Trapped in a Militarized Democracy

The narrative of the democratization processes in African states cannot be written without a bold reference to the role played by the military class in several African countries. In the Cold War years of the 1960s and up to the Post-Cold War years of the 1990s, military regimes were endemic in several African countries. These military regimes that sprung up in different countries either ennobled democratic practices through peaceful handover to civilian governments, as in the cases of Benin, Niger and Mali in the 1990s, or subverted democracies through forceful takeovers at different points in time.

Nigeria presents a remarkable case for these two instances. While the military regimes of Olusegun Obasanjo (February 1976 – October 1979) and Abdulsalam Abubakar (June 1998 – May 1999) presented the second and fourth republics, the regime of Muhammadu Buhari (December 1983 – August 1985) would be remembered for aborting the second republic in December 1983.

The democratic change of government in 1999 did not keep the military out of the Nigerian state’s political affairs. The military’s constitutional roles provided for them to not only maintain territorial integrity and defend against external aggression, but also to suppress insurrection and act in aid of civil authorities to restore order when called upon to do so by the legislature. Hence, post-1999 Nigeria has featured a motley of incidents that necessitated, at various times, military intervention to either defend the country’s territorial integrity, assist civil authorities, or act as agents of state hegemony and control in manners reminiscent of previous military regimes in the country.


Nigeria’s democracy is in a distressed state. It is perhaps apt to state that Nigeria is a democracy from afar, but far from a democracy. According to Thomas Carothers in the 2002 article, ‘The End of the Transition Paradigm’, and Larry Diamond in the 2002 article, ‘Thinking about Hybrid Regimes’, ‘reckless and pseudo’ forms of democracy explain the type of Nigeria’s democracy; and for analysts like Ryan Cummings, Nigeria’s democracy is best described as a ‘sham’. The distressed condition of Nigeria’s democracy arises from the failure to fully democratize after its final transition from military rule to democracy in 1999. According to Nic Cheeseman, in his 2015 book, Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures and the Struggles for Political Reform, democratization involves three distinct but overlapping processes. They include ‘the transition to multipartyism, the reconstitution of a new political order, and the later process of consolidating democratic gains. While post-1999 Nigeria has passed through the first two processes, it stalled significantly in the phase of democratic consolidation, allowing different subaltern groups to contest violently for their share of the national cake.

The Nigerian state’s inability to consolidate its democratic journey since 1999 has resulted in a trapped democratization process. A trapped democratization is one that fails for whatever reasons to improve its democratic qualities, measured by its procedure, content, and results. Shola Omotola, in the 2015 essay, ‘Trapped in Transition: Nigeria’s First Democratic Decade and Beyond’, argued that in such transitions, there is always disequilibrium between the demand for and supply of democracy, distinguished by a democratic motion without democratic movement, a sort of cause without effect.

In Nigeria, this caged democratic transition mode has not only created a weak state; it equally has unwittingly paved way for the emergence of ethnic militias and insurgent groups in different geo-political zones across the country. This has led to the deployment of military forces in various internal security operations where they are either operating as stand-alone operations or working in concert with other civil authorities to secure peace.

The Nigerian state’s failure to fully answer the question of democratic consolidation at the post-transition stage was also evident in the gap between the people’s expectation and the reality of governance. As far back as 1986, eminent political theorist, Richard Sklar, in his chapter in the 1986 book, Political Domination in Africa: Reflection on the Limits of Power, captured the failings of democracy in Nigeria after the end of the Second Republic. He noted that:

‘Liberal democracy in Nigeria is debilitated by the effects of economic anarchy and social distemper. A small minority of the population is conspicuously wealthy and privileged while the vast majority seethes with discontent. In Nigeria, liberal democracy is democracy with many reservations’.

