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Larry Diamond is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of a forthcoming book, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria: The Failure of the First Nigerian Republic. Currently he is co-editing a multi-authored comparative study of democracy in developing nations.See more by this author
Through the improbable device of a military coup, Nigeria has been delivered from dictatorship. To be sure, the form of government remains a military regime, and almost certainly will for many years to come. In fact, much of the top leadership remains the same: the August 27 coup d’état was engineered by high-ranking officers in the fallen government of Major-General Muhammed Buhari and his powerful second in command, Major-General Tunde Idiagbon. Many officers who held key command and government positions under General Buhari continue in power. But the nature and style of rule have been transformed in ways that may have lasting implications for Nigeria’s political future.
The man behind the coup, and the subsequent changes, is Major-General Ibrahim Babangida, who was army chief of staff and the third-ranking member of the Buhari regime. He has been described as a popular officer, having "the soldier’s love of action and the politician’s populist instinct." Like four of Nigeria’s seven previous leaders, Babangida is a northern Muslim, born in Niger state 44 years ago. But his support within the military is broadly based. He is said to be widely admired in the army for his professionalism and courage (dramatically evidenced when he risked his life to foil a coup attempt in 1976), and for his openness and rapport with the rank and file. Babangida played an instrumental role in Nigeria’s last three successful coups, but he was content to concentrate on army functions and play only a background role in government. As someone who might have seized the principal position of power twice before, but deferred, he does not appear to be a man of insatiable political appetite. This contrasts sharply with Generals Buhari and Idiagbon, whose eager monopolization of power alarmed their fellow officers and contributed to their downfall after ruling for just 20 months.