ironsi – BlogGuinée


General Murtala Muhammad

Nelson Kafsir wrote this paper in 1977. He was then a researcher on the team of American Universities Field Staff. And the late Victor Du Bois counted among his colleagues. He is currently Professor of Government of Emeritus at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. This  document contains accurate information and and a detailed analysis of Nigeria under military rule in 1960s-1980s. The country  witnessed then a series of military coups that undermined civilian rule and thwarted democracy. In several case, the military imposed on the country in ruthless and murderous plots. Nelson Kafsir focuses here on the regimes of Generals Ironsi, Gowon, Murtala Muhammad and Obasanjo
To me, it is striking and ironic that Olusegun Obasanjo and Muhammadu Buhari have managed to rule Nigeria alternatively from the barracks  and from the presidential palace. Indeed, they are the only Nigerian military rulers who won the presidency by the ballot. As a result, the pair may combine a total of 20 years of presidency if we consider the following records:

  • Obasanjo held office twice: from 1976 to 1979 and from 1999 to 2007. Furthermore, in 2007 he hand-picked his successor, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who died in office in 2010 and was succeeded by his Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan
  • Buhari ruled from 1983 to 1985. Then after two unsuccessful runs, he won a first four-year mandate in 2015. Should he be reelected, he would have matched Obasanjo’s ten-year term at the helm of Nigeria.

Obasanjo and Buhari began their public career back in 1966, at the onset of a period of instability characterized by recurrent military coups. Nowadays—and following Obasanjo resignation from the opposition PDP—, the two men are allies within the APC ruling party.
The Obasanjo-Buhari duo thus illustrates the rupture and continuity in post-colonial Nigerian politics. Unfortunately, the country is no better off today than it was 40 or 50 years ago. Therefore the question remains: Will President Buhari succeed in the colossal fight  against the Federation’s numerous and serious ills (oil dependency, corruption, poverty, Boko Haram and MENDE insurgencies, ethnic tensions, etc.)? Who knows?
Regardless, Nelson Kafsir’s in-depth document shine light on the once-cyclical crises at the top of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Tierno S. Bah

Nelson Kafsir

Nelson Kafsir
Soldiers as Policymakers in Nigeria
The Comparative Performance of Four Military Regimes

West Africa Series, Vol. XVII No. 3 (Nigeria).
American Universities Field Staff. October 1977, pp. 1-28

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If Nigeria returns to civilian rule by the current target date of October 1979, it will then have spent more than two-thirds of its life as an independent nation under continuous military rule. Since the first coup d’etat in January 1966, four officers have served as Heads of State for periods ranging from six and a half months to nine years. Nigeria’s population, the largest by far in Africa, has always made it a special case on the continent. Since 1966, however, the extraordinary growth of oil revenues has placed its economy beyond African comparison, and the Civil war has made its government and its army sui generis among sub-Saharan independent black-ruled countries.

If we take the regime headed by each army officer as a distinct administration, we can examine the effectiveness with which succeeding Nigerian military governments met the basic problems confronting them and thus gain some sense of their comparative performance. Ranking regime effectiveness, however crudely, permits us to ask why the military did better in one case than in another and whether later military governments learn from their predecessors.

Few generalizations from the literature on military rule prove helpful in explaining the governmental performance of Nigerian officers. Despite the devastating effects of the second coup on its corporate unity, the Nigerian military has always possessed an organizational capability less than that of a committed agent of modernization, but greater than that of an armed rabble 1. The policies of Nigerian military governments cannot easily be predicted by either external “reference group” images acquired in their officers’ training, or by the social forces participating in politics at the time of their seizure of government 2. Furthermore, Nigerian regime comparisons are not facilitated by distinctions in types of leadership between nonpolitical, non-nationalistic “arbitrators” committed to return to the barracks and mobilizing, reform-minded “rulers” persuaded to remain in power 3.

“The specific army faction that initiates the coup, and the officer corps in general,” as Samuel Decalo sensibly insists, “is neither more cohesive, nationalist, progressive, nor self-denying than the civilian clique being toppled.” 4 The complex set of six “modalities” of military style that he offers as the basis for classifying regimes do not cleanly distinguish the four Nigerian cases, but do provide a useful starting point in developing criteria to evaluate regime performance. These are the degree of:

  1. the corporate unity of the military
  2. immunity to praetorian assaults
  3. personalist concentration of power
  4. an active-combative (as opposed to a passive-reconciliational) approach
  5. military assumption of civilian governmental role
  6. satisfaction of group demands 5

These criteria can be usefully divided into two groups. The first three concern the military’s organizational coherence—the extent of its unity and its institutional assumption of responsibility. The latter three concern the military’s governmental  style—the scope of social and economic problems for which the military holds itself responsible, the aggressiveness with which it intervenes, and the emphasis on establishing channels with interest group . The criteria in the first set highlight the critical relation between the coup that brought the new leaders into office and their performance. Those in the second set focus upon the process of policy-making—the ability of the military rulers to explicitly identify issues of concern and to implement consistent and feasible policies in response.

Thus, evaluation of performance has to begin with a statement of the issues with which a particular regime must cope. The sorts of problems confronted by successive Nigerian military governments can be summarized in the following fashion:

  1.  Perennial Issues
    1. Centralization or separation (New states, the census, industrial site selection)
    2. Government administration (Corruption, patronage, failure to implement decisions or smoothly run services)
    3. Nationalism (Dependency on foreign businesses and imports)
  2. Issues Created by the Civil War and Military Rule
    1. Size and cost of army
    2. Reconstruction and reconciliation
    3. Status of properties abandoned during the war
  3. Issues Created by Sudden Oil Wealth
    1. Inflation
    2. Port congestion
    3. Complications caused by major new commitments (Universal Primary Education [UPE], the iron and steel plant, new oil refineries, and the Second World Black and African Festival of the Arts and Culture [FESTAC])

Construction of this list immediately draws attention to several serious problems implicit in any effort to compare the performance of different administrations even when these regimes govern the same country during the same historical period. The list prepared here does not cover the full range of problems challenging each regime, and can offer no procedure to determine not only that the selection is representative of the total universe of existing problems, but also that it is equally so for each regime (a minimum prerequisite for an accurate comparison).

Nor is there a technique available for holding “constant” the context in which each government must develop its policy responses. The scale of complexity faced by later Nigerian governments was both new and staggering compared with the difficulties facing the military during its first years in office. As the list suggests, not only did the perennial issues continue, but unfamiliar and threatening problems later grew out of both the civil war and the rapid rise in oil wealth. A closely related obstacle to comparison is the inability to measure the severity of each problem.
Does it make sense to compare successfully ending the Biafran secession with opening the ports and reducing inflation? Furthermore, the time available for a regime to act is surely an important variable in the policy process. Two of the first three Nigerian military regimes lasted for six and one-half months each, while the other was in office for nine years. But at what rate should we discount for time in power?

Nor is there an available formula to weigh successes against failures in each administration. Both problems and policy options can be analyzed in a multitude of overlapping potential decisions. The field of public policy—despite the heroic efforts of Jeremy Bentham—has no readily applicable definition of a “policy unit” with which to measure a regime’s proposals or actions. Nor is there a method to compare them to alternatives the regime rejected in coming to a decision. In addition, there are the problems which the regime does its best to sweep under the rug—a tactic much favored during the Gowon regime. Ignoring a problem may turn out to be the best means of solving it—or may lead to a regime’s downfall.

Then there is the question of what the basis of evaluation of a regime’s performance should be. The two most likely approaches are to consider the interests of the populace the government presumes to serve, or the degree of success the government achieves in making and executing policies it chooses. The former raises the question whether the objective interests of groups within the population  are to be the criterion or their subjectively perceived values. How many must share the interest or perceive the value before a policy is defined as part of successful performance? The latter requires some notion of policy consistency, of effective implementation, and presumably of at least minimal acceptance as measures of success. Finally, if the foregoing is not sufficiently daunting, the convenient notion that a “regime” may be define  by its formal leader may be tenuous.

Despite all these difficulties of accurately assessing the welter of existing and potential policies, we can take some comfort nonetheless in noticing that neither the articulate Nigerian public (admittedly, a biased sample) nor recent students of the country have found any difficulty in ranking at least the first three of the four military regimes. Perhaps they would have been more cautious had they considered the awesome complexities involved in comparing regimes, but it is easy to find widespread agreement that the first military regime under General J. Aguiyi Ironsi was the worst of the lot; the third under General Murtala Mohammed was by far the best. And General Yakubu Gowon’s long tenure is usually given a mixed score by observers and participants— his first four years being regarded highly and the remainder of his rule seen as disastrous. The  present government led by Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obasanjo lacks the dramatic flair of its immediate predecessor and, in the view of most people, still awaits a verdict. Somehow then, though perhaps inaccurately, the performance of different administrations can be compared, though there is often a risk-particularly where regimes are changed through coups d’etat—of using the sets of policies and issues identified by the new government to measure its predecessor.

