Military influence in Nigerian democracy has come to stay

Feature Article Military influence in Nigerian democracy has come to stay
OCT 9, 2021 LISTEN

From the period in the early 1950s when Nigerians began to take matters concerning their self rule seriously in negotiating for the independence of their country with the British government, it had literarily become obvious that only the educated elite among their people could shoulder the responsibility of securing the independence of Nigeria. Perhaps, it is important to observe at this point that during the numerous meetings and conferences that led up to the independence of the country in 1960, not one Nigerian soldier was known to have actively participated in the negotiations. But today, no one doubts any more that the presence of the military in the democratic process, not only of the external affairs of the country but even in its domestic wrangling, has come to stay. What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen?

What happened was that in the north during the independence negotiations, the country had people who spoke up for them, like Sir Tafawa Balewa who rose in the ranks of the teaching profession to become a grade 1 teacher. Balewa later acquired a Diploma in Education from London University Institute of Education. Afterwards, he returned to Bauchi Middle School as headmaster and also served briefly as an Inspector of Schools before joining politics. The north produced people like Sir Ahmadu Bello who attended Katsina Training College (now Barewa College) and became an English teacher at the Sokoto Middle School. There were people like Alhaji Shehu Shagari who attended Government College, Kaduna, which later became Barewa College. Shagari taught Science and Geography in Sokoto before venturing into politics. Although these men and other northerners like them were not very educated or more like they were not as educated as their southern counterparts, they were about the best brains the north could boast of at the time. They took on the mantle of the leadership of the north and forged ahead with the rest of the country during those years of negotiations.

The west boasted of erudite lawyers like Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Awolowo was a frontline journalist who edited such publications as 'The Nigerian Worker', among others. After receiving his bachelor degree in commerce in Nigeria, he traveled to London to pursue a degree in law. There were men like Chief Herbert Macaulay who studied Civil Engineering in Plymouth, England and was an apprentice to G.D. Bellamy, a borough surveyor and water engineer in Plymouth. Macaulay became a graduate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, London. He was also an accomplished musician who received a certificate in music from Trinity College, London and a certificate in violin playing at the Music International College, London before involving himself in politics. There were men like Chief Samuel Akintola who earned a British scholarship to study law in the U.K. Akintola started his legal career working as a lawyer on land and civic matters before he got into politics.

In the mid-west, men like Chief Okotie Ebo went to Prague in Czechoslovakia to further his education and obtain a Diploma in Business Administration before entering politics. There were men like Chief Anthony Enahoro who had a long and distinguished career in the press, in politics, in the civil service and in the pro-democracy movement. Educated at King’s College, Lagos, Enahoro became the editor of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s newspaper, the 'Southern Nigerian Defender' in Ibadan at the tender age of 21, becoming Nigeria’s youngest editor ever. There were men like Chief Dennis Osadebe who studied law in the UK. Osadebe was also an acknowledged poet and a journalist. He was one of the pioneering Nigerian poets who wrote in English.

And in the east, there were such men as Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who was considered a driving force behind Nigeria's independence. He became known as the "father of Nigerian nationalism". Azikiwe attended Storer College, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and Howard University where he bagged degrees in political science and international relations. There were men like Dr. Akanu Ibiam who studied at Kings College, Lagos and went to the UK to study medicine. Ibiam graduated from the University of St. Andrews and on his return to Nigeria chose to be a missionary medical doctor under the Church of Scotland Mission. There were men like Dr. Michael Okpara who studied medicine at Yaba Higher College in Lagos. On qualifying as a doctor, he was posted to Maiduguri, Borno state as a government medical officer before he ventured into politics.

