Preventing Coups in Nigeria* (Part 4)

By Dr. Nowa Omoigui




In order to have a serious and professional military organization worth its salt, three basic criteria must be met.  It must be properly trained, appropriately equipped,  and populated by quality soldiers, NCOs and Officers in the right quantity.  However, just as in statistics, where the quality of results of analyses depends on the quality of the original data input, the recruitment of "junk material" can only ultimately result in a "junk Army".  

As far back as 378 B.C. this basic truth was recognized by a Roman military philosopher called Vegetius (De Re Militari), who wrote that 'An army raised without proper regard to the choice of its recruits was never made good by length of time.'  If, therefore, acceptance of the primacy of civil authority is an essential ingredient of what our society regards as a quality military, we must pay particular attention to those who enter it.  

Along these lines, I recall the comment made by a former teacher of mine at the University of Ibadan when I graduated from medical school in 1981.  Excited that I was  now a "Doctor", Professor Cole put a fatherly blanket over the fire of my youthful exuberance by pointing out that the only thing my successful 'graduation' meant was that the University, in its wisdom, had decided that I had the mental attributes and character to be trainable.  He said the 'graduation' was only the beginning of a long process of continuous training and education which would never end.  Looking back now 21 years later, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see what he meant.

Unfortunately, however, when it comes to the military, what seems to preoccupy us as a nation is  the superficial concept of religious and ethnic diversity,  otherwise known as  'federal character', of recruitment efforts rather than the quality of those inducted and commissioned.  We seem to assume that once "federal character" is reflected, we can go to sleep confident that we have a professional Army that will protect us against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  It appears though, particularly in recent years, that an unstated cynical assumption in the roll of the dice is that if the military comes to power we can be assured that whatever configuration emerges will also reflect "federal character".    

The military on its part, operating in a volunteer recruitment environment, limited not just by constitutional requirements for "geographic spread", but also by the specifics of those who actually present themselves for selection, has to fashion a way to create an effective and cohesive fighting force out of the "bloody civilians" who show up at its gates for induction.  Theoretically, thereafter, it tries to foster national values in the way recruits are educated as they make their way up the chain of command.   The commonality of military training, constant exposure to a  disciplined environment, relative isolation in barracks from the civilian population , and shared experiences as "buddies" in actual or threatened combat are expected to break down ethnic and religious consciousness.   Periodic postings are meant to help  ensure that personnel serve in multiple locations outside their core areas of origin over the course of their careers.  Promotions and appointments are presumed to be based on competence rather than on personal, ethnic and religious links even though we still peak in from time to time to make sure our ethnic enclaves are "represented".    At the same time even when civil society is polarized along ethnic, religious and regional lines (as it often is) our disciplined soldiers, sailors and airmen - as 'citizens in uniform' - are not expected to be impacted by our mundane proclivities, which we don't bother to hide from them as we jockey among ourselves for political advantage.  These are some of the contradictions inherent in maintaining armed forces in a pluralistic society. We have had over 40 years of post-independence mutinies and coups to study and develop a profile of of soldiers, officers and situations that lead to such outcomes.  When, therefore, civilians present themselves for recruitment it should be possible to use detailed behavioral science techniques and psychological tests to profile those we think ought to be given the privilege of serving in the military (irrespective of ethnicity).  Such a process should be built into the recruiting system.  What I have in mind is personality and psychosocial stability assessment separate from basic eligibility questioning and counselling, determination of aptitude, medical and/or dental examination,  academic, employment and criminal background verification.   

None of this should necessarily affect geographic spread (Federal character) of recruits.  There are plenty of good quality civilians who are "soldier material" across ALL ethnic boundaries in Nigeria. What seems to have become the vogue in recent decades, though, is that personal connections (within different groups) are assuming greater significance than merit in gaining entry.  While one cannot rule out such factors even in advanced countries like the US where a recommendation from one's congressman is a requirement for West Point, all sorts of characters may have slipped under the fence in this manner in Nigeria because as with other issues, we don't know where to draw the line.  From any given state in any part of the country, one is not confident that the best and most reliable materials are gaining entry into the Armed Forces, even making allowance for the general decay in the quality of national educational infrastructure and societal morals.  During the Oputa hearings, for example, it was alleged that a sufferer from  sickle cell anemia was actually admitted into the Nigerian Defence Academy for Officer Training on the strength of personal connections, only to die in training.  