The criteria Decato has isolated seem useful benchmarks on which to proceed, though we should be aware that they shift the notion of performance away from the interests of those governed and toward the policy process. The performance of each regime in this sense is a product of its organizational coherence and governmental style in confronting the challenges of the day. Even so, it is not possible fully to examine these criteria as they emerge from the performance of each government. Thus, this paper will be restricted to an examination of the central issues confronting each regime in order to find differences that help account for their wide variations in reputation.

Placing emphasis on the contrasts should not obscure basic similarities that pervade all four administrations. Many officers played important roles throughout the period of military rule, particularly after the second coup. All have followed relatively conservative economic advice. All have promised a return to civilian rule following “corrective” surgery. And all have had to face the same obstacles blocking successful development in Nigeria-the absence of highly skilled manpower, difficulties in coordinating supplies and projects, and officials more interested in private gain than public good.

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The Ironsi Regime

Ironsi became Head of State by rallying troops in the midst of a coup attempt by younger officers (primarily majors)  6. The plotters had “wanted to gun down all bigwigs on our way” to seizing power in order to remove any possibility that the old civilian regime could re-establish itself 7. They succeeded in murdering the Federal Prime Minister and Finance Minister, the Premiers of the Northern and Western Regions, and several military officers above their own rank. Fortuitously, Ironsi managed to gain control of the army before the plotters (who were few in number) could carry out their plans in the Midwestern and Eastern Regions. Consequently, neither regional prime minister nor other top officials there were killed. Immediately after securing control of the military, Ironsi insisted that the remainder of the Cabinet hand over power to him. Because this action was taken despite the emergency provisions in the constitution, Ironsi’s takeover was as much a coup as the bloody intervention that led to his demand.

Three points emerge from the fact that the coup was bloody but botched. First, the army managed to regain some measure of corporate unity because Ironsi (who may or may not have been on the conspirators’ murder list) was not responsible for the officers’ deaths. Second, suspicion grew that the survival of two Ibo regional prime ministers combined with the death of other top leaders (Ahmadu Bellle, the Northern premier was also the most important Muslim leader in the country) was intentional not accidental 8. Because this distinction correponded to increasingly polarized political and ethnic factions, these suspicions gradually permeated the public view of the motives of those who launched the coup and of those who succeeded.Third, Ironsi, whose education was limited and ability questioned, took office abruptly without any opportunity for formulating guidelines for the perennial problems that seemed further from solution than they had at

Less than six years of independence were sufficient thoroughly to undermine public confidence in the ability of a civilian government to solve these problems 9. The most serious of these—as the civil war tragically demonstrated—was the growth in pressures in every part of the country for greater autonomy at regional and sub-regional levels.

Unequal rates of economic development, which carry a threat of political dominance by the wealthy and educated, are at the root of the problem. But economic differentiation has often crystallized feelings of ethnic and religious identity which in turn reinforce separatist drives. The most formidable and persistent cleavage of this sort in Nigeria is that between the more economically advanced South and more populous North (the latter containing four-fifths the land area). But within both areas, an astonishing welter of minorities, large and small, have demanded separate governments as well as more social services and development projects. In addition, at different times during the 1950s and 1960s each region-as well as minorities on occasion—threatened to secede before the East finally broke away 10. Since these regions were controlled by leaders universally regarded as closely linked to particular ethnic groups—Yoruba in the West, Ibo in the East, and Hausa-Fulani in the North—ethnicity became a fundamental consideration in appointments in all sectors of Nigerian life, particularly at the national level. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the struggles between Yoruba and Ibo lecturers in the universities, or in the efforts by Northerners to exclude Southerners from the regional civil service even when no qualified local persons were available.

Personal opportunism in politics and administration provided another set of perennial problems, interwoven with pressures for more regional autonomy, that further reduced public confidence in civilian government. As soon as the British introduced elections for local and national office, political competition was fought on a winner-take-all basis with the victors expected to reward their followers with patronage and make their home areas the sites for government projects.

Political conflict grew more bitter and more mindless during the first six years of independence with bewildering shifts in party coalitions, rigged elections, and legal battles intended to establish dominance when no faction could command an equivalent level of popular support. Sporadic violence occurred in different parts of the country culminating in a state of near-anarchy in the Western Region for the three months preceding the first coup. These events were accompanied by virtually continuous revelations of corruption by both elected and appointed officials at every level.

The census held originally in 1962 and repeated in 1963 illustrates the failure of civilians to govern effectively. In the original count, the North had a total greater than either the East or West, but not the two combined. Because the East posted increases in some divisions of 100-200 percent since the prior census (demographically impossible, particularly as the East had been an area of out-migration), and because the existing political formula presumed the population of North and South to be roughly equal, the North demanded “verificatory exercises” in which previously uncounted Northerners turned up in droves. Verification produced a slight Northern population edge over the South. Although the census takers in the West had also proved to be more energetic than accurate, dispute over the figures between East and North was crucial because the parties identified with those regions formed the governing coalition. As a result, a second census was held in 1963 which produced totals roughly similar and just as unacceptable as those of the “verificatory exercises” of late 1962 (see Table 1).

Both opportunism and regionalism gave the ruling elite a distinctly non-nationalistic cast. Throughout the period of civilian rule, the government protected the private sector and offered incentives for foreign investment. Keeping close ties with Western nations and a low profile in African matters produced a Nigerian foreign policy that has often been described as invisible. In the public eye, however, the development of capitalism and the reliance on expatriate business was closely linked to the scramble for wealth by members of the top elite.

In measure equal to their disillusion with civilian rule the public enthusiastically greeted Ironsi’s “coup within a coup.” Even though most the murdered leaders had come from the North, there was no opposition from the region. The coup was originally taken as a symbol of national rejuvenation  (in part the result of the public statements of the plotters who lost out). Despite their proclivity for disintegration, politically conscious Nigerians might have accepted, immediately after Ironsi seized power, a unitary government whose mission would have been to root out corruption ruthlessly and to implement development projects ponctually. The public shared the new Supreme Military (SMC)  simplistic nationalism and naive faith in military organization. No succeeding military regime took office on such a wave of enthusiasm.

But Ironsi’s popularity was quickly squandered by his failure to present a bold and effective image. Lack of direction at the top quickly gave rise to growing suspicion of confusion among policymakers and, more ominously, of the spreading belief that Ibo officeholders desired ethnic dominance.

After only a few months of rule, the army no longer seemed so different from the civilian regime it had overthrown. Paradoxically, Ironsi’s first decree had vested in himself the power to make any law his government believed necessary, thus providing the legal basis for reversing the trend toward increased regional authority at the expense of the center. But he began cautiously, following convention, by decentralizing his authority to the military governors he appointed to run each region 11.

The opportunity to gain public acceptance for radical changes had already passed by May when the government suddenly issued decrees abolishing the regions and unifying the regional and federal civil services. Five months was certainly not an unreasonable length of time to prepare for a major initiative, but Ironsi neither told the public what he was planning nor waited for the three boards of inquiry he had appointed to complete their work. Only the panel considering unification of the civil service had reported to the SMC before the May announcement. The decrees undercut the terms of reference given to the panel to consider a new constitution which included the possibility of new relationships between the center and local areas. In addition Ironsi appears to have consulted no one outside the SM C before issuing the decrees 12.

The regime had set up few channels with interest groups and had come to rely heavily on experts who seemed to the public to be predominantly Ibo. In addition, those promoted to fill the ranks of officers murdered in January were also disproportionately Ibo-speakers (18 of 21). In the context of ethnic suspicions, so long a fundamental perception of governmental behavior in Nigeria, it is not surprising that the public, particularly in the North, increasingly shifted their explanation of the motives for  the January coup from national salvation to Ibo ethnic dominance. This view was strengthened by Ironsi’s unwillingness to take decisive action to punish the January coup plotters (most of whom were themselves Ibo and extremely popular in the South).

Since unification of the civil service was likely to reduce the prospects for employment of educated Northerners in the North (the regional government had refused, by and large, to hire Southerners), it is not surprising that the first reaction against the decrees came from demonstrations by Northern university students. These demonstrations quickly expanded into riots in Northern urban areas led by petty traders and laborers against Ibos, who, because of their control of trade, transportation, and contracting, were perceived as exploiters bent on consolidating their domination 13. Perhaps two hundred were killed, and many, though not the majority of the million or so Ibos resident in the North, returned to the East.

The riots shook the Ironsi government, but it did not make a decisive response—either by arresting the rioters or attempting more fully to explain and advocate the purposes of the unification decrees. In addition, Northern soldiers had given increasing indications through the past several months that they might not obey Southern officers. The riots were likely to have sharpened such feelings. But the government made no effort to counter the possibility of a new coup attempt by redistributing the disgruntled among the battalions. Instead, Ironsi concluded his six and a half months  in office by embarking on a tour to meet chiefs and elders—his chosen intermediaries with the people.

