Babangida: His Life And Times (Part 3 - The Return Of The Military


Max Siollun



Continued from:

Part 1:

Part 2:


Having handed over power to a democratic government led by President Shehu Shagari in 1979, Babangida and his colleagues saw themselves as national governmental custodians akin to an emergency rescue team that could be called out to depose the government anytime the public got fed up of its policies.  In control of the military and with wealthy civilian friends to bankroll them, Babangida and his colleagues had an excellent chance of deposing President Shagari but simply waited for the right time.  Babangida later admitted that:


“We in the military waited for an opportunity.  There was the media frenzy about how bad the election was, massively rigged, corruption, the economy gone completely bad, threat of secession by people who felt aggrieved.  There was frustration within society and it was not unusual to hear statements like, the worst military dictatorship is better than this democratic government.  Nigerians always welcome military intervention because we have not yet developed mentally the values and virtues of democracy.”


Babangida’s good friend MKO Abiola might not have been the only civilian collaborator.  Other media outlets, opposition politicians and the public joined in with the lacerating criticism of Shagari’s regime. The former Emir of Gwandu Mustapha Jokolo (then an army officer and one of the coup plotters) also claimed that former Chief of Army Staff Lt-Gen T.Y. Danjuma was briefed of the plot to overthrow Shagari, and lent his support by using his prestige to criticise Shagari’s government in the media.  The critics were wittingly or unwittingly inciting a military comeback by Babangida and his colleagues.  Babangida revealed that:


“We couldn’t have done it without collaborators in the civil society – collaborators in the media, collaborators among people who have the means.  Because the means were not easily available but we received some from people who were convinced it was the right thing to do….The elite who participate want recognition, maybe patronage as time goes by” (Karl Maier – Midnight in Nigeria)


However the plot was leaked to the government through pillow talk between an army officer within the plot and his wife who was a sister-in-law to the wife of Plateau State Governor Solomon Lar.  Lar became aware of the plot to depose the government via his wife and he passed on the news to President Shagari.  According to President Shagari, after having dinner on the night of December 31, 1983, Shagari was approached by Captain Augustine A. Anyogo of the Brigade of Guards.  The Brigade of Guards is the army unit detailed to guard and protect the Nigerian Head of State.  In the presence of Shagari’s ADC Major Ali Geidam and a member of the National Security Organisation Ali Shittu, Anyogo informed Shagari that he had some urgent security information for him.  Anyogo told Shagari that a couple of hours earlier, he was approached by Colonel Tunde Ogbeha and informed of a “military operation” scheduled for midnight at the State House, Abuja.   Ogbeha told Anyogo to arrest President Shagari’s at midnight and detain him pending the arrival of senior officers from Kaduna.  In response to the strange order, Anyogo replied that he would take orders only from his own commanding officer, and not from Colonel Ogbeha (whose base was in Lagos).  Shortly afterward, Anyogo briefed his commanding officer Lt-Colonel Eboma.  Eboma arranged for troops to be put on alert and to take defensive positions on approach roads to State House, and reinforced the guards at State House itself.


Colonel Bello Kaliel (the commander of the Brigade of Guards in Lagos) was also contacted but unfortunately his deputy was one of the conspirators.  Kaliel was arrested and detained.  Back in Abuja, President Shagari was woken up by his security men and informed that troops led by Brigadier Ibrahim Bako were headed to the State House to arrest him.  Shagari was evacuated from State House in order to get him out of harm’s way during an anticipated gun battle between his guards and Bako’s troops.  Around 2:30 a.m. on New Year's Day 1984, armed troops moved to strategic locations, set up roadblocks and took over the radio and television stations in Lagos. Communication lines were cut and airports, border crossings and ports were closed.  Many of the soldiers used for the operation were Babangida’s former students from his days as an instructor at the Nigerian Defence Academy.  At 7:00 a.m. normal programming was interrupted by martial music interspersed with the following broadcast by a hitherto unknown army officer:


“I and my colleagues in the armed forces have in the discharge of our national role as promoters and protectors of our national interest decided to effect a change in the leadership of the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and form a Federal Military Government.  This task has just been completed…. Accordingly, Alhaji Shehu Usman Shagari ceases forthwith to be the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria.”