Sklar’s position accurately mirrors the present realities of Nigeria because a prominent section of the ‘securitized elite thrives on crony capitalism and patron-client deals in violation of the rule of law, sometimes with benevolent and malevolent attributes’ as argued by Isaac Olawale Albert in his 2012 article titled, ‘The Securitized Elite: A Deconstruction of the Cabals in Nigeria’s Political Economy’. As a result, the Nigerian state has suffered insecurity, capacity and legitimacy gaps. This has been demonstrated in the declining capacity of its institutions to deliver public goods and dividends of democracy. The resultant effect of this is a huge gap between the demand and supply of democracy and good governance in Nigeria, according to Said Adejumobi in the 2010 book, Introduction in Governance and Politics in Post-Military Nigeria. This gap has also been sadly complemented by the repeated role of the military in internal security operations. Here the role of the security forces, particularly the military, is being examined. The next section looks at the effects of militarized space on the nation’s democracy.


Military intervention in internal security threats have always been a feature of Nigeria’s democracy and government. In the First Republic, the military was brought in to quell the Tiv riots of 1960, 1961 and 1964. At the inception of the Fourth Republic in 1999, the military was used to tackle problems of ethno-religious crises, militancy in the Niger Delta and inter-group clashes in various parts of the country. According to Gbemisola Animasawun in the 2010 article ‘The Military and Internal Security Operations in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic: Rethinking Security for Positive Peace in Maiduguri, Nigeria’, instances of military interventions at this period include Idi-Araba in the southwest; Aguleri-Umeleri in the southeast; Ataba, Tombia, Choba, and Ogoniland in Rivers state; Ilaje in Ondo state; Afiesere in Delta state; Odi in Bayelsa state; and Zaki-Biam in Benue state.

In 2016, SBM Intelligence, a strategic intelligence analysis firm, noted in Premium Times that Nigeria military personnel were actively deployed in 30 states of the federation on various internal security operations, including the counter-insurgency operations in the northeast. These Internal Security Operations (ISOs) included Operation Python and Crocodile Dance in the South East and Niger Delta, as well as other military operations engaged to tackle cattle rustling, armed banditry and organized violence on rural communities and sub-urban areas in the northwest, north central and southwest regions of the country.

In its report, SBM Intelligence explained that the situation had taken an ‘appalling toll on the overall capacity of the military, as they had been deployed to handle cases that could have been undertaken by civil authorities, including the police and other paramilitary agencies.’ This frequent deployment of military personnel has created one of the lowest military-to-civilian ratio of nine personnel to every 10,000 people, a situation it said was alarming for the country’s security framework.

Despite this grim statistic on the capacity of the military, Nigeria’s military has, in the two decades of democratic rule, created a messianic complex in its internal response to crises. Moreover, it has done so in ways reminiscent of the foregone years of military rule as it has emerged as an inevitable state response to preserve public safety, security and peace. This reliance has, however, come at very grave costs to the nation’s democracy, as the militaristic handling of crises has resulted in excessive use of force; and egregious human rights violations.

A major reason adduced for the military’s pattern of response this is that its strategies and tactics are not suitable for the operations they are usually called upon to undertake as opposed to that of civil authorities which are specifically trained for law enforcement. The invasion and destruction of Zaki Biam in 2001 and Odi in 1999, the killings of Shi’ite members in Zaria and Abuja in 2015 and 2018, killing of Pro-Biafra protesters in 2015 and 2016, and other violations and infringements of civic rights associated with the military has raised questions on military professionalism, urgent needs for internal military reforms, civilian control of the military and the capacity of civil authorities to adequately respond to internal security threats.

The current role the military plays in protecting Nigeria’s territorial integrity and ensuring state stability suggests that its protection of national interest through its involvement in ISOs, disaster management and electoral transitions will remain a fixed feature of our democratic life for a long time to come. However, the current challenge before us now is how the military can work in a professional manner to effectively secure national interest in a politically divisive country like Nigeria. The final section examines that possibility with the role of the military in the just concluded elections as a case in point.


If there was anything that could have prepared the minds of Nigerians towards the role of the military in the just-concluded national elections, it was the ambiguous shoot-on-sight presidential directive that was given against ballot box snatchers and other categories of electoral offenders.

In a televised speech ahead of the February 23 elections, also available in Vanguard Newspaper under the headline, ‘Ballot box snatchers: I’ve ordered Army, Police to be ruthless – Buhari’, President Buhari stated:

‘I do not expect anybody to make any disturbance. I have briefed the law enforcement agencies and the military to identify hotspots, flash points; they should be prepared to move. They too would have made their own arrangements as possible and resources provided as much as the country can afford it.

