History of Civil-Military Relations in Nigeria (Part 2)*

By Dr. Nowa Omoigui




In 1957 a local Federal Defence Council (FDC) was established which comprised representatives of federal and regional governments chaired by the British Governor General (GG).  In November, this largely indigenous civilian council made the first set of formal defence policy decisions regarding the Nigerian regiment and future independent Army when it decided to accelerate Nigerianization, disband the Artillery regiment and set up a Recce unit in its place to better patrol the open lands of the north, open a new Officer Cadet Preliminary Training School at Kaduna (NMTC) to replace Teshie in Ghana, add one infantry battalion to the existing five, increase pay for other ranks in the Army to level with existing scales in the Police and grant car advances and base allowance to Nigerian officers.  In addition, entry qualifications were reduced and plans made to accelerate promotions.  Significantly, in reaction to the long standing British practice of selective ethnic recruitment, the FDC decided to base recruitment to the "rank and file" of the Army (but not the officer corps) on a quota system in which 50% came from the North, 25% from the East and 25% from the West.  It also specified that soldiers in various units be mixed up regionally right down to section level.  The gradual replacement of expatriates was made a priority.  Based on relative costs it was decided to hire retired British officers rather than second active duty personnel from the British Army.  Many of these issues had previously been raised in parliament for a number of years and were crucial in enhancing the prestige of the military across the board and making a career in the Army attractive to school leavers.  Thereafter, the annual budget for the Army increased significantly - and happily too.

But one sign that the Nigerian Political class was not totally united in its support of the Nigerian military in utero came at the Calabar Conference of the Action Group in 1958.  Chief Awolowo declared his opposition to the establishment of a Navy and Air Force while Chiefs Akintola and Rotimi Williams opposed him.   Other pro-military voices included those of Chike Obi, Fani-Kayode, Jereton Mariere, Ayo Rosiji and Eneh.  Over the next one to two years, those in favor of expanding the military cited ceremonial purposes, "national dignity", terrorism in western Cameroon, the Sawaba crisis in Niger republic and rivalry with Ghana as justification.

In April 1958, the Army Council in the United Kingdom formerly transferred full control of the QONR to the British Governor-General and the FDC in Lagos and Nigerian Tax-payers became fully responsible for Nigerian defence spending.  In that year at the constitutional conference in London, the concept of universal adult suffrage and one-man one vote was adopted to replace the previous formula of equality of regional representation.  This changed the relative numbers of seats in the federal legislature between regions and would later be the basis for a quota system of recruitments into the military.  Pleas by ethnic minorities for additional regions were rejected.  Among other momentous decisions made was a confidential proposal by Britain for an Anglo-Nigerian Defence pact which was agreed to and initialed by all Nigerian delegates.     Britain wanted an airbase in Kano to support its operations in the Middle East in exchange for a number of defence and security commitments to Nigeria in addition to granting political independence.

However, acrimony in the political class after the controversial December 1959 federal elections between Chief Obafemi Awolowo (Awo) of the Action Group on one hand and Alhaji Tafawa Balewa of the Northern Peoples Congress, Nnamdi Azikiwe of the NCNC and the British Governor General on the other, led Awo, in April/May 1960, to publicly reveal the confidential understanding as the first phase of a campaign to scuttle it.   A few months earlier, in February 1960, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa of the NPC, already slated to be Nigeria's first post-independence Prime Minister, had become Nigeria's first indigenous Police and Defence Minister - 8 months before independence, a coincidence that Awo found hard to ignore.  The controversial Kano Base component was then dropped and Balewa later sent the watered down treaty to Parliament for approval in November 1960.  However, in December 1961, Balewa abrogated it by executive fiat in deference to external African diplomatic pressure after consultation with Britain, without reference to parliament.

The day after abrogation and two weeks before the annual congress of the AG in Jos, however, Balewa invited the AG to join him in government.

Nevertheless, Chief Awolowo (Awo) refused, leading to a split in the Action Group.

In his memoirs published many years later in 1974, the former British Governor General, Sir James Robertson, states that he "unofficially and unconstitutionally" assigned defence, police and foreign affairs before independence to Sir Abubakar Balewa.  This act, in addition to Robertson's earlier decision to call Balewa to form a government before the 1959 election results had even been announced, caused a rupture in the precariously balanced Nigerian Political class, the civil-military consequences of which were to later play out in a disastrous manner after independence.

From October 1959 to 1960 units of the QONR were deployed to Southern Cameroon to help secure border security and deny safe haven to cross-border guerillas during the Bamileke uprising led by Felix Moumie of the UPC against the French. In December 1959 they conducted flag marches just prior to the federal elections and 15 companies were placed on standby.   The QONR briefly served in Tiv land in 1960 and returned to Southern Cameroon again in 1961 for security duties during the plebiscite.