It was the monotone voice of Brigadier Sani Abacha, the commander of the 9th mechanised brigade in Ikeja.  On the last day of 1983, the military overthrew Shagari’s regime in order to “save this nation from imminent collapse”.   President Shehu Shagari was overthrown only three months after being re-elected for his second and final term of office in an election that was marred by accusations of electoral malpractice.  Scarred by the memory of the mass bloodshed that followed the bloody military coups of 1966, the coup plotters wisely did not harm any senior government figures.  The only casualty of the coup was Brigadier Ibrahim Bako who was killed in still unconfirmed circumstances while trying to arrest President Shagari in Abuja.  How did Bako die?  Several different accounts have been given.  The author has distilled the three accounts from the most authoritative sources:


1) General Babangida’s Account.  In an interview with pointblanknews earlier this year, Babangida gave the following account of Bako’s death:


Question: “…What really happened to General Bako?”


Babangida: “..….when they went to Abuja for that operation, ….this thing happened in the night… you see, from the experiences we had from the civil war, we found out that soldiers sometimes panic and when they panic, there are dire consequences. So, it was in the night and there was what you could call accidental discharge and the first reaction of the soldiers was that they were being attacked and in situations like that, you could shoot anyway. It happened to us I remember, during the civil war. You get shot at in the front and the sound reverberates behind so the soldiers at the back believes that the person shooting is right there then they forgot that some 500 meters away are what we refer to as own troops, your own forces. Because of no adequate training, a soldier would just cork his riffle and start shooting only to discover that he is shooting his own people. During the civil war, we sustained lots of casualties as a result of this situation. So, my suspicion is that a similar situation must have played out during that operation in Abuja and a bullet hit the late Ibrahim (Bako).”


Question: “So, claims that General Tunde Ogbeha may have pulled the trigger on Bako are not correct after all?”


Babangida: “I would not like to say he did it, no. It was the situation they found themselves; it was dark and everybody was shooting anyhow.”


2) Former President Shagari’s Account.  In his memoirs “Beckoned to Serve”, Shagari said that Captain Anyogo (a company commander of the Brigade of Guards) narrated to him, the story of how Bako was killed.  According to Shagari, Anyongo told him: 


“I was the company commander of the guard battalion of Abuja during the change of government in December, 1983.  Neither I nor members of my guard were informed of the impending change of government, and in the process of finding out what group soldiers were trying to change the government, Brigadier Ibrahim Bako and my driver, Private Sule were shot and killed, when I entered into the ambush mounted by Recce troops brought by the officers from Kaduna.  This happened about 11 kilometres away from the State House where ex-President Alhaji Shehu Shagari was staying.  The officers, Brigadier Ibrahim Bako and Lt-Colonel Tunde Ogbeha were both in civilian dresses during the operation and they did not identify themselves to me as senior officers.  At this time there were rumours that some junior officers were planning to take over government and we were careful this was happening in our area of jurisdiction.  The two officers were disarmed and put in front of my vehicle and we were on our way to the State House of Abuja under the orders of my commanding officer Lt-Colonel Eboma.  When we entered into the ambush it was Lt-Colonel Tunde Ogbeha who jumped in front of my vehicle when somebody shouted the order, ‘fire him’. In the resultant ambush firing, Brigadier Ibrahim Bako and my driver Sule died.” (Shagari – Beckoned to Serve)


3) Vice-Admiral Akin Aduwo’s Account.  Vice-Admiral Aduwo was President Shagari’s Chief of Naval Staff.  In an interview published in the Saturday, January 13, 2007 edition of the Sun, Aduwo said that:


“They sent Brigadier Ibrahim Bako to arrest him ( Shagari) at the then uncompleted presidential lodge – Akinola Aguda House. …..Bako got to the gate, stopped his Landrover and even disarmed himself, left his pistol. He said, ‘this man is a friend to my father’, and that he would go to him alone. He went to Shagari and told him there had been a change of government. And that he would guarantee his safety. No force but with all due respect and courtesy. Shagari said to him, ‘all right, please let me say my prayers’. And Bako said, ‘okay sir, I will be waiting outside’. As he was walking out of that place, maybe the ADC or security you have to pass before entering the president’s living room. As Bako was coming out, there was a gun shot from the security room, and it finished him.”


