Association of 
Nigerian Scholars 
for Dialogue
                    Opinion and Analysis  

Peter P. Ekeh
State University of New York at Buffalo

Colonial Rule and Military Rule as Twin Historical Nightmares

I n a chapter of a book honoring the late Professor Billy Dudley, edited by Oye Oyediran in 1996, the Nigerian political scientist Julius Ihonvbere made the following sad observation: "It is shocking to note that some Nigerians actually have come to believe, and with good cause, that the colonial authorities did not treat Nigerians as badly as the Nigerian military has done. After all, under both situations, Nigerians had no right to vote, the political actors were not elected and were not accountable to Nigerians, and personal freedoms were severely limited."

This statement is sad for at least two reasons. First, it is probably the case that most older Nigerians who lived under British colonial rule believe it to be true. A blow-by-blow comparison between these two historical experiences with respect to the factors identified by Ihonvbere will most likely show that Nigerians have lesser freedoms and self-government under military rule than those they experienced under foreign colonial rule. Second, the statement is sad because some prominent Nigerian military rulers have been known to compare themselves with colonial rulers with pride.

There is an important reason why the comparison between these two historical experiences is urgent in our current circumstances. Despite Nigeria's prolonged period of decolonization (1952-1960), we all underestimated the legacy of colonial rule. We thought we would overcome overnight some sixty years of colonial experience. The same naive assumptions are now being made with respect to military rule, as military dictators prepare to withdraw after three chaotic decades. In an important sense, Nigerians were much better prepared to assume powers from the British than we are to take over rulership from our domestic dictators who seem to be scheming to maintain firm control in non-military guises.

It is important that Nigerians, as well as international agencies concerned with Nigeria's transition program, understand the nature of military rule and its pervasive corruption of civil ethics in our public affairs. It is for this reason that I seek to shed light on two aspects of military rule in Nigeria. First, I will outline the theory-in-use of military rule of civil populations in Nigeria, including its most insidious West African trait of something called "civilianization." It is vital to understand the position of those who justified military rule of civil populations on the grounds that it was superior to the messy nature of civil politics. Ironically, those who espoused this viewpoint include many prominent Nigerians who are now appalled by its consequences. Sadly, however, its advocacy is still alive in Nigerian affairs in certain influential quarters.

Second, I want to remind Nigerians that just as colonial influences and attitudes did not vanish with British departure in 1960, the military's three decades of dictatorship will leave behind its infamy a curse that Nigeria will wrestle with for years, possibly decades, to come. The military has installed structures and processes that are inimical to civil and democratic politics. It is naive to believe that the mere act of holding elections, observed and validated by the United Nations and the international community, will usher in a new era of freedom. Until these military-style processes and structures are reformed or dismantled, Nigerians will not regain their freedoms and self-government.


The original justification for military rule in Nigeria arose from the claim that the country's civil politics were unruly and required a dose of military discipline. This naive assumption overlooked the universal historical fact that since the invention of the nation-state some five centuries ago, its civil politics have been disorderly.

Order and discipline were the military's twin mantras. But the Nigerian military's meaning of discipline was completely defective. Overthrowing a government which military officers had sworn to protect was in fact an act of indiscipline. Discipline signifies an inner code of behavior that honors important societal principles. Coups d'etat have no redeeming values as acts of discipline, because they destroy respect for a societal institution of governance.

The interesting thing about military rule in Nigeria is that it changed the meaning of discipline into obedience. Fear-driven obedience, that destroyer of genuine discipline, has been abroad during the decades of military rule. It probably reached its height in the twosome dictatorship of Buhari and Idiagbon (1983-1985) when Nigerians were harassed with some creed called "War on Indiscipline." Disobedience before military authorities probably decreased for a while under this duumvirate. But indiscipline most certainly expanded.

In the absence of discipline on the part of military rulers, raw violence became a tool of governance. Coup plotters who succeeded in overthrowing a government became honored governors while those who failed in their coup attempts were punished with death sentences. Innocence had nothing to do with morality. It had everything to do with successful violence. Unsuccessful violence was condemned as immoral by rulers who had illegally overthrown governments that they swore to protect.