The brief tenure of Nigeria’s first military administration demonstrated that officers could perform the tasks of government every bit as poorly as the politicians they replaced. Their lack of experience was certainly a liability. The average combat officer was only 25 years old in 1965 (and the modal officer 22) 14. The regime tended to take a passive. stance toward issues and never clarified the relationship between civilian and military governing councils 15.
The small number of civilian experts advising Ironsi inadvertently became a symbol of ethnic domination. Nothing was done to prepare the nation for the  one initiative to which Ironsi committed himself.

The Gowon Regime

A loosely coordinated, or possibly spontaneous rebellion in several barracks in late July 1966 resulted in a temporary but total breakdown in army discipline and in widespread killing of Ibo soldiers  and officers, including Ironsi  and many of the January conspirators, by extremely junior Northern officers (NCOs and lieutenants) 16. Because soldiers identified as Ibo were killed indiscriminately whether or not they had played a personal role in the Ironsi regime, this coup has become known as “the return match” and resulted in firmly crystallizing ethnicity as the central justification for military intervention 17. Once again talk of coups preceded intervention, but those who emerged as the new government leaders do not appear to have been involved in planning the overthrow of Ironsi. Indeed, for four days following the uprising, Nigeria was without a leader and without any assurance of continued unity. An extraordinary debate involving officers and civil servants took place in Ikeja barracks (near Lagos) over the question of the separation of the North. The faction urging secession originally was in the majority and appears to have been led by (then) Major Murtala Mohammed. It slowly gave way to proponents of retention of the Federation, who coalesced around Gowon—then a Lieutenant-Colonel— the senior Northern officer 18. No Southern officer was acceptable as commander of the army and thus the state.

The unity of the army was thus badly damaged by the July events. Its organizational unity gave way under ethnic attack. Ojukwu refused to accept Gowon as his Commander-in-Chief, because Gowon had less seniority. And Gowon was unable quickly to translate the grudging acceptance of his leadership by many of the rebels into unquestioning adherence to his policy initiatives.

“In reality, Gowon’s domain was an ‘association’ of three ‘kingdoms’—West, North, and Mid-West—each presided over by a Military Governor with Gowon as the primus inter pares.” 19

The most urgent policy issue facing the new government was, of course, the same question of federalism which had undone Ironsi—but now posed in a vastly more perilous form. For the first nine months, the new administration was the prisoner of events over which it had little control. In his first speech, Gowon agreed that “the basis of unity is not there” 20 and revoked Ironsi’s unification decrees shortly afterward. But finding a federal formula that would permit Nigerians to live together proved elusive. An ad hoc constitutional conference was convened in September 1966, but disbanded when widespread massacres against Easterners, particularly Ibo, were begun by soldiers who were quickly joined by civilians 21. Hundreds of thousands of Ibo resident in the North made their way back to the East—adding enormous impetus to demands for secession. In January 1967, a con-federal arrangement, giving each region a veto over the actions of the center, was adopted in Aburi, Ghana at the only meeting Gowon ever held with all his military governors before the civil war. By this time there was no longer any “neutral ground” within Nigeria on which all members of the Supreme Military Council felt sufficiently safe to meet. By March the Aburi compromise came apart as federal civil servants attempted to restrict its ambit while the Eastern Regional government tried to widen it. From this time, Ojukwu seems to have decided in favor of secession, though Biafra was not created until the end of May.

Just before the declaration of formal sovereignty (and possibly providing a precipitating cause), Gowon took his first decisive policy action by declaring a state of emergency and creating 12 states out of the 4 regions 22. Threatened with a potential secession by the West when the East broke away, as well as continuing uncertainty about Nigerian unity in the North, Gowon’s action was essential for national survival not to mention the survival of his government. Though the breakup of the regions was certainly a radical move, he proceeded cautiously. Unlike Ironsi’s sudden announcement of unification , Gowon’s government held consultations on the new boundaries before announcing its decision 23. The new boundaries generally followed provincial lines. None crossed the former regional borders. Indeed, to persuade waverers who might carry through on their threat to imitate the East, the Western Region and the Mid-West were left intact.

The East however was broken into three states in order to meet long-standing grievances of the Ibo minorities and strengthen their opposition to the Biafran secession. The consequence was to create  a federal system with much smaller units thus enhancing the position of the center—a trend that has continued to the present. Gowon’s gamble also was reinforced his own popularity because the change was well received everywhere outside the East. For first time the minorities—one quarter or more of Nigeria’s population—were in control of several state governments (the government of each of the former regions had been perceived by all to be dominated by Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, or Ibo.

Winning the civil war was the Gowon’s regime second major accomplishment. The war took far longer (two and a half years) and resulted in more deaths (perhaps one-half million) and higher costs (possibly one-half billion U.S. dollars spent by the Federal side alone) than the leaders on either side had believed possible when it started 24. The federal strategy was based on superior manpower and consisted of encircling and steadily squeezing Biafra into submission. It proceeded by fits and starts, however, due to dependence on external involvement and the absence of much coordination of military supplies and offensive tactics. The federal government was forced to cope with several audacious
Biafran military thrusts and the latter’s brilliant propaganda campaign abroad. Despite the awkwardness with which the center imposed its will and the seemingly interminable delays in mounting each additional “last offensive,” the total collapse of Biafra in January 1970 unquestionably consolidated the authority of the Gowon administration. Gowon’s personal insistence that no retribution be taken against Ibo after the war ended and the prompt initiation of emergency rehabilitation aid suggests the extent to which his ability to control his own government had grown 25. In addition this magnanimous policy reduced the bitter potential that postwar ethnic tensions might have created.

The turning point in the performance of this regime can perhaps be dated to Gowon’s October 1970 speech in which he listed the nine points that the SMC considered the necessary conditions for a return to civilian rule in 1976 26. The utter failure of the government satisfactorily to implement more than one of these goals (a new formula for revenue allocation) and its subsequent announcement of an indefinite delay in the return to civilian rule contributed significantly to the erosion it suffered in public confidence and to its ultimate loss of office.
The sheer difficulty, in view of past Nigerian attempts, to achieve all nine goals in the sweeping form in which they were announced suggests that the members of the SMC had not successfully made the transition from the narrow command orientation of the professional soldier to the more complex perception of the governmental process required to cope with a country as large—and more importantly, as swiftly changing—as Nigeria. Indeed, the successful prosecution of the war, a task in which the governing officers were likely to have felt comfortable, may have postponed growth in awareness of these difficulties.

Gowon’s postwar efforts included some policy achievements, but these (discussed below) were few in number and consisted primarily of initiating new programs, the implementation of which became increasingly problematical. The swollen size of the army, and, paradoxically, oil revenues, created new problems over which the Gowon government never gained control. The first is more restricted in scope, yet far more dangerous to the continued political stability of any Nigerian government—military or civilian. To fight the war, the size of the army was rapidly expanded from 10,000 men to a quarter million (second only to Egypt on the African continent). Unlike most countries emerging from a major war, no Nigerian government has yet been able to demobilize this huge force, despite its enormous cost.

The basic problem can be stated in a nutshell. Any officer with a grievance stands an excellent chance of gaining a following among the rank and file sufficient to overthrow a government that is foolhardy enough to propose general demobilization.
The plotters of the abortive coup that ended the rule of Murtala Mohammed appear to have acted in large part precisely for this reason 27. Seven years after Biafra surrendered, recurrent expenditure budgeted for defense remains far greater than funds allocated for any other public activity. Thus, much of Nigeria’s oil wealth (estimated in 1977 to last 25 more years) goes to support an army not currently needed. The situation is actually worse than this, as the Chief of Staff of the Army, Lieutenant-General T.Y. Danjuma, admitted:

« The Nigerian Army today is completely immobile, without the right equipment and without shelter. The fact of the matter is that over 90 percent of the army budget is spent on paying salaries. In other words, since the civil war, the Nigerian Army has been run as a social service… We are about the only army in the world where serving soldiers die of old age. » 28

Another consequence of the War that remained a festering sore was the issue of abandoned properties in several non-Ibo areas of the former Eastern Region. When the Federal Army tightened the ring around Biafra, it found wiling allies among the coastal minorities who greatly resented Ibo predominance in towns and in trade on their ”soil.” As the Biafran forces fell back, virtually all other Ibos followed them fearing violence from both the advancing army and local civilians. Since the end of the war they have demanded the return of the properties they “abandoned.” The Gowon government never produced a policy to solve this problem.

The second major set of issues—the costs of oil wealth—are profoundly significant, for failure to solve them would prevent the economic transformation of Nigeria. The extent of the oil bonanza is beyond question. In 1966, the first year of military rule (and eight years after commercial production began), oil contributed only 10 percent of government revenues. By 1974 it provided 80 percent of  a vastly increased total 29. However, oil revenue did not come to dominate Nigeria’s other resources until after the civil war. Of the almost $10 billion the government received in oil revenue for the first 17 years (through 1974), 91 percent was paid in the last 3—partly as a result of the steady rise in production (except during 1968), but primarily due to the huge rise in the price of oil in 1973-74. The contribution oil makes to Nigerian foreign exchange income now amounts to about 85 percent.

