Reasons For Military Intervention In Nigeria Politics

Post date:



76 / 100

Reasons For Military Intervention In Nigeria Politics

Reasons For Military Intervention In Nigeria Politics
Military Government In Nigeria

Military rule began in Nigeria with the military coup of 15th January, 1966 which overthrew the democratically-elected government of Alhaji Tafawa Balewa.

Before discussing the causes of military intervention in Nigeria, it is important to emphasize that the role of the military institution is to organize, control and apply force in the pursuit of policies determined by the state.

In other words, the traditional function of the military is to protect the territorial integrity of the country against external aggression. It may be used to put down internal strife but its main function is to ward off external aggression. As such, the military is supposed to be subservient to, and take instructions from the civilian government.

It is subject to absolute civilian control and supremacy. As traditional guards of the state, the soldiers are supposed to be seen and not heard. Their involvement in the political process is therefore an aberration.

Regrettably, however, the military has intervened in the political process on several occasions and the reasons for their intervention range from the mundane to the serious. Before examining the factors that encourage military rule in Nigeria, it is necessary to provide a checklist of the factors that facilitate military rule in the Third World:

  • The desire of the military to rule
  • Election malpractice
  • Corruption in the polity
  • Self-succession bid by political leaders
  • Tribalism, nepotism and parochialism
  • Refusal to heed public opinion
  • Total breakdown of law and order
  • Interference in local politics by foreign powers and multinationals


Generally, there are two theories about the causes of military intervention in Nigeria politics. The first theory relates to the internal characteristics of the military itself. This theory contends that military intervention in politics may be explained by looking at the internal structure of the military, i.e. the conditions of service, the social background of the officers, the training, career lines, the division within the institution and the professional and political ideology of the military.

This theory was propounded by Morris Janowitz (1964). He emphasized that military intervention can only be explained by military explanation If you want to understand why the military intervenes in politics, you simply look at the military itself.

In the second theory, Samuel Huntington (1968) contends that the most reasonable explanation for military intervention in politics is political. In other words, the military operates in a political environment and it is therefore influenced by the environment. So any explanation of military intervention has to consider the political forces which directly or indirectly affect the military institution.

Although Huntington’s argument appears reasonable, the best approach to this problem is to take the two theories as one and look for those factors within and outside the military that explain military intervention in politics especially in a developing country like Nigeria.

Some of these factors that encourage military intervention in Nigerian politics are now examined in below.

  • Constitutional Crises
  • Regional and Ethnic Conflicts
  • Creation of States
  • Action Group Crises and Treason Trial
  • Census Controversy
  • Federal Elections
  • Western Regional Elections
  • Structural Problems of the Military

1. Constitutional Crises

We have seen that in the process of constitutional development in Nigeria, the country began as a unitary state but moved rather unsteadily to become a federation in 1954.

Before the introduction of federalism, the Richards Constitution of 1946 and the Macpherson Constitution of 1951 had provided for a highly centralized system of government in which the regions were completely dependent on the central government.

This partly accounted for the Eastern Regional crisis of 1953, the constitutional crisis in Lagos in 1953, and the Kano Riot of 1953 which eventually led to the breakdown of the Macpherson Constitution. These crises raised fears of possible disintegration of the country.

In order to avert a possible collapse of the country, a new censtitutional framework that would give more power to the regions was proposed. The eventual eventual outcome of the constitutional conferences held in London and Lagos in 1953 and 1954 respectively was the Lyttleton Constitution of 1954 which promoted regionalism and left Nigeria with a weak centre. The constitution weakened national institutions and strengthened the regional government vis-a-vis the federal government.

In the words of Oyediran, not only did the separateness continue beyond independence but, what is worse, it added in its development profoundly serious strains and stresses. These additional elements converged to destroy respect for constitutionalism and the rules of the game.

In short, Nigerians were divided along ethnic and regional lines and it was only a matter of time before these divisions were manifested in the military.

2. Regional and Ethnic Conflicts

Regional and ethnic conflicts in Nigeria began in 1941 when the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM), the only national party at the time, attempted to nominate a replacement for Kofo Abayomi on the Legislative Council. This led to a division in the party.

As a result “the NYM was left with an almost entirely Yoruba membership, and this began the political tensions between the Ibo and Yoruba that has plagued Nigerian politics ever since”. The unhealthy rivalry between the Yoruba and Ibo in the political and social spheres continued unabated throughout the 1940s. The conflict was initially limited to the South.