In these circumstances, loyalty in the armed forces has been hard to come by. Loyalty is no longer defined on the basis of institutional principles, but on the grounds of obedience to those who control the implements of most violence. But those who control the means of violence cannot be too trusting of their subordinates. Sadly, this skewed meaning of loyalty has created far more sectionalism (sarcastically referred to as ethnic and regional "mafias") than what could make for a wholesome national military. Indeed, there is probably more sectionalism in the Nigerian armed forces today than in the civilian population. The gaping differences between the North and South in Nigerians' perception of the military have been created by a military establishment that has a false meaning of loyalty by alienating the South in order to win the allegiance of the North. In three decades of military rule, the separation between the military and civilians has grown deep and nasty. It painfully recalls the invidious distinction between colonizers and the colonized in colonial times.

The Nigerian experiment with imposing military discipline on civil populations has failed woefully and, like other failed political ventures, should be retired from contemporary public affairs into history. Nigeria's greatest misfortune flows from the inability, or reluctance, of the military leadership and their apologists to accept the judgement that, as this flawed experiment drags itself on, much damage is being done to a nation that military rule had ostensibly arisen to rescue.

The Myth of Civilianized Military Rulers

One frightening new development in Nigerian military politics is the concoction that is now labeled "civilianization" of military rulers. It is a corollary of the false thesis that military rule is superior to civil politics. It has been gratuitously proclaimed as a West African political tradition. Its often-cited prototype in Ghana may finally be discredited when President Jerry Rawlings compels Ghanaians to accept his wife as his successor. Meanwhile, it is not dying from Nigeria, despite the failure of General Ibrahim Babagida to enthrone himself by subterfuge and despite the termination, by his own death, of General Sani Abacha's resolve to become elected President at all costs.

Scores of erstwhile military rulers who accumulated vast fortunes, because they lived above the law, now want to contest elections. Will they ever live within the law? Will they increase the level of corruption further? Will they employ violence as a means of securing power? These questions point to the dangers that this irresponsible theory of politics portends for Nigeria. Sadly, there are Nigerians who are openly canvassing the view that only retired military generals can rule Nigeria!

Fallacy of Good Military Rulers

The view that military rule of civil populations has not been beneficial to Nigeria is not without mute challenge. There are two sets of prominent Nigerians whose previous relationships to military rule have led them to castigate recent military regimes while refusing to condemn military rule, qua military dominion over civil populations, as wrong. First, a good number of previous military rulers have criticized particular actions of their former colleagues. General Muhammadu Buhari, who led the illegal coup that toppled the Second Republic in 1983, and his successor, General Ibrahim Babagida, who in turn drove Buhari from office, have spoken critically about military rule in ways that excuse the excesses and failures of their own regimes. More important, General Olusegun Obasanjo, freshly released from wrongful imprisonment by General Abacha's military government, has severely condemned his tormentors as "evil doers."

Second, there are many prominent civilians who have encouraged military rule because they benefit from it. Some ex-military officers have openly complained that civilians instigated many of the coups d'etat that have disrupted civil rule in Nigeria. Both sets of these complaints are against bad military rulers who are presumed to betray the call to duty to rule Nigeria well. By contrast, and according to Obasanjo's evaluation, there are assumed to be in the military establishment good military rulers who have served their country well.

The false contrast between "good military rulers" and "bad military dictators" is pervasive in discussions of Nigerian public affairs. It is a dangerous distinction whose weaknesses deserve to be fully exposed. It excuses the basic fact that military rule of civil populations is illegitimate and will inevitably bear evil fruits. Many of the excesses that Obasanjo has come to see in military regimes that followed his military government were nurtured during his own Muhammed/Obasanjo regime (1975-1979). Now a world-class statesman, who pays attention to human rights, General Obasanjo probably regrets that his military government was responsible for the arbitrary dismissal of university vice-chancellors and lecturers and the purging of civil servants without due process.