In the run up to the December 1959 federal elections, competing political parties presented various defence policies. As of this time the NPC was the only one that promised an expansion of the military, citing border problems and fears of spill over of insurgencies in neighboring countries as its rationale.  The NCNC viewed the Army as an internal and external protector of the country and emphasized improved conditions of service. The Action Group on the other hand proposed only to enhance Veterans' welfare for the existing Nigeria Regiment.  Instead of expanding the Army, it proposed establishing a new type of Police organization separate from the Nigerian Police "to deal with any large scale unrest or revolutionary situation".  It also proposed establishing a Frontier Protection Force.  In the absence of a desire to project force internationally, the establishment of these two proposed new security organizations would likely have led to the disbandment of the Nigerian Army by Chief Awolowo.

On October 1st, 1960, when Nigeria became independent, parades and flag marches were held all over Nigeria by the Army.  This helped to stoke up national feelings, pride and prestige.  The flag of Sultan Attahiru of Sokoto captured in 1903 was handed back to the current Sultan.  The QONR became the Royal Nigerian Army and Alhaji Muhammadu Ribadu took over the Defence Portfolio from Alhaji Tafawa Balewa.  Nnamdi Azikiwe became President of the Senate, while Lord Robertson remained behind as Governor General for two more years before Azikiwe left the Senate to become Governor General.  Finally, in 1963, it became known simply as the Nigerian Army - when Nigeria became a republic and Nnamdi Azikiwe became President.  An act of parliament codified this change.   Uniforms and Insignia changed after independence to reflect sovereignty.   It is important to point out that much of the impetus for this came from civilians like Azikiwe in parliament eager to rightly "claim" the Nigerian Army as their own.


Shortly after independence, however, a conspiracy was unmasked among some Nigerian officers and soldiers in the 1QONR ( 1st Queens Own Nigeria Regiment) at Enugu.  Those involved were quickly rounded up and detained by British officers.  The exact motive for this planned coup has never been clarified, although some feel it may have been motivated by a desire for more rapid Nigerianization, perhaps encouraged by the mutiny of African soldiers against Belgian Officers in the Force Publique of Congo on July 4th and 5th 1960.   But such tensions were not limited to merely getting rid of British officers.  Precisely which Nigerians got into the Officer Corps increasingly became an issue as interest in military careers, particularly in eastern Nigeria and parts of the West gained momentum in the late fifties.  Some legislators had begun asking for an "equalization" of the ethnic and regional distribution of the officer corps.  Provinces of Nigeria that had hitherto enjoyed selective recruitment to the "rank and file" for many years under the British "martial tribe" policy felt shortchanged by the quota system introduced for other ranks by the FDC in 1957/58 and wanted a corresponding "balance" in the officer corps.

Following the departure of Maj-Gen. K.G. Exham, the first GOC of the Royal Nigerian Army was British Major-General Foster.  When his term ended in March 1962, a Nigerian delegation led by Jacob Obande who was then Minister of State (Army), was sent to London by the Minister, Muhammadu Ribadu, to interview British officers for a successor.  This action prompted angry editorials in a number of Nigerian newspapers miffed that Ribadu preferred a British GOC to a Nigerian one.  The undercurrent of the criticism was ethnic since the two most senior Nigerian officers; Ironsi and Ademulegun were not from Ribadu's home region. Editorialists in newspapers based in the south were perhaps not unmindful of the fact that politicians from the predominantly moslem North opposed the initial motion for self-rule brought before the central legislature in March 1953 and subsequently asked Britain to permit the North to secede and form a separate colony. But on August 7, 1953 northern delegates to constitutional talks agreed to a loose federal system, removing one of the obstacles to eventual independence.  However, on August 25, 1956 the Sardauna of Sokoto again publicly expressed reservations about self-rule in 1959 citing insufficient numbers of trained northern Nigerians.

Ribadu on the other hand, reasoned that available Nigerian officers were too junior and opined that Nigeria did not need "another Mobutu". Major-General Sir Christopher Welby-Everard was thus selected.  Ironsi and Ademulegun were double promoted from Lt. Col. to Brigadier while Shodiende, Ogundipe, Adebayo and Maimalari were promoted to Lt. Col as a gesture to public critics.  Ribadu made a public commitment that Nigerianization would be complete by March 1965.  Thus, Welby-Everard held the position until February 1965 when the first indigenous Nigerian GOC was finally appointed.

He was Major General Johnson Thomas Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi.  Ribadu had kept his word.

Perhaps reflective, not only of the need for more Nigerian officers in deference to domestic pressures to Nigerianize and foreign policy tensions with the Casablanca bloc which had led to allegations of conservatism, efforts began to take shape in 1961 to wean the Army away from British tutelage.  Sources of military assistance and venues for training were diversified.  Defence training agreements were reached with the USA, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Canada and Australia, to supplement Britain.  In that same year Ribadu formally introduced quota system into officer recruitments, responding to legislative pressure to make the Army officer corps reflect the competitive multi-ethnic political geometry of the country.  When in 1963, the Midwest was created, the quota was revised thus:  North 50%, West 21%, East 25% and Midwest 4%.

