First comes Obasanjo and then comes Babangida: When ex-military becomes civilian ruler in Nigeria

5th November 2010 By: In On Africa IOA

Audiences watched eagerly in 1999, as Africa's most populous nation held democratic elections to end authoritarian rule. Three decades of intermittent military regime in Nigeria had essentially marshalled the military into the ruling elite. Nigeria has since been diffident in letting go of its image as a state ruled by the military. In a cyclical fashion, a group of the state's ex-military presidents have hung up their soldier uniforms and pursued the route of civilian presidential candidate. General Olusegun Obasanjo's return to power as civilian president set the precedence for other ex-military presidents to follow suit. To some, Nigeria's ex-military leaders may be viewed as despots conferred with the legitimacy to govern in a democratic regime. To others, the discipline associated with military rulers is a necessity for ruling a state with the complex political and population dynamics innate in Nigeria.


Linked to issues on the perception of the new trend are questions concerning the root cause of ex-military leaders' return to power at this embryonic stage of Nigeria's democracy. The most likely reason would be that this is the ruling elite's method of maintaining their prominence in an era of civilian rule. Against the background of former military ruler - General Ibrahim Babangida's intent to run for president in Nigeria's 2011 presidential elections, the return of ex-military rulers becomes an observable factor in Nigeria's politics.(2) This is even more so, considering the fact that former President General Muhammadu Buhari also plans to run alongside Babangida.(3)


The emerging trend of ex-military presidential candidates in Nigeria is under discussion in this paper. In so doing, the discussion paper aims to examine the dynamics surrounding this development and to explore Babangida's election prospects.


Obasanjo and Babangida as leaders in Nigeria's military era


Obasanjo's first ascent to power in 1976 was due to a coup that killed his predecessor, General Murtala Muhammed. For three years, Obasanjo served as President of Nigeria. His rule coincided with an oil boom, as well as the introduction of universal primary education. As is inherent in military regimes, Obasanjo's Government was linked to human rights violations and particularly to political oppression. However, his voluntary relinquishing of power to a democratically elected president in 1979 established him as a milder variant of ex-military leaders. Furthermore, the favourable standing he gained in 1979, as Nigeria's first military president to transfer power to a civilian ruler paved way for the retired General's return to power as Nigeria's first ex-military president in the new democracy.


In 1985, Babangida commenced rule after a bloodless coup, which he led against Buhari, his antecedent. Buhari, who came to power after a coup against the then civilian ruler Shehu Shagari, received some poetic justice in this regard. Buhari's record in the fight against endemic corruption during his era earned him some credibility among Nigerians. His hard-line approach against corruption extended to all spheres, even threatening the military echelons of Nigeria's society. In fact, the Babangida-led coup was fuelled by Buhari's decision to investigate Babangida and other military officers for fraud. This in itself raises speculation on his position concerning corruption.


However, once in the presidential seat, Babangida failed to keep his promise to return power to a civilian ruler by 1990 and instead, controversially annulled the 1993 presidential elections after Moshood Abiola emerged as the winner. The conditions that surrounded his eventual yielding of the presidential office, lead to questions on his ability and willingness to further the ends of democracy. This stems from the fact that the former president's abrupt surrender of power was as a result of widespread opposition to the 1993 election annulment, which threatened economic productivity.

Obasanjo and Babangida as leaders in Nigeria's post-military era


First among the ex-military rulers in line to return as civilian president was Obasanjo. Despite the knowledge that the former leader had taken part as one of the rulers in Nigeria's military history, any possible concerns about his return to presidency were sidelined due to three interlinked factors. Firstly, out of sheer relief that the tyrannical rule of General Sani Abacha had come to an end, the focus was shifted from Obasanjo's past. In this regard, although Obasanjo may not have been the perfect political candidate, when juxtaposed against Abacha, he was certainly the ‘lesser evil'. Secondly, a history of military rulers in Nigeria had created a political climate of uncertainty, especially concerning the possibility of a military takeover from the then interim president, General Abdul Salaam Abubakar, who took over power after Abacha's death. In this sense, there was general relief that the mere transition to Obasanjo's civilian Government was possible. Thirdly, despite the fact that Obasanjo's military rule was flawed, the broad notion was that he had valuable first-hand experiences, which he could learn from or build on, was pivotal at this stage in Nigeria's history. The intertwined nature of these factors created relative ease with which Obasanjo could return and the state could accept the 1999's presidential election results.


