History of Civil-Military Relations


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October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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History of Civil-Military Relations  Part 4  -

The Second Transition (1979-83, Part 1) 




Nowa Omoigui, MD



In September 1978, the ban on political party activity, in force since January 1966, was lifted.  This was in anticipation of the return to civil rule in October 1979 after nearly 14 years.  In the interval, however, the country and military had witnessed profound changes.  We had been ruled by four military leaders and had differentiated from four regions to 19 states.

The Tiv and western region crises of the sixties had been resolved.  The military had decided to move the federal capital, change the country's anthem and do away with the parliamentary system of the first republic, ushering in a Presidential system of government and a new constitution.  We had lived through brutal ethnic decimations of the January and July coups, the civilian pogroms and adhoc constitutional meetings of 1966. Reflecting the complete breakdown of ethnic trust, we witnessed the regionalization of the military high command after the Aburi conference, followed by failure of various efforts to resolve the crisis.  The Eastern region under Lt. Col Ojukwu declared secession and renamed itself Biafra.  Then we fought a civil war for 30 months during which the military expanded twenty-three (23) fold to over 230,000 indigenous men in arms (including ex-servicemen from the Burma campaign) and perhaps 600,000 to 1 million civilians died, mostly from starvation, but some from human rights abuses.  Biafra collapsed in January 1970.  What used to be the eastern region was reintegrated but deep emotional wounds persisted in the body politic.  The coups, followed by the war and the massive expansion it engendered, fundamentally altered the character of the Nigerian military as well as the State's ethnic security map. For a while, quotas were thrown overboard as men were called up for service but after the war they were reconstituted.  For obvious reasons there was a hiatus in recruitment of servicemen from the Igbo heartland, reversing the demographic patterns of the late fifties and early sixties.

The discovery of Oil brought in its wake petrodollars and rapid expansion of the economy. It created a rapidly expanding new urban middle class with new values.  The sleepy agrarian rural countryside of the early sixties was in for a shock.  Massive new infrastructures were built to support various facets of the economy including new military bases and expanded older ones.

The second and third national development plans had been completed.  New barracks dotted the landscape.  Military uniforms had evolved.  The Army had imported large numbers of excess Vietnam era American trucks.  In 1976 there had been an abortive coup which led to executions after the promulgation of new decrees specifically designed to address coup plotting [http://www.gamji.com/nowa3.htm].

It was the third time since 1960 that Nigerian soldiers would kill the Head of the Nigerian Government.  General Gowon, Nigeria's civil war era leader studying political science at that time in Britain, was accused of involvement, tried in absentia and dismissed from the military. (He was later pardoned and reinstated) The Army now had Tanks and long range artillery and had opened a Command and Staff College. It was now sending peace-keeping battalions to Lebanon as part of the UN Force. This was its first foreign foray since its return from Battalion operations in Tanzania in November 1964.   It even had another peace-keeping operation going in Chad.  It had started an active demobilization program and at the same time changed educational requirements for recruits.  The quota system was still in force, except that this time every State had equal representation.  Since there were 10 northern and 9 southern states, it meant that the north's total share of recruits and officers had increased since 1966 from 50% to 52.6%.  The Midwest's share had also slightly increased from 4% to 5.3% - although the actual representation of the Midwest (Bendel) was temporarily greater, as a result of civil war era recruitments.  The East which had 25% before 1966 now had approximately 21% shared between first three, then four states, two of which were non-Igbo.  The West's share was stable at about 21%  But this time Yorubas were signing up, a far cry from the situation in the fifties and early sixties.  The Air Force had come into its own since 1964 when it was created by an act of parliament.  It no longer used Army rank insignia.  The Navy was now a much bigger operation.   It even had a dockyard.  The Police was also much larger and more complex.  There were no more British police officers in service.  A National Security Organization had been created where none existed.  A National Institute for International Affairs, Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies and an Administrative Staff College had all been established in the intervening period.  Those civilians who were voting for the first time at age 18, were too young to even remember that Nigeria once had a civilian government.  Even land tenure had changed in southern Nigeria, courtesy of the Land use decree. The military implication of this change was that large tracts of land for barracks and possible military training could now be acquired without the cut-throat community demands for compensation that used to be the case.

