By Dr. Nowa Omoigui



In April 1980, seven months after coming to office, the new President began a delicate game of musical chairs in the high command, kicking Akinrinade upstairs to the constitutionally required position of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), moving Jalo into the Army Chief's slot and appointing General Inua Wushishi, a Muslim northerner from his geo-political zone who was then Commandant of the Staff College, as deputy Chief of Army Staff.  The prestigious but powerless position of CDS relative to Service Chiefs may have been an unintended source of frustration for General Akinrinade.

In October 1981, two years after taking office, Shagari finally made his move, sliding Wushishi into the sensitive position of Chief of Army Staff, kicking Jalo upstairs as CDS, and thanking the retiring Akinrinade for services to the nation.  Thereafter, other than command of the Brigade of Guards, Shagari paid very little attention to internal postings of officers, devolving that responsibility to his trusted Army Chief.  He even warned one of his ministers (Umaru Dikko) not to irritate the military by prying too deeply into their affairs and refused to interfere when Brigadier Buhari, just back from a course in the US, clashed with General Wushishi over his Army posting.  This approach was laid bare when on December 31st, 1983 as he was escaping from mutinous troops who had attacked the Presidential Lodge at Abuja, the President could neither recognize the name of the officer (Brigadier Sani Abacha) announcing the coup on radio** (see full text of speech), nor place his ethnic origin.  Abacha, a Kanuri from neighboring Kano State and "far northerner" like the President, was the Commander of the strategic 9th Brigade at Ikeja Cantonment near the federal capital.

However, the Shagari government did move to end the military career of Nigeria's former Foreign Affairs Minister, Major General Joseph Nanven Garba.  Garba was "larger than life" given his extensive international connections. He was also the former Brigade of Guards Commander  who, in collaboration with others, had deposed General Gowon in 1975.  Garba's retirement may have been informed by a sense that he could not be trusted as a "military politician".  However, many others who were left within the service had also taken part in the same 1975 coup.   Wushishi, for example, then Deputy Commandant of the School of Infantry, was the officer who had been sent in a plane around the country to gather senior military officers for the first post-coup meeting in Lagos at which the trioka of Mohammed, Obasanjo and Danjuma were chosen to lead.  He was also a former Federal Minister.  Then a Lt. Col., Babangida, who later emerged as Wushishi's defacto deputy, also took part in the July 1975 coup as the Commander of the 4th Recce regiment and was member of the Supreme Military Council.  By some coincidence, as of the time of the coup that eventually removed him, the President and C-in-C (Shehu Shagari), the Chief of Army Staff (Inua Wushishi), the Director of Army Staff Duties and Plans (Ibrahim Babangida), the Quarter Master General (Mamman Vatsa), the Commander, Brigade of Guards (Bello Khaliel), the Director of Military Intelligence (Aliyu Mohammed) and the Director of the NSO (Umaru Shinkafi), were all from what used to be "North-West State", which is part of what we now call the "North-West Zone".

This civil-military configuration may have lulled the President into a false sense of security.

The civilian government of the second republic plunged itself into supervising defence acquisitions, reorganization and demobilization.  Sold as a political gesture to the Eastern part of the country, but perhaps informed by cold military calculations, it created a new Army Division based at Enugu (82 Div) with airborne, airmobile, and amphibious brigades.  It also created new Air Force Commands and Staff Branches, and split the Naval Flotilla into Naval Commands.  It acquired new jet fighters and bombers and combat ships.  The Nigerian Defence Academy became degree awarding in January 1983.  The Army Command and Staff College became a tri-service institution while the NIPSS was expanded.  One sensitive issue was the question of delays in the payment of benefits of soldiers who had been demobilized.  The President ordered that no demobilized soldier be asked to leave his barrack accommodation if he had not been paid his benefits.  The sensitivity of the demobilization exercise had partly been responsible for the reluctance of the Gowon military regime (1966-75) to deal with it with dispatch.  For one, many of those mobilized during the civil war came from ethnic minority areas of the country with few natural resources and declining economic incentive for farming.  When it came time to discharge them, there was no economic "net" into which they could be safely thrown without a political or military backlash.  So they were retained in part as a social service but perhaps not unmindful of the fact that they were part of the ethno-military political base of then C-in-C, General Gowon.  When then Brigadier Muhammed came to power in July 1975, his new Army Chief, then Brigadier Danjuma took the demobilization issue by the horns.  The new civilian leaders were well aware that this was one of the grievances behind the coup attempt of February 1976 in which General Muhammed lost his life.