Amid claims of corruption and embezzlement of Government funds by Obasanjo's administration from 1999-2007, the retired General's relations with African and other leaders was essentially cordial. Widespread accolade was awarded to Nigeria for a successful transition to democracy and the maintenance of relative political stability. Moreover, Obasanjo's increasing role as an ‘elder' on the African continent had an impact in improving the state's negative image, as well as in downplaying any problems within the Obasanjo administration, at least to global audiences. The fact that Obasanjo's tenure coincided with growth in Nigeria's economy, which improved the state's debt profile also had a favourable effect on his personal image.(4) However, the ex-military president's attempt to unconstitutionally extend his term in office highlighted a disregard for the rule of law and threatened to ruin the reputation he had spent years building.


Following Obasanjo's two successive terms in office, Babangida announced his intent to run for the 2007 presidential elections, alongside the former President Umaru Yar'Adua. His decision to contest for this election could be likened to the need to strengthen his position in the Nigerian political scene. Babangida however, withdrew his candidacy, stating that he had a ‘moral dilemma' in running alongside Yar'adua and General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, given his close relationship with the two. Critics, however, note that his slim chances of winning those elections were more responsible for this decision.


Babangida's announcement to run for the 2011 presidential elections came as no surprise, given his previous attempt. This time, one of his opponents is Buhari, who is not only an ex-military president, but was also a candidate for the 2003 and 2007 presidential elections.

Babangida's prospects for 2011


Against the background of Babangida's poor human rights record, he is unlikely to gain sufficient support to win the 2011 elections. Despite the fact that Obasanjo's record during military rule was only slightly better than Babangida's and the former succeeded in becoming the president, Babangida's chances remain slim. This stems from the fact that two of the circumstances already mentioned played a part in Nigeria's acceptance of Obasanjo. Babangida's presidency chances are not heightened, despite the fact that he hails from the Northern part of Nigeria, which is yet to complete its part of the presidential rotation between candidates from Northern and Southern Nigeria. The presence of other Northern political candidates, such as Buhari, hinders this. Moreover, Babangida's meagre prospects are unlikely to broaden substantially, due to lack of support from a number of his ex-military colleagues, who have in fact requested him to bow out of the presidential race.(50 Additionally, widespread support for Jonathan appears to be a further delimitation for Babangida's prospects.(6) Nigerians across the world have collaborated in forming a wide support base for Jonathan's 2011 candidacy.(7)


Babangida's status as an ex-military president may have a two-fold impact on his being elected for president in 2011. It could serve as a substantial impediment to his presidential ambition.(8) This is primarily based on the fact that some members of the elite are allegedly against the idea of another retired general serving in the highest office of the land, in the way Obasanjo did.(9) Obasanjo's disregard for the rule of law and supremacy over the national courts reflected his domination over the political processes of the state.(10) It resultantly weighs heavily against Babangida's prospects for presidency in 2011. Alternatively, his status as an ex-leader (military or not) may ultimately count in Babangida's favour in the 2011 elections, due the fact that he has had some experience in the presidential seat.(11) This is nevertheless, dependent on whether or not he maximises his experience and uses it in favour of the state.




The relationship between Nigeria and its ex-military leaders appears to be riddled with some ambivalence. This is reflected through the re-emergence of ex-military presidents to the political scene and in particular, through the attempts of ex-military leaders to occupy the presidential seat by winning elections. The ambivalence lies in the fact that although Nigeria is not eager to return to military rule and most Nigerians continue to remember the grim effects of their military history, they have not been utterly opposed to the possibility of an ex-military president. Other factors such as political experience have influenced this trend. As a result, whether Babangida is successful or not in his presidential bid, Nigeria may not have seen the last of its ex-military presidents returning to run as civilian presidential candidates.

Written by: Uyo Salifu (1)


(1) Contact Uyo Salifu through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (
(2) ‘Ibrahim Babangida to seek PDP nomination for the 2011 Election', The Nigerian enquirer, 16 August 2010,
(3) Samuel Aruwan, ‘Nigeria: 2011: Buhari tackles ACF, Northern leaders',, 22 September 2010,
(4) ‘Editorial: Nigeria's real debt issue: A looming catastrophe', The Nigerian Inquirer, 9 October 2010,
(5) Kunle Akogun, ‘Ex-military associates want IBB out of 2011 race', AllAfrica. Com, 26 September 2010,
(6) Olukorede Yishau, ‘2011: What manner of support for Jonathan?', The Nation, 28 July 2010,
(7) Ibid .
(8) Jide Babalola, ‘2011: Arewa elders reject Babangida', The Nation, 17 April 2010,
(9) Ibid.
(10) Ibid.
(11) ‘2011: Jonathan to run with IBB', Nigeria's News Papers Online, 10 March 2010,