Preventing Coups in Nigeria* (Part 3)

By Dr. Nowa Omoigui




Civilian society is insufficiently sensitive to the potentially dysfunctional politics of hierarchy in the military. With rigorous oversight from the civilian leadership, the military needs to respect their own well laid down policies and procedures mostly plagiarized from the British Army. The cooperation of all Nigerians is absolutely vital because pressure to bend the rules based on favoritism frequently comes from civilians and traditional rulers not to mention soldiers themselves. But the chicken eventually comes home to roost.

As in many other parts of our society, not enough attention has been paid to establishing a 'rules-assurance' system that helps to avoid the personal alienation of individual officers and men from one another and the government.   This problem has been magnified by the professional imbalance in career planning and force structure that was bequeathed by the outgoing military regime.  What I mean is that the appropriate balance and ratio of soldiers, NCOs and officers in the Nigerian Army has been lost for many years due to all sorts of factors including arbitrary retirements, dismissals, executions, battle casualties, AIDS, etc....

That said, it is important to track (by computer) the careers of military personnel in order to detect those passed over for promotion and those who consistently get "army job" rather than "juicy" appointments in comparison with their "course mates" and officers from other regions of the country.   The current civilian government addressed a component of this problem in 1999 by retiring most of those officers who had held all sorts of political appointments in the past and whose personal wealth profile and living habits were likely to be a source of disaffection in the barracks, not to mention the decay in professionalism among most of them. 

However, another angle relates to those purely professional officers who fail to get promoted, not because they did not score high enough in their performance evaluation reports (which is fraught with subjectivity and other problems as enunciated by Colonel Dangiwa Umar (rtd)), but because there is no vacancy in their corps or insufficient availability of appointments requiring certain ranks.   When such an officer is eventually promoted he or she usually loses seniority to those of their colleagues who just happen to be lucky that there were vacancies in their respective corps.  This can be a dangerous source of professional frustration.  As obtains in many other countries, if an officer misses promotion through no fault of theirs (after meeting appropriate professional standards), whenever they eventually get promoted their seniority date should be backdated to the effective date of the cohort promoted by the original promotion board exercise so they don't get disadvantaged in comparison with their colleagues.

Another recent development troubles me.  Faced with a sudden recognition that there is a severe shortage of officers at lower ranks partly driven by the decision to make the Nigerian Defence Academy a degree awarding institution and significantly prolong the period required for officer training, the system of short service commissions has been reintroduced and training shortened to enable quick graduation of officers to fill up vacancies.  Once again, therefore, we have short service and regular combat commissions, not to mention other categories of commission.   Other measures have also been taken to redress the officer balance crisis including recalling officers who had already been retired on account of age, time on rank, etc...  But from the standpoint of this essay the short-service commission and its security implications needs to be appreciated by Nigerians at large.   

Right from the days of "Nigerianization" in the late fifties and early sixties, we have had multiple mechanisms for officer entry, be it via NMTC (Kaduna) to Teshie (Ghana) to Mons (Aldershot, UK) or NMTC to Sandhurst (regular combatant) or short service after six months at NDA or regular commission after 2 -3 years at NDA.  We had emergency commission (EC) during the civil war.  When we wanted to infuse graduates into the regular force in the seventies (having previously avoided them following the anglo-nigerian defence pact controversy of the early sixties) we introduced direct regular commissions.  There have been other shenanigans.  Some have risen through the ranks, thoroughly imbued with "barrack boy mentality". Others have entered from the Nigerian Military School in Zaria and other allied "Command", Navy" and "Air Force" military schools.  Many have come in from civil life with "O" level qualifications while others have arrived with University degrees.  Then there are those who came in with one level of education but then acquired further education while in service without necessarily impacting their original type of commission (as recent problems in the Police have illustrated).

It is important to recognize that such multiple entry mechanisms are not unique to Nigeria. In the US for example, there are "line officers" and "non-line officers". A line officer with a junior rank takes precedence over a more senior non-line officer in war. Furthermore, while most are familiar with West Point, Quantico, Annapolis and Colorado as officer training institutions for the core US military, there are many other ways one can enter the US military such as via the ROTC program in civilian institutions.  General Powell, for example, did not attend West Point as a cadet but he rose to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.  In Nigeria, however, the way such schisms play out, given our inherent tendency to form ethnic and religious cliques, gives cause for pause.