We will never know now whether Abacha's regime would have become as destructive as Idi Amin's reign of terror in Uganda in the 1970s. But any system of rule will eventually breed an Idi Amin if it relies solely on the goodness of its governors for its results. For three decades the Nigerian military establishment has permitted its ruling elites to operate outside constitutional limits and to exercise powers that are unrestrained by institutional checks and balances. Those who seek to justify any of the Nigerian military regimes, or endeavor to characterize some military rulers as great leaders, are sorely mistaken. The military have no business ruling civil populations at all. Unkind as it may appear in view of his own recent bad experience, Olusegun Obasanjo's military rulership in the 1970s must take major responsibility for engendering Abacha's dictatorship which he now denounces as a "godless regime."

The role of the military in future Nigerian politics is one of the thorniest problems in any discussions of Nigerian public affairs. In order to resolve this dangerous issue, it is insufficient to condemn particular regimes while excusing the inappropriateness of military rule in its entirety. Despite the fact that in the last three decades many Nigerians have willingly worked with the military, with some coveting unregulated largesse for which there was no accountability, we all should bring ourselves to appreciate the errors of the past. It is important that Nigerians of all suasions should understand, and be convinced, that the problem of the last five years was not simply that the Abacha regime was evil, but further that military rule of Nigeria of any type is morally wrong and self-defeating.


Subjecting civil public affairs in Nigeria to military rule has provoked negative and destructive consequences for a host of institutions, extending from universities to the Nigeria Police Force and from traditional rulership to the justice system. There is virtually no longer any credible system of law in the country, with the security forces frequently disregarding court rulings. Ironically, the military itself has suffered more than any other institution from the absence of trust, loyalty and discipline in its organization. For instance, it is an open secret among Nigerians that since the 1980s Nigeria's military heads of state cannot rely on their own forces for protection, leading to the shameful employment of mercenary foreign security forces for their more secure protection. The inevitable conclusion is that military rule has generated a far greater amount of disorganization and indiscipline than the ills which it had set out to correct. Military rule has not only maimed civil life in Nigeria; it has also endangered the corporate existence of the Nigerian armed forces.

Centralization under Military Rule
and the Attack on Nigerian Federalism

The supreme achievement of decolonization in the decade of the 1950s was a federal structure that was designed for the sake of preserving Nigerian national unity. The shame of military rule is that it has systematically dismantled Nigeria's federal arrangements. The challenge for the future is to reconstitute Nigerian federalism in a manner that respects the country's diversity and that will tap its potentials in forms that will allow its regions to gain from their human and natural endowments. This is a task that the military cannot undertake because it offends against its intrinsic nature. Whether Nigeria's military establishment will ever allow civilians to repair the damages that military rule has inflicted on the country's federal arrangements should be the central political question of the moment.

The primary purpose of national independence from Great Britain in 1960 was (a) to attain freedom for Nigerians and (b) to increase the scope of self-rule for the governments of the federation and for various communities in the country. Almost four decades after national independence, with three of these under military rule, Nigerians experience a lesser amount of individual freedom today than in 1960. Similarly, self-rule by the states, local governments, and communities has virtually disappeared, with their autonomy daily threatened by decrees and fiats from an overbearing Federal Government.

The loss of individual freedom by Nigerians and of self-government for their state and local governments, as well as their communities, has been possible because of oppressive structures of governance that military rule has erected for its own convenience. In the three decades in which military rule has been dominant in Nigerian public affairs, many structures of governance that threaten individuals' freedoms have been installed. Such structures as the State Security Service, Nigeria's dreaded secret police with the ominous acronym of SSS, are the artifacts of a military rule that unnecessarily threatens individuals' freedoms. Similarly, self-rule and autonomy of state and local governments and their communities have been besmirched by the military's centralization of all governmental functions and structures.