There were men like Dr. Ozumba Mbadiwe, one of the most colorful politicians of the First Republic who studied at Columbia and New York Universities. The east had men like Dr. Benjamin Nzeribe, a man who from extremely humble beginnings found his way to Stanford and Cornell Universities in America where he earned a PhD in economics. Prior to his studies in the USA, he had been trained as a teacher at the prestigious St Charles Teachers' College, Onitsha. There were men like Joseph Wayas who attended the Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha. Wayas studied at the Higher Tottenham Technical College, London, the West Bromwich College of Commerce, Science and Technology, Birmingham and Aston University, Birmingham. He was a member of the Society of International Affairs at Lincoln University, United States of America. All these men who formed the think-tank that initially shaped the destiny of Nigerian nationalism had regular education from primary school through secondary school to the university level. They belonged to the intellectual horizon. But they were not alone. This is what happened.

It was not only men that played a leading role in the struggle. Women were also in it. In the west, there were women like Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti who earned herself the nickname 'Lioness of Lisabi' because of her successful campaign against arbitrary taxes levied on Yoruba women. A teacher by profession, she became a political campaigner and women’s rights activist by conviction and led a protest against the Alake of Egba land for collecting taxes on behalf of the UK government. The protest forced Oba Ademola II to abdicate his crown. She also led a successful campaign against separate taxes for women. Through the Federation of Nigerian Women Societies which she founded, Ransome-Kuti continued to champion women’s rights in the years leading to Nigeria’s independence. She was among the first Nigerian women to form political parties and was one of the delegates who negotiated Nigeria’s independence from Britain. She was killed in 1978 when ‘unknown soldiers’ attacked the Kalakuta Republic residence of her son, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

In the north, there were women like Hajia Sawaba, born Hajaratu Amarteifo to a Ghanaian father and Nupe mother. At the age of 13, she was married off to Abubakar Bello, a World War II veteran. By the time she was 17 years old, Hajia Sawaba was already politically active, using her membership of the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) to campaign against under-aged marriages and forced labour and to advocate for western and girl education. With the mentorship of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Sawaba became a driving force for northern women liberation and was frequently invited for interrogation by the security agencies for her views which, in those days, pitched against the prevailing social values of northern Nigeria.

In the East, there were women like Margaret Ekpo whose journey into politics was 'accidental'. Her medical doctor husband had been working for the government and could not attend political meetings. So, Margaret attended those meetings on his behalf and consequently developed an interest in politics. She later formed Aba Township Women’s Association, a year after her party, the NCNC nominated her to the regional House of Chiefs. Ekpo also worked with Ransome-Kuti to protest against the killings of the leaders of a local group that protested against the practices of the colonial masters at an Enugu coal mine in the early 1950s. She was elected into the Eastern Region Parliament from 1961 to 1965.

What happened was that while these brave men and women were fashioning out the future of Nigeria, the military boys tucked themselves away in their barracks. They saw absolutely no reason to come out and join the "bloody civilians" to wrestle authority from the British government. One reason was the fact that in those days, everyone knew that it was the good-for-nothing boys, the ones the Igbo name the 'efulefus' and generally the bad boys who were usually drafted into the army to 'go and die there'. No genuine son of the land was expected to enrol into the army. The army was for the bad boys. That was the understanding until somehow, values changed hands and educated men and women began to enrol in military career. That was the start of what happened that changed the course of direction of Nigeria experiment. That was when the new day dawned.

Some university graduates, even against the advice and in some cases, decision of parents and guardians insisted on enrolling in the army. Somebody like Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu had a running battle with his rich and influential father, Sir Louis Ojukwu on that account. The old man simply could not understand why his son would want to waste his life in the army. But it was late in the day. Already values had changed hands. The new army recruits were educated. They also had the gun. What else could they possibly want?

