Speak to any Nigerian and you will hear the familiar complaints about Nigeria’s sorry plight. About the waste, mismanagement, corruption and lack of environmental sanitation. Nigerians yearn for a Government that will tackle these problems head on. Nigerians although supporting democracy believe that the institutional checks and balances it imposes would inhibit even a well intentioned government, and would prevent it from pushing through the punishing reforms and hardline policies that are necessary to change Nigeria. As one acquaintance put it to me: “Nigeria missed its chance with the military”. The acquaintance is no apologist for military rule but his point was that Nigeria needs a tough, authoritarian regime to tackle its problems and implement the unpopular but corrective policies that a democratic government cannot afford to take for fear of being voted out of office. Yet while Nigerians complain about the problems all around them, they seem to have collective amnesia and never refer to the fact that almost two generations ago, they had a regime with a programme to tackle all of the problems they always complain about.


The stage was set for another military rescue operation. On the last day of 1983, the army abandoned the barracks in order to “save this nation from imminent collapse”. President Shehu Shagari was overthrown only three months after being re-elected for his second and final term of office in an election that was marred by accusations of electoral malpractice. Scarred by the memory of the mass bloodshed that followed the bloody military coups of 1966, the coup plotters wisely did not harm any senior Government figures. The only casualty of the coup was Brigadier Ibrahim Bako who was killed while trying to arrest President Shagari in Abuja. Some have speculated that Bako was the leader of the coup.

If Shagari had taken a look at Nigeria’s history books, he would have noticed that the country’s military coups have almost always been carried out by the same group of soldiers. The young NCOs and Lieutenants that blasted Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi from power in 1966, became Colonels that overthrew his successor General Gowon in 1975, and they became the Brigadiers and Major-Generals that overthrew Shagari. Had Shagari acted decisively early during his term and retired these men, his Government may have survived (the only notable senior officer retired by Shagari was Major-General Joe Garba – who had double crossed his own brother in law during a military coup in 1975). Oversight of history and military postings played a part in Shagari’s downfall. Had he, in his position as the Nigerian Armed Forces’ Commander-in-Chief, paid more attention to sensitive military postings he would have noticed that many of the officers who took part in the coup were stationed in or in close proximity to the country’s commercial nerve centre in Lagos. Among the plotters stationed in Lagos were the army’s Director of Staff Duties and Plans: Major-General Ibrahim Babangida, the Military Secretary: Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon, and a hitherto unknown brigade commander called Brigadier Sani Abacha.


As usual the Nigerian public welcomed news of a military coup d’etat and the overthrow of a Government they elected, with characteristic jubilation. The officers who led the coup installed Major-General Muhammadu Buhari as Head of State, and as the Chairman of a new Supreme Military Council (SMC). The tables below show the members of the new SMC and the Military Governors appointed by the new regime.