According to the IISS, over the ten year period from 1976 to 1986 the military declined in size from 230,000 to 94,000 personnel.  None of this necessarily meant that the country was less militarized.  Trained soldiers with a military mentality were merely displaced from one sector to another.

Within the military itself as an institution, democratization had very superficial roots.

The new civilian regime also moved quickly to review conditions of military service when it introduced the National minimum wage.  It continued certain reorganizational initiatives started during the previous regime.  These had, however, been motivated primarily by service considerations, with no public input.    It initiated efforts to reactivate the moribund Defence Industries Corporation, which had originally been established by the first civilian government in 1964.    Two truck assembly plants, originally conceptualized by the preceding regime, were established and the military mandated to source all truck requirements locally.  Frigates, patrols boats and helicopters were purchased for the Navy, while interceptors, deep interdiction and ground attack jets were purchased for the Air Force.  The professional recommendations for these acquisitions were made by the military and approved by the civilians.  Interestingly, President Shagari decided that the Presidential air transport fleet, hitherto the exclusive preserve of the Nigerian Airways, would henceforth be entrusted to the Air Force.  It would seem, however, that the trust was not reciprocal.  Certain Air Force officers in the Presidential Fleet became aware of plans for the coup of December 1983 and even tried to use false weather reports to divert the President's plane from Abuja to Kaduna, where Brigadier Bako was laying in wait.  Only the President's refusal to be diverted aborted that particular phase of the coup, which went on to succeed later, although he initially escaped.

Simultaneously, as might be expected in a traditional transitional demilitarization process, the President moved to beef up the Police. A Ministry of Police Affairs was established and Police depots and colleges expanded.  The uniform was changed, salaries increased, new equipment purchased and new barracks built.  But all of this merely served to create envy in certain circles of the military which even interpreted the arming of the Police as a ploy to fight the Army, rather than reduce the reliance on the military for internal security.


External Conflicts 

When the new civilian government came to office in October 1979 the military was already actively engaged in Chad and Lebanon. Subsequently, it also got enmeshed in a serious border situation with Cameroon.


The complicated details of Nigeria's border controversy with Cameroon are beyond the scope of this paper. However, it dates back to the Anglo-German Treaty of 1913.

On May 16, 1981, Cameroonian gendarmes ambushed and killed some Nigerian soldiers patrolling the River Akpa Yafi.  Cameroon, on the other hand claimed the solders had been on the Rio-de-Rey, deep within Cameroon.  The President called an emergency meeting of the National Security Council and issued an ultimatum to Cameroon, demanding an apology.  Faced with rising indignation not only in the Army but also the public, Shagari ordered mobilization and operational planning for a possible military response.  A full scale mobilization along the entire border was undertaken of a Joint Task Force under the command of Brigadier Mamman Vatsa.   Meanwhile tepid diplomatic efforts continued behind the scenes.  Constitutional provisions constrained the President to seek approval from the National Assembly before overtly declaring war.  But the legislative reality was that given the degree of acrimony in the political class Shagari could not guarantee that any overtures to the legislature would be kept in confidence.  Thus, he elected to order the full deployment of troops as a tool to assuage domestic military and public anger, while pressuring Cameroon through saber rattling.

An apology was eventually received from Cameroon on July 20, 1981, thus defusing the situation, but not before the details of operational planning presented to the National Defence Council by Brigadier Vatsa had been leaked by unknown persons to French Intelligence who then passed it on to the Cameroonian President.  The French then played a triple card. France warned Nigeria that it had treaty obligations to defend Cameroon, warned Cameroon that it had significant interests in Nigeria and thus stood the risk of being isolated if it provoked Nigeria, and then used backchannels to get the OAU to take mediation efforts more seriously.  To this day, the mechanism and motive of the leak of highly classified operational plans has never been determined.


Following a Palestinian guerrilla attack on March 11, 1978, Israel, on March 14, sent 6 mechanized Brigades in a retaliatory invasion of Lebanon code-named "Operation Litani".  This prompted an appeal to the UN by the government of Lebanon and the subsequent deployment of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).  Nigeria contributed 6,323 troops in nine (9) battalions from April 1978 until January 1983.    The first Battalion (NIBATT 1) was commanded by Lt. Col. Lawrence Uwumarogie.

The decision to withdraw from UNIFIL was taken by the civilian government.