But the oil industry is capital-intensive, employs few Nigerians (perhaps 10,000), and depends on sophisticated equipment that must be imported. Consequently, oil can provide the capital, but cannot make much of a structural contribution to the transformation of the Nigerian economy.

Thus, the Gowan government was suddenly presented with an unusual degree of freedom of policy choice in deciding how to spend its new windfall. The question of whether the abrupt injection of massive amounts of capital could significantly transform the economy of a non-industrialized country, however, moved the regime into uncharted waters.

The basic developmental strategy chosen was to create a manufacturing sector (neglected in the past even by comparison with other poor nations), which could carry the economy when the oil wells ran dry. Much plant investment has occurred in the private sector, and at a rapidly accelerating rate 30, but during the Gowon period major public projects had not reached the point where they could absorb massive government expenditure. A huge petrochemical complex has been in the planning stage for some time, but a contract to build it was not signed until late 1975 31. In addition, building the iron and steel blast furnaces had been the subject of innumerable delays during the civilian regime due to arguments over site selection. The final choice of a site at Ajaokuta village in Kwara State near the location of large reserves of iron ore and not far from a supply of cokeable coal was not made until May
1974. The contract for the detailed plant design was let just after Murtala replaced Gowon. Ten years after the military took office, R.A. Adeleye, the Federal Commissioner for Industries, had to admit, during a visit to the site, that “today as we look around, all we see is evidence of the soil investigation which has been carried out.… by the Soviet experts. The rest is virgin forest.” 32
Nor did the Gowon government build desperately needed new oil refineries, which further constricted manufacturing growth by leaving transport dependent upon an inadequate supply of gasoline 33.

On what then—in addition to army salaries—was the oil money spent? The rise in oil revenue was so surprising that at first the stunning success of the OPEC cartel simply resulted in enlarging foreign exchange reserves 34. But an equally stunning growth rate in imports was not more than a year behind. Machinery and transport equipment, the largest category, multiplied by a factor of five between 1970 and 1975 while manufactured goods grew by four times.

Food imports, ominously, increased by a factor of four as well.

The government also placed large overseas orders to prepare for the Second World Black and African Festival of the Arts and Culture (FESTAC) which had been delayed since 1970. A new national theater capable of seating 5,000 people, which was built at a cost of approximately $144 million and a village to accommodate 15,000 artists and 20,000 visitors were the two largest projects 35. In addition, a fleet of new buses and cars, 20 diesel electric generators to provide standby equipment in case of a power failure, and a new telephone system for the festival village were also imported.

But it was cement that absorbed an incredible portion of oil revenue and wreaked havoc with the economy. Over 16 million metric tons of cement were ordered by the Ministry of Defense alone (despite the fact that it had estimated its own annual requirements at 2, 900,000 tons per year) at a cost of roughly tons $960 million 36. By comparison, only 850,000 tons were imported for all purposes in 1973. The astonishing lack of government coordination in response to the rapid growth in oil revenue is the only explanation (aside from massive corruption which has not yet been demonstrated) for the great cement scandal. The first cement contract (with the Ministry of Defense) was signed in March 1974, and vessels began arriving in early 1975. But in July 1975, the Ministry was still signing new contracts for further importation. In addition, other government ministries had ordered four million tons of cement.

Alas, the port facilities could not expand with the same ease as contracts for imports. Lagos, the main port, had 14 berths at the time. Port Harcourt, Warri, and Calabar also had modest facilities. By March 1975, 105 ships queued in Lagos harbor to await unloading 37. Five months later the number had grown to a staggering 450 38. In October 1975 there were 250 ships carrying cement in the queue with 100 more on the way (only four berths were available to unload cement) 39. But the simultaneous unscheduled arrival of so many ships—which created the clogging of the ports—was caused by other factors as well. Massive orders of consumer goods resulted from sharp reduction in customs duties and extra income created by government salary increases. Nigeria’s excess foreign exchange liquidity probably also reduced sales resistance against imprudently timed imports. Further congestion occurred after goods were cleared, because Nigeria’s transport system and dry storage capacity were also unequal to the sudden increase in imports. Two direct consequences of congestion were “go-slows” in major industries whose raw materials could not be delivered on time, and further rises in consumer prices.

Of the two, inflation has far more serious consequences for economic planning and political stability. Gowon’s fall can be indirectly linked to policies whose inflationary impact had consequences that weakened public confidence in his government. The consumer price index for lower income workers rose slowly through the first half of the 1960s and somewhat faster during the civil war 40. The rise was unspectacular until 1973 when it began growing rapidly and 1975 when it reached 35 percent per year. The supply of money in circulation increased by 50 percent in 1974, exceeding all 110 noncommunist countries except Chile and
Argentina 41.

The rapid inflation rate in the last year of the Gowon regime can be traced to the decision of the Federal Military Government (FMG), in January 1975, not only to give large pay increases (up to 133%) to public employees, but to back-date them to the previous April 42. These were known as “Udoji awards” after the head of a commission appointed to look into conditions and salaries in the public service. The unusually large amount of money in everyone’s pocket (half the arrears were to be tax free as well) had an immediate effect on goods in stock and led to large new orders which, of course, could not quickly clear the ports. The immediate response from workers in the private sector was to go on strike for their “Udoji” (which they generally won), despite the fact that the FMG gave the awards to help government employees to catch up and ruled out corresponding increases from business employers. Thus a rash of strikes that the government seemed to have caused accompanied the last half year of Gowon’s rule. Chief Udoji, whose name may now be more widely known in Nigeria than anybody else’s, hotly disclaimed any responsibility for the inflation, pointing out that his commission had called for 60 percent payment of salary increases at first followed by the rest in a year with no suggestion of any arrears 43.

If the difficulties the government faced in coping with the consequences of the civil war and oil wealth were not recognized until it was too late, the perennial issues were as visible as ever and seemingly as intractable. Despite all of Gowon’s 1970 promises, the government was unable to prevent increasing levels of corruption, settle the question of more states or prepare a new constitution, organize national parties, or hold elections. A massive effort went into the administration of a new census whose results seemed no more reliable than its predecessor. Thus, no one was surprised when Gowon announced in October 1974 that a return to civilian rule would be indefinitely delayed. Disillusion with his government steadily mounted from that point until his overthrow.
At the same time we should not overlook several far-reaching policies that Gowon’s administration did introduce. These include the new revenue allocation formula, other change in the relationship of the center to the states. and the universal primary education (UPE) scheme. Allocating revenue between the states is yet another area in which  delicate questions of federalism arise. Nigeria’s oil is found primarily in the Midwest and Rivers States but is needed to finance development elsewhere. Before oil became important, export crops, particularly cocoa, earned more taxable revenues in certain areas than others. Revenue for states was allocated through a “distributable pool” according to a formula based on the derivation of a product and on each state’s population. Before April 1975, 45 percent of mining rents and royalties went to the states that produced them. This meant that the 2.2 million people in Rivers State received $350 million while the 15.4 million living in Northeast State were allocated $146 million 44. The new formula reduced the derivation percentage to 20, giving the remainder on the basis of population. Other changes in the formula meant that every state received more revenue from the FMG. But where the Midwest and Rivers States’ total went up only 20-30 percent, most states’ statutory shares were multiplied by two and a halftimes or more.

In changing the revenues to which the states were entitled, the federal government also showed how much its central position had been strengthened since the second coup in 1966. Despite the intense popular reaction that destroyed Ironsi’s abrupt centralization, there occurred a continuous transfer of authority to the center under Gowon 45. The main reasons were the war, the creation of small states from large regions, growing oil revenues, and the desire for uniform education and taxation throughout Nigeria. Creating new states was an important policy for the FMG to ensure sufficient loyalty to enable it to win the war. But taking that action dramatically changed the balance of power within the federal scheme. Later in 1967 the federal government decreed that the new states could no longer-without the explicit consent of the FMC —legislate nor administer matters formerly the prerogative of either the regions or the center (the “concurrent list”). Interim arrangements to administer the new states, particularly in the North required further federal intervention. The war led the FMG to take over former regional powers, such as determining the circulation of newspapers (to keep Biafran papers out of the rest of Nigeria) and control of agricultural marketing boards (to insure sufficient foreign exchange to purchase war materials). The introduction of uniform income tax and the announcement of a nationwide universal primary education scheme in 1974 removed two more functions from state control.

