Military Oligarchy

Military men of the 60s
A string of military rule was unleashed following the January 1966 coup which paved the way for the first generation of military oligarchs. Here, Aguyi-Ironsi, first military Head of State, addresses a press conference. Photo: ACCORD

Military Oligarchy is a system in which political power rests with a few military officers. The military is a great and ancient profession, which requires appropriate demeanor and exemplary standard of conduct, encapsulated in the expression professionalism. Yet professionalism in the military, as was clear in various documented testimonies in the Oputa Panel report, even by senior military officers, has been a casualty of military rule in the country, further evidence of the institutional decay that is being widely touted. One unfortunate dimension of this decay is what is refer to as the cult of the Head of State. If and when the Head of State is elevated to the State and made coterminous with the State, then the cult of the Head of State is created. The personal ambitions of the Head of State, his or her fears and apprehensions; his or her enemies, real or imagined, become matters of State interest and concern, deserving State intervention and state protection, necessitating State-sponsored assassinations, murders and disappearances.

Typically, Nigerian military rulers, like all dictators, were unable to draw any distinction between themselves and the State. Their intelligence outfits danced to their tune and their agents also saw themselves as beyond and above the law. This led to the hounding of journalists and those who criticized their administrations and policies. Intellectuals and human rights activists, among other critics of military rule, were arrested and jailed, without recourse to due process, in the so-called interest of State security.

This attitude was also reflected in the protection given to oil companies, which supplied much of the needed oil revenue to various military administrations. Their interests became State interests, which must be protected. This logically led to the systematic and generalized violations and abuses, which occurred in the Niger-Delta during the dark period of military rule in the country[i].

[i] Human Rights Violations Investigations Commission, HRVIC report.

Military Oligarchy in antiquity

Although the military class existed in several ancient southwestern Nigerian towns in pre-colonial times, the constitution of this class into the ruling oligarchy appears to have been an Ibadan innovation. Where the warriors do no more than fight, the brave and the skilled are honored with chieftaincy titles from the military line. I.O Sotunde highlights in his book on Egba chieftaincy that there was no mobility from the military to the civilian even when the holders of the title assumes a civil role. This presumably underscores the importance placed on the military. With the increase of warfare, the Alaafin honored his friend, who was a great warrior with the title of the Aare Ona Kakanfo, which is the commander of the kingdom’s army. This was the title taken by Oluyedun following the exit of the last group of allied army of Ife at Ibadan in the 1830s. With seven other military chiefs, Oluyedun formed a power bloc that ruled the new city state of Ibadan. By the time of his successor, Oluyedun’s death in 1847, a military oligarchy had been firmly established. In this system, leadership was collective, appointment of chiefs was not hereditary, and new titles were created to reward persons who have been able to forge a brilliant military career. A civil group of chiefs emerged in c.1850 Ibadan for the need to relieve Generals of the duty of governance to enable them focus on Ibadan’s expasionist agenda. Much like the government of President Babangida that was to come to Nigeria a century and thirty five years after, a system of government was formed such that power was divided among two major chieftaincy groups- one civil and the other military.

Demonstration in Zaria after the first Nigerian coup in 1966
Demonstration in Zaria after the first Nigerian coup in 1966. Source:

Military Rule in Nigeria

Military rule in Nigeria after the first coup de tat in 1966, according to D.M. Jemibewon on Reflections of a General, took an hybrid model of the Indrect and Dual Dictatorships. The Indirect, practiced in inter-war Germany, Japan, and Cuba of the 1930s-40s features military-civilian companionship between de jure civilian rulers and de facto military aristocrats who stay in the background. This appears to be the system in pre-colonial Ibadan as illustrated by T. Fatola and D. Oguntosimi in Military in the 19th Century Yoruba Politics. The Dual Dictatorship, like Turkish and the South Korean model of 1961 features a sort of partnership between the Armed Forces and the civilians. The military, like the former, are senior in this relationship. In Nigeria, the foray of the military into governance was for a large chunk of the time benevolent unlike the classic military oligarchies or dictatorships in Latin America, Middle and Far East, and in other African countries. Autocratic tendencies or near descent into one was however present in Nigeria’s experience.

While military oligarchy arose in ancient Ibadan due to the place being originally a military camp populated primarily by soldiers, it arose in post-1966 Nigeria to “right the wrongs.” The Nigerian military in fact was originated from an institution which helped to establish and sustain imperialist rule. While it may be said of the civilian political class including even the “valiant,” that they midwifed independence, the military on the other hand had no chance to play a role. Nevertheless, each new regime was welcomed by citizens cheerfully for they were never in want for justification to seize power. With the death of Sani Abacha, the least popular of them all, came the chance to entrench democracy in 1999.

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer