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.

Like four of its six predecessors, the Buhari government dashed the high hopes that had attended its accession to power at the end of 1983. The December 31, 1983, coup removed the civilian regime of Shehu Shagari, which had itself betrayed popular aspirations—and the constitution—in Nigeria’s second attempt at liberal democratic government. Four and a quarter years of chaotic competition among political parties had left a shattering legacy of corruption, economic mismanagement and treacherous electoral violence and fraud. Thus, Nigerians welcomed the military government, expecting it to bring to justice corrupt former officials; reinvigorate an economy that was on the edge of collapse; and effect structural and cultural changes that would eventually make possible a successful transition to democratic government.

Initially, the high expectations seemed justified, as the Buhari government arrested hundreds of politicians, fired hundreds of public officials, and seized huge sums of cash from politicians’ homes. Its pledges to restore accountability to public life elicited enthusiastic support from the press, students, trade unions, intellectuals and various other segments of the rich panoply of associational life in Nigeria. But before long, the Buhari government began to overstep its popular mandate as it turned with arrogance and impunity on virtually every one of the groups and institutions that had welcomed its arrival.


Buhari’s fall from grace was due primarily to his anti-democratic behavior; regionalism, factionalism and economic woes also contributed to his demise. Although the announcement of investigations and trials for political corruption was highly popular, many Nigerians became concerned about the uniform severity of the penalties (a minimum of 21 years in prison). They also objected to procedures that placed the onus of proving innocence on the accused, prohibited appeal of the verdict, closed the proceedings to the public and entrusted the trials to military tribunals. The Nigerian Bar Association boycotted the trials in protest over these provisions, even though this left many of the accused without legal representation.

Nigerians were gratified when many of the country’s most notoriously corrupt politicians—including governors from a majority of the 19 states—were found guilty and sentenced to prison. Acquittals of some individuals who had not been widely suspected of venality in office suggested that the tribunals were capable of fair and independent verdicts. Consternation grew, however, over the dearth of convictions of the most powerful kingpins of the former ruling National Party, especially those from the party’s northern power base. Some of these figures remained in detention, and some remained abroad, beyond the reach of Nigerian justice, notably former Minister of Transport Umaru Dikko, who was the target of a bungled kidnapping attempt, allegedly by agents of the Buhari regime. Nigerians were also outraged at the continued detention without trial of some politicians who were viewed as honest and dedicated public servants. In a particularly notorious case, former Ondo state Governor Michael Ajasin remained in prison even though he was twice cleared of any wrongdoing by military tribunals.

The Buhari regime’s draconian internal security laws violated civil and political liberties more severely than anything Nigeria had previously experienced, even under colonial rule. Decree Number 2, imposed in January 1984, provided for the detention of any citizen deemed a security risk. Under this classic instrument of authoritarian domination, the Nigerian Security Organization was given a virtual blank check to arrest and intimidate critics. Some of Nigeria’s most astute social commentators were imprisoned under this measure—without trial, appeal or any indication of when they might be released. With unsettling speed, the NSO became a virtual power unto itself, introducing heretofore unfamiliar cruelties of dictatorship. After the August coup, journalists were escorted through an NSO detention center where 63 people, many of them beaten and tortured, had been imprisoned in squalid conditions.

Under the Buhari-Idiagbon regime, repression had become a reflex. In a typical incident last March, the NSO broke up a press conference of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, detaining four of its officers. Many of Nigeria’s clamorous interest groups were banned, including the National Association of Nigerian Students, whose September 1984 national conference was violently dispersed. After long-running tension between doctors and the government erupted in a strike in February 1985, the Buhari government banned the Nigerian Medical Association and another doctors’ association and arrested their leaders. Many critics who were not arrested were watched and warned by the NSO. Normally vigorous centers of articulate opinion fell silent in a spreading climate of fear.

Journalists were among the chief targets of the regime. Although it has been marred by periods of harassment, press freedom has historically been one of the strongest bulwarks against tyranny in Nigeria. Over the past several years the print media have improved in accuracy and sophistication, and the number of serious publications has mushroomed. Particularly significant has been the growth of private newspapers like the National Concord and the Guardian (both of Lagos), which took the lead in exposing corruption and abuse of power. Private book publishers have become indispensable in facilitating social criticism and alternative formulas for socioeconomic and constitutional development. The flowering of Nigeria’s capitalist and critical traditions in these private publishing ventures was among the most vital forms of democratic progress to survive the Second Republic (1979-1983).