What these three differing accounts demonstrate is that no one really knows, or is willing to admit, how Bako died.  Bako was buried in Kaduna on 3rd January 1984.  Maj-Gen Muhammadu Buhari became the new Head of State.  Babangida later denied rumours that Bako would have become Head of State had he not been killed.  He also revealed that he was approached to become the new Head of State but declined as “Buhari was our senior, so I did not want anybody to jump him.”




Alleged links between General Olusegun Obasanjo and the new military regime were tacitly acknowledged in public when the new regime emphasised that it was an “offshoot” of the Murtala-Obasanjo regime that governed between 1976-1979.  This was entirely accurate because many of the new regime’s senior figures such as Buhari, Babangida, Ukiwe, Kpera, and Garba Duba all served under the 1976-1979 regime.  Babangida was appointed Chief of Army Staff to succeed Lt-General Mohammed Wushishi.  His old class mate Maj-Gen Mamman Vatsa was appointed Minister of the Federal Capital Territory – outside the army chain of command, in a move that prevented either of the former coursemates from serving under other each other.


Babangida and Brigadier Babatunde Idiagbon informed Wushishi and the other service chiefs Lt-Gen Gibson Jalo (Chief of Defence Staff), Air Vice Marshal Abdullahi Dominic Bello (Chief of Air Staff), and Vice-Admiral Akin Aduwo (Chief of Naval Staff), that their services were no longer required and that they would be detained at Bonny Camp in Lagos under “protective custody”.  All the former service chiefs were compulsorily retired but they remained so distrustful of Babangida and the members of the new regime that while in detention, they held daily Islamic and Christian prayer sessions and refused to be separated from each other.  President Shagari emerged from hiding and joined the other military and civilian detainees after being given assurances that he would not be harmed.




The new regime led by Buhari was an austere regime whose major policy platform was a massive crackdown on corruption.  As the anti-corruption drive by Buhari widened, the trail of investigations led back to the Ministry of Defence. There were allegations that senior army officers were involved in drug dealing and rumours of some suspicious financial dealings at the Ministry.  Some accusatory fingers were pointed at Babangida.  Additionally several sources have stated that these investigations led to a decision to retire Babangida’s close ally Colonel Aliyu Mohammed.  Babangida also claimed that the NSO was monitoring the activities of SMC members, and had even bugged his own telephone lines.  Babangida said he later retrieved most of the tapes of the NSO's wiretaps on his phones. Why was he so keen to recover the tapes? 


Buhari compounded his problems by not rewarding the key junior and mid-ranking officers who staged the coup that brought him to power with lucrative political postings.  This created discontent among officers who were essentially coup specialists.  Other officers in the government and junior officers took their complaints to Babangida.  A cleavage opened up in the SMC with Buhari, Idiagbon, Mohammed Magoro (Internal Affairs Minister) and Alhaji Lawal Rafindadi (Director of the National Security Organisation) on one side and Babangida heading the opposition.  Babangida had to do something drastic to save his neck.  He had to overthrow Buhari to ensure his survival. 