As former Head of State General Abdulsalami Abubakar once observed, it is no secret that quite a few deliberately entered the military in the last 15-20 years or were sent to enter the military by their parents and other relations to do so for no other purpose but to become "Governors" and "Ministers" in the future, presumably by planning and executing or and/or benefitting from successful coups.  How they can be identified and rooted out or contained deserves the attention and reflection of all Nigerians.  At the same time, only officers of the highest professional and ethical standards should be allowed to serve at choke points in the recruitment and training system. Those postings should not just be used to "punish" officers who are out of favor.    It may also be that if and when foreign military training agreements are negotiated, close collaboration in staffing such military institutions for appropriate conditioning of recruits, may be helpful.  Another option may be to airlift entire units (platoons, companies, and battalions) abroad for "system" training and exercises, rather than the piecemeal approach of training "individual trainers" who then return, only to collapse under the weight of the constipated Nigerian system.  The other advantage of composite unit training abroad is that it avoids the political sensitivities of alien looking soldiers in the Nigerian countryside.


In some countries, the police is larger than the military while in others paramilitary elements are integrated into the party structure. The Police coup against Dauda Jawara of Gambia showed that even the police can attempt to seize power as they had previously done in Ghana and Somalia. One thing that has been tried in Nigeria (with mixed but largely ineffectual results) is the development of competing (or elite) security force elements woven around usually ethnic soldiers.

Nigeria, as is well known, is a British creation.  The concept of a Guards regiment in Britain dates back to 1642 when the Life Guards of the Army of Scotland was created by the monarchy.  It was disbanded when Charles II escaped to France after the Battle of Worcestershire in 1651.

In 1650, just before the fall of Charles,  the Coldstream Guards was originally formed by Col. Monck as part of the Army of Oliver Cromwell.  

In 1660, however, Monck advanced at the head of his unit from Coldstream, Scotland to London in support of the return of Charles II to the English throne, switching sides.  In 1659, a regiment of Guards was created by Charles II while he was in exile. When he returned home in 1660, he created yet another regiment of Guards which was later combined with the one he created in exile to form the Royal Regiment of Foot Guards. It later became known as the First Regiment of Foot Guards, which was subsequently changed to Grenadier Guards in 1815, following the battle of Waterloo.

The original Life Guards unit was reactivated by Charles in 1660.  When Scotland and England became a union in 1707, the Scots Guards became the Third Regiment of Foot Guards in Britain.  Over the years these units have become primarily ceremonial although they rotate out to maintain readiness as regular combat formations.

The permanent nucleus of what is now known as the Brigade of Guards of the Nigerian Army was formed in September 1962 as the Federal Guards for the purpose of carrying out ceremonial and security duties in Lagos similar to the role of the British Guards regiments in London.  However, the immediate precipitating factor was the arrest on September 22 of Chief Awolowo on suspicion of a civilian militia plot to overthrow the Balewa government.  The first group of soldiers to serve were drawn from a company seconded from the 1st Battalion in Enugu under the command of Lt. Col. W. Bassey.  Between 1962 and 1964 it was led by several officers, including Lt. Col. Ogunewe and Captains Mobolaji Johnson and Obioha before Major D. Okafor assumed command in early 1964.  When Okafor left for a course in Britain in 1965 temporary command fell on the shoulders of Captain JN Garba who ceded command back to Okafor when the latter returned from the UK. Personal VIP security for the Prime Minister was not its primary task, although it took up just such a role for the first time during the chaos of the 1964 federal elections after which it was withdrawn to the barracks.  

With this background, Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, with only six Police Guards at his residence, may have thought he was also 'protected' by the Guards Company. But it was the Guards company commander, Major Donatus Okafor, along with Major Ifeajuna, who personally shot him near Mile 27 on the Lagos-Abeokuta Road during the January 1966 coup.

When General Ironsi declared Nigeria a unitary state in May 1966, he renamed the Federal Guards, the National Guards.  The soldiers who killed him (and Col. Fajuyi) near Ibadan on July 29, 1966 belonged to his security detail, drawn from the National Guards unit in Lagos and supported by elements from the 4th Battalion in Ibadan.

