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Nigerian Army: The force that shaped our destiny

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By Ochereome Nnanna

The Nigerian Army was not cut out for direct roles in politics. Being an offshoot of the British military system which abides by the liberal democratic traditions of Western Europe and the USA, the Nigerian Army, even till date, is constitutionally mandated to submit itself to civilian authority. That is why the President of Nigeria is the highest authority over the Nigerian Armed Forces, their Commander-in-Chief.

The Nigerian Army is not like some military models which are offshoots of revolutionary regimes (as in Cuba, Ba’athist Iraq, Libya and Egypt), which naturally produced the supreme ruler. It is, therefore, a great paradox of Nigeria’s history that the Nigerian Army ended up moulding the destiny of an otherwise democratic federal republic in much the same way as the military which act as the vanguard or guardian angels of some countries do.


On January 15, 1966, barely five years and three months after the British colonial adventurers handed over power to indigenous Nigerian leaders in 1960, the Nigerian Army made its first foray into the political arena by sacking the elected government of Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and eliminating the cream of the ruling Northern People’s Congress (NPC).

A counter-coup six months later precipitated a civil war which lasted for about 30 months, with the federal coalition effectively stopping the secession attempt by the breakaway Republic of Biafra.

For nine years after it first entered the political scene, the Nigerian Army started remodelling Nigeria’s federalism after its own unified command system. The four powerful Regions (East, West, North and Mid-West) were abolished and replaced with 12 states by the Federal Military Government under General Yakubu Gowon. The Army continued to create states and local governments in 1976, 1987 and 1996 to bring the number of such geopolitical units to the current 36 (and the Federal Capital Territory) and 774 respectively.

The more states and local governments that were created the less effective autonomous power of each the lower tiers of government had and therefore the less the likelihood of any of them challenging the centre as the former Eastern Region did when it declared itself “the Republic of Biafra” after the ethnic crises of 1966. In fact, there are some among the ranks of supporters of a strong federal government who would like states to be abolished, leaving only two tiers of government: the federal and local councils.

The army also created one constitution for the country without permitting the states to have their own constitutions as is the practice in the USA from where Nigeria copied her presidential system of government. This has not enabled the diversity of cultures and fashions that make up the Nigerian fabric to find expression in her localities. Nigerians are forced, as in military fashion, to live under a uniform system which is only diluted in the peripheries by laws made by State Houses of Assembly under the concurrent and residual powers granted it by the federal constitution.

The Nigerian Army while in power took up a total of nearly 30 years out of the country’s 49 years of independence. During this period, it also created a new revenue administration, which demands that all federally collected revenues must be put in the Federation Account and subsequently shared among the federal, state and local governments in line with a sharing formula which the Federal Government determines. Many sources of revenue that made the former regions rich and powerful were appropriated to centre for onward redistribution to all tiers of government.

The military also dictated the terms for registration of political parties. Blaming the regional and local orientation of some of the political parties of the First Republic for the rivalry that triggered the civil war, the Army, from the 1970’s insisted that political parties must be “national” in spread and character. Therefore, no political party that limits its activities to only a localised section of Nigeria will be registered or allowed to sponsor candidates for election.

Furthermore, all the constitutions written in Nigeria since the end of the war (in 1979, 1989, 1995 and 1999) were empanelled, supervised, reviewed and ratified by the ruling military councils, which reserved the power to add or remove anything the civilian constituent assemblies came up with. It is correct to say that apart from the 1963 Republican Constitution, no other constitution has been created under civilian rule. All the others were made either under the authority of the British colonialists or the Nigerian Armed Forces.

Having ruled for so long, the military was able to leave behind the unmistakable traits and reflexes peculiar to it in the behaviour of otherwise civilian politicians. These politicians grew up knowing politics only the way the military played it. There was little that connected them to the founding fathers whose understanding of democracy and parliamentary culture was almost a direct transplant from the British system. Till date, the civilian political practitioners are still struggling to come to grips with the nuances and niceties of democracy, and they are not making a very good attempt at it.

The constitutional culture that the military left behind made itself almost impossible to amend. What it means is that there are many things that can never be changed through normal constitution amendment. Only a military regime, which has both parliamentary and executive powers concentrated in its supreme ruling councils, can effect such changes. These include the creation of states and any radical alteration in the geopolitical and economic arrangement which the Army-led military regimes left as their legacy.

The Nigerian Army shaped the economic and geopolitical destiny of Nigeria, perhaps permanently. It will take decades of dedicated hard work for the civilian political class to effectively rescue Nigeria from the shape in which the military left it, and since the military strengthened the grip of some sectional and cultural interests more than the others, it will always be difficult if not impossible for its legacies to be done away with through normal democratic methods.

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