Civilians need to understand that one's type of commission is a powerful factor in determining how far and fast one can go in the military as well as one's pay grade.  But what is important to recall is how these pseudo-sociological classes interact with the course-mate syndrome, ethnicity and religion and affect esprit de corps.  They have even contributed to certain coups and coup attempts in the past.  Granted that when one enters, one signs documents to the effect that one understands the career limitations imposed by one's commission.  But with the passage of time many such entrants end up being passive aggressive about it, whining at every opportunity about discrimination from regular combatant officers who went through the NDACE system.  Back in the mid-seventies, a so called "conversion" exercise was held to convert short service officers, many of whom had been recruited during wartime expansion, to regular officers.  Those officers who felt it was too demanding were easy prey for those looking for recruits for the Dimka coup attempt of 1976.  

Such pressures also played a role in shaping grudges held by some of those who were cynically recruited to take part in the January 15, 1966 coup.  With the influx of officers following the decision to implement "federal character" in the officer corps in 1961, short service commissions became a convenient administrative tool for policy enforcement, opening up a well of resentment among those who (incorrectly) felt shortchanged or threatened.    Such sentiments were expressed at a recent seminar at the National War College by former Captain Ben Gbulie.  A regular officer who joined the Army on the same day as a Short-Service officer may find himself temporarily behind the Short-Service officer but the system is designed to ensure he or she catches up and eventually gets to a higher rank than the short service officer ordinarily can aspire to.

A more dramatic example of how  attempts to reach a compromise between civilian education, military education and date of entry can mask latent animosities comes from the seniority relationship of Gowon and Ojukwu which played a role in tensions leading up to the Nigerian civil war. Gowon entered the Nigerian Army (with "O" level qualification) almost two years before Ojukwu but Ojukwu's seniority date was backdated to account for his University education.   Although Ojukwu kept emphasing his administrative seniority during the post July 1966 crisis, it is easy to see how Gowon may well subconsciously have regarded Ojukwu as a short-service "small boy" not to mention the fact that Gowon had "bragging rights" as a regular combatant graduate of Sandhurst Military Academy while Ojukwu did not.

We ought, therefore, to think about it carefully when designing types of commission and mechanisms of entry into the officer corps.  The key criteria should be simplicity and social justice.  To deal with the current manpower crunch at lower levels in the Army I propose a "back-end" approach to levelling the playing field, instead of the "front-end" method.  All officer combatants recruited in peacetime for full-time service should be "regular" since they are not "reservists" by any stretch of the imagination.   If an officer recruit is accepted with "O-levels" and exposed to 2.5 years of training before graduating with the Nigerian Defence Academy Certificate of Education, also known as NDACE ("A" level equivalent) he or she should have the same beginning seniority date and type of commission as a recruit who entered on the same day 2 years earlier with "A" level qualifications and received 6-9 months of pure military training, the content of which is identical to that of the other combatant officers.  If a graduate is recruited directly as a combatant and gets 6-9 months of pure military training he or she should have the same seniority date and commission as one who entered with "O" levels qualification 5 years earlier and then underwent not just military training and an NDACE but also military university education and graduated from the NDA university with a degree. There should be no professional distinction between short service and regular commission if all concerned are potentially destined for careers as life-long combatants.  However, if an officer recruit makes the deliberate choice to pursue a limited military career which will end at the rank of Captain or Major (for example), then such a career choice should impact ONLY his or her date of discharge but not the commission type or rate of rise or seniority or opportunities for specialized young officer training while they are still in the military.  Such a mechanism allows us to build a pyramid into the rank structure of the institution without the unecessary frictions of the past.  It also allows the system retain the option to ask any given officer to stay on (voluntarily) for clearly defined lengths of time, for reasons of national need.  The trigger for such an extension would be a requirement that such officers attend and pass the senior division of the Command and Staff College.  Another way to use the Staff College as a sieve is to establish cut-off rates for a Staff College entrance examination (separate from the Captain to Major examination).  Irrespective of corps of origin, all officers desirous of long-term careers will be expected to pass such an examination irrespective of how they originally got into the military.  It becomes a levelling mechanism.  Those who fail,  leave immediately to pursue life in the civil sector.