The gigantic UPE scheme to make primary education free and universal from 1976 and compulsory from 1979 is a good example of a previously unquestioned local function whose expansion (made possible by oil revenue) was placed under national direction. As the planners flatly state:

« In terms of capital investment, the Federal Government will dominate primary education during the Third Plan period. » 46

It seems unlikely that the FMG will remain aloof either from deciding how many teachers will be trained, or what they must learn, or how many schools must be built and where. The FMG estimated that by 1982 (when the scheme is in full operation), an additional 281,190 teachers and 221,000 new classrooms will be needed to enable 14.1 million pupils to attend primary school (about 4. 7 million students were enrolled in 1973). The purpose of the program is to equalize educational opportunity, which means to enable the North to make up its deficit. But to judge by the frequent warnings of Northern state governors, it will not be easy to convince Muslim and cattle-owning parents that their daughters should attend school and that their sons should study instead of herding the family cattle. Gowon resisted pressures for UPE until 1974 and it remains unclear how serious the political complications of vastly increasing the nation’s educated unemployed will turn out to be. Secondary and university enrollment is also being increased (the FMG has taken over all state universities) on a far smaller, though still impressive, scale.

The financial dependence of the states on the FMG purse has increased steadily because they have growing federal subventions to spend despite the loss of many responsibilities. In 1970 all states except Lagos received 70 percent or more (up to 89%) of their total revenues from federal sources 47.
By 1975 all received a larger percentage except East Central and Southeast. The possibility of a state challenging the authority of the central government has grown correspondingly remote.

In the public eye any virtue in these policy changes was blotted out by the growing furor over the results of the army-run census and the blatant corruption of all but two of the military governors appointed by Gowon. Remembering all too well the difficulties produced by the 1962 census and its rerun in 1963, the Gowon administration made elaborate plans to insure an accurate count that would be accepted as impartial. Approximately 280,000 officials were involved in carrying out the census late in 1973—including 130,000 soldiers, each of whom accompanied one civilian enumerator. The government announced only “provisional” figures for state populations, and, in a replay of the past, meekly asked the public to cooperate with further verification exercises. The national total amounted to just under 80 million people, an increase of 43.5 percent over the 1963 results.

But this increase was not evenly distributed. In certain states, the figures once again indicated increases impossible to justify on the basis of birthrates alone. And, given the regional rivalries prevalent in the early 1960s, it would be difficult to argue that the results of the 1973 census showed that the 1963 census produced a substantial under-count.
Five states-all formerly in the Northern region showed ten-year increases ranging from 48 to 97 percent. The four “far northern” states, consisting primarily of the Hausa-speaking peoples whose leaders had controlled the North before 1966, comprised 52 percent of the national population as opposed to the 41 percent they included in 1963.
Thus, not just the North, but the most religiously and linguistically homogeneous portion of the North seemed to hold a population advantage over the rest of the country. This could not help but remind people of earlier fears of ethnic domination 49.

Gowon did nothing further to confirm or repudiate these results. One of the first actions of his successor, however, was to cancel them and, in shrewd recognition of the perennial problem of running a census in Nigeria, announced that future censuses would be left to civilian regimes. This meant that the 1963 figures—more durable if no more accurate—have continued to be used for revenue allocation, and presumably will form the basis for elections to the first post-military civilian government.

Gowon chose to let the state governors act independently on a wide range of issues, even after public accusations of their high-handed conduct and corruption were made. A businessman named Aper Aku was clapped into prison after giving detailed evidence, under oath, of corrupt activity by Joseph Gomwalk, Governor of Benue-Plateau State. Gowon met Gomwalk after the accusation were made and publicly cleared him. A commission of inquiry established after Gowon’s downfall to investigate misconduct in Benue-Plateau State concluded that Aper Aku had understated the extent of Gomwalk’s illegal activities and acidly commented that

… the whole misconduct leading to almost total loss of confidence in the government emanated from the former governor himself, Mr. Joseph Dechi Gomwalk. He was guilty of corruption, nepotism, favouritism and constant lying in the daily affairs of running the government to the extent that his ambition made him selfish and intolerant.… 50

Gomwalk and the rest of the governors were also investigated by a federal commission and found to have engaged in a variety of illegal activities 51. Nine of the 11 from the Army and Police Force were dismissed with ignominy and made to surrender illegitimate assets worth over $16 million. The twelfth governor was the civilian Administrator of East Central State (one of the few Ibo supporters of the federal side during the civil war), who turned out to be just as corrupt as the others.

The newspapers were filled with stories of corrupt civil servants throughout the Gowon regime, but the position and freedom of action of the governors, all of whom were members of the SMC, made their disregard for even the appearance of honesty a major
factor in the severe and widespread loss of legitimacy of the Gowon government. No attempt was made to replace, or at least rotate, the governors after criticism arose—most had served in their own states since 1967. Many, Gomwalk in particular, had appeared incorruptible when originally appointed. But the temptations of illicit wealth sooner or later became too much to resist.

The degree to which corruption affected the policy decisions made at the federal level cannot be assessed until more studies of the Gowon period have been completed, but the analysis of the regime’s relationship with one interest group, the National Association of Chambers. of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture, is suggestive 52. The Gowon regime tended to discourage channels of communication with the business community until after the civil war because of both the anti-corruption ideology which the soldiers brought to office in 1966, and increased government intervention to win the civil war no matter what effect it might have on local businessmen. But from 1971 the government gradually increased the representation of businessmen in policy-making decisions from ad hoc consultations to almost official recognition of the role of the National Association by Gowon himself in June 1975. His regime seems slowly to have become aware of a similarity of views on economic problems between government and businessmen. Making use of the views of affected parties in formulating government decisions is common the world over and need not imply that government officials are corrupt. But, as Amonoo suggests, establishing closer contacts with businessmen corresponded with a noticeable rise in corrupt behavior by Gowon officials 53.

By July 1975, the Gowon regime seemed paralyzed , unable to act on its confident 1970 promises. The immense prestige with which Gowon emerged from the civil war was steadily dribbling away. The queue of ships in Lagos harbor stretched without end. Inflation nullified the Udoji awards and badly squeezed the farmers who had received no bonuses. Plans for army reorganization seemed to be set in the Ministry’s cement. The new census figures lived without official sanction, and the government seemed unable to act on the questions of new states or a new constitution. Government seemed to have lapsed into the private business ventures of its officials. Indefinite delay of military rule had become interminable. It was a good time for Gowon to leave Nigeria, if only for the O.A.U. conference in Kampala.

The Murtala Regime

On the ninth anniversary of the coup that put Gowon in office, he was removed by a self-effacing group of majors and colonels, some of whom participated in the second 1966 coup 54. After discussions among the coup-makers lasting most of that day, Brigadier Murtala Mohammed, Gowon’s  leading rival in 1966, was asked to become Head of State. The commander of only one army unit mobilized his men in support of Gowon, but too late. There was no fighting and there were no deaths. This was a classic palace coup. However, a later coup attempt the following February (including two separate groups of plotters) indicates that the army was not fully united behind the new governement 55. The coup also resembled both 1966 coups in  bringing to power a man who was not among the plotters and thus not expecting to become the nation’s leader. But the coup differed from its predecessors both in the success of those who planned it and in its bloodless execution.

The immediate consequence of the coup’s success was the ease with which its planners were able to impose their guidelines on the policies of the new government. They cultivated the image of soldiers prepared—quickly and ruthlessly—to cut through the myriad Gordian knots that immobilized Gowon. In some respects their behavior was a typical amalgam of anti-political nationalism similar to the attitudes of the frustrated plotters of the first 1966 coup. But, some lessons of government had been learned over the decade of military rule. From the start, ruthlessness and continuity were amalgamated in artful if unpredictable fashion. Gowon’s top officials, including all state governors, were promptly dismissed. But instead of killing leaders of the previous regime, the top two appointments were members of Gowon’s Federal Executive Council—Murtala had been Commissioner of Communications and Obasanjo Commissioner of Works (though only for the previous six months). Senior army officers were retired, not shot. Gowon’s personal safety and full benefits were guaranteed.

Southerners in general and Ibos in particular were circumspect in giving their active support for the new regime in the first weeks following the coup because the new leaders were predominantly from the North and because, at the time of the July 1966 coup, Murtala had—in sharp contrast to Gowon—first urged the secession of the North and then an immediate attack on Ojukwu’s forces in the East. Unlike Gowon, Murtala was born into an aristocratic Hausa-speaking Muslim family in the far North. In addition, one consequence of the civil war has been the absence of high-ranking Ibos among the officer corps since 1970. Thus, few of the highly visible military administrators holding civilian positions have come from this group. Since the civil war ended, Ibo traders have once again ventured to all parts of Nigeria, but remain cautious about briging their families and investing outside their home areas.

Fears that the new regime might try to reverse the Gowon reforms in federal relations were soon reduced by the absence of ethnically motivated policies and the appointment of a number of Ibos to powerful and sensitive positions—the chairman of the Public Service Commission, the Attorney-General, two state governors (after new states were created in February 1976) and Dr. Pius Okigbo, a top adviser to Ojukwu throughout the Biafran war, to the constitutional drafting committee.