The immediate reason was the June 1982 Israeli invasion and the quagmire it created for the UN mandate.  But the government was already under some public pressure resulting from religious differences in the polity over Middle East policy in general, as well as indignation at casualties suffered by Nigeria, particularly during the mortar shelling of NIBATT VI at Al-Qamtarah by Christian de facto forces in March 1981.   However, there were other factors.  Back in June 1979, the Chief Military Press and Information Officer at the UNIFIL HQ, Nigeria's Lt. Col. Alfred Gom was arrested, tried, convicted and later deported by Israel for alleged gun running for the PLO.  This proved to be a major embarrassment to the country.  He was retired by the Army although a subsequent investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee cleared him.  No special effort was, however, made by civilian authorities to force the military to reverse its decision.


In March 1979, a conference on Chad had been sponsored by the preceding regime which led to the establishment of a provisional government of national reconciliation called GUNT.  French troops left the country and were replaced by a Nigerian unit under Colonel Magoro (HARMONY I) which was then asked by Interim Chadian President Goukhuni Waddeye to leave in August, just before the civilian government took office in Lagos.  After Shagari took office the situation in Chad broke down again.  Libyan troops were invited by Waddeye to help save his government from an insurrection sponsored by his Defence Minister, Hissene Habre.  The situation resulted in the second ill fated multilateral OAU peace-keeping operation (HARMONY II) from 1982 - 1983.

After a May 1981 summit of four African leaders failed to establish a mechanism for Libyan withdrawal and insertion of an African peacekeeping force, France asked Nigeria and some francophone states to constitute an OAU-sponsored joint inter-African force with logistic backing from France.

The situation was made all the more urgent when Libya announced in August that that the Chadian government had agreed to merge both countries.  Thus, in November that year, six countries - Nigeria, Senegal, Zaire, Benin, Togo, and Guinea entered an undertaking to create a joint 6,000-member force under command of Nigerian Major-General Geoffrey Ejiga.   However, financial difficulties prevented Benin, Togo, and Guinea from meeting their commitments.  Eventually only Senegal, Zaire, and Nigeria provided troops.

Nigeria bore most of the $100 million burden, including not only providing three of the five army units, but also the airlift and logistical support others failed to deliver.  The US under Reagan which had previously promised to assist refused to do so because President Shagari attended the OAU summit in Libya in 1982 at which Khadafi was made Chairman of the organization.  On account of the OAU's helplessness in influencing internal Chadian politics, combined with late deployment of a poorly equipped force with a vague mandate, Nigeria found itself essentially isolated in an expensive operation on forbidden terrain under increasingly untenable conditions.  Hissene Habré's subsequent victorious seizure of Ndjamena in June 1982 greatly embarrassed the Nigerian military which felt its hands were tied by a poorly articulated mandate.   Coming after he had 'denied' them the chance to attack Cameroon in 1981, the "loss" began a process of erosion of military confidence in the competence of Shehu Shagari as the Commander-in-Chief.

When on April 18, 1983, 19 islands on Lake Chad were suddenly occupied by Chadian troops under Habre, the Nigerian military got a chance to hit back.

The GOC, 3rd Division, Brigadier Buhari, mobilized the 21st  Armoured Brigade and unilaterally closed the border, cutting off food and fuel supplies to Chad. Although he felt this was a sound operational move, the action prompted political reprimand from Lagos.  But Buhari defied all orders to reopen the border, including that of the President.  Buhari rationalized his actions thus:  "My first loyalty is to my troops. I cannot endanger their lives by sending them on a difficult battle to defend their fatherland and then turn round to feed the enemy and supply them with fuel for their tanks."   Eventually the 21st Armoured Brigade prevailed and all captured Nigerian islands were regained, making Buhari an instant hero in the military.  However, in pursuing the Chadian intruders, Buhari's units penetrated 50 kilometers into Chadian territory, once again against strict orders not to cross the border.  "Unlike America's General Douglas McArthur who kept opposing President Truman's Korea policy, Buhari was neither cashiered nor redeployed for repeatedly disobeying higher political direction."

Disagreements over the conduct of the Chadian campaign and the inability or unwillingness of the President to enforce his authority further undermined civil-military relations and eventually contributed (among other reasons) to a successful coup on December 31, 1983 from which Buhari, a former Oil Minister and State Governor in the Obasanjo government, emerged as the new Head of State.

Internal Security 

The Army was sent in after a request from the State Governor to back up the Police in 1980 to put down a fanatical religious insurgent movement in Kano led by a Cameroonian called Muhammadu Marwa, better known as "Maitatsine".