However, actual implementation of this system was impacted by differences in attraction to military careers across the country.  Yorubas of the western region, for example, still looked down on a career in the military. By 1966, out of 10,500 soldiers, Yorubas numbered about 700 instead of a projected 2205 based on quota.  In the north, lack of interest among the Hausa-Fulani meant that minority areas that had traditionally viewed the Army as a credible career could fill up those vacancies.  In the Midwest, interest was particularly high in the Anioma areas.  In the east, recruitment from the COR provinces which had been a source of many soldiers during the second world war declined as economic opportunities there increased. On the other hand interest in the core Igbo areas increased.  Quite apart from the vigor of recruitment efforts and certain cultural imperatives, these intra-regional disparities reflected economic opportunities in various communities.  But no matter how well intentioned and perhaps inevitable, the overt use of quotas politicized military recruitments. Once quota became an administrative tool within the military, it coloured the way security and defence issues were viewed within the army as well in the larger society and took center stage in the civil-military discourse.  But perhaps even worse, it amplified internal organizational tensions and undermined esprit d'Corps as the external civilian institutions and the political elite descended into conflict.

After independence, civil society was very interested in how, why and where the army was used.  Disagreement over matters affecting the military spilled over to the streets several times particularly in the south.  First was the controversy over the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact which has previously been discussed.  Although this was not the key factor in persuading Balewa to abrogate the pact, it had the unintended consequence of making the government and Army suspicious of University graduates as reliable apolitical material for direct combat commissions.  Thus, in 1962, after previously commissioning Ojukwu in 1958 followed by Rotimi and Ifeajuna in 1961, Adewale Ademoyega was the last University graduate to be granted direct short service combat commission into the Army by the Balewa government.    Cadet Units at the University of Ibadan and Zaria College of Technology were shut down.   The government's suspicions were not misplaced because Ademoyega and Ifeajuna, for example, were indeed destined to play a key role in the January 15, 1966 coup that ended Nigeria's first civilian administration.  Ojukwu on the other hand allegedly tried to recruit some of his colleagues (Banjo, Ejoor and Gowon) for a coup during the 1964/65 constitutional crisis and later played a complex role in putting down the mutiny of January 15, 1966, only to emerge as the Military Governor of the East when General Ironsi finally took over.  He went on lead the attempt at Biafran secession in 1967.

The second opportunity for direct popular opposition to military and foreign policy came during the deployment of Nigerian troops to the Congo which began in December 1960 and lasted until 1964.  In 1961, a mutiny occurred in the 5th battalion under Lt. Col Ironsi at Bukavu when Nigerian soldiers had been ordered to rescue an Austrian ambulance unit under hostile fire.  Seven soldiers were dismissed while ten NCOs were demoted.  This well publicized incident brought tensions between Nigerian officers (supported by sections of the Press) and British officers serving in the Nigerian Army to the fore.

In a minor rebuke for the handling of this affair, it also led to Ironsi's subsequent deployment to London for a couple of years as a military attache (until he returned to command the entire UN Force) and was one reason he was not initially favored to become the GOC when Major General Everard left in 1965.  Following the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Nigerian activists wrote editorials, stormed parliament and took to the streets in February 1961 and accused the Nigerian contingent under the political control of the allegedly "conservative pro-western" Nigerian government of not doing enough to protect him.  The government came under tremendous pressure to withdraw from the Congo after Casablanca bloc countries like Ghana pulled out.

However, Ribadu and Balewa stood their grounds.  Subsequent exploits of the Army in Congo as well as the role of the military in constructing Bailey bridges during the 1963 floods in Lagos significantly enhanced its image in the eyes of the Nigerian civilian public.  Rural roads were also built in the difficult terrain of the Mambilla plateau.  Upon return from Congo the pay of other ranks was increased by 25% just in time to secure its loyalty during the general strike of 1964.  Indeed, in the national euphoria that resulted from the Army's new found prestige, even opposition politicians had proposed making the Army tax free.

It was under these circumstances that the 3rd Battalion of the Army was airlifted to Tanzania in April 1964 in a politically popular move to help President Nyerere train a new Army following the dissolution of the Tanzanian Army after the mutiny in February. The arrival of Nigerians allowed British troops who had originally intervened in February to depart.

However, acrimonious civil-military relations were gaining momentum enabled by the sequential use by civilian federal authorities of the Army in increasingly controversial domestic Internal Security roles, mobilization of irregular forces by the Opposition led by Chief Awolowo for subversive purposes and perceived political interference in certain purely Army prerogatives.



* This is an excerpt of a much larger publication by the author