FESTACFESTAC ’77. Second Word Black and African Festival of Arts Culture emblem

From its first policy directives, the new regime made it clear that it intended to reform government by vigorously attacking a range of unrelated problems, and not to attempt radical change in Nigeria’s political and economic orientations. For the next six months, a blizzard of commissions of inquiry were constituted to investigate corrupt officials, creation of new states, a new constitution, properties abandoned during the civil war, a new federal capital, the cement scandal, FESTAC contracts, and petroleum shortages. The commissions—with the exception of the constitutional  ommission—were given brief periods of time to complete their reports. In addition the new state governors appointed even more commissions on local affairs.

Just after taking office, Murtala took several decisive steps by cancelling the results of the 1973 census, postponing FESTAC (which was ultimately held on a less lavish scale in January and February 1977), and creating a new national Council of States containing the Head of State and the governors. The new council was a significant change in government organization because it removed the governors from the SMC and thus increased their accountability. Though this step was probably a response to the sorry record of the previous batch of state governors, it contributed to the trend toward centralization. As one of Gowon’s permanent secretaries had candidly admitted in early 1974, under the old arrangement, even “a Federal Commissioner cannot tell off a military Governor who is a member of a Supreme Military Council … which is a higher body.” 56.

Scarcely two months later, Murtala boldly committed his government to a tight schedule for a return to civilian rule. New states were to be established by April 1976, a committee would submit a draft constitution by September, local government elections would produce councils that would choose 90 percent of a constituent assembly (the remainder to be appointed by the SMC) whose task would be to determine the final form of the constitution by October 1978. Political parties would then be permitted to form for legislative elections at state and federal levels within the following year. “… we intend to hand over power to a democratically elected government of the people by October 1, 1979. The present military leadership does not intend to stay in office a day longer than necessary and certainly not beyond this date.” 57

The Murtala government was taking a risk in promising a political program that was not entirely under its own control. Its leaders had overthrown Gowon for not making good on his promise to return to the barracks by 1976. In addition, they chose to follow the same political schedule that Gowon laid out in his nine points in 1970. But they wisely avoided making various other policy goals, such as elimination of corruption and reorganization of the armed forces, necessary steps to be achieved before the army handed over authority.

The committee chosen to draft the new constitution began its work shortly after the new schedule for the return to civilian rule was announced. In its opening session, Murtala outlined the beliefs and premises on which the military leaders expected the draft constitution to be written 58. The SMC felt, he asserted, that constitutions could remove or minimize some of the country’s perennial problems—just as the earlier constitutions had exacerbated them. The basic task would be to transform politics from “bitter personal wrangles into a healthy game of political argument and discussion.” Focusing exclusively on the unstable regional conflict of the civilian period—as if the experience of military rule was without value for the designers of a constitution he described Nigeria’s former parties as “little more than armies organized for fighting elections.” 59

The SMC agreed, he said, that the new constitution must maintain federalism and guarantee democracy and human rights. However, the past experience of “cut-throat political competition,” growing out of the imported system of institutionalized opposition, inclined the military toward “consensus politics and Government based on a community of interests rather than the interest of sections of the country.” In a wistful aside, Murtala told the committee members that if perchance they “discover some means by which Government can be formed without the involvement of Political Parties,  you should feel free to recommend.” 60 But he ruled out any “rigid political ideology” as “unrealistic.”

For his only reference to a specific issue, Murtala chose one in which a nonpolitical goal could be stated—he asked the committee to find a way to depoliticize population censuses. He also insisted that the constitution should provide that “all office holders … be seen to account openly for their conduct of affair.” Murtala followed his capsule analysis and general view with what appeared to be instruction to the committee that “we require” truly national political parties, an executive presidential system, an independent judiciary, both a Corrupt Practices Tribunal and a Public Complaints Bureau, and constitutional restrictions on the creation of more states (after the government’s decision on the report of the inquiry then being conducted).

The SMC’s instructions to the committee reflected attitudes toward politics held by army officers the world over. Consensus politics, a single public interest, orderly succession, rejection  of “ideology,” and strict accountability fit well with the formal code of the military establishment. Yet, the Murtala regime’s constitutional guidelines were as responsive to the perennial problems afflicting Nigeria as they were to internal military norms. By enjoining the committee to seek “maximum participation” and to create a competitive party system,  though one in which the number of parties would be limited, the members of the SMC demonstrated a somewhat more sophisticated view of politics than is typical of army officers. For example, the suggestion to the committee that decentralizing power would be a useful way to diffuse tensions demonstrates that members of the SMC had learned some art of government over the past decade.

The SMC had also taken great care in choosing the 50 members of the committee 61. Two were chosen from each state and the rest from social science faculties of Nigerian universities and the rapidly growing group of Nigerians who acquired experience through previous calls to write the nation’s constitution. All members were Nigerians and all were men. The chairman, Rotimi Williams, read law in England before World War II and had been involved in Western  Regional politics from 1950. He had been a significant figure in all constitutional discussions since 1954.
The  members included 9 lawyers (plus one judge), 9 businessmen, 3 economists, 2 bank officials, 2 doctors, 22 university lecturers, and 7 university, administrators. Twelve men with experience as state commissioners under military rule, two federal commissioners, four civil servants, and three with local government service were also chosen. In addition, nine had reached the cabinet or top administrative ranks in the civilian regime 62.

The redoubtable Dr. Pius Okigbo was chosen despite the important role he had played in the Biafran government. In addition, one district head and three chiefs took part. Only one man listed himself as a farmer. Eleven had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Only one army officer, the Chaplain, was appointed—perhaps to demonstrate that the regime did not intend to manipulate the draft produced (beyond the guidelines Murtala laid down in his opening address). At least three of the committee’s members had good credentials as socialists, but overall the committee reflected the conservative bias of the elite. More radicals could have been found, but it would have been impossible to have chosen people outside the elite, given the obvious importance of education for constitution-making and the guarantee of elite status that education automatically provides in an African country.

The most audacious—and popular—move undertaken by the Murtala regime was the purge of approximately 10,000 employees from the public sector (including the army and police) for corruption, lack of productivity, and laziness. Though this was a small percentage of all public employees, the purge included a surprising number of high office holders who had rarely before had to fear for the loss of their posts no matter what they had done. The purge began at the top echelon and spread, apparently informally, to the states. Responsibility for lists of those to be dismissed were delegated to heads of departments—whose names were sometimes added to the lists they submitted. Murtala announced at the beginning of October 1975 that the purge was almost over, but it continued to grow for another two months, spreading in its last phase to the universities (several academics including four Vice-Chancellors were removed). After the purge ended, the regime attempted to institutionalize its impact by establishing a Public Complaints Commission and a Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, which —symbolically— brought its first case against two soldiers.

Here too the regime’s ruthlessness was tempered by restraint. The dismissed officials were not given the opportunity to challenge their termination when they were sacked, nor to claim wrongful dismissal in the Nigerian courts—the federal constitutional provisions protecting their rights were simply suspended.
Their assets, beyond what the regime regarded as their legitimate earnings, were to be confiscated. But there seem to have been few cases of personal vendettas. Most of those chosen to be dismissed had flagrantly neglected their work or their obligations. Virtually no one was imprisoned as a result (in contrast, it was acidly noted, two armed robbers who were executed in public), and a panel was set up by the FMG to assist in alleviating the social problems that arose from the mass retirements 63. Given the network of clients dependent on even the most humble sweeper, the regime risked creating serious disaffection in carrying out a purge of this magnitude. But instead this policy seems have contributed enormously to the regime’s legitimacy by convincing most Nigerians that they finally had a government prepared to act in the public interest 64.

The Murtala government did less well in attempting to cope with reorganization of the Armed Forces. The regime announced plan . to demobilize perhaps 100,000 men. Later details indicated the government planned to transfer them into the Air Force, Navy, Police, and Customs services—whose recruitment had been stopped for this reason for the previous three years. In addition, the army had instituted “conversion exercises” which were made a requirement for obtaining permanent commissions for certain ranks of the officer corps. Both these steps crystallized factions within the Army that resulted in the coup attempted the following February. Abortive though it was, it seems to have ended implementation of all schemes for massive demobilization thus far.

In his brief but significant speech early in February 1976, Murtala showed that his government was prepared to decide questions on which the Gowon administration temporized. Government policy was announced on four perennial issues—corruption by state governors, creation of more states, abandoned properties, and the location of a new federal capital. In each case the announcement summarized the SCMC’s response to a commission of inquiry, a pattern of decision-making which was a sophisticated advance over the fumbling approach taken by Ironsi on the one comparable issue. In comparison to elected civilian governments, military regimes have fewer popular channels and consequently more difficulty in shaping acceptable policies. By giving a mandate to a commission of inquiry which can then solicit views of the public concerned with a particular issue, a military administration can gain some of the advantages of broad participation despite its refusal to hold elections.

Knowing how intensely the public responded to the 1966 Ironsi “solution” to abolish regions and later to the 1970 promise by Gowon to consider adding more states, Murtala conceded that “the
issue of the creation of new states has generated so much excitement and interest that government is fully aware that its decisions cannot please all those affected.” 65 With some trepidation he added that “our recent experience has shown that the more states we create, the more we highlight the problem of minorities.” With that he announced that 5 of the 12 old states would be divided into 12 new ones creating a total of 19—deleting one that the commission of inquiry had recommended creating 66.