State of Origin

Major-General Muhammadu Buhari

Head of State

Chairman of the – Supreme Military Council

Chairman of the Federal Executive Council

Commander in Chief – Nigerian Armed Forces


Brigadier (later Major-General) Tunde Idiagbon

Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters

Kwara State

Major-General Domkat Bali

Defence Secretary


Major-General Ibrahim Babangida

Chief of Army Staff


Commodore Augustus Aikhomu

Chief of Naval Staff


Air Vice Marshal Ibrahim Mahmud Alfa

Chief of Air Staff


Major-General Mamman Jiya Vatsa

Minister of the Federal Capital Territory


Brigadier Yohanna Kure

GOC, 82 Division – Enugu


Brigadier Ola Oni

General Officer Commanding, 1st Mechanised Infantry Division – Kaduna


Brigadier Sani Abacha

General Officer Commanding, 2nd Armoured Division – Ibadan


Colonel Salihu Ibrahim

GOC, 3rd Mechanised Division – Kaduna


Brigadier Mohammed Magoro

Minister of Internal Affairs


Brigadier Gado Nasko


Brigadier Paul Omu


Navy Captain Ebitu Ukiwe


Air Commodore Larry Koinyan






Navy Captain Allison Madueke


Brigadier Jerry Useni


Brigadier John Atom Kpera


Major-General W.A.Waziri

Cross Rivers

Navy Captain Ekpo Archibong


Major-General M.D.Jega


Brigadier Ike Nwachukwu


Air-Commodore U.Muazu


Air-Commodore Abdullahi


Group Captain B. Latinwo


Group Captain Gbolahan Mudashiru


Lt-Colonel David Mark


Lt-Colonel Donaldson Oladipo Diya


Commodore Michael Otiko


Lt-Col O.Popoola


Navy Captain Samuel Atukun


Police Commissioner Fidelis Oyakhilome


Brigadier Garba Duba

Up till the time of the coup, Buhari had been the General Officer Commanding the 3rd Armoured Division in Jos. The disciplined, tough and stoic Brigadier (later Major-General) Tunde Idiagbon, was appointed as the Chief of Staff at Supreme Headquarters. Having neutralised the incumbent Chief of Army Staff – Lt-General Mohammed Wushishi, Major-General Ibrahim Babangida became the new Chief of Army Staff and de facto number three in the new regime. Wushishi was a symbol of the remarkable reconciliation that had occurred in Nigeria after the civil war of 1967-1970. At the end of the war in early 1970, Wushishi had entertained Conrad Nwawo (a leading officer on the opposing side) as his “guest of honour” at Onitsha barracks.

The new military regime suspended several parts of the constitution (primarily those relating to freedom of assembly, association and political activity), banned party politics, declared all borders closed, and began to arrest and detain ministers and officials from Shagari’s Government on charges of corruption and embezzlement.


Buhari and Idiagbon correctly identified corruption and indiscipline as the main constraints on Nigeria’s development. These twin evils have in the view of many, become a way of life for many Nigerians. For this reason, they launched a nationwide campaign called “War Against Indiscipline” (“WAI”). The WAI campaign was aimed at tackling the most anti-social Nigerian characteristics such as indiscipline, corruption, and lack of environmental sanitation. Nigerians learned and grudgingly accepted social behaviour that was the norm in other countries around the world. Queuing suddenly became all the rage in Nigeria! Buhari and Idiagbon understood that the undisciplined Nigerian psyche was not going to change by persuasion and that their WAI campaign had to backed by the threat of force. Although they had always cried out for a Government that would root out the rampant indiscipline in Nigeria, white collar workers were irked when they learned that the WAI campaign would lead to them being punished and that it would apply to them as well as the rest of “ordinary” Nigerians.


There had been widespread allegations of corruption against many members of Shagari’s government. For this reason, military tribunals were set up to try ministers in Shagari’s administration that had been accused of embezzling public funds. These tribunals were chaired by military officers and had the power to impose massive prison sentences. The only right of appeal from the tribunals was to the SMC which was also exclusively comprised of military officers (and the Inspector-General of police). The military were effectively acting as prosecutor, judge and jury. Unsurprisingly the Nigerian Bar Association barred its member lawyers from participating in the tribunals. Undeterred, Buhari and Idiagbon pressed on with the tribunals and several prominent politicians were convicted of various corruption charges and given massive prison sentences ranging from twenty to over two hundred years. Given that most of the convicted were already over fifty years old, it was obvious that they would die in prison if they served the rest of their sentences. Among those convicted were prominent politicians such as Anthony Enahoro and Jim Nwobodo. The tribunals effectively put Nigeria’s political elite in jail.

Although the harsh sentences and nature of the tribunals were criticised, it is arguable that Nigeria needed these Nuremberg style trials in order to free itself from its corrupt past. The era of Buhari and Idiagbon was the first, and only time that Nigerian public officials were tried, and held accountable for their actions in office. The trials would have had more legitimacy if they had been held in civilian courts, presided over by civilian legal officers, and open to the public. This way Nigerians would have seen justice in action and had a chance to scrutinise the actions of their leaders who had so badly let them down and misused their resources. By virtue of their centrally regimented military training and outlook, Idiagbon and Buhari were fundamentally unable to grasp the niceties of, and the political legitimacy they could have derived from holding fair and open trials. The public fully backed their assault on the corrupt elite, if not their methods. The trials and WAI campaign also had a psychological impact on other “don’t know how he got rich” individuals in Nigeria. For the first time in Nigeria’s history it became unwise for those with ill gotten to flaunt their wealth – for fear of attracting the attention of Buhari’s anti-corruption drive.

The Press

The press had a field day under the civilian Government of Shagari. Freed by the absence of criticism-sensitive soldiers in Government, the press launched constant vitriolic attacks against public officials and often published articles that would not be tolerated in even the most liberal western democracy. The press quite literally abused the freedom given to it and the stinging criticism directed by the press actually resulted in some journalists being charged with sedition (inciting rebellion against the Government). As a reaction to this, on 1st January 1984 (day one of Buhari’s regime), the SMC promulgated Decree 4 of 1984: the Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree. Decree 4 made it a criminal offence to publish any article that brought the Government or any public official into disrepute. Tunde Thompson and Nduka Iraboh of The Guardian Newspapers were unfortunate enough to fall foul of Decree 4 and were imprisoned. Decree 4 was no doubt an overreaction by Buhari’s regime and strained relations between the FMG and the press.