That the Buhari government was not serious in its promise of accountable government was apparent early when it attempted to shackle the communications media. Decree Number 4 of April 1984 forbade the publication or broadcast of anything that brought the government or any of its officials into ridicule or disrepute. Like Decree Number 2, it placed the onus of proof on the accused and stipulated heavy penalties for offenders. Under these two measures, a number of prominent journalists and editors were arrested. Two Guardian newspapermen spent nearly a year in prison, becoming heroes in the struggle for a free press, and were adopted as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. Although journalists continued to test the regime’s narrowing limits, the arrests and decrees had a visibly chilling effect on news coverage and editorial commentary.

In trying to impose a monolithic order on Nigeria’s irrepressibly pluralistic society, the Buhari-Idiagbon dictatorship did more than violate Nigeria’s deep commitment to personal freedom; it risked a convulsion of enormous proportions. The danger was intensified by the perception that the Buhari government was inordinately dominated by northerners, particularly the Hausa-Fulani from the Muslim areas of the upper north, who had also been the dominant ethnic group in the Shagari government. This distressed many opinion leaders from among the Yoruba, the Igbo and the many smaller ethnic groups, and prompted a number of prominent Yorubas, such as retired Lieutenant-General Alani Akinrinade (former defense chief of staff), to propose some form of "confederal" government. Their proposals must be seen in retrospect not as assaults on Nigerian federalism and national unity but rather as warning signals that the regime itself was threatening these principles by its growing intolerance and its narrow regional power base.

The coup last August 27 can also be interpreted as a pragmatic attempt by the military command to preempt an explosion, possibly a bloody coup attempt by radical junior officers. High-level rivalry was also a factor. Without question, the coup was precipitated in part by resentment within the Supreme Military Council of the arrogation of power by Generals Buhari and Idiagbon. When they were deposed, the coup-makers denounced them for their "stubborn and ill-advised unilateral actions" and their paranoiac intolerance of debate and criticism even within the military councils.

Furthermore, the continuing economic crisis contributed heavily to the public’s profound disaffection. The Buhari government’s progress toward balancing Nigeria’s external payments came at the price of deepening austerity and recession. As industries remained desperately short of raw materials and spare parts, tens of thousands more workers lost their jobs and severe shortages pushed inflation to an annual rate of 40 percent. After three years of steep decline in gross domestic product, no relief was in sight. Forecasting only one percent growth in GDP, the 1985 budget cut imports by more than half and devoted 44 percent of foreign exchange to debt service. The pervasive hardships would have threatened any government.

Finally, the Buhari-Idiagbon regime’s vows to rid the country of corruption rang increasingly hollow. A postmortem on the regime noted the Nigerian public’s "widespread skepticism . . . about the army’s claims to have reduced corruption. Not only were senior ministers alleged to be making fortunes in the time-honored fashion—from kickbacks on contracts and import license allocations—but suspicion was also aroused by big oil barter deals in which middlemen in or close to government were alleged to have made fortunes."

Notwithstanding these factors, the primary reason for the coup and the primary issue in its wake was the dictatorial character of the Buhari-Idiagbon regime. Most of all, the August coup appears to mark the decisive rejection of authoritarianism in Nigeria. This was forcefully signaled in President Babangida’s maiden address to the nation, an extraordinary statement for a military ruler. In it, Babangida recognized that even a military government "needs the consent of the people" to govern effectively. Promising to uphold human rights, he announced an immediate review of the status of political detainees. Most significant, he announced the repeal of Decree Number 4 and vowed, "We do not intend to lead a country where individuals are under the fear of expressing themselves."


Words are easily offered to an angry nation; the test will be in the way President Babangida governs. But having figured so centrally in the last four coups, he is acutely aware that Nigerian leaders ultimately cannot escape accountability for their actions. His initial actions indicate that—whether through real commitment to liberal government or simply shrewd political instinct—Nigeria’s new president means to govern liberally.