The Irikefe panel had concluded that without more states, “the political stability of Nigeria cannot be guaranteed,” though it admitted that creation of new states might not enhance economic development or end the problems of all minorities 67. Much of the demand for new states, argued the panel, was a function of dissatisfaction with ineffective administration by Gowon’s state governors.

« Even if the government established ‘one family, one state,’ there would continue to be agitation for more states whenever there was a vacillating and purposeless government. »

And, proliferation of new states would weaken each of them to the point that the principle of federation would be destroyed. Thus, the panel adopted a middle course designed to recognize new states “only where demand has been long, strong, and widely articulated and where the population and the area justify such an action and where administrative convenience and security are assured.”

As with any attempt to provide a carefully balanced middle-of-the-road policy, the Murtala regime’s solution to this perennial issue excited new passions. O. Ani, former secretary to the Southeastern state government, promptly though wearily predicted that unsuccessful minority politicians would not give up:

« But announce to us as has been done that more states have been added to the existing one and you watch as we are now watching with amazement the frenzy, the agitation, the communal strife, the scramble to be heard, the rise and fall of blood pressure, as if we are all saying “This is a chance of a life-time; autonomy for us and our ethnic  groups now or never.” » 68

Murtala carefully insisted that his government would not tolerate any agitation to set up even more states. However, the administration did create a boundary adjustment commission which also received a flood of suggestions. Its decisions were announced under the next regime by Obasanjo, who once again had to tell an upset audience in Aba that “this administration will not look into boundary adjustments again; we have looked into it, taken a decision, and it is final.” 69
Acknowledging the complexities in meshing administrative borders with ethnic assertions, he conceded that “You can never get perfect solutions for boundary adjustment. You cannot solve it.”
As political leaders, Nigerian officers were indicating they had learned something about government in the decade since the first coup plotters decided that “gunning down the bigwigs” would produce desired goals.

The properties in the former Eastern region abandoned by Ibos when the federal army took control of the Rivers and Southeastern states during the civil war continued to arouse intense passions between members of minorities who did not want Ibos to return and the property owners who had fled 70. In his February broadcast, Murtala pointed out that it was a “great pity” that the problem was not settled “immediately after the civil war.” 71
Six years of inaction made it almost imposstble to sort out the value of each property. The government therefore decided to pay a flat rate of $4,000 per building but Gowon to the owners for rent for the five years of the Gowon period . This amounted to $22.4 million 72. The SMC also decided that the federal and states governments would purchase some of the buildings and give indigenes of each state the first opportunity to buy the remainder, though only at “fair prices.”
Here, too, the regime acted quickly and chose a relatively drastic solution but one which took into account the reduction of future political problems in the the area. Without oil revenues, of course, such solutions would have been unthinkable.

The other major venture announced in the February speech was the decision to move the federal capital out of Lagos to virgin land in the center of the country. Once again, the issue had been brought up repeatedly under Gowon but not even a decision to appoint a study committee had been taken. The extraordinary pressures on Lagos as national port, commercial center, and both the national and a state capital were creating an impossible situation. Population grows rapidly but the islands on which the city is located cannot expand. Uncovered logged sewers, mountains of rubbish, and unrepaired streets get steadily worse. Traffic jams are legendary—drivers insist that the normal rate of auto traffic is 40 hours a mile. To cope with FESTAC the police banned cars with even-numbered licenses three days a week and odd-numbered the other days.

The commission appointed by the Murtala regime chose an area of 3,000 square miles of virtually empty land just south of Abuja and primarily in Niger State (though including small amounts of two.other neighboring states) on the basis of its centrality, good climate, adequate water, and avoidance of areas perceived to be part of the three major ethnic groups 73. The SMC accepted this recommendation and established a Federal Capital Development Authority, and planned to begin construction of the new city by 1980. The Federal Government is expected to move out of Lagos between 1895 and 1990.

Ten days after announcing these basic decisions, Murtala was shot by Lieutenant William Seri in an attempted coup. At the time of his death, the Head of State was caught in a Lagos traffic jam while trying to drive to his office.

The Obasanjo Regime

The February 1976 coup attempt was the product of two separate groups of plotters in the officer corps who gradually became aware of each other 74. One was composed of majors who appear to have been particularly aggrieved by being forced to undergo conversion exercises in order to continue their careers, and who appear to have intended to kill many senior officers. The other was led by the Commissioner for Defense, Major-General J.D. Bisalla, and consisted primarily of colonels and lieutenant-colonels. This group came primarily from Plateau State, the area of Gowon’s birth, and some of its members may have wanted to return him and his state governors to power 75. Dimka claimed they felt that the demobilization policy was unfair to the soldiers and that the Murtala regime was leading Nigeria toward communism.

The degree to which the two groups of conspirators were in cooperation rather than competition remains unclear. The date to strike may have been set ahead by the Bisalla group because Major Clement Dabang, the coordinator of the Majors’ group, was in the hospital. The Bisalla group, possibly in conjunction with the others, took control of the Ibadan barracks, the radio station in Lagos, killed the Head of State and the Governor of Kwara, and placed the Governor of Bendel under arrest before the officers who led the July 1975 coup rallied their troops. The conspirators’ message declaring the new government and denouncing the old
(which was copied from Colonel Ignatus Acheampong’s message announcing the Ghanaian coup in 1972) remained on the air throughout the day, though the radio station was taken by loyalist troops early in the afternoon, after which the plotters either fled or were captured.

The coup attempt resembled both 1966 coups in the use of violence to seize power—though fortunately its plotters managed less than they intended. In retrospect—despite the peaceful example of the 1975 coup—the Nigerian Army still seems to produce officers who are ready to kill their direct superiors in pursuit of political objectives. Unlike the three successful coups, the February attempt seems to have been an “amenities coup,” waged by disgruntled officers for the purpose of gaining privileges monopolized by those who took power before them.

Since the plotters failed to kill any other officer in the SMC (all its members were on their list), continuity was maintained among the top decision-makers when the regimes changed. The SMC promptly promoted Obasanjo, the Chief of Staff of Supreme Headquarters (the second highest state official), to become Head of State. For the fourth time, Nigeria had a military ruler who had reached the top unexpectedly. Unlike the others, though, Obasanjo (quite sensibly) claimed that he was merely part of an ongoing administration. Murtala quickly became a martyr—perhaps the first genuinely national hero Nigeria has created

At this time it is difficult to tell how much Obasanjo’s administration will differ from that of Murtala. As Murtala grew more popular during his brief tenure, he may have become more independent of the colonels and majors who put him in office.
Though always a flamboyant figure prepared to take drastic action, after becoming Head of State Murtala found (or was reconciled to) a successful balance between arousing hope without simultaneously producing suspicion and fear of domination. Obasanjo is more self-effacing (much like Gowon) and was more of an unknown quantity to the Nigerian public than his predecessor. He remained outside the corridors of state power until Gowon brought him into the Federal Executive Council in January 1975. Nigerians have raised questions from time to time whether the new administration has lost its sense of direction and energy since Murtala was shot 76. Thus, it seems reasonable to consider the Obasanjo Regime separately.

However, partly because the present government has deliberately lowered its profile and partly because it is still in office, it is not yet possible to come to any firm conclusions. Some indication of its basic concerns can be suggested nonetheless by considering three areas in which the government has acted—short-term economic strategy, indigenization, and the new draft constitution 77.

The short-term economic problem was caused by the doubling of imports in 1975-76 over the previous year (largely due to cement) combined with the reduced world demand for oil which forced the price down and caused Nigeria to cut its production from 2.3 million barrels to as low a daily figure as 1.5 million barrels. For the year the contribution of oil to the economy fell by 20 percent 78. Agricultural exports also continued their long-term decline. As a result, Nigeria had an overall balance of payment deficit of $1.6 billion—which cut its foreign exchange reserves by 25 percent—while continuing to sustain an extremely high rate of inflation.

The government’s solution was to cut public spending drastically by limiting expenditure to 50 percent of the budget requests, or about $8.8 billion during fiscal 1976-77. To prevent further decreases in foreign exchange holdings and to expedited port decongestion, the government banned the importation of many consumer goods and insisted that all letters of credit for purchases of imports be backed by a cash deposit of 100 percent. The immediate consequence of these draconian measures, particularly the letter of credit policy, was to stop all letters of credit (and thus 45 days worth of import orders) for the first month and a half of the new fiscal year, since no businessmen were foolish enough to keep on hand liquid assets equal in amount to their working capital. As one exasperated commentator pointed out, “In one word, the measures are all INFLATIONARY.” 79 In other words, the drastic cut in government spending was likely to be counterbalanced by the new banking policy. However, a half year later, Obasanjo reported “a declining trend in the rate of inflation.” 80

Agricultural products have also contributed to the problem. The trends for both food and export crops have been dismal since independence. The rapid rise in oil exports was the main factor in the decline in percentage of export earnings from agriculture from 90 percent in 1960 to 12 percent in 1972 81. But this masks the absolute decline in both food and cash crop production, which can only partly be attributed to the drought in the North during the early 1970s. Of the five major export crops during the colonial period, only cocoa has continued to earn foreign exchange. Nor are farmers turning to food production. Food imports, consequently, have risen rapidly. During 19?6, for example, the government flew frozen meat into the country at the rate of 500 tons a month.

