The Armed Forces Of Nigeria As The Guardian of Democracy – OpEd


In times past, the armed forces of Nigeria had a reputation for overthrowing democratically elected governments, but they have since turned over a new leaf. Back then the Nigerian military had atttained notoriety as a hotbed of coups in Africa and had recorded nine coups and counter-coups between 1966 and 1993.

At that time, the military was a veritable coup factory, so to speak. Some of the coups were violent and bloody and had led to the deaths of Nigeria’s first prime minister at independence, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and other high-ranking politicians from the Northern and Western regions. Even the military were not spared of the violence as the first military ruler Major General Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi was killed in a counter-coup in July 1966, while General Murtala Mohammed, who replaced General Yakubu Gowon following a palace coup in 1975, was killed by comrades-in-arms in a bloody coup in February 1976.

Besides, there was widespread decimation of a sizeable number of Eastern military officers and other ranks in what has been described as the revenge coup of July 1966 masterminded by then Major Murtala Mohammed and Major Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma as well as Major Martin Adamu.

As a fallout from the January 1966 bloody coup led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzegwu and five other majors, there was a large-scale killings of Easterners in the then Northern region in what has been described as the first recorded pogrom in Africa. The Igbos were killed in a wave of extreme violence in retaliation for the killing of the Premier of the Northern region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, and a cast of northern leaders as well as military officers of northern extraction by the Nzegwu led coup plotters who were mostly officers of Eastern origin. Later the pogrom in the Northern region led to an unprecedented mass migration by the Easterners back to the Eastern heartland.

What’s more, the nation moved closer to the edge of a precipice following the July 1966 counter-coup with northern military officers calling for seccesion, and at that point in time the nation tottered dangerously, rudderless and without a leader for about three days until the coup plotters led by Major Murtala Mohammed later conceded leadership to Lt. Col Yakubu Gowon, who eventually emerged as the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of Armed Forces following the intervention of senior civil servants and some members of the diplomatic corps, notably both the British High Commissioner and the American ambassador. 

Worst of all, by May 1967 the military had plunged the nation into Civil War following the declaration of breakaway Biafra Republic by then governor of the Eastern region, Lt Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu and later with the federal forces victorious, the war came to an end in January 1970. The 30 month Nigeria-Biafra war led to the deaths of over two million people. 

As usual, the military would always advance corruption, maladministration, economic woes and electoral malfeasance, among other reasons, for the overthrow of democratic governments. Without a doubt, military rule had been a mixed bag, with the downsides of woes and violence trumping its good sides. As witnessed during military rule, several officers and soldiers, even some civilians had paid the supreme price as a result of their involvement in counter-coups that failed. Thus military rule on its own has the seeds of instability planted in its core, owing to its inherent contradictions which engenders rivalry and the coursemate syndrome that has been some of the reasons advanced for most counter-coups. 

Consider the fact that it was under military rule that the freest and most credible presidential election ever conducted in Nigeria’s electoral history, presumably won by Bashorun Moshood Abiola in 1993 was later annulled by the military President Ibrahim Babangida. The annulment of that election sparked widespread protests across the country and almost plunged the nation into another Civil War.

Besides, the first institutional casualty in a military coup is always the legislature followed by the suspension of the Constitution that is replaced by military decrees and edicts. As a rule, the military tramples on press freedom and makes short shrift of the rule of law, while also abridging human rights and individual freedom.

By any standard, the military has not demonstrated superior performance in the management of the economy. More, by the nature of military rule, it engenders dictatorship and prolonged rulership. Plus, dictatorship goes hand-in-hand with kleptomania, which has been a byword for most military regimes. Clearly, military rule is no panacea for the socio-economic challenges bedeviling the nation.

Indeed things have come full circle. As it turns out, the armed forces are now acting as the guarantor and guardian of our fledgling democracy since the return to civil rule in 1999. This time the military seems determined to concentrate on its avowed constitutional role of defending the territorial integrity of the nation. However, it is important to state that much as the military high command reiterates its commitment to upholding democracy, more often than not coups have always been planned and executed by middle level officers. Thus institutional guarantees are no surefire prescription for the defence of democracy.

However, the real guarantee for democracy is the conscious effort by the political leadership to improve on the economic well-being of the populace as well as ensure the safety and security of lives and property as enshrined in the Constitution. In many ways, twenty-four years of democracy has left much to be desired as democracy has not provided the much anticipated dividends of good governance in terms of peace and security and improvement in the economic well-being of the people. Instead, majority have further sunk into poverty, which explains why in the course of the past eight years Nigeria has been adjuged the poverty capital of the world, overtaking India to take on that dubious distinction. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, over 133 million Nigerians are currently experiencing multi-dimensional poverty. 

Notwithstanding all this, democracy appears to be the best form of government ever invented by man because it provides for government of the people by the people for the people. That is to say, there’s a semblance of grassroots involvement in a participatory democracy. In real terms, democracy demands hardwork, vigilance, and commitment on the path of both the political class and the electorate to ensure and guarantee its success. There’s no perfect democracy in the world.