The military was no longer just a ceremonial outfit and executor of defence and security policy made by civilians. This was a confident and "victorious" military which had "won" a war and kept the country together and then successfully implemented a plan for return to civil rule.  It was a relatively serious fighting force (in the sub region) and active player in policy formulation and implementation.  It was certainly not shy or ashamed about the "effective" role it had played in government and did not view involvement in politics as a threat to its professional integrity.  Some of its leading spokespersons like then Army Chief, Lt. Gen Danjuma, went so far as to state that military rule was not an aberration.  Soldiers who used to be rarely seen in the sixties were now mixing freely with civilians in town, sometimes refusing to pay rent for properties rented.  In a throw back to the dark days of the civil war it was a common sight to observe signposts in front of military facilities that read "Military Zone; Keep Moving".

Civilians could not even drive personal cars that were painted green.

The external threat environment had changed too.  The cat and mouse games between Kwame Nkrumah and Tafawa Balewa were a thing of the past.  Ghana was a different country from what it was in the sixties and it too had experienced military rule. (Nkrumah had himself been overthrown a few weeks after applauding the January 1966 Nigerian coup)  Indeed many Ghanaians had immigrated legally and illegally to Nigeria for economic reasons.  The late seventies were the heyday of the frontline states.  Nigeria had become a big player in southern African politics and the anti-apartheid movement.  We had nationalized BP over Rhodesia and recognized the MPLA in Angola over American objections. We were actively training some nationalist guerillas.  Slowly increasing tensions with Cameroun over the Bakassi border had become a fact of life since 1970.  The Chad basin was another flashpoint.   Because of a misunderstanding over the abortive coup of 1976, diplomatic relationship with Britain, Nigeria's colonial master was at an all time low.

The 1979 constitution created new structures for supporting the proposed new civil-military relationship.  There would now be a simplified command flowing from the elected President who would be C-in-C, ceremonial head and head of government all wrapped into one - avoiding the complicated arrangement that contributed to the constitutional command crisis between Azikiwe and Balewa in January 1965.  He or she would have a Vice President.

There would be separate Defence and Security Councils both chaired by the President.  Army, Navy and Air Force Councils continued to function. The new position of Chief of Defence Staff had been created to fulfill the role of principal military operational adviser, with direct access to the President in parallel to the policy line of reporting which flowed through the Minister of Defence.    We now had Chiefs of the Army, Naval and Air Staffs.

Instead of 5 battalions under one GOC, we had 3 divisions and a Garrison Organization, each with its own GOC.  The incoming Service Chiefs had not even been commissioned at the time we gained independence in 1960.  And many middle grade officers had never served under civilians in their professional career.

But the political class had some familiar old faces. Awolowo and Azikiwe were still alive and planned to take part in active politics.  Some old NPC hands were still around.  There were now five new political parties which all had to be registered and meet strict standards.  The National Party of Nigeria (NPN) was mostly a reincarnation of the NPC-NNDP alliance with some newcomers from the old AG, NCNC and UMBC.  The Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) was mostly a reincarnation of the AG.  The Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) was mostly a reincarnation of the NCNC.  The Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) was mostly a reincarnation of NEPU.  The Great Nigerian Peoples Party (GNPP) was a splinter group led by Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim of Borno.  According to new rules, no political party could capture power at the center without demonstrating "geographic spread", but basic political instincts and behaviors were unchanged.  The bicameral National Assembly was now organized into an American style committee system.  We would now have police, defence and even intelligence oversight committees in the House and the Senate.

In the run up to the 1979 elections, soldiers were banned from joining or openly associating with party politics although they had the right to vote but could not be voted for.  Old rules dating back to the first republic forbade political speech making, writing articles, without approval, or political campaigns in barracks. Officers who had held very senior governing positions or nursed political ambition were asked to retire from active service but this did not include many who had been ministers and governors.

This group (including most of the northern officers that had overthrown General Gowon in 1975) reintegrated itself back into the military to lay in wait for the opportune moment to return.   However, a clause was inserted into the constitution making seizure of power unconstitutional.  It was hoped that such measures would establish safe boundaries between civil and military society and reduce ethno-regional tensions in an atmosphere of competitive zero-sum party politics.  Nevertheless public utterances made by party spokesmen helped to send signals about who would be "pro-military" and who would not.   And in various subtle ways the unstated preference for one of the major political parties, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) was implied, while the NPN on its part expressed the prophetic sentiment that it considered the military as the only credible alternative to it as a ruling party.   Such banter did not, however, go down well with the more professional element within the military.

