THE NIGERIAN MILITARY AND GOVERNANCE: 1966 – 1979
Table of Contents
“It is not the duty of a soldier to criticize or endeavour to interfere in any way with the political affairs of the country”.President Nkrumah: In his address to the Cadets of Ghana Military Academy, Teshie, May 1961
The Nigerian military, by its orientation, was not trained for governance. It was a well trained and disciplined force founded on the heritage of the British colonial army. It enjoyed privileges of internationally recognized assignments as in the Congo and the Middle East, where it performed creditably. But not long after independence in 1960, the prevailing political exigencies compelled it by choice, to take on contrary duties. On January 15, 1966, the army seized power from the democratically elected Government it took an oath to protect.
ORIGIN OF THE NIGERIAN MILITARY
The origin of the Nigerian armed forces is traceable to three British colonial military units. The first Nigerian unit Glover’s Hausa’s was established in 1862 by Captain John Glover to defend Lagos. The Royal Niger Company recruited Northerners predominantly into this unit. As a result, the Hausa language was mostly used as a medium of communication and remained so until the 1950s. It is also accountable for the long-standing historical, ethnic imbalance of the Nigerian army to this day.
In addition to Glover’s Hausa’s, the Royal Niger Constabulary was established in 1888 to protect British interests in northern Nigeria. Thus while Glover’s Hausas were recruited from the h to protect the South, the Company Constabulary was recruited to serve an internal security role in the northern part of Nigeria. This Constabulary formed the core of the Northern Nigeria regiment of the West African Frontier Force ( WAFF).
The third unit, The Oil Rivers irregulars, was predominantly Igbos and was raised in 1891. It became known as the Southern Regiment of the West African Frontier Force on January 1, 1914. With the consolidation of the Nigerian Protectorate, it became known as the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria.
In 1928 West African Frontier Force was renamed the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) and expanded from four to six battalions in the 1930s. During WW II, the Nigerian Army developed to twenty – eight companies. With the WW II over in 1945, the Nigerian Army resumed it’s “the primary mission of internal security, police actions, and punitive actions to break strikes, bringing local disturbances under control and enforcing collection of taxes for the colonial government”. Over time the Colonial Government expanded to a two-brigade system.
The British Colonial Government appointed the first officer of Nigerian heritage in 1948, and this marked the beginning of the Africanization or indigenization of the officer corps of the Nigerian Army. This process continued from the 1950s until Nigeria gained independence in 1960.
Post-independence politics in Nigeria was mostly ethnic-based as in the late 1950s, during colonial rule. On October 1, 1960, Nigeria gained independence from Britain. The first Prime Minister was Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a northern Fulani. Three main political parties were contending for power in Nigeria, each leaning on a tribal base. The National Council of Nigerian Citizens ( NCNC), with Igbo as lynchpin; the Northern People’s Conference ( NPC) centred in the North, and the Yoruba based Action Group (AG) led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The 1960 election results were lopsided in favour of the NPC. Still, they failed to give the North the majority of seats needed to form a government.
The Hausa – Fulani based NPC had to ally with the NCNC to be able to form a Federal Government. With the agreed terms Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe (Igbo) became the Governor-General and later President in 1963. That alliance seemed tenuous as by the elections of 1964 the NPC sought to abandon the NCNC and fracture the AG and thus Yoruba unity. The game plan was to forestall any Igbo – Yoruba alliance against the North. The NCNC boycotted the elections, and President Azikiwe refused to call on Balewa’s victorious NPC to form a government. The Parties, however, resolved crisis but Azikiwe lost whatever power base he had in the North.
One massive consequence of the failed election was the deluge of corruption allegations mounted against the Government which became unacceptably and overwhelmingly dominated by the North.
There was also unrest in the West arising from the splintering of Chief Obafemi Awolowo-lead Action Group Party by a Yoruba faction named the New Nigerian Democratic Party (NNDP) seeking an alliance with the North. The victory claimed by this party in the 1965 elections for the Western House of Assembly sent ripples far and wide. Violence erupted across Yoruba land with Lagos as the epicentre, and with the acronym of “Wild Wild West” with “operation Wetie” signified by setting live human beings and properties on fire. Balewa’s refusal to take appropriate steps to end the violence opened all doors and windows for the military coup of January 1966.