While Buhari’s austere policies could be justified on the basis that he was battling against corruption and economic waste, his public relations machinery was poor. He made a number of strategic errors and failed to ingratiate himself with the mainly southern based print media. His regime was savaged by the press as a result (many of Nigeria’s print houses were then owned by the multi-billionaire businessman/politician: the late Moshood Abiola).

Loss of the South

There are several reasons for the Buhari’s loss of support in the south. Firstly, the governing National Party of Nigeria which Buhari replaced had a “zoning” system for key Government posts which provided that certain Government positions would be “zoned” or reserved to persons from certain geographic parts of the country. Since the presidency had been zoned to President Shagari (from the North), south-westerners logically thought that the presidency would be zoned to them when president Shagari completed his second and final term of office in 1987. They were wrong. One of those who hoped to benefit from the NPN’s zoning system was the multi-billionaire businessman, Moshood Abiola. Abiola assumed that when President Shagari’s term of office expired in 1987, the governing National Party of Nigeria (NPN) would “zone” the presidency to the south, and he would be allowed to run for president. How wrong he was. When Abiola articulated his presidential ambition, he was rebuffed by the powerful Transport Minister: Umaru Dikko, who told him that “the Presidency is not for sale to the highest bidder”. Abiola “retired” from politics soon after – totally exasperated with the NPN. Abiola was however to remerge from the shadows to play a key role in Nigeria’s political history.

The make up of Buhari’s SMC also troubled southerners. Virtually all of the senior positions in the SMC were occupied by northern Muslims: only five of the SMC’s sixteen members were from the south. Additionally, there has always been an unwritten rule that the Nigerian Head of State and his deputy cannot be from the same religion or part of the country. Buhari broke this unwritten rule when he appointed Tunde Idiagbon (who although Yoruba, was from the north and was also a Muslim). The other influential pro-Buhari figure in the regime was the Minister for Internal Affairs: Major-General Mohammed Magoro, who was a Muslim from Buhari’s home state of Sokoto. The lopsided ethno-religious composition of the SMC, coupled with the fact that Buhari’s ascension to power pre-empted the zoning of the presidency to the south prompted some mischievous southerners to claim that the New Year’s Eve coup was a deliberate plan to prevent the south from gaining political control of the country, and was nothing more than an orchestrated preservation of the north’s political control of Nigeria by transferring power from northern civilians to northern soldiers. The author personally believes that the personal ambition of the primary actors in the coup such as Babangida and Dogonyaro played the major motivating role for the coup rather than any Machiavellian plot to thwart the south (or any altruistic motives to benefit Nigeria as a whole). Nevertheless, southerners were irked by the perceived northern bias of Buhari’s regime.

The Babangida Factor

With the civilian population powerless to terminate military rule, it was clear that only the military could do away with Buhari. From this perspective, the Chief of Army Staff, Major-General Ibrahim Babangida was his greatest threat. Babangida was a contrast to Buhari. While Buhari was stern, serious and resolute, Babangida was deft, tactical and extremely devious. He had systematically cultivated a loyal following of sycophantic mid-ranking officers over the years by making grandiose gestures and buying lavish presents for officers junior to him. These officers now owed allegiance to him rather than to their nation, institution, or to the Head of State Buhari. Babangida had managed to create a mini-personality cult within the military. It is amazing that Buhari, knowing Babangida’s ambition and propensity for coup plotting allowed him to sit with his finger on the trigger as the Chief of Army Staff for so long.

As the net of Buhari’s anti-corruption drive widened, the trail of investigations led back to the Ministry of Defence. There were allegations that senior army officers were involved in drug dealing and rumours of some suspicious financial dealings at the Defence Ministry. Some accusatory fingers were pointed at Babangida. Nigerians never did get to find out the extent or nature of the allegations as a coup led by Babangida swept Buhari away before matters could proceed further. Not long after Buhari was replaced by Babangida, a senior and well respected journalist (Dele Giwa) was killed by a parcel bomb while he was working on a story that accused senior army officers of involvement in drug dealing. Giwa’s murderers have never been found, although attempts have been made to prosecute Babangida, and two military intelligence officers: Colonel Tunde Togun and Brigadier Halilu Akilu, for his murder.