The crop of soldiers that struck in 1966 and extinguished the fire of democratic evolution in Nigeria and inadvertently introduced kleptocracy into the Nigerian social system were all university graduates, the first set of university graduates that were recruited into the Nigerian army at independence. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu had earned a degree in history from Oxford University and was widely touted as the first university graduate to join the Nigerian army. Adewale Ademoyega had also earned a degree in history from the University of London. He was one of the first graduates to enrol as an officer in the Nigerian Army with Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Victor Banjo had a B Sc. in Mechanical Engineering from Cranfield University. Olufemi Olutoye graduated from Ibadan and Cambridge Universities. Emmanuel Ifeajuna was admitted to the University College, Ibadan, to study for a bachelor’s degree in Science in the same 1954 he made Nigeria proud with his high jump victory at Vancouver, Canada. Oluwole Rotimi had a bachelor's degree from Ibadan University.

Like their counterparts in the political arena, these were all intellectuals. But now in the army they were seeing things slightly differently from the way the "bloody civilians" were seeing them. In army governance, there was strict hierarchy. There was order. There was rivalry. There was chivalry. There was openness to some extent, especially among course mates. In civilian governance, there was rule law, there was democracy, dissent was a norm and cases were settled with votes. There was a great disparity in the ways the leaders saw things, the way they wanted to get about solving the problems of their people. They hoped the opportunity would present itself as soon as possible.

Then came the time when the political crises in the Western House of Assembly and a failed national census that were brewing trouble across the country gave incentive to the military to want to change the batons, and they struck. Whatever it was, there must always be an excuse to strike, so long as it was the decision to strike. Perhaps a country like Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is one country that has, to some extent, consistently shared the same fate with Nigeria. That country has been troubled with political instability since it was granted independence from Britain in January 1948.

In 1958, U Nu, the democratically-elected prime minister of Myanmar had invited the military to form a temporary caretaker government to resolve political infighting. The military voluntarily restored civilian government in 1960 after holding the general election. But less than two years later, the military seized power in a 1962 coup, which under the leadership of Ne Win, precipitated 26 unbroken years of military rule.

In 1988, nationwide protests broke out in the country. The civil unrest was sparked by economic mismanagement and it led Ne Win to step down. In September 1988, the military's top leaders formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which automatically seized political authority from where the military left it. Many Burmese were unhappy. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the country's modern founder, Aung San, became a notable pro-democracy activist during this period.

In 1990, free elections were allowed by the military, believing that it enjoyed popular support. Ultimately, the elections resulted in a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy. The military refused to cede power and placed her under house arrest. The military remained in power for another 22 years until 2011. They followed the military's roadmap to democracy during which the 2008 Constitution of Myanmar was drafted somewhat like General Sani Abacha drafted Nigeria's 1999 constitution which the country still operates with.

In 2011, a tentative democratic transition began. Elections were held in 2015 which resulted in a victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Despite her persistent victory which reflected the will of the populace, the military insisted on retaining substantial power, including the right to appoint a quarter of all parliamentarians. In the first week of February 2021 the military staged another coup in the wake of the general election of 8 November 2020, in which the NLD won 396 out of 476 seats in parliament, an even larger margin of victory than in the 2015 election. The military's proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, won only 33 seats. The army disputed the results, claiming that the votes were fraudulent. Myanmar has, as it were, remained in a state of political coma ever since. The military refuses to go away even when the people do not want them.

The unfortunate situation in Myanmar might have a lot in common with Nigeria. The inability of the civilian government to rein in the soldiers to permanently be obedient to the democratically elected government as it is done in America and the UK, the two countries that mostly influence the democratic process in Nigeria is a worrying situation at hand. Why have most Nigerians not seen the Nigerian National Assembly summon a top military officer and grill him on the performance of his troops in Sambisa Forest or elsewhere they have had to engage Boko Haram or the ISWA? Why hasn’t the National Assembly put the law straight to them that the military in Nigeria is subject to and not above the legislature, the elected representatives of the people? And why does the National Assembly believe it can interminably hoodwink the people of Nigeria as it continues to romance with the presence of the military in the domestic affairs of the country? The answers to these questions are probably why Nigerians find themselves where they are today.