The 3rd Brigade in Kano was initially deployed but later had to be reinforced with Scorpion light armored reconnaissance vehicles airlifted from the 245 Recce Battalion in Lagos.  The entire operation was commanded by Major General Dumuje who reportedly bluntly told President Shagari that he could not guarantee the use of minimum force, particularly if any of his men were wounded or killed.    By the end of the operation an untold number of innocent bystander casualties had been exacted and significant parts of Kano destroyed - far beyond the mandate given by the President.

Interestingly, such tendencies for security forces and institutions to exceed the mandate of the democratically elected Commander-in-Chief were not limited to the Army.  In his memoirs, President Shagari laments his lack of control over Police excesses during the Bakolori Dam riots in his home state, and even the Ministry of Internal Affairs during the Shugaba Darman, Wilmot, and "Ghana must go" affairs.   But he offers no solution to the dilemma except point out the legal limitations that constrain executive action.  It appears self evident, however, that the cardinal principles of discipline, efficiency, transparency, and integrity which underpin force management were severely deficient in Nigeria's security sector in that era. Such issues continue to plague Nigeria.


The Second Republic was weighed down by a number of structural weaknesses - some of which were spin offs from the quality and quantity of the 1979 electoral mandate.  In Nigeria's typically zero-sum game fashion, there was poor cooperation between the NPN-dominated federal government and its seven states on one hand and the twelve opposition controlled states (and Press) on the other.  Critically, however, the oil boom came to a screeching halt in 1981, just as social expectations for a "democracy dividend" were peaking and payment schedules for some of the "jumbo loans" taken by the previous military government were becoming due.   This caused major disruptions such as shortfalls in salary payments to civil servants and teachers. Not even the deportation of 2 million predominantly Ghanaian and Nigerien foreigners in early 1983 could divert attention, gain political capital and buy time for economic reforms as envisaged in the Economic Stabilization Act.

Marooned by election promises and driven by competition between parties, spending outstripped revenues at federal and state levels. By 1983, therefore, state governments had acquired a debt of N13.3 billion.   All of this was compounded by the sheer expense of the Presidential system of government, corruption, import licence abuses and smuggling - which were not, however, new Nigerian phenomena - as anyone with an intimate knowledge of military era contracts can attest.  Meanwhile, annual Army, Navy and AirForce "spit and polish" parades along with shows of impressive military hardware served to project the military in a positive light, building on its reputation as a "national" institution free from the bickering of the political class.

As the 1983 Presidential elections approached, proposals to use the military to support the process, met with criticisms from opposing parties fearful of a repeat of the experiences of the sixties.  Within the Army itself tensions were also rising about the extent to which they would be used for such purposes rather than the Police.  It has been reported that at one of several gatherings of officers to discuss army duties, policies and strategies for the elections, Brigadier Buhari (a former federal minister and state governor) bluntly told then Chief of Defence Staff, Lt. General GS Jalo:  "Sir, tell Mr. President we can't take on anymore." 

Shortly after the elections, which were characterized by the usual litany of usually accurate Nigerian accusations of "vote rigging" at all levels by all parties, the Army tried to influence the choice of government Ministers by sending the President their list of preferred candidates.  About this time, increasing signs of army dissent and coup plotting also became apparent but for some reason Shagari chose to handle it informally, once again using Umaru Shinkafi, his NSO Boss as an informal intermediary, perhaps misled by primordial assumptions that officers from his geopolitical zone would not betray him.   He was clearly in error because it had already been demonstrated in July 1975 that such a scenario was possible.  Reviewing Shagari's biography, a news editor for the Guardian Newspaper in Nigeria, Chukwuma Nwokoh, wrote that "One lesson to be drawn from 'Beckoned to Serve' is that no serving military person can be believed to be loyal to a government.  In other words the military is the most perfidious institution ever created by man.  On several occasions, hints pointed at the direction of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari as a potential coup plotter.  Twice, he denied.  He even threatened to resign his commission given that his loyalty to the Shagari government was in doubt." 

But Buhari was not the only one engaged in invoking personal and regional loyalty while actively plotting.  The Director of Army Staff Duties and Plans, Brigadier Ibrahim Babangida and the Director of Military Intelligence, Colonel Aliyu Mohammed, both on friendly terms with the President, paid a long private visit to Shagari in late October or early November to pledge their loyalty. At that very moment, Major Bamidele of the 3rd Division was being detained and put through a trumped-up hearing after he innocently reported rumors of a coup to his boss, Brigadier Buhari in Jos.    