General Gowon had an 'elite' ethnic based Brigade of Guards under Colonel JN Garba (which eventually removed him in July 1975, was initially left intact by General Muhammed, but disbanded after the abortive coup of February 1976, only to be reconstituted using fresh troops).

Lt. Gen. Obasanjo's government subsequently established the National Security Organization (NSO) after being taken by surprise by Lt. Col. Dimka. He and his colleagues felt that the "E" branch of the Police and "Army Intelligence", were insufficient for the demands of the modern state. Curiously, in the sixteen-year period from 1960-76 (prior to the establishment of the NSO) there were four coups. In the twenty-four year period from 1976-2000 (after the establishment of the NSO), there have been three (3) successful coups, three aborted conspiracies and one unsuccessful coup attempt. Since the number of coups "prevented" or "nipped in the bud" quietly during the period are unknown, it would be unfair to draw any conclusion from these numbers, interesting though they appear.

As noted before, President Shagari tried to build up the Police with armored vehicles but was interrupted in December 1983 by Brigadier Abacha and his fellow conspirators. The 6th, 19th and 123rd Guard battalions, along with the 20th Guard Garrison of the Guards Brigade were either neutralized or co-opted even though there were individual officers who stood by the government.  The only full Guards Battalion commander who outright refused to take part in the coup was the one at Ojo cantonment.  Shagari's Guards Brigade  Commander in Lagos who tried to resist (then Colonel Bello Khaliel) was arrested and subsequently retired, along with the battalion commander in Keffi (Lt. Col Eboma) whose detachment at Abuja had initially frustrated the coupists.

Maj. Gen. Buhari maintained the Guards Brigade, but having been penetrated and undermined, it was not of much use to him in August 1985 (although the acting Commander,  Col Sabo Aliyu as well as Buhari's ADC (Major Jokolo) tried in vain to stand by him, only to end up being severely beaten).

With Israeli assistance, General Babangida's government split up the NSO into the SSS and NIA and began plans to establish a National Guard, (in addition and parallel to the Guards Brigade). He later tried to decentralize (regionalize) the headquarters of the Army, Airforce and Navy by moving them to Minna, Lagos and Kano respectively, a decision that was stoutly resisted by many (including Gen. Obasanjo). Further, efforts were made to 'sedate' the services through such measures like controlling fuel supply to Airforce bases and severely limiting training and readiness in the Armed Forces as a whole in the name of "national security". None of this prevented him from being nearly totally surprised in April 1990 by young officers and soldiers shipped around in J-5 civilian buses. The regime later created a Special Protection Unit.

Interim National Government Leader Earnest Shonekan was essentially a passenger on a ship, the design of which he did not understand. Once his government was declared illegal by a Lagos High Court, General Abacha (who had already made preparatory moves supported by the "Lagos Group" in the Army) shoved him off the ship in what was described by former Army Chief General MC Alli as a "walk over".  

Other than a series of carefully targeted purges, directed at "IBB boys", Abacha initially lay low (exploiting public frustration with IBB) but then later established his own personal security outfits, assisted by Libya and North Korea. They included the Special Bodyguards, Strike Force etc. which functioned separately from the Brigade of Guards and had a different command structure independent of the Army. Fearful of the Nigerian Army Armored Corps, Abacha also redeployed Recce units to border regions and implemented some curious moves like physically taking tracks off armored vehicles in storage or requesting foreign arms suppliers to keep already purchased Nigerian weapons abroad in warehouses. Abacha's State Security Service and Directorate of Military Intelligence were vicious; his personal bodyguards were very high-handed and dismissive of the regular military hierarchy. He "foiled" two coup conspiracies in 1995 and 1997 before dying of a cardiac arrest in the company of women of easy virtue, from which none of his security outfits could save him.

General Abubakar disbanded some of Abacha's private units but kept the traditional Brigade of Guards, along with the SSS, NIA, DIA all of which were inherited by the current civilian regime.