To a great extent, the politicians of the First Republic cannot be exculpated from the results of what we see today because during their days and despite the fact that many of their constituents were only managing to survive, they displayed their newly-found wealth so publicly and in such a manner that even the army became attracted. After all, who didn't like the good things of life? What happened afterwards is now history in what Nigerians would define as "you chop, I chop" social attitude that developed into condoning and sharpening the practice of kleptocracy in public offices in the country. But that was only for those who had the effrontery, those who could dare.

And so the first coup in 1966 was followed in quick succession by another coup and series of coups and counter-coups. First was the coup that ousted the democratically elected governments of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Sir Tafawa Balewa. Quickly, the countercoup that overthrew Aguiyi Ironsi took place. Gowon took over. Another coup by Murtala Muhammed unseated Gowon when in 1976 he said democracy was no longer feasible for Nigeria. That same year, another coup killed Muhammed and Obasanjo took over. In 1979, Obasanjo handed over to Alhaji Shehu Shagari, a democratically elected President. But just as Shagari was going into his second tenure, the military struck again.

By this time, it had become obvious why the military was enjoying "the game" despite the fact that many Nigerians were losing their lives. There was wealth in becoming Nigeria's head of state or even belonging in the corridor of power. There was fame in it. There was power in it. There was impunity. There was chivalry. There was also vendetta when state actors betrayed their own. All these worldly desires combined to goad the military into disrupting the democratic process. They became the force behind the system. At some point, we were told that if you didn't as a "bloody civilian" agree with what they tell you to do, they would detail assassins to eliminate you. And no one wanted to die for reasons he could avoid.

Take the senate presidency for example. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe presided over that legislative body for less than one year in 1960. Chief Dennis Osadebe was there for 3 years from 1960 to 1963. Dr. Nwafor Orizu presided for 3 years from 1963 to 1966. Dr. Joseph Wayas was there for 4 years from 1979 to 1983. Iyorcha Ayu was there for just one year, from 1992 to 1993. Chief Ameh Ebute was president for less than a year in 1993. So also was his successor Evan Enwerem there for less than one year in 1999. Dr. Chuba Okadigbo became the next president for one year in 2000. He gave way to Pius Anyim Pius who presided for 3 years from 2000 to 2003. Adolphus Wabara moved in for 2 years from 2003 to 2005. Then Dr. Ken Nnamani took over for two years from 2005 to 2007. Now, David Mark (an ex-military governor) came on board and was there for two straight tenures of 8 years from 2007 to 2015. After him, Dr. Bukola Saraki presided for close to 3 years, from 2015 to 2018. And finally as things stand now, Ahmed Lawal has been there since 2019 and counting.

When we take a closer look, we discover that there is pattern that is unfolding itself. Why was it that among all the 13 senate presidents before David Mark, not one was qualified to even complete his one tenure of four years? But when ex-military officer David Mark presided, he was able to do two tenures of 8 years. What was the magic? Was he easily better than all the others?

This observation might give credence to the assumption that ever since the military barged into the democratic dispensation in Nigeria and tasted authority from the civilian perspective, they have made it a point of duty to remain not only relevant but dominant in the running of the internal and external affairs of the country. They have become the major influencer of how the country should or should not be managed, especially economically. Compared with Myanmar, in the case of Nigeria, it will be difficult if not impossible to retract steps already gone. Many of the ex-military officers are already active on the political arena as state actors after they retired from or quit the army. They have become "civilians" but they remain friends with their military colleagues. So, in a way now, a former military man becoming a civilian does not and will not change anything. The military will continue to influence the sway of the political pendulum in this country. This is why I think that the military presence in the Nigerian democratic evolution has come to stay. What Nigerians need most at this period in time is good leadership that will erase the culture of kleptocracy and bring Nigeria back into a stable, morally reliable and egalitarian society it was meant to be.

By Emeka Asinugo, KSC

Asinugo is a London-based British-Nigerian journalist, author, and publisher of Imo State Business Link Magazine (Website:

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