The North came into the fray in 1950 at the Ibadan General Conference where it made two major demands. First, the Northern Region demanded that it should have at least 50 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives, and second, that revenue allocation should be based on population. Both the Eastern Region and Western Region were vehemently opposed to these demands.

In spite of this opposition, the conference allotted 50 percent of the seats in the central legislature to the Northern Region. According to Kirk-Greene, the decision to grant the North’s demand “was one that was to dominate the shaping of Nigeria’s political culture until the First-Republic exploded sixteen years later”.

In short, the conference created a political arrangement in which power was tactically conceded to the Northern Region. The other regions never liked the arrangement.

There were other regional and ethnic conflicts which contributed to the military intervention in Nigerian politics. They include;

a) The defeat of Nnamdi Azikiwe in his bid to enter the House of Representatives through the Western House of Assembly in 1951.

b) The motion for self-government promoted by Anthony Enahoro, an Action Group (AG) backbencher in 1953.

c) The Kano riots of 1953

d) The ethnic bases of the three major political parties which alienated the minority groups in the three regions and ensured that the struggle for power at the center was fought along ethnic and regional lines.

e) The decision of the NCNC to form an alliance with the NPC after the 1959 federal election which left Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the Action Group leader as the official leader of opposition and the Yoruba out of the mainstream of Nigerian politics.

3. Creation of States

Besides revenue allocation, the problem of state creation is perhaps the most controversial issue in the political history of Nigeria. And the problem predated Nigeria’s independence.

The Henry Willink Minorities Commission of 1957 failed to proffer an enduring solution to the problem and the British colonial government was unable to create new states before independence in 1960. The creation of the Mid-Westem Region in 1963, though a step in the right direction, did not fully allay the fears of minorities in the other regions for states of their own.

But more importantly, the issue of state creation which was championed largely by the Action Group brought the party into collision with the NPC government which was averse to the creation of states in the Northern Region.

The failure of the Federal Government to satisfy the demands for new states created tension in the political system which some ambitions military officers capitalized on.

4. Action Group Crises And Treason Trial

The Action Group crisis of 1962 which led to a split in the party and the subsequent trial of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and ten other Action Group (AG) leaders for treason in the same year did not come as a surprise, but the mismanagement of these crises by the Federal Government inevitably contributed to the military intervention in 1966.

The Action Group (AG) crisis led to the Western Regional House of Assembly crisis of 1963 and, the consequent declaration of a “state of emergency” in the region. In the end, a minority party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) was imposed on the people of the region with the active support of the central government.

The struggle between the Action Group (AG) and the NNDP for control of the region contributed immensely to the breakdown of law and order in the region in 1965 and the eventual military coup of January 1966.

5. Census Controversy

Another factor that contributed to the military intervention of 1966 was the controversy over the 1962/63 census. In Nigeria, census is the basis for the allocation of seats in the legislative houses and for sharing federally-collected revenue among the component units of the federation.

The 1953 census, like the previous ones gave the Northern Region an edge over the South. As a result, the region was allocated 174 of the 312 seats in the House of Representatives. The Eastern Region had 73, the Western Region 62 and Lagos had 3.

The Southern leaders had hoped that the 1962-1963 census would alter balance in their favour and therefore remove the basis for northern domination at the federal level. The initial results seemed to favour the South as the population of the Eastern Region, Western Region and Northern Region increased by 71 percent, 70 percent and 30 percent respectively.

The Northern Region kicked against the figures and it was claimed that the population of the East and West was inflated. This created tension in the country particularly within the ruling coalition. As a result, the Federal Government cancelled the census and ordered a recount.

The result released in February 1964 gave the Northern Region 29.7 million (increase of 67 percent), Eastern Region 12.3 million (65 percent increase), Western Region 12.8 million (100 percent increase) and Lagos 675,000.

The new census results generated alot of tension in the country. Predictably, the Western Region government led by Chief Akintola Ladoke accepted the result. but Dr. Michael Okpara and Chief Dennis Osadebey, premiers of Eastern and Mid-Western regions respectively dismissed the result.

Chief Dennis Osadebey later accepted the result in the innterest of national unity. The major consequence of the census controversy was that it deepened the rift between the North and the East.

6. 1984 Federal Elections

Under the 1963 Republican Constitution, federal elections, were conducted once in five years. The last federal election took place in 1959. Before the 31st December, 1964 federal elections, two main alliances were formed by the major parties. They were the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA) which was led by the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) and the United Progressives Grand Alliance (UPGA).