January 1966 Coup and the Nigeria Civil War
The first military coup in Nigeria took place on January 15, 1966. The critical planners of the coup were mainly Igbo military officers. It is noteworthy to point out that Igbos commanded three of five battalions of the army. With the January 15, 1966 coup, a fourth battalion previously under Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi (a Yoruba commander), who was ordered to Abeokuta for a military course and later appointed Military Governor of Western Region. A fourth battalion came under the command of another Igbo officer.
Major Nzeogwu principally executed the coup in the cities of Kaduna and Kano in the North. In the South, another group of Majors took charge of Lagos and Ibadan. The coup leader, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, highlighted the ongoing cycle of political violence as a primary reason for their intervention. He also cited the rampant spate of corruption among the political elite as a catalyst for their motive. However, this coming from an Igbo officer and coupled with the lopsided killing of preponderantly northern Hausa – Fulani and Yoruba political and military leaders rendered Nzeogwu’s case suspect. The Northern officers perceived the coup as the beginning of a programmed effort to purge northern elements from the rank and file of the military. Major – General Aguiyi Umunakwe Ironsi, an Igbo officer who ultimately assumed office as Head of State, had difficulty defending the accusations from northern officers.
It was clear that Ironsi’s Federal Government could not reduce ethnic tensions. Instead, they seemed to escalate. It could not also draft a constitution acceptable to all sections of the country. The promulgation of Decree 34 on May 24, 1966, was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The decree abolished the existing four regions, and Ironsi established a unitary system of Government. Also, the country formerly known as the Federal Republic of Nigeria became known as the “Republic of Nigeria”. Northern elites construed it to mean a grand design by Ironsi to establish an Igbo government to dominate the rest of the country.
On July 18 and 19, 1966, a group of northern military officers led by Major Murtala Mohammed organized a counter-coup that removed General Ironsi from office. Major Theophilus Danjuma killed General Ironsi along with about two hundred other Igbo officers in different military formations across the country. Major General Yakubu Gowon, the most senior northern officer, became Head of State. On August 31, 1966, the name Federal Republic of Nigeria was re-established. The coup was followed by the creation of twelve states to shore up autonomy for ethnic minorities on May 27, 1967. The Igbos greeted by the creation of States by Major General Gowon led Government with a feeling of consternation in the east. Two days later, on May 29, 1967, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the former Eastern Region Republic of Biafra. Unfolding events led to the declaration of war by the Federal Government to subdue the rebellious Biafra government. The civil war lasted for three years, ending with a statement of “no victor, no vanquished” by General Gowon. It left in its trail enormous destruction, devastation and loss of over a million lives on both sides.
The end of the war left the Government with a lot of issues to resolve. The Herculean task was how to reconstruct, rebuild and reconcile the nation.
On the economic front, the Gowon led government witnessed oil boom arising from the Arab oil embargo of 1973. His management of the economy was poor. Corruption was rife among public officeholders. General Gowon engaged in the reckless donation of money to African states and other less developed economies. Gowon led Government squandered money on white elephant projects that did not improve the lot of the ordinary citizen. The Government hosted useless jamborees such as the WORLD BLACK AND AFRICAN FESTIVAL OF ARTS AND CULTURE (FESTAC), the ALL AFRICAN GAMES and WORLD SCOUT JAMBOREE among others at enormous cost. His colleagues in the military became disgruntled and lost confidence in him. Colonel Joe Garba toppled the Gowon led Government in a bloodless coup on July 25, 1975.
General Murtala Mohammed led the Government which emerged after the overthrow of the Government of General Gowon. The leaders of the bloodless palace coup accused Gowon of putting off a pledged return to civilian rule as well as massive corruption under his watch. Mohammed purged the civil service to free it from corrupt officers. He immediately declared a programme for the restoration of civilian rule by October 1, 1979. In February 1976, Colonel Buka Dimka assassinated Gen Mohammed in a failed coup attempt. The then Chief of Staff Lt Gen Olusegun Obasanjo became Head of State.