Buhari and Idiagbon did not realise that Babangida loyalists had been pre-positioned in key positions, ready for when Babangida needed them. Buhari later spoke of certain elements within his regime who deliberately sanctioned unpopular moves which were disliked by the public so that they could create an atmosphere of political dissatisfaction great enough to justify another coup. In early 1985, a military intelligence officer: Colonel Chris Alli, entered the office of Major-General Idiagbon and voiced his concerns about rumours of a pending coup. In characteristically taciturn manner, Idiagbon simply replied “let them try” (a thinly veiled invitation for any potential for any coup plotter to do his worst). Erroneously believing that Idiagbon had the security situation under control, Alli said no more about the coup rumours. On August 27th 1985 (while Idiagbon was out of the country on a religious visit to Saudi Arabia), Buhari was overthrown in a military coup led by the Chief of Army Staff: Major-General Ibrahim Babangida. On the evening of August 26th Buhari was joined in his official residence by Majors Dangiwa Umar (a Harvard University educated officer born into an aristocratic northern family), Lawan Gwadabe, Abdulmumuni Aminu and Sambo Dasuki. After the five men watched the evening news, the Majors arrested Buhari at gunpoint. Proving the old adage that “what goes around comes around”, a decade later Gwadabe and Dasuki were caught up in an alleged coup plot against General Sani Abacha for which Gwadabe was tortured and imprisoned, and Dasuki driven into exile.

If Buhari had taken a look at the past, he would have realised that in Nigerian politics, and in the Nigerian military, it is those to whom one entrusts his safety that need to be feared most. In January 1966, Prime Minister Balewa was abducted and murdered by soldiers from the Federal Guard: a unit whose primary responsibility was to protect and guarantee the safety of Balewa. Balewa’s successor as Head of State Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi was abducted, tortured and shot dead by soldiers in his own entourage only seven months after the death of Balewa. Aguiyi-Ironsi’s successor General Gowon was overthrown in July 1975, again with the connivance of officers from the Federal Guard – which as in Balewa’s case in 1966, was supposed to protect him. In a stunning act of betrayal, the commanding officer of the Federal Guards Colonel Joe Garba (who was also Gowon’s brother in law) was the officer who in a nationwide broadcast, announced Gowon’s overthrow. As mentioned above, the officers that overthrew President Shagari were pre-positioned around Nigeria’s nerve centre in Lagos. Had Buhari and Idiagbon paid greater attention to those in their midst, their regime may have survived and Nigeria may have been a different country today. Another factor that may have hastened Buhari and Idiagbon’s fall from power may have been their failure to award plum jobs to the officers who risked their necks in the 1983/4 coup that brought them to power. It was an understood but unwritten rule from the July 1975 coup onwards that soldiers that executed successful coup plots should be rewarded with the bounty of juicy Government postings. Buhari did not adhere to this rule. Although the coup plotters that brought him to power were active in his regime, they were not in the upper echelons. Many of these officers were middle grade officers, and perhaps in an attempt to maintain military hierarchy, Buhari did not want to appoint them to senior Government positions over the heads of more senior officers (who albeit had not played a part in the coup).


Ironically, the same people who prematurely rejoiced at Buhari and Idiagbon’s downfall are the same people who today recall their tenure with nostalgia. If Buhari and Idiagbon had been allowed to stay in office for as long as Babangida did, they would have changed Nigeria forever – for the better. As usual, Nigerians have only themselves to blame for creating the circumstances that led to their downfall.

Journalists who thought that better times lay ahead post-Buhari need only recall the murder of Dele Giwa to see how wrong they were. The prisoners who thought that life would be less harsh under Babangida and Abacha should recall the consistent harassment and death of Gani Fawehinmi and Moshood Abiola respectively. People complained about the draconian Decree 2 of 1984 – the State security (Detention of Persons) Decree which permitted the Federal Military Government to detain any person considered by the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters to be a security threat, for up to three months without charge or trial. Civil liberties organisations fumed and breathed a sigh of relief when Babangida took over, expecting Babangida to repeal Decree 2. Babangida not only retained it, but extended the detention period under Decree 2 to six months and used it to detain those civil liberties and pro-democracy movements that had welcomed his assent to power.

Those that felt that Buhari and Idiagbon were too “harsh” for imprisoning corrupt public officials, executing convicted drug dealers and armed robbers, should ask themselves whether they are proud of the fact that the average European cannot point out Nigeria’s location on a map, does not know its capital city, but “knows” that Nigeria is a country where corrupt people, drug dealers and other criminals come from. Those that criticised the WAI for attempting to militarise civilian society need to ask themselves whether they prefer the undisciplined, corruption infested society that is Nigeria today.

Nigeria missed a golden opportunity to change for the better


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