According to Babangida, the planning to overthrow Buhari began in January 1985 - just one year after Buhari came to office. The period of time between April and July 1985 was the most critical phase in the planning.  Babangida says it was a "collective decision" to overthrow Buhari.  There was a subtle plot by Babangida loyalists to discredit Buhari’s regime.  They would sanction moves which were publicly unpopular and which made Buhari’s regime appear harsh and unsympathetic.  These included the arrest and detention of government opponents and journalists, the execution of drug dealers, a raid on the home of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the seizure of his passport, and the stifling of political debate on when the country would be returned to civilian rule.  Buhari took the blame for these decisions but later revealed that they were sanctioned by the same men that overthrew him.  It was all part of a plot to make the regime unpopular enough to justify public support for a military coup and Buhari’s replacement by Babangida.  Babangida later admitted as much:


“There was a lot going in our favour.  So we seized the moment …..You see we are very smart people.  We don’t intervene when we know the climate is not good for it or the public will not welcome it.  We wait until there is a frustration in the society.  In all the coups, you find there has always been one frustration or the other.  Any time there is frustration we step in. And then there is demonstration welcoming the redeemers.

(Karl Maier – Midnight in Nigeria)


While Buhari was stern, serious and resolute, Babangida was deft, tactical and extremely devious.  He had systematically cultivated a loyal following of sycophantic mid-ranking officers over the years by making grandiose gestures and buying lavish presents for officers junior to him.  These officers now owed allegiance to him rather than to their nation, institution, or to the Head of State Buhari.  Babangida had managed to create a mini-personality cult within the military.  A military intelligence officer Chris “MC” Alli later observed that:


"Major General Ibrahim Babangida sat atop the strategic office of Chief of Army Staff. This conspiratorial group and their cohorts properly circumscribed General Buhari and Major General Idiagbon. Most transitional coups in Nigeria have revolved around the following; late, Brigadier General Ibrahim Bako, a brilliant Armoured Corps officer who died in unexplained circumstances in the 1983 coup d'etat that sent President Shehu Shagari packing. others were, General Murtala Mohammed, Major General Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, an accomplished strategist of vast resources and the hero of the Onitsha campaign, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida and General Sani Abacha. These were the carpetbaggers, the first tier of coup merchants. The second was forming around the officers of Nigeria Defence Academy Course Three and by 1985 they were mostly lieutenant colonels. A new crop of officers were further tacitly being groomed into this brand of schemers, the third tier which formed around General Babangida and had such young officers such as Lawan Gwadabe, Ibrahim Dasuki* (sic), John (Yohana) Madaki, to name a few. So, there were first and second lines with the third in a state of gestation, all aimed at ensuring the sustenance of the status quo and power equation in the nation. Each would protect the previous from its horrid shadows while in power. They were all northern in their political orientations and composition". (Maj-Gen Chris Alli, The Federal Republic of Nigerian Army: The Siege of a Nation)


*This was an error by Alli.  He obviously meant Sambo Dasuki – the son of the former Sultan of Sokoto Ibrahim Dasuki.


The second coup plotter tier described by Alli were the same men who brought Buhari to power.  However with his superior charm, Babangida could easily convince these men to switch loyalty and abandon Buhari.  Although Buhari was his close friend, for Babangida, this was pure business.  Babangida later claimed that: “To be able to stage a coup you have to be close to somebody. I was a very good friend of Buhari, there’s no doubt about it.” 


However there was a sticking point.  The GOC of the 2nd division in Ibadan, Maj-Gen Sani Abacha was a mysterious figure.  If Babangida could not obtain his support for the coup, it would fail and Babangida and his friends would end up in front of a firing squad.  Babangida went to Abacha to personally plead for his support in deposing Buhari.  Only Babangida could talk him round.  According to Babangida


“Nobody could get him [Abacha] to be involved except me because of our relationship.  If it were any other person, he would have gone to the side of Buhari.  But when I sat him down, he said ‘You are my chief, anything you want I will do.’ So the personal relationship also helped in trying to recruit people into this unholy alliance.”


Next Part: “He had been building a political empire for years inside the barracks.  Babangida created an army in his own image with both his own personal charm and with spontaneous acts of kindness to colleagues and subordinates.  He is known to have an exceptional memory for names and faces and is able to recollect the first names of colleagues, subordinates, opponents and even their family members.”