All of this was noteworthy but other than common interest based on historical primordial ties between ethnic elites within and outside the military no formal effort was made to specifically develop sustainable civil institutional capacity to control the military or negotiate a partnership which would consolidate democratization in the long run.   Virtually no civilian or civil institution had served in an oversight role over defence and security matters since 1966.    We had to make it up as we went along oblivious to the fact that the military had become more organizationally differentiated, soldiers and officers now had more skill diversity while authority structures and professionalization had evolved alongside changes in weapon systems and doctrine.    Ominously, as noted above, a core of politically minded and power corrupted officers also lay in wait.

The departing military government of General Obasanjo appointed a new Army Chief for the incoming civilian government, although the position of Chief of Defence Staff was left vacant.  A new position of "Deputy Chief of Army Staff" was also created.   Thus, Generals Alani Akinrinade and Gibson Jalo became the first Chief and deputy-Chief of Army Staff to the new government.

Like the 1959 elections 20 years before, the 1979 elections were not free of rancor.  The 1979 constitution specified that the winning party that forms the government should have not only the majority of votes, but at least 25% of votes cast in two-thirds of states.  Barring this, a second round of voting was to take place at the Electoral College.  The problem that arose, therefore, was determining exactly what "two-thirds of nineteen" states meant.  The National Party of Nigeria came closest to the constitutional ideal but was felt by opponents not to have met the stipulation since it did not secure 25% of votes cast in 13 states during the first ballot.  From the point of view of an outgoing administration eager to avoid a crisis during the Electoral College, the NPN's "geographic spread" in 12 states and 25% of two-thirds of the thirteenth state was good enough.  And so the battle lines were drawn.   Chief Awolowo (whose party won over 25% of votes cast in only six states) took the matter to the Supreme Court which eventually came down on the side of the NPN - a decision the Chief never accepted until his death.

In the period just prior to October 1, 1979, the incoming civilian administration had to fight off not only this court battle against the decision of the Federal Electoral Commission to declare the NPN as winner of the elections, but also an attempted parliamentary coup by its opponents.  The UPN, GNPP and NPP had agreed to hijack the leadership of the National Assembly by exploiting their combined legislative majority during inauguration on October 2nd, 1979.  In consultation with the outgoing military regime, the constitutionally scheduled date of inauguration was revoked by General Obasanjo to buy time for Shagari to make a counter-proposal to his opponents to establish a government of National Unity.

Shortly after President Shagari eventually took office, he met with senior military officials.  They expressed the wish that the President retain the defence portfolio, rather than appoint a civilian defence minister.  He refused, and decided instead to appoint Mathematics Professor Iya Abubakar as civilian Defence Minister. Iya was, like Ribadu in the first republic, a Fulani from Adamawa.  For reasons that have never been clarified, however, Shagari took over the defence portfolio from Professor Iya Abubakar in October 1982, a move that the opposition interpreted as preparatory to using the military for partisan purposes.  After winning a second term, Shagari then appointed Alhaji Akanbi Oniyangi, a lawyer and businessman from Ilorin as his second Defence minister.   Shagari did not, however, appoint Ministers of State for individual services as had existed in the first republic.  He also agreed for the psychological satisfaction of the military, to wear military uniform anytime he was performing purely military state functions.  This had also been the practice of President Nnamdi Azikiwe back in the first republic.  It may have been a colonial tradition with roots in the quasi-military heritage of most British Governors General.

In general, Shagari chose a non-confrontational approach to his dealings with Army by using Umaru Shinkafi, the Director-General of the National Security Organization (NSO), as an intermediary.  In his memoirs he says Shinkafi "weathered the basic tensions of his duties with sauvity and aplomb, especially in the way he mingled with and guided my sub rosa battles against the ambitious military malcontents that ceaselessly plotted against my presidency."  Shinkafi also carried out other sensitive missions, including visits to two well known exiles, Yakubu Gowon and Emeka Ojukwu, when their respective state pardons were being negotiated.  Obviously, this touchy issue required deft handling of the Army.

Fairly early in the government's life Shagari found that the military had retained certain direct lines of access to the President, bypassing the council of ministers and even the legislature for approval of certain items under the pretext of "security reasons".    The "Task force" approach to doing things often meant that there was no tendering process for contracts, particularly for barracks.  All of this thus had to be normalized in accordance with standard civil service practice, a "correct" decision which nevertheless had some negative consequences for civil-military relations.

For example, one civilian defence contractor, Alhaji Bukar Mandara, frozen out of certain privileges he had enjoyed under the military began conspiring to sponsor a military coup in late 1982.  Caught, tried and jailed he was released on a technicality because federal prosecutors, concerned that the Lagos State judicial system controlled by the opposition UPN would try to embarrass the federal government, chose to try him directly in federal high court instead, violating court procedures.



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