A few weeks later on December 31, against a backdrop of increasingly strident public criticisms by former military ruler General Obasanjo, President Shagari was overthrown in a coup by senior northern officers he had helped nurture in the early sixties, in whom he had placed so much trust over the years.  In addition to the controversial 1983 elections, they claimed they were motivated to take over to stop corruption and economic mismanagement on the part of civilians.  However, unconfirmed reports claim that at least one of the military conspirators even obtained funding for the coup in part by selling import licenses obtained from Shagari's government and others were known to have lifted oil from time to time.    Other reports pointed at financial contributions from a prominent Yoruba politician who was dissatisfied with his chances of becoming the ruling party's Presidential candidate.

Importantly, though, when the new Head of State addressed his first Press Conference, he described his administration as an "offshoot" of the Murtala-Obasanjo régime that had come to power in 1975 and handed over to civilians in 1979.   However, the late SG Ikoku, himself a veteran of the failed 1962 civilian coup attempt, was more specific.  He described then Brigadier Babangida as the "moving spirit" of the putsch and expressed the opinion that the late Major General Shehu Yar'Adua (rtd) had his fingers in it.   There are other pundits who interpreted the events of December 1983 as a split between the military and political wings of the so called "Kaduna mafia" in Nigerian politics.



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

** Full text of Abacha's coup announcement

Circa 0700 hrs GMT.  December 31, 1983.  Radio Nigeria

Fellow countrymen and women.

I, Brigadier Sani Abacha, of the Nigerian Army address you this morning on behalf of the Nigerian Armed Forces.

You are all living witnesses to the great economic predicament and uncertainty, which an inept and corrupt leadership has imposed on our beloved nation for the past four years. I am referring to the harsh, intolerable conditions under which we are now living. Our economy has been hopelessly mismanaged; we have become a debtor and beggar nation.  There is inadequacy of food at reasonable prices for our people who are now fed up with endless announcements of importation of foodstuff; health services are in shambles as our hospitals are reduced to mere consulting clinics without drugs, water and equipment.

Our educational system is deteriorating at alarming rate.  Unemployment figures including the undergraduates have reached embarrassing and unacceptable proportions.

In some states, workers are being owed salary arrears of eight to twelve months and in others there are threats of salary cuts.  Yet our leaders revel in squandermania, corruption and indiscipline, and continue to proliferate public appointments in complete disregard of our stark economic realities.

After due consultations over these deplorable conditions, 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.

The Federal Military Government hereby decrees the suspension of the provision of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1979 relating to all elective and appointive offices and representative institutions including the office of the President, state governors, federal and state executive councils, special advisers, special assistants, the establishment of the National Assembly and the Houses of Assembly including the formation of political parties.

Accordingly, Alhaji Shehu Usman Shagari ceases forthwith to be the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria.  All the incumbents of the above named offices shall, if they have not already done so, vacate their formal official residences, surrender all government property in their possession and report to the nearest police station in their constituencies within 7 days.

The clerk of the National Assembly, the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives shall, within two weeks, render account of all the properties of the National Assembly.  All the political parties are banned; the bank account of FEDECO and all the political parties are frozen with immediate effect.  All foreigners living in any part of the country are assured of their safety and will be adequately protected.

Henceforth, workers not on essential duties are advised to keep off the streets.  All categories of workers on essential duties will, however, report at their places of work immediately.

With effect from today, a dusk to dawn curfew will be imposed between 7pm and 6am each day until further notice.  All Airways flights have been suspended forthwith and all airports, seaports, and border posts closed.  External communication has been cut; the Custom and Excise, Immigration and the Police will maintain vigilance and ensure watertight security at the borders.  The area administrators or commanders will have themselves to blame if any of the wanted people escapes.

Fellow countrymen and women, the change in government has been a bloodless and painstaking operation and we do not want anyone to lose his or her life.  People are warned in their own interest to be law abiding and to give the Federal Military Government maximum cooperation.  Anyone caught disturbing public order will be summarily dealt with. 

For avoidance of doubt, you are forewarned that we shall not hesitate to declare martial law in any area or state  of the federation in which disturbances occur.

Fellow countrymen and women and comrades at arms, I will like to assure you that the Armed Forces of Nigeria is ready to lay its life for our dear nation but not for the present irresponsible leadership of the past civilian administration.

You are to await further announcements.

Good morning.