tarnished our efforts at mustering development efforts at home and abroad cannot be said to assist good governance and bring contentment to a population reeling under the yoke of poverty.

I believe RANAO Club is doing great. We have contributed to this democratic dispensation Senators, Members of the House of Representative, Assembly men, Ministers, many Traditional stools are held by us, and to the economy; Chairmen and Directors of Banks, Insurance Companies, and reputable multi national companies, Teachers, pilots for Civil Airlines, Merchant Navy Captains, Divers in oil service industry, Farmers, Security operatives, Chief of Staff to the President, National Security Adviser (NSA), Director SSS and even a President and Commander in Chief and just recently we produced an Administrator. The numbers may even be disproportionate to other professional groups in a dwindling economy.

What I believe our country needs badly is a purposeful political reorganization to bring into play our unity in diversity. We need to restore power to the people effectively at the grassroots and unleash their energy for development. We need to honestly and dispassionately without shame, go back to the drawing board and re-engineer our country. We must admit that tribes and tongues differ and there lies our strength and not our shame. We must, when time still permits listen attentively to the heartbeat of our charge before it gives up the ghost on us.

If the elite is scarred that an attempt to move from conflict resolution to conflict prevention will open up the cupboard full of injustices which cannot be contained and resolved, then listen to this:

"A discussion promptly of all issues capable of sparking deeper crisis before things get out of hand is inevitable"

- His Royal Highness, Alhaji Ado Bayero, Emir of Kano after the last Kano riots

"Sovereign Confab cannot split Nigeria. I am now a born again. I did not believe in SNC, now I do, let's have it. SNC can strengthen the bond between the Nation's teeming population"

- General Ibrahim Babangida, Daily Trust February 7th, 2004.

"A national conference is imperative"

- Alhaji Lateef Adegbite - Sec. Gen. Jarmat Na Islam

"I shall in collaboration with the National Assembly, bring together the political leadership of our great country and stake holders of our polity to a conference to discuss issues affecting Nigerian Federation openly, honestly and forthrightly. Government will do this sincerely with dispatch."

– General Mohamadu Buhari - Ex Head of State.

On 30th October 2002, General Yakubu Gowon in a speech to Arewa Consultative Forum called for a National Conference.

"A need for a National Conference therefore is compelling, imperative, necessary, urgent and inevitable. The time for this conference is now."

- Bishop Akinola, Anglican Bishops Conference

"We renew our call for a National conference that will examine the sources of conflict and propose measures to heal the divisions. To say no to dialogue is to say yes to violence".

- Catholic Bishops Conference

The 21st premier of Ontario, Canada, Robert Keith Rae in Lagos 21st October 2002 said "World reality showed that cohabiting Nation States must design ways of living together ……….."

At various times the Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Alhaji Saleh Minchica, Alhaji Wada Nas have lent their voices and writing to a call for a National Conference.

I suggest that the elite climb down from their high horse and think and act beyond empty rhetoric: "Nigeria Unity is not negotiable" "This our great country", "Freedom, peace and Unity". I know the Unity is negotiable for a better bond of unity rooted in peace, justice, liberty, freedom and pursuit of happiness, the only divine rights not negotiable.

I am a Nigerian patriot, my best Polo Horse was named "One Nigeria', my chimpanzee was named 'Biafra' but I do not believe in the dubious unity of the Donkey and its owner. We, from the President and Commander in Chief, to the beggar and Alimanjeri on the street in Kano, to the street urchin and area boy under the Marina Bridge in Lagos are all victims of a constitution put together by a self serving motley section of the thieving elite. They not only lied, but also raped our collective trust and honour by prefixing it with "We the people". As to my contribution to the constitution - I say Democracy forever, Freedom and justice for all.

I propose that we find the courage to fashion out a peoples constitution to which, like the concluding paragraph of the American declaration of independence we will all repeat with our chest out: "And for the support of this constitution, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortune and our sacred Honour."

I wish RANAO Club happy reunion.

I thank you.

Lt General Alani Akinrinade was Nigeria's Chief or Army Staff and Chief of Defence Staff between 1979 and 1981. He made this presentation at the reunion dinner of retired army, navy and airforce officers (RANAO) in Jos on May 28, 2004.


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