‘Anybody who decides to snatch ballot boxes or lead thugs to disturb it (elections) maybe that would be the last unlawful action he would take. I have directed the police and the military to be ruthless…’

This statement characterized the securitization of the election process in Nigeria, as it particularly concerns the military. While there were reported cases of election-related deaths and electoral violence, the use of the military to over securitize the civic space for election purposes severely hampered the electoral integrity of the process.

Before 2019, the military had been routinely involved in election-related activities at the state and national levels. The outcomes of their interventions have revealed their official collusion with state actors to intimidate voters, subvert the will of the people and undermine electoral integrity. This, of course, has led to pronouncements by media organizations such as Premium Times, of various court judgements on their involvement in election matters. The uncelebrated involvement of the army in the 2014 Ekiti and Osun elections are cases in point as reported by Patrick Ngwaogu, in his 2016 piece for The Nation.

Like the 2014 Osun elections, the 2019 elections were heavily militarized with combat-ready soldiers waiting for the final order. The ignoble role of the military in the 2019 elections was too evident and incontrovertible to be ignored. Across key opposition states, the military was heavily deployed to suppress voters’ choices and ensure that the ruling party emerged the winner in the electoral contest. In Kwara, Akwa-Ibom, Benue and River states, military hardware, jets and helicopters were deployed to monitor the conduct and outcome of the elections.

The particular case of Rivers State deserves special mention in the analysis of military involvement in the 2019 elections. Rivers was virtually turned into a war zone, with men on military apparel engaging in ballot box snatching, assault, harassment and other categories of electoral offences. The army was also accused of blocking local and foreign election observers from gaining access to collation centres. The army allegedly harassed electoral officers and prevented them from observing the collation process. While these claims have been refuted by the army, it has, nevertheless, prompted an investigative committee to enquire into soldiers’ misconduct in the 2019 elections.

Assessment of military activities in the 2019 elections begs the question of whether the military really needs to be involved in elections. Dr. Azeez Olaniyan and Olumuyiwa Babatunde Amao in their 2015 paper, ‘Election as Warfare: Militarization of Elections and the Challenges of Democratic Consolidation in Nigeria’, quoted the then INEC Chairman, Attahiru Jega to explain the role of the military in the Ekiti 2014 elections. According to Jega:

The military performs what we describe as peripheral outer cordon. It is the mobile police that handle internal movement in terms of movements in the towns but away from polling unit. And it is unarmed policemen that you have on an average of three per polling units, and that is exactly what happened in Ekiti.

Given the peculiarity of our current democratic state, the role of the military as a critical component of election security cannot be overstated. However, what calls for serious concern is the heavy militarization of politics and use of the army by politicians and state actors to ensure all winners take all victory. While it is desirable to see the military take a backseat regarding electoral matters, it is equally important to state that the principles of non-violence are yet to be enshrined in our democratic space, hence, our continued need for the Army to assist civil authorities in the maintaining peace and order.

While not oblivious of the pronouncements of the law courts, and the voices of civil society with regards to military involvement in electoral affairs, calls for the military to stay away from electoral venues should be reasonably made with regards to the operational capacity of other civil authorities, like the Police and the NSCDC in dealing with complex security operations. There appears to be no strait-jacket solution in sight. The judiciary is an important arm of government and its pronouncements need to be followed to the letter. As the third sector, the civil society are important watchdogs of government actions and they have a duty to keep the government in check at all times.

With court judgements and sustained calls from civil society, it behoves on the executive arm of government to make the right decision to pull the military from electoral duties the same way they were drafted in. A suitable recommendation would be to begin a gradated phasing out of their involvement or limiting their areas of responsibilities, using the upcoming Kogi and Bayelsa elections as pilot tests. Whatever the outcomes may be, it is crucial that the re-elected Buhari administration not only resuscitate the staggered reforms in the security sector, but also improve security sector governance and effectiveness by mustering the political will to sign relevant security sector bills before the National Assembly and improve security sector architecture for a more robust and strengthened democracy