Now, the Nigerian military that once attained notoriety for coups in Africa has distanced itself from calls by some elements for the violent overthrow of the democratically elected government. For the umpteenth the armed forces of Nigeria have been at pains to disavow calls for military takeover of power from the democratically elected government, declaring that it won’t get involved in any act to sabotage the hard-earned democracy in Nigeria.

This comes against the background of military takeover of power in Niger Republic and as a fallout from the 2023 presidential elections in which Asiwaju Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress, APC was declared victorious by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. Bola Tinubu, a former Governor of Lagos State and nominee of the All Progressives Congress, won the disputed election with 36.61% of the vote, 8,794,726 total votes as against his keen rival Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP who scored 6,984,520 votes or 29.07% of votes, while Mr Peter Obi of the Labour Party scored 6,101,533 votes or 25.40% of the votes. Also, Dr Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party scored 1,496,687 votes representing 6.23% of the total votes.

The opposition had described the election as flawed with the opposition PDP and the Labour Party claiming victory and both parties have therefore headed to the courts seeking to upturn Tinubu’s victory and asking the court to order a rerun of the presidential election in the expectations that Tinubu will be disqualified from participating in the anticipated rerun election.

Despite the fact that the aggrieved political actors have resorted to the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal, PEPT to seek justice and to demand a rerun of the presidential elections, yet various groups have been trying to resort to self-help by instigating and calling for the overthrow of the democratic government, without awaiting the outcomes of the rulings of PEPT and both the courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

Arising from this is the ongoing blackmail of the judiciary. For example, some offensive tweets and online reports had alleged that the former Minister of Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola had reportedly been involved in drafting judgement for the PEPT, which he has vehemently denied and he has taken steps to retrieve his reputation, which he said has been soiled by this grievous allegation. He condemned the individuals behind these dangerous allegations, referring to them as agents of destabilization. Fashola noted that these allegations may be part of a wider campaign to undermine the judiciary by those who seek to manipulate the institution for their own gain.

In the same vein, a former Supreme Court judge, Justice Mary Odili has also denied allegations that she has been importuning judges of the Appeal Court to give President Bola Tinubu a soft landing. Justice Odili has said these allegations are mere figment of the imagination of its authors and should be discountenanced. 

Basically, “the genius of a system based on political equality is that it doesn’t require us to agree on every issue, but only to agree to be bound by decisions that emerge from the system,” posits Richard Reich, professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, who served as United States Secretary of Labour in the Bill Clinton administration. 

This presupposes that democracy is a work-in-progress and all stakeholders should be governed by the set rules underpinning the system. Twenty-four years of unbroken democracy is a feat against the background of our recent past. For this reason, it is imperative that nothing should be spared to nurture, water, and sustain this democracy, warts and all, as we cannot afford to throw the baby away with the bathwater. Even American democracy which is 235 years old still has its own hiccups which was evident by the disputes and riots at the Capitol Hill that attended the declaration of Democratic Party candidate, Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential elections. It is important to note that former President Donald Trump and 18 allies were indicted in Georgia on Monday over their efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state, with prosecutors using a statute normally associated with mobsters to accuse the former president and aides of a “criminal enterprise” to keep him in power.

Still, the military high command under the leadership of the Chief of Defence Staff, General Christopher Musa has again pledged loyalty to the “constitutional authority” of President Bola Tinubu, saying that it will not be distracted from its roles that are well defined in the 1999 Constitution (as amended). 

In a statement last Friday, the Director of Defence Information, Brigadier General Tukur Gusau, said the military frown upon reports being circulated online about welfare issues in the Armed Forces of Nigeria (AFN).

“The reports call on the military to interfere in our democracy is highly unpatriotic, wicked, and an attempt to distract the Armed Forces of Nigeria from performing its constitutional responsibilities,” the statement partly read.

“While the leadership of the AFN gives priority to welfare of its peronnel, however, we detest any attempt by any individual or group to instigate the law abiding Armed Forces of Nigeria to embark on any unconstitutional change of government in our country.”

For those clamouring for a military coup, they should be reminded that Nigeria has changed in several ways. Over the years, national cohesion and unity has taken a battering. Today, there are fissiparous tendencies tugging at the seams of national unity with separatist tendencies on the ascendancy in the Southeast and the Odua Republic gaining mileage in the Southwest as well as the restive Niger Delta that has witnessed a raw deal over the years, hence a military coup could be the knife that will cut the threads of national unity, leading the nation into separate parts or into pieces. In short, a knife that will set the nation on edge and give vent to the separatist forces to take their destinies in their own hands. With the current fragile unity, a military coup may as well sound the death knell of Nigeria as an indivisible and indisoluble union. Then, it will be to your Tents, O ye Israel! Perish the thought of a military coup!

Kola King

Kola King is a Nigerian journalist and novelist. He worked for more than two decades as a reporter, correspondent and editor in major national newspapers in Nigeria. He's the founder of Metro newsletter published on Substack. His debut novel A Place in the Sun and was published and released in 2016 by Verity Publishers, Pretoria, South Africa. His writing has appeared in Kalahari Review, The Missing Slate Literary Journal, The New Black Magazine and Litro magazine. He earned a Bachelors degree in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos.

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