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Political Role of the Military

Although Babangida announced in January 1986 that restoration of an elected civilian government would take office by October 1, 1990, he later postponed the changeover by two years. In the interim, the government undertook not only to mobilize the body politic for the transition to democracy, but also to transform the military from ruling institution to loyal servant of the Third Republic. For example, the new constitution will ban any person or group from taking over the government by force. In July 1987, the minister of defense announced a plan to establish a special unit to educate military personnel in their primary role as guardians of national security. In particular, they were to be instructed to tolerate the deficiencies of civilian rule and not to engage in plotting coups. Members of the armed forces were also admonished, under penalty of dismissal, neither to support politicians or political parties nor to canvass or assist any political party in campaigning on military bases. Similarly, the chief of naval staff directed all commands to establish education programs to prepare for the restoration of democracy. The armed forces also planned to assist with logistical arrangements for the elections; both navy and air force units would transport material and personnel in remote areas.

As Babangida made clear, however, the military continued to regard itself as the custodian of the polity and the ultimate political arbiter. He justified military intervention to preserve national unity and stability when the conditions for democracy were on the verge of collapse. The armed forces were first and foremost patriots dedicated to the defense of the nation; they had been forced into a governing role, not by design but to prevent anarchy. Above all, the military forces were professionals convinced of their righteous cause. For them, withdrawal from politics must be a strategic move to bring about a true and enduring democratic process. Hence, the military was crucial to the political life of the country, and the primary aim during the transitional period was to achieve the conditions for return to a civilian government whose conduct would obviate future coups.

Whether or not civilian restoration endures, the political landscape has been altered by the large number of retired senior officers who will continue to play leading political and economic roles. According to one observer, no other country has promoted and retired its generals faster than Nigeria, where political imperatives led to pensioning off potential opponents or officers of questionable loyalty. More than forty senior officers were retired or dismissed after Babangida's coup, and thirty-eight army officers were retired in the wake of the foiled coup attempt in December 1985. By 1989 more than 200 generals, many of them "baby generals" only in their forties, had been retired with full pay and with allowances for life. Since the mid-1970s, the military produced more millionaires than any other profession. Many were chairmen or directors of parastatals or private companies and were eagerly sought by business because of their personal ties to the regime. Such conditions increased opportunities for corruption. The prospects for political stability were enhanced, however, to the extent that ambitious military officers who had tasted power were pensioned off and rewarded in the private sector.

Data as of June 1991