Those Nigerians who are below 30 years of age—and they are now the majority in our population—have no idea what military rule was like.
This country is now in its 21st year of unbroken democratic civilian rule, the longest stretch in our history since colonial times.
The First Republic, when Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was the Prime Minister and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was the ceremonial President, lasted only five years, October 1960 to January 1966.
Even if we start counting from self-government in 1957, it lasted only eight years.
The Second Republic, when Alhaji Shehu Shagari was the Executive President, lasted four years and three months, October 1979 to December 1983.
The Third Republic was stillborn; though civilian governors were elected in December 1991 and they ruled from January 1992 to November 1993, the military President Ibrahim Babangida was still in charge at the national level.
A National Assembly was also elected in June 1992 and it subsisted alongside the military government until November 1993, when General Sani Abacha dissolved it.
But it had very little power, since the Armed Forces Ruling Council [AFRC] was the supreme authority.
Since May 1999 however, Nigeria has been ruled by civilian Presidents, four of them so far. At the federal level, laws are made by the National Assembly while all 36 states are ruled by civilian governors with their state houses of assembly.
The judiciary at all levels is empowered by the 1999 Constitution to interpret the laws, while political parties [more than 90 registered ones at the last count] freely conduct their affairs. It has not always been like that.
Out of the 60 years since our independence from British colonial rule in 1960, Nigeria was under military rule for 29 years, slightly less than half of the total period.
Within those 29 years there was a brief period of Interim National Government [ING] headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, August to November 1993. ING was not elected; it existed under a decree enacted by the departing General Babangida.
A total of 8 Army Generals ruled Nigeria during those 29 years.
They were Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi [January-July 1966]; General Yakubu Gowon [1966-75]; General Murtala Mohammed [July 1975-February 1976]; General Olusegun Obasanjo [1976-79]; Major General Muhammadu Buhari [1983-85]; General Ibrahim Babangida [1985-93]; General Sani Abacha [1993-98] and General Abdulsalami Abubakar, 1998-99.
Military rulers had no political parties; their power base was the armed forces.
In most cases they seized power through military coups.
Some of the coups were very bloody, such as those of January and July 1966 when prominent political and military leaders were killed.
Also bloody was the abortive coup of February 1976 in which General Murtala and several other officers were killed, though the coup did not succeed.
All the other coups were relatively bloodless, including the one that overthrew Gowon in July 1975, the one that overthrew the Second Republic in December 1983, the one that overthrew Buhari in August 1985, and the one that overthrew Shonekan’s ING in November 1993.
In addition there were abortive coups such as the Mamman Vatsa coup of 1986, the Orkar coup of April 1990 and two alleged coups against General Abacha in 1995 and 1997.
Under Ironsi, Gowon, Murtala, Obasanjo and Buhari, the top authority in the country was the Supreme Military Council, SMC, which had total political and legislative authority. Under IBB, Abacha and Abdulsalami, it was called Armed Forces Ruling Council, AFRC, but was essentially the same thing.
The soldiers ruled by decree; we just tuned in the radio and heard that the Head of State had signed a decree, which had the force of law.
In all cases after a military change of government, the first decree they issued was called Constitution [Suspension and Modification] Decree, which suspended the democratic constitution, dissolved the National Assembly and political parties, and transferred all powers to the Federal Military Government.
Some of the military decrees were quite Draconian. Many people still remember Buhari’s Decree 4 of 1984, under which journalists were jailed for publishing a true story.
There was also the tough Miscellaneous Offences Decree no 18 of 1985, which made many offenses such as exam malpractice and tampering with NEPA cables punishable with long prison sentences and even death.
Some of the decrees also had what they called “ouster clause,” which specifically removed the power of courts to adjudicate.
While the soldiers ruled, we were used to seeing military rulers in their well-starched uniforms, instead of the governors, ministers and presidents that we see today in flowing gowns.
The soldiers pretended to be stern, frowning, impatient and efficient. They wanted things done “with immediate effect.”
They sacked civil servants for the slightest infractions, and some military governors even flogged contractors in public.
In fairness to the soldiers, however, they got a lot of things done in Nigeria since independence.
Most of the major roads were tarred under military rule.
Bridges, airports, second generation public universities, most of the teaching hospitals, sea ports, oil refineries and the biggest factories were built under the military.
Some of the most impactful socio-economic policies and programs such as Universal Free Primary Education [UPE], EPI/ORT, privatization of public parastatals and SAP were undertaken by soldiers.
These days we mostly see the soldiers on television giving briefings on their many security operations against insurgents and bandits.
It was not like that for 29 years after independence.