It is utterly naive to imagine that civilian governments taking over from a military regime, and operating the structures of governance left behind by military rule, will be different from military governments. The first task of any civilian regime should be to preside over the reform of governance in Nigeria. This is why General Abubakar's proposal to instal a civilian regime on the military's own terms is dangerous for Nigeria's future. A central goal of any new civil rule should be to disband any structures of governance that are unnecessary for a federal system of government, while reforming others that are overburdened by over-centralization. This should entail a thorough review of the structures of governance constructed by military rule. A central role of any new civil rule should be to design structures of governance that will permit a new partnership between the Federal and State governments. I will indicate some examples of needed reform.

Nigeria's Constitutional Affairs

One troubling aspect of military rule is its disrespect for the Constitution. This is so in two forms. First, all military regimes in Nigeria have suspended sections of the Constitution that may restrain their powers, while retaining those portions of the Constitution that they find helpful. In the place of the Constitution, the military have ruled by decrees which are usually so broad in scope that they override the authorities of the law courts. In addition, they have in several instances disregarded unfavorable court rulings that apply the logic of the military's own decrees. In effect, Nigerian military rule has operated outside the law.

Second, in a game that Nigerians are by now familiar with, military rulers, who control Nigerians without the benefit of the Constitution, have constructed Constitutions for civil regimes that will succeed them. There are three of these military-supervised Constitutions: those of 1979, 1988, and 1995. Each of them was constructed with instructions not to go into certain zones dear to the military (so-called "no-go" areas), such as attempts to ban military coups d'etat. Each of them is so centralized that the powers of the Regions (now called states) in the original 1963 Constitution, which the military want to replace, have been significantly diminished. In effect, the military-supervised Constitutions effectively gut Nigerian federalism. The original 1963 Constitution contained constitutional laws from the constituent regions (that is, states) of the Federation. The military-supervised constitutions have ignored the need for state constitutions. Obviously, they have been crafted in the image of the military.

One of the most troubling proposals by General Abubakar for the new transition program, which he insists the military should supervise, is his decision to impose the 1995 "draft" Constitution on a new civilian regime. Apart from the fact that it is immoral and offensive for Nigeria's Constitution to be "approved" by the military's Provisional Ruling Council, the 1995 "draft" Constitution is so flawed in its construction that it cannot be redeemed in the manner suggested in General Abubakar's speech.

Any party canvassing for votes from Nigerians must pledge to reform Nigeria's Constitution by at least including considerations of state constitutions. This is crucial in the area of revenue allocation where the military-supervised Constitutions have departed in major ways from the formula agreed to in the 1960s as an appropriate way of running the affairs of Nigeria as a federation, not as a de facto unitary state that military rule has imposed on us all. It is important that the Federation Account is fully respected as an agency for fair allocation of constitutionally allocated funds. Sadly, under military rule, the Federation Account has been abused badly. Meanwhile, it will help General Abubakar's image of being a flexible leader, a new-style military ruler, if he were to redress the portion of his transition program dealing with the Constitution.

The Nigeria Police Force

In 1963 the Secretary-General of the United Nations, U Thant, successfully pressed the Security Council to allocate the responsibility of training the disorganized civilian police of the Republic of the Congo to the Nigeria Police Force. That was seen then as one major step of reestablishing order in the Congo. At that time the Nigeria Police Force was disciplined and had an exemplary organization that was regarded with respect by other African nations and the international community.

Today, after three decades of abuse from military rule which has militarized the NPF, the Nigeria Police Force is disgraced in the view of Nigerians and the international community. It is judged to be corrupt, inefficient, and oppressive. The Nigerian military establishment is not celebrated for accepting responsibility for its actions. But this is one case where military rule cannot escape blame. The decay of the Nigeria Police Force has occurred under its watch and as a result of its inexorable policies of centralization.

The question of police formations was a topic that was hotly debated as a constitutional matter in the 1950s. While the North, the West, and even the majority Ibos of the East, wanted to establish regional police forces, the minorities were able to block these regional police formations for fear that they might be oppressive. At that time minorities looked to the Federal Government for protection, which of course is not the case any more. As a compromise, the Nigeria Police Force in the Regions was to be partially controlled by the Regional Governments. Local governments in the North and the West still retained their police formations.