Among his government’s first actions was the release of all journalists in detention. Dozens of politicians who had been in prison up to 20 months without charge or trial were also released, many to heroes’ welcomes. In addition, public exposure of the NSO’s violations of human rights was encouraged, the top leadership of the NSO was dismissed, and a thorough probe and restructuring were undertaken. Amnesty International praised Babangida for these steps.

Another augury of a more consensual and accountable style of rule is the new government’s structure and composition, which is both more open to criticism and internal debate and more representative of the country’s many ethnic and interest groups. To disperse power at the top of government, the functions of the domineering former chief of staff, Idiagbon, were split between two positions. Political administration was assigned to the chief of general staff, Naval Commodore Oko Ebitu Ukiwe—the first Igbo military officer to hold such high government office since the 1967-70 civil war. Military administration was assigned to a newly created Joint Chiefs of Staff, chaired by the powerful Defense Minister Domkat Y. Bali.

All but five members of the former Supreme Military Council were appointed to the new and enlarged Armed Forces Ruling Council. The five who were dropped were those primarily responsible for the previous regime’s abuses: Buhari, Idiagbon, the internal affairs minister, the NSO director and the attorney-general. The ethnic balance of the council’s membership was also altered, with the center of gravity shifting from the far north to the ethnic minority states of the middle north. And at the state level, Babangida replaced 13 of the 19 military governors, a shrewd move that gave younger officers—including several populists and an avowed socialist—a share in the running of the country.

The cabinet appointments are even more striking, both for those who were retained (only six of the previous 18 ministers) and those who were newly selected. Signaling that open dissent will not be unwelcome, the new president retained Petroleum Minister Tam David-West, an independent academician who had condemned the policy of negotiating massive countertrade or barter deals exchanging Nigerian oil for foreign goods. It was rumored at the time of the coup that David-West would be fired for his candor. Instead, he is joined in the cabinet by other forceful and capable figures who were not afraid to speak out in opposition to the Buhari regime. These include Akinrinade (Agriculture), Professor Bolaji Akinyemi (Foreign Affairs), who condemned the Buhari government’s expulsion of illegal immigrants, and Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu (Finance), who argued, in opposition to the former regime, that Nigeria should take an IMF loan. Babangida named the president of the previously banned Nigerian Bar Association, Bola Ajibola, attorney-general.

Given the explicit pledges, personal inclinations, appointments and early actions of President Babangida, his government seems unlikely to sink into the kind of narrow dictatorship that preceded it. Nevertheless, symbols and good intentions lack the force of law and the stability of institutions. Verbal commitments can wither in the heat of crisis and opposition, which are sure to greet the difficult economic decisions that will have to be made in future months. If there is a lesson in the misrule of the Buhari regime, it is so basic as to seem banal: unlimited power corrupts its holders and perverts its original ends.

The Buhari-Idiagbon regime had promised to bring its predecessors to account, but put itself beyond public scrutiny or criticism. The current government likewise has pledged retribution for offenders. For example, in proclaiming the recent coup, the Babangida regime denounced the "glaring fraud" in the Buhari government, and then appointed a committee to investigate corruption in the negotiation of oil countertrade agreements. But, again, this is to establish accountability for past actions of other officials; it remains to be seen how those now in power will conduct themselves. How can accountability be advanced from the past to the present, so that it is not merely retroactive but also preventive?


In my analysis of the December 1983 coup, I suggested that stable and accountable government in Nigeria might be achieved through a "diarchy" of shared civilian and military rule, in which civilian democratic rule was further checked and balanced by military control of certain crucial regulatory functions. This reflected the active search then under way in Nigeria for a constitutional formula to overcome the abuses of power that spoiled the country’s two attempts at democratic government. Before the Buhari regime banned all discussion of the country’s political future, this public debate accelerated, and numerous variations of diarchy were advanced and debated. Now that the Buhari regime, like the military government in the post-civil war era, has soured public confidence in the military as rulers, there may be an even more compelling case for diarchy as a way out of what one observer called "Nigeria’s ruinous political cycles."