The Obasanjo administration responded with an “Operation Feed the Nation” scheme in which everyone was voluntarily to cultivate a plot his own, and each school to develop a garden. But it is  not likely that the program will create a major change in Nigeria’s food situation, nor, as one commentator implied, is the government building ardequate storage facilities and distribution networks which would be required were the program to be taken seriously 82.

In a far-reaching policy decision on an issue closely related to economic strategy, the Obasanjo regime announced in June 1976 that it was expanding the Nigerian participation required before  businesses started by non-citizens can operate in the country 83. Requiring foreign-owned businesses sell part of their equity to Nigerians, known locally as “indigenization,” is an assertion of nationalism, not socialism 84. Oil wealth has vastly increased economic opportunities and the government in attempting to restrict these to Nigerians. The policy was originally decreed by the Gowon government in 1972, but a panel convened in January 1976 reported widespread evasion of its terms through the use of front men hiding continued foreign ownership, loose interpretation of the rules of Nigerian citizenship, and what the report euphemistically called “the gentle approach to implementation.” 85 As a result, only 314 of the 950 affected companies fully complied with the original decree. The Obasanjo government promised to investigate and take over any companies that had evaded the terms of the 1972 decree.

The original decree classified certain categoric of businesses to be wholly owned by Nigerians, and others in which 40 percent of share capital had to be locally held. The new decree defined three schedules by adding a 60 percent category and making the 40 percent category applicable to all businesses not 10 be wholly or 60 percent owned by Nigerians. The 60 percent category applies to enterprises “of strategic importance to the economy” and include banks, large supermarkets (formerly in the 40% category), insurance, mining iron and steel manufacture, petrochemicals, fertilizer, and construction industries among others. Banks were given only two months (until September 1976) to comply or leave Nigeria, while other enterprises were allowed until the end of 1978 to transfer ownership and management control to Nigerians. The new decree greatly increased both the number of businesses affected and the percentage of Nigerian ownership required , and tightened the loopholes that had allowed businesses to escape the Gowon decree. Since the government already held 55 percent ownership in the oil companies through the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, an important link in the chain of foreign dependence will be broken—if this decree is effectively enforced.

In October 1976, the regime released the new draft constitution for a year’s debate by the public before submitting it to a Constituent Assembly in October 1977. The draft incorporated the instructions given to the committee by the Murtala government the year before, though it rejected one decision taken by the SMC (that Lagos, Port Harcourt, and Kaduna be declared “Special Areas”). The report also suggested that the Gowon revenue allocation formula needed to be revised, and that an electoral commission be established to plan the first elections 86. However, the minority report written by two members of the committee who fundamentally disagreed with the draft constitution was not published, though the positions they took were discussed in the main report 87. By advocating a mild form of socialism, the two dissenters presumably ran afoul of the military injunction against constitutional protection for an ideology. In preventing any official support for this position, the Obasanjo regime—as every preceding Nigerian regime, both civilian and military— indicated its basic preference for capitalism.

In his 1976 national anniversary speech, Obasanjo made the return to civilian rule and the constitution the first and longest item 88. The government, he announced, was still on schedule. Though the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly was still a year away, the SMC had decided that there would be 200 elected members and no more than 20 nominated members (including 8 members of the committee that produced the draft). To avoid possible conflict that might result from the election of the chairman of the assembly, both he and his deputy are to be appointed and lack a vote. In addition an electoral commission was appointed which would be dissolved after the first elections to allow the incoming regime to appoint its own. Close to 11 years of military rule had clearly increased the political sagacity of Nigeria’s highest-ranking military officers. Whether they can make the country’s fourth military regime itc; last remains to be seen.


Enough has been written to explain why observers tend to rank the Murtala regime as the most successful Nigerian military government, the Ironsi administration as the least effective, and the Gowon administration somewhere in the middle. Since the Gowon regime changed so markedly after 1970, it might be u eful to divide this government into two phase for comparative purposes. Doing so, however, should not be permitted to obscure the corrosive effects that tts long tenure seemed to produce. Time, alas, is not on the side of military governments. When Obasanjo became the fourth officer to lead Nigeria, Gowon’s regime had held office longer than all other administrations, civilian and military, combined. But it had also declined into a model of nonperformance—mired in its inability to take decisive action of any sort.

Comparing the performance of each regime using Decalo’s criteria will permit somewhat more precise evaluation although presentation of the Nigerian data suggests some ambiguities in these criteria. First and most serious, is his notion regimes are either “active-combative” in governmental style or “passive-reconciliationnal.”  Nigerian experience suggests that an active stance is not necessarily combative nor a passive one reconciliational. Instead, the combinations are more complex and causal rather than typological. The most active government Nigeria has produced since independence has certainly been the Murtala regime and, though there is no accurate measure available, it seems to have made an important contritbution to national reconciliation. The first years of the Gowon administration were both more active and ultimately more reconciliational than its last five years social, which were surely passive but productive of social  frustration which, in turn, reduced reconciliation. The creation of 12 states was probably the most significant long-range reconciliational scheme any Nigerian regime has introduced, even though it was immediately followed by the civil war. Gowon’s careful avoidance of ethnic victimization tof the losers was almost as important. But as his government steadily lost its grip and grew less able to function, its indecision produced a rash of strikes and  demonstrations with which it was unable to cope.

A second ambiguity concerns the channels military regimes form with interest groups. Use of interest group input is likely to improve government policy through wider consultation. However, close connections with interest groups—as the later years of the Gowon administration vividly demonstrated—are more likely to produce corrupt soldiers and bureaucrats than realistic and feasible policies.

Third, the organizational coherence of the military is notoriously difficult to measure. For example, the likelihood of praetorian assaults are not visible where they are discovered before the conspirators can act. Nor is the personalist concentration of power criterion easy to estimate. To what degree was Murtala acting on his own? After the civil war ended, Gowon seemed unable to turn his immense personal authority into administrative performance. Was his ability to prevent action (presumably unintentional) an indication of his concentration of power?

Two significant relationships emerge from examining Table 3. First, the unexpected features of each coup and the 1976 coup attempt reduced the organizational coherence of the military and thus affected its ability to formulate its policy directions soon after taking office. Ironsi’s unexpected accession to power led to a fumbling approach with disastrous consequences. It took Gowon almost a year before he was strong enough to impose the 12-state scheme on the country (though he probably would not have tried until his efforts to find a formula acceptable to Ojukwu and the administrators of the Eastern Region failed). Only the 1975 coup occurred without violence and unfolded in accordance with the plans of the conspirators. And it was the only government which quickly announced clear and decisive policies. The success of the original planners of a coup, then, has a significant effect on policy performance in the early stages of a regime.

Second, governmental style is likely to change as officers learn more about ruling. British-trained professional officers respond to their first taste of power by attempting to maintain the military norms they were taught-however inappropriate these may be for them once they become rulers. Thus, they begin by avoiding extensive consultation with administrators and interest groups in making policy, and they wait for issues to define themselves into clear choices before proposing solutions of their own. Their early style seems to combine hasty policy declarations in response to defined issues with studied avoidance of solutions for unfamiliar problems.

But as officers became more familiar with both the problems confronting Nigeria and the process of making policy, they expanded their channels of communication and made more effective use of public participation through commissions of inquiry. And, following the 1975 regime change, the SMC grew far bolder in proposing solutions and insisting that they be implemented. In arguing that Nigerian officers gained new skills through experience, it is important to remember that many ofthem have spent more than ten years in what are conventionally thought to be civilian bureaucratic roles, and have also had the opportunity to observe the serious mistakes made by several of their disgraced colleagues 89. This relationship between governmental skills and experiences has been strengthened by the continuing (though not absolute) importance given to the seniority principle in choosing new leaders in each succeeding Nigerian military administration. This principle in turn has been supported by the shared conservatism of virtually all top officers in responsible positions. If a future coup happened to bring extremely Junior officers or radically inclined ideologues into power, these acquired policy-making skills would be likely to disappear. What has been
learned can be quickly unlearned—particularly where the means of succession are violent and volatile.

Will the military return quietly to their barracks as their present leaders continue to insist? If they do, the new civilian cabinet will no longer contain men who have acquired experience in dealing with Nigeria’s problems over the past decade. Remembering, however, that long service has worked against responsible military leadership, the present cadre would do well to avoid Gowon’s sudden reversal of his promise to abdicate. The temptation to follow his precedent will grow, though, because the full extent of the perils of building an industrialized society while continuing to cope with Nigeria’s perennial problems can still be only dimly perceived.


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