Military rule abolished all compromises for the control of the Nigeria Police Force. It also abolished local government police formations. Instead, we have one mammoth Nigeria Police Force that is responsible for meeting the policing needs of the federal, state, and local governments.

If there is one area where constitutional reform is urgently needed in Nigeria, it is in the police formations. Each state deserves to have its own police formation. Those local governments that can afford them should also be constitutionally empowered to have their own police formations. If there are states that are satisfied with the Nigeria Police Force, they may retain it on special arrangements. But there should be clear demarcation among federal, state, and local government policing functions. It is silly that a petty marital dispute resulting in a fight between husband and wife must go to the Nigeria Police Force for settlement. That is a policing function that states and local governments can undertake.

However, this is not how our military rulers see this important matter. All three military-supervised Constitutions decree that there shall be no police formations other than the one Nigeria Police Force. Is this a constitutional matter that can be reconsidered among those that General Abubakar has promised to review? I doubt that. Having multiple police formations does not suit the centralization policies of the military. If this matter is not revisited by the military, then we will urge that Nigerians should not entertain voting for any parties that will not promise to look into this vital area of security.

Nigerian Universities and
the Nigerian Universities Commission

One of the major events of Nnamdi Azikiwe's career as Premier of Eastern Nigeria was his travel to the United States to explore resources for establishing a university that his government could build. That is how the University of Nigeria at Nsukka was established. Ahmadu Bello University at Zaria, owned and operated by the Northern Regional Government, and the University of Ife, owned and operated by the Western Region, quickly followed in the footsteps of Nsukka. The ownership and control of universities by states of the federation continued well into military rule of Nigeria. The University of Benin was built as a state university by the Mid-West Government during Yakubu Gowon's era of military rule.

The centralization bug bit into Nigerian universities under the military government of General Obasanjo. Among the many bad things for which the Muhammed/Obasanjo regime was historically responsible, none has been as devastating as the take-over of state universities and the centralization of university administration under the Nigerian Universities Commission. Flushed with oil revenues and a philosophy that the cental government can do anything and everything, Obasanjo's government virtually took over university education without an adequate machinery for conducting their affairs. As one who has been close to Nigerian universities since the 1960s, I must scream aloud that the Nigerian Universities Commission has become an agency that is supervising the decay of Nigerian universities, rather than a Commission interested in seeing Ibadan or Lagos, or any other university for that matter, as a world-class university.

We must return to the pattern of university education of the 1960s, for Nigeria's sake. Let the states take back their universities. A new revenue allocation formula should take into account the responsibilities of the states for higher education. The Universities of Ibadan and Lagos were always regarded as national institutions. If for the sake of balance, there is a need to add Nsukka and Ahmadu Bello as national institutions, that is fine. A corporation can be set up to manage their affairs. But the universities do not need the Nigerian Universities Commission, at least not in its present form and powers.

Any political party that wants to canvass for votes should address this issue. Nigerians will listen to any politicians who have ideas to market on the management of our higher education.


The comparison between military rule and colonial rule must be revisited. Imagine that in 1960, Sir James Robertson, the British colonial Governor-General of Nigeria, addressed Nigerians on their future, as General Abdulsalam Abubakar recently did on Nigeria's transition program. It would certainly have been the case that the British colonial ruler would thereafter have been challenged daily on various issues by Azikiwe's West African Pilot, Obafemi Awolowo's Tribune, and by scores of politicians. Almost certainly, the British colonial chieftain would have made adjustments in his transition program in the light of criticisms from Nigerians.

By contrast, General Abubakar's position on the transition seems to be final and non-negotiable. That would be a shame. While it is true that he has fully considered and rejected the twin ideas of a Government of National Unity and Reconciliation and Sovereign National Conference, there are many other issues that he should be flexible about. Federalism and the subject matter of the Constitution touch the soul of Nigerian nationhood. If the military cannot resolve them, they should hand them over to a civilian regime.