Diarchy is typically conceived as civilian government making some permanent institutional place for the military in the constitutional system. It could, however, be implemented in reverse; the military could create and gradually enlarge institutional roles for civilians. Indeed, if the Babangida government is serious about allowing itself to be held accountable, and about building a consensus for a long-term attack on Nigeria’s economic problems, power-sharing may be indispensable to its success. To some extent, it has already shared power by appointing prominent civilians to the federal and state cabinets. But there is nothing institutional about this participation. Similarly, it has recognized that the free press is a cornerstone of accountable government. But with the constitution in suspension, this freedom exists only at the pleasure of those in power.

There is no reason why a military government cannot draw up a constitution or bill of rights to which it can be held accountable in the courts. Such a document would be a first step back to democracy in that it would recognize the supremacy of the judiciary in interpreting and protecting fundamental liberties. There is also no reason why a military government cannot subject itself to a code of conduct for public officers, to be enforced by an independent bureau and tribunal. While the military remains dominant in government, the appointment and supervision of this framework could be entrusted to the Supreme Court, or the bar association, or a council of traditional rulers, or some other independent, civilian body commanding general respect. No government can ever be fully trusted to watch itself; nor can it root out corruption if it does not set up independent structures for doing so.

These structural innovations would provide established means for ensuring accountability and thus enhancing public confidence in military government. Moreover, such changes would not threaten the military’s basic control of the government. Yet it is difficult to imagine any government, including this government—for all its apparent democratic intentions—limiting its power in the absence of explicit, sustained pressure from opinion-makers and organized interest groups.

The military government could also be strengthened, as an editorial in the journal West Africa suggested, "by announcing early a program for a return to a more representative form of government no matter how far in the future." President Babangida has signaled his intention to present a program of political transition, with initial emphasis on revitalizing local government. This might allow experimentation with new forms of electoral representation, reintroducing political competition and participation first at the grassroots. Phasing in democracy in this way could defuse grievances and pressures and give the government a stronger basis of legitimacy.

With the economy in dire straits, there will be no shortage of grievances and pressures in the months to come. Nigeria’s external debt remains in excess of $20 billion, and payment on short-term trade debts is lagging months behind. Oil production remains low and petroleum prices are likely to tumble further, as Babangida himself recently warned the nation. Hence, the prospect is for even less than the 1984 oil income of $10 billion, which is less than half the peak figure of four years ago.

Most economists believe that the only way out of the crisis is for Nigeria to reach agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a three-year $2.5 billion loan; negotiations on this have been deadlocked for three years because Nigeria has refused to accept the IMF’s stringent adjustment program. Upon taking office, President Babangida seemed determined to come to an agreement quickly but then threw the question open to public debate, and the consequent intense opposition has clearly reduced his freedom of maneuver. Reaching agreement on an IMF loan would unlock perhaps another $2.5 billion in loans and credits from other sources; it would also enable Nigeria to resume imports necessary to regenerate industrial production and employment. But critics denounce the hardships that would follow the required currency devaluation and subsidy cuts. They also dismiss the utility of another huge infusion of cash, which, they maintain, the country is no better equipped to manage than the massive infusions of the oil boom.

As President Babangida recognized in his recent independence-day address, "with or without the IMF loan facility," all Nigerians "must make hard choices involving great difficulties and requiring sacrifices from everyone in every sector, including the Armed Forces." With or without the loan, the prospect is for a prolonged period of economic austerity, in which consumption has to be limited severely and productivity sharply increased. Knowing this, the Babangida government may well determine that the urgent need for government to be responsive to the popular will, in particular the opposition to the loan, outweighs the urgent need for new foreign exchange and restructuring of debt.

The Reagan Administration’s new policy emphasis on economic growth as the best relief for debt crises in the Third World may eventually benefit Nigeria. Further, since the Babangida government has struck a surprisingly cordial stance toward the United States and promised to remove bureaucratic and other obstacles to foreign investment, the time might be propitious for the United States to take the lead in helping Nigeria to restructure its international obligations.

Ultimately, however, the success of the new government is likely to depend on whether it can build a national consensus around a coherent economic strategy, distribute the sacrifices fairly, and put a stop to the disastrous leakage of the country’s resources through corruption and mismanagement. This will be difficult to do without some institutional means for ensuring open and accountable government. In this sense, 20 months of repression may have taught the valuable lesson that the choice between democracy and economic recovery is a false one.

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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.
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