The elections were won by the NNA but the President, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe refused to call on Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, the leader of the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA) which had the majority of seats in parliament, to form the government.

Nnamdi Azikiwe had based his decision on the alleged massive rigging of the elections in seven parts of the country. Thus, there was virtually no government in Nigeria for three days and this created political tension in the land.

In the end, good sense prevailed and on 4th January, 1965, the President announced the appointment of Tafawa Balewa as Prime Minister. Balewa formed a broad-based government which included the major parties but excluded the Action Group (AG).

Unfortunately, the fundamental causes of the crisis were swept under the carpet.

7. 1965 Western Regional Elections

The Western Regional Elections were held on 11th October, 1965 to elect members of the region’s House of Assembly. This was an election, which the new NNDP government needed to win to consolidate its hold on power in the region. On the other hand, the Action Group, which had been decimated by crises, saw it as an opportunity to re-assert its position as the dominant party in the region.

The odds, however, appeared to favour the NNDP which had been in power in the Region since 1963. The NNDP used the power of incumbency to full advantage. For example, it raised the price of a ton of cocoa from the actual selling price of N180 to N240 in order to win the votes of cocoa farmers.

Several promises of development projects were also made. The Akintola government also dissolved the elected local government councils and replaced them with management committees appointed by his government. The traditional rulers were warned not to oppose the government.

The government also stressed the need for Yoruba solidarity. Moreover, members of the party were employed as electoral officers even though the Federal Electoral Commission had responsibility for conduct of the election.

The Action Group and the NCNC which were the main opposition parties in the region were divided and could not present a united front against the NNDP in the elections. Few days before the election, fifteen members of the Nigerian National Democratic Party had been returned unopposed. The House had 94 members.

Thus, the election was virtually won even before it got started. There was violence before, during and after the elections and the thousands of policemen drafted to the region to maintain law and order were, to a large extent, unable to contain the riots and disturbances perpetrated by both sides in all parts of the region. Both Alhaji D.S. Adegbenro, the leader of the AG and Akintola claimed victory.

Consequently, Adegbenro was arrested by the police. With the arrest and detention of Adegbenro, the way was clear for Akintola to form a government. But the open rebellion continued and all entreaties on the Prime Minister to declare a state of emergency in the region went unheeded until the military struck in January 1966.

8. Structural Problems of the Military

There were also certain internal characteristics of the military which contributed to military intervention in Nigerian politics. It is important, however, to emphasize that there is no way the military could insulate itself from the political or centrifugal forces operating around it. The following internal characteristics of the military also partly accounted for military intervention in politics.

  • Condition for Appointment and Promotion in the Military

There was a debate in the Nigerian society even before independence about whether courage or educational qualifications should be the basis for recruitment and promotion in the military.

Although this controversy had had adverse effects on discipline in the military, it would appear that the military being a modern institution, now gives a lot of weight to educational and technical proficiency in appointment and promotion.

  • Quota System

There had also been a debate about the need for quota in recruitment into the army. At the 1950 Ibadan Conference and the 1958 Lagos Conference, it was canvassed that the Nigerian Army should be drawn from each region in proportion to its population.

It is only prudent that the military which is one of the few national institutions existing in the country should recruit its men and officers on equal basis from the different states of the country.

  • Disciplines

The problem of discipline in the military also contributed to military intervention in politics. According to Luckham, discipline was poorly institutionalized due to distorted age structure and promotional pattern which was in turn determined by the rapid indigenisation of the officer corps.

It was, for instance observed that except for a few, all the combatant officers were aged between 20 to 35 in 1966. Moreover, the rate of promotion which was fast immediately after independence was considerably slowed down after 1964. As a result several captains and majors had to wait for years for their promotion than was hitherto the case.

Although the problems of recruitment, promotion and discipline could cause disaffection within the military, they did not appear strong enough to motivate a corps of disciplined military officers to usurp political power.

The political forces therefore deserve a close look for, on many occasions in the past, politicians have called for military intervention in politics if only to settle scores with their political enemies. The parties that lost the 1983 elections to the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) were, for example, said to have openly called for military intervention.

In a nutshell, the nature of the political system is both a necessary and sufficient condition for military intervention in politics. Other factor such as military intervention in other neighbouring states, poor governance by civilian governments, poor conditions of service in the military and desire by ambitious military officers to rule are also important factors.

Facebook Comments Box