I am unfamiliar with the current state of affairs. But in some previous Nigerian governments, the 'real chain of command' of the Brigade of Guards had been direct to Army Headquarters rather than through the formal divisional structure (at various times called the Lagos Garrison Organization, 4th Division, and Lagos Garrison Command.) Supporting units from other formations (e.g. Artillery and Armor) were typically integrated (ad hoc) into the basic infantry command structure based on rotations. Naturally, some of these units with 'access, firepower, mobility and protection' (like the former 245 Recce Armored Battalion in Ikeja) provided a fertile target for coupists seeking recruits.   

In November 1983, for example, Major Owonibi was suddenly replaced as the CO of the 245 Recce Battalion by Major Gwadabe who had not even been fully inducted into the armored corps.  A month later in December, the former 9th Infantry Brigade HQ in Ikeja (under Brigadier Abacha) provided motorized infantry many of whom were trucked in from Lt. Col. Madaki's battalion in Owode in Ogun State to seize road junctions in Lagos, while light armored vehicles led by Lt. Peter Bamidele from the 245 Recce Battalion Ikeja (under Gwadabe's direction) acted as the vanguard in the assault on Dodan Barracks ("State House, Ribadu Road") through Ribadu and Obalende Roads. Unable to enter State House for several hours because of a reluctant Infantry Captain and some subalterns from the Armored corps (who had not been recruited beforehand), orders were actually given (by one of the Brigadiers involved in the plot) to "bring down the buildings" even though President Shehu Shagari was far away in Abuja ostensibly being accosted by late Brigadier Bako's group, along with Col. Tunde Ogbeha. Bako, Director of the Army Faculty at the CSC Jaji, had driven to Abuja to grab the President. But the coupists met resistance from a Guards Brigade detachment seconded from the battalion at Keffi. Shagari was successfully extricated by loyal troops and NSO officers, only to give up two (2) days later.

Surrounded and cut off from a credible chain of command, the Captain of the Guard at State House, Ribadu road, Lagos eventually gave in but not until the evening after Captain Bamidele's group had broken down the gates. Much later that morning, the Brigade Major (Major Michael Iyorshe) and his Commander (Col.Bello Khaliel) could not to push the envelope in part because they were disconnected not only from the service chiefs (who had all been arrested after their guards had been changed) but also from competent civilian authority (some of whom, like Vice-President Ekwueme had also been picked up). The reliability of some of their own units was also suspect. Bonny Camp in Victoria Island, home to the 6th Battalion (and several unrelated Army HQ formations) was actually the operational base of the coup planners.

In other African countries, examples of fierce resistance by Guards Units on behalf of civilian regimes, long enough to allow the mobilization of other loyal units exist. The  failed coup attempts against Paul Biya of Cameroun (1984) and Arap Moi (1982) of Kenya fall into this category.   On the other hand the exact oppossite occurred in Niger republic where Guard Commander Major Dauda Malam Wanke ordered the assassination of President Mainasara.

In Nigeria's case, after over 40 years, it is time for the civilian regime to seriously re-evaluate the utility of the Brigade of Guards in VIP security.  It seems from newspaper reports that the SSS does have a greater role in VIP security in this government than in the past but it does so as part of a concentric ring which still includes the military.  Abuja is still packed with military institutions and units, initial concern in 1999 by legislators notwithstanding.  The responsibility for the personal protection of the President ought not to directly involve corporate military units in peacetime as is the case in most countries in the world.   The British, American and Indian Armies are not responsible for the personal protection of their leaders.   The independent role of the Secret Service in the US, supervised by the Treasury Department, comes to mind.  That experienced conspirators like Generals Abacha and Babangida chose not to rely on the Guards Brigade for their protection speaks volumes.

It must also be pointed out that the tendency of President Shagari to shuttle between Lagos and Abuja created some of the confusion (among plotters) in the early hours of the December 1983 coup. Although most Nigerians assumed that the government had been overthrown once they heard Brigadier Abacha's address on radio, the truth is that things remained quite fluid for another 24 to 48 hours.  Some have suggested that it may be well worth considering retaining federal status for parts of Lagos (along with Abuja) in the Constitution, as another element of decentralization. Some countries, proponents say, have summer and winter capitals. Others, like South Africa, have the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government located in different cities.  But how such an idea will play in Nigeria, given the usual regional suspicions, is unclear.