We begin our recommendations on what is to be done on these two central issues of federalism and the Nigerian Constitution.

Nigerian Federalism

Now under centralized military rule, Nigerians do not daily shout about federalism. However, it is a subject about which they care deeply. The military establishment should respect Nigerians' sentiments in this area and act in ways that show such respect. I will suggest one way that General Abubakar's Provisional Ruling Council can show some regard for Nigerians' feelings on federalism and self-rule.

Under Yakubu Gowon's military rulership, Nigerian military governors were assigned to their home states. Starting with Muhammed/Obasanjo, military governors are now assigned to states other than their own. There is no evidence that Nigerians were less patriotic under the Gowon formula than they are today. Now that we are once again preparing for self-rule, the military establishment should return to the Gowon formula. This would be hugely popular in the South from which there are few military governors nowadays. If the Provisional Ruling Council is not already aware of it, then let it be stated here that Southerners deeply resent the idea of sending only Northern governors to Southern states, without any reciprocal arrangements. Northerners and Southerners all can live together happily in a federation by respecting the others' feelings. I am sure that most civilians, in the North and South, recognize the need for the mutuality of respect. For a start, as we prepare for transition into civil rule, the military's Provisional Ruling Council should show more respect for Nigerians' desires to be governed as a federation, not a unitary political entity.

Constitutional Reforms

Nigerians need a stable Constitutional regime. Since the Constitution is largely suspended under military rule, it is unfair to ask the military to organize a constitutional reform. Nigerians should put pressure on General Abubakar to be flexible on his pronouncement on the 1995 "draft" Constitution. It is not a good basis for reforming Nigeria's constitutional affairs. Both its contents and format are ill-suited for a federal system of government. But if he must move forward on this score, then let him take into account the needs of the states which should draft their own constitutions. Moreover, it will be very offensive to Nigerians to have the military's Provisional Ruling Council approve their Constitution.

Irrespective of what way the military establishment decides to approach this matter from, every political party contesting for votes must be asked to state clearly its position about a Constitution for Nigeria. There will be several bodies, inside and outside Nigeria, such as the Association of Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue, which will gladly formulate the issues of the Constitution in ways that will enable the parties to state their positions. This time around, one hopes that, despite widespread poverty, electoral success will depend on marketing ideas and policies that will benefit Nigerians rather than showering wealth on the electorate.

Political Parties

We all hope that "registration" of political parties will not be used to prevent any groups of Nigerians, no matter however small they may be, to associate together. Let registration be issue-driven, rather than money-driven. It is not easy for an Ogoni man with excellent ideas about saving his ancestral lands from oil pollution, but with little money, to register a party with a "national following." On the other hand, it is easy for some billionaire with no useful policies for Nigeria to buy a "national following" for the purposes of registering a party.

The parties may seem to be more intent on satisfying what the Federal Military Government wants them to do rather than finding out what the needs of voters are. Nigerian politicians are obviously frightened of the government.   It is therefore very important that voluntary bodies that are not seeking power should help Nigerian voters to define what the issues of the forthcoming elections should be about. Such voluntary bodies should be ready to rate the parties on their positions on a variety of issues, such as federalism, the Constitution, etc.

States' Rights

A major development in Nigerian public affairs of the last decade is the rise of advocacy groups on behalf of individuals' human rights and their civil and legal liberties. Fighting for individuals threatened by a military government has been a worthwhile venture for which these pro-democracy groups should be saluted.

What is sorely missing is any advocacy for states' rights and their claims against the dictatorship of the Federal Military Government. This would have been difficult, at any rate, since federalism has virtually been abolished under military rule. However, the need for states' rights is urgent whenever Nigeria's constitutional order is under discussion. Indeed, individuals' rights may ultimately have greater meaning in states and local communities than at the federal center. We therefore hope that pro-democracy groups will fight for states' rights and a federal arrangement.
August 1, 1998

August 1, 1998
July 30, 1998


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