Through segmentation and decentralization, the ethnic security map of the State of Nigeria could become sufficiently complex to increase the likelihood that a plot will be reported, detected or resisted once sprung. Paradoxically, those a leader needs to fear the most are personnel entrusted (and empowered) to guard him or her. And history shows that although leaders may be tempted to surround themselves with their tribesmen, one is not necessarily safe from officers and soldiers from one's ethnic group or region.  The first to learn this the hard way was General Yakubu C. Gowon. The coup that removed him was announced by his Guards Commander, Colonel Joseph Nanven Garba, an officer from the same State as the C-in-C.

President Shehu Shagari appeared eager to forget Gowon's experience and selectively learn from Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa's "Ifeajuna/Okafor/Ironsi experience" (if it may be so called) by appointing fellow Northwesterner Lt. Gen. Inua Wushishi as his Army Chief, kicking Lt. Gen. Alani Akinrinade "upstairs" in the process. But neither Inua Wushishi (Chief of Army Staff) nor Col. Bello Khaliel (Guards Commander) nor Umaru Shinkafi (Director-General of the National Security Organization)  could stop the 1983 coup, surrounded as they were by other ambitious northern military conspirators at the highest levels of Army Headquarters, including then Director of Army Staff Duties and Plans (Brig. Ibrahim Babangida), Military Secretary (Brig. Tunde Idiagbon) and Director of Military Intelligence (Col. Aliyu Gusau Mohammed) among others.   Paradoxically, it was Lt. Col. Eboma, a battalion commander from a so called southern 'minority'  state (then Bendel)  who extricated Shagari from Abuja as troops from Kaduna and Jaji led by Brigadier Ibrahim Bako approached the gates of the Presidential lodge.

The current civilian government has kept pundits guessing about its own ethnic security map. But there are some discernible patterns.  By some coincidence, the Commander of the strategic 9th Brigade at Ikeja (Lagos) as well as the Commander of the sensitive Brigade of Guards in Abuja share the same ethnic origin as the C-in-C, as does the Director-General of the State Security Service, the Inspector General of the Police, the Director of Military Intelligence and the Director of Defence Intelligence.  However, in my humble opinion, based on the tea leaves, the best configuration is one which exploits Nigeria diversity.

In many countries, segmentation of security services is horizontal and vertical. On the one hand there is regionalization (based on territory) while on the other there is compartmentalization of police forces controlling telecommunications & postal services, airports, port and borders, and municipalities as an example. Similarly, intelligence organizations can be duplicated and compartmentalized. By manipulating their rivalries, the political leadership could potentially insulate itself from being taken by surprise. Such arrangements also increase the "buy-in" of other tiers of government into the security responsibility and could complicate efforts at coup planning. The experience of the recent National Police Strike lends weight to the proposal that the Nigerian Police Force should be stratified. The Federal Police could specialize in Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) activities and sophisticated investigative roles like the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. The State Police could take over more mundane roles of daily policing, including highway patrol. County (or local government) Police units (possibly armed with batons) could be established for the lowest tier of serving and protecting the public. The Commander of such a unit could be elected (as an independent) from a short list of qualified personnel and could report to a Local Government (Country) Security Committee. Such a decentralized arrangement exists in India, a former British colony with much in common with Nigeria (except coup plotting), including a large population, poverty, as well as multiple ethnic and religious groups. In India, independent police forces exist at the federal level such as the Central Reserve Police, Border Security Police, IndoTibetan Border Police, and the " Black Cat" Commando all of whom report to the Prime Minister through the Home Minister. Separately, there are State and City police forces, which report to the Chief Ministers and Mayors respectively.

However, while this has merit, its complexity could also theoretically be a hindrance to the rapid mobilization of units to put down a coup. Hence, the need to have an additional constitutional "out of country" mechanism for ensuring the survival of a legitimate element of the political leadership that could then issue credible orders to 'wait-and-see' elements. It is noteworthy that before the 24th coup attempt finally succeeded in toppling President Jaffar El Nemeiry of Sudan (while on a visit abroad), he actually had a powerful independent radio-transmitter and electronic jammer secretly located within the country. This was to enable him have a mechanism for broadcasting appeals for support in the event that disloyal troops took over the country's 'official' radio stations. Unfortunately for Nemeiry, Egypt detained him (on his way back from the US) once the coup was announced in Khartoum.

What about abuses?  Given our national inability to be self policing, there is the danger that politicians can and will use security forces against their opponents, particularly during elections. My recommendation for this problem is to restrict politicians to no more than one term in office within any given branch. Elections should be supervised by an interim judicial arrangement.