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Chapter 5. National Security


Benin bronze statue of warrior chief of the seventeenth century

ON DECEMBER 29, 1989, Nigerian president General Ibrahim Babangida, a Muslim, abruptly executed a major reshuffle of his ministers, the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC), the national security organs, military state governors and important military commands, and took personal control of the Ministry of Defence and the security services. Ten days later, Lieutenant General Domkat Bali, a Christian, the erstwhile minister of defense who had been reassigned as minister of internal affairs, refused to accept his new post and resigned from the army. Nigeria's vice president since 1988 has been Admiral Augustus Aikhomu, a Christian. Babangida and Aikhomu have sought to share responsibilities so as to diffuse the "religious" factor in national politics. Despite these efforts, public protests erupted almost immediately against the president's alleged arbitrary decisions and discrimination against Christian middle belt (see Glossary) officers like Bali who lost their posts to northern Muslims. Then, on April 22, 1990, antinorthern rebel officers launched a bloody abortive coup against Babangida's regime, resulting in the arrest of 14 officers and more than 200 soldiers. After regaining control, Babangida announced his intention to overhaul the security system and to press ahead with his plan to restore civilian rule by October 1, 1992. Forty-two of the military rebels, including ten officers, were executed in July after sentencing by a special military tribunal; an additional twenty-seven were executed in September. Nine others, including three civilians, received prison terms ranging from seven years to life. Reports of army restiveness continued.

This dramatic series of events underscored the instability and uncertainty that have pervaded Nigeria's politico-military system for more than a quarter of a century. It also emphasized the transience of any description of Nigeria's national security apparatus. Indeed, even if the Federal Military Government (FMG) were to achieve its goal of civilian restoration, the new government would almost certainly again restructure the armed forces and national security organs. Notwithstanding such anticipated changes, however, underlying conditions and trends continued to affect Nigeria's security environment into the 1990s.

At the onset of the 1990s, Nigeria was a regional power with a growing sense of self-assurance and a developing capability to demonstrate it. In the three decades since independence, its original Western orientation had shifted toward more neutral, autonomous, and Afrocentric strategic directions. Although still seeking a coherent vision of its role in Africa and the world, Lagos sought and played various roles as regional leader, peacekeeper, mediator, and arbiter. Domestically, the Nigerian polity had endured a civil war (1967-70); frequent political crises punctuated by military coups, attempted coups, and regime reshuffles; and the boom-and-bust cycle of an oil-based economy. As General Babangida's military government prepared to restore elected civilian rule in 1992, the armed forces were being drastically reduced in size and professionalized. External and internal security thus were closely linked.

Nigeria's size, demography, economic strength, and military capabilities set it apart as the dominant regional power. It was surrounded by smaller and weaker states, whose vulnerability to external influence and pressure could adversely affect Nigeria's security. The lack of regional rivals made large-scale conflicts unlikely but did not spare Nigeria border clashes with neighboring Cameroon and Chad, peacekeeping deployments to Chad and Liberia, a leadership role in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) peacekeeping force in Liberia, or strategic maneuvering against France and South Africa in Equatorial Guinea.

Nigeria's armed forces, estimated to be at least 94,500 in 1990, and among the largest in Africa, were modest in relation to the country's territory, population, and economic resources. The diversity of foreign-origin armaments reduced dependence on any single supplier but imposed significant logistical constraints; a fledgling domestic arms industry had also been established. Nigeria acquired naval, amphibious, and airlift forces and created a rapid deployment force for African contingencies, thus confirming its intention and capacity for power projection abroad. Externally, therefore, Nigeria remained basically secure and its defenses adequate.

The same could not be said, however, about internal security. A political formula for stability continued to elude successive Nigerian governments, economic and social conditions worsened during the 1980s, and the military became entrenched as the ultimate arbiter of power. Indeed, the future role of the military and the fear of coups, resulting especially from radicalization of frustrated junior officers and soldiers, haunted Babangida's regime as it attempted to create a durable constitutional government in a highly uncertain political environment. Ethnic, sectional, and religious cleavages marked the underlying political fault lines, from which the military itself was not immune, and organized labor and students continued to be the agents of public discontent. These internal sources of instability could be incited or intensified by an array of external forces, such as foreign subversion, oil prices, and foreign debt. To make matters worse, the national police and criminal justice system were strained beyond capacity. Crime was increasing, prisons were grossly overpopulated, and military rule by decree bred human rights abuses that were the object of public and international reproach.

On balance, one could find grounds for either optimism or pessimism about Nigeria's national security prospects. Indeed, there was an essential ambivalence among Nigerians and observers alike about the state's increasing autonomy and capability amidst countervailing threat perceptions. An increasing sense of national "manifest destiny" was thus tempered by limited capacity, and Nigeria's international power remained more potential than actual. Whether Nigeria would become more activist, interventionist, or assert overweening regional hegemony remained contingent on many external factors, such as its threat perceptions, the degree of regional stability, and the regional distribution of military capabilities. Much also depended on how well Nigeria coped with its social and economic crises, on the process and outcome of restoration of civilian rule, and ultimately, on the political disposition and competence of the military.

Data as of June 1991

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