As we celebrate Nigeria's Armed Forces Remembrance Day, we recall the significance of January 15th in our political history. On one hand, January 15th, 1966 marked the evolution of the political elite with our first military coup. Yet, only four years later, it marked the total surrender of the Biafran forces on the same day in 1970.
At Nigeria's Independence in 1960, none of the key Independence Nationalists – Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Tafewa Balewa – were military men. All this changed with the January 15th coup. The military ascended to the top of the political elite with six transitional coups and a series of failed ones, dominating the political scene before eventually handing power over to a civilian government led by a former Military Head of State. A brief summary of our democracy.
With the return of President Muhammadu Buhari, there is a stronger appreciation of the role of military might in Nigerian governance. In light of significant military victories over the past few months in the North-East and the controversial military discoveries over the last few weeks, we both congratulate the armed forces for their successes and ask ourselves how the interaction between the Nigerian military and civilian population has come to evolve.
13 men – 8 with military backgrounds, have led Nigeria. Of the 15 administrations we have experienced, including the repeat terms of Obasanjo and Buhari, military-trained personnel have led ten.
Since 1999, at least one of the top four positions in the country (President, Vice-President, Senate President and Speaker of the House), has been held by a retired Army Officer (Obasanjo as President 1999-2007; Buhari as President 2015 - date, Mark as Senate-President 2007-2015). Ranging from cabinet ministers to corporation chairs, retired veterans have been appointed or shepherded through the process by their fellow Armed Forces veterans. The slow build up of esprit de corps, built on mutual loyalty and pride among army officers, is evident. Even under civilian governments, there is an amount of influence wielded by Senators, Governors, etc. who have served in the Army.
These trends lead to deeper questions.
Is it a tacit acceptance that Nigeria craves the firm leadership that the military provides? Do we yearn for those who are unmovable and lead with an iron fist? Have years of military rule made us accustomed to leadership by the Armed Forces under civilian administrations? As the questions settle, there is a need to explore the Nigerian Military Complex and Nigerian politics.
One theory is that Nigeria's weak institutional frameworks created a power vacuum that was easily exploited by the military, a naturally strong institution. Arguably, political power was driven by the barrel, not the ballot box. Interestingly, this is not unique to Nigeria. Many nations have leaders who have been influenced electorally and politically by a military presence. For instance, African countries have experienced at least 200 coups, successful or otherwise, with every single one of these nations being a developing country. The weaker our political institutions have been, the easier it has been for the military to seize and maintain power. Perhaps what is more fascinating is how Nigerian leaders have done much more than plan coups. Army veterans have transitioned into democratically elected officers by waging an altogether different type of war – on corruption, indiscipline, and vested interests.
From Aguiyi-Ironsi’s Decree 34 which created a unitary state and Gowon’s subsequent redaction, to the various state creations under Gowon during the Civil War, Obasanjo's transition to a civilian government, Babangida's Structural Adjustment Programme, and Abacha's loot – the effects of these administrations live on. For every potential Judicial triumph, there's a Ken Saro-Wiwa; for every diplomatic success story, we have the Umaru Dikko Affair; for every hopeful press investigation, there's a Dele Giwa.
It is also noticeable that paramilitary and intelligence institutions appear stronger under former military leaders. Since Obasanjo created the EFCC, his administration remains perhaps the strongest we have ever witnessed. Currently, we see a similar pattern with the commando style approach of the Department of State Services and Economic and Financial Crimes Commission under Buhari – a noticeable disparity with the Jonathan administration.
There is also a case to be made about how the military has affected our customs and traditions. Take, for example, the Presidential Inauguration. In the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister is invited by the Monarch to form a government. In the United States, Congress (the equivalent of the National Assembly) carries out the inauguration of the President. In both countries, it is a reflection of the history surrounding political leadership. The former, which once adopted a monarchical system, retains its respect for the Crown, while the latter echoes a reminder of the primacy of a people-led government embodied by Congress.
In Nigeria, these customs are not prominent features of our political consciousness. Instead, the entire ceremony and activities are designed and carried out by the military. There is substantial military involvement in the inauguration, which some interpret as a tacit reminder that the military retains a supremely vital role in the presidency.
There is evidence that the military remains politically influential in Nigeria. But we expect that as the mentality of the people changes, a growing generation of leaders with non-military backgrounds will begin to shape the country. For now, it is impossible to understand Nigeria without appreciating the strong influence our boys in green have had on our green-white-green.
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