Examining the Nigerian Military’s chequered History


Undoubtedly, the Nigerian military battles multiple security challenges like insurgency, banditry, oil theft and poor funding, as well as human rights issues. In light of the just celebrated 60th Independence Anniversary of Nigeria, Kingsley Nwezeh looks at the history, development and the state of the military establishment since independence

The Nigerian military establishment has had a chequered history. For a military reputed for its exploits in military campaigns dating back to World War II, Congo crisis, participated in many United Nations peace-keeping operations across the globe and received accolades, it is an unusual time.

For a military noted for its contributions towards ending the war and the restoration of democratic rule in Sierra Leone, Liberia and The Gambia, ranked third most powerful military in Africa and 43rd most powerful military in the world, these are not the best of times considering the huge challenge of insurgency war in the North-east, banditry in the Northe-west, among other security challenges, the end of which is not in sight.


The history of the Nigerian Armed Forces could be traced to three colonial military units. The first unit, Glover’s Hausas was established in 1862 by Captain John Glover to defend Lagos. Glover’s Hausas was made up of soldiers from Northern Nigeria.

The second unit was the Royal Niger Company Constabulary set up in 1888 to protect British interest in Northern Nigeria. It also played the role of providing internal security in northern Nigeria.
The company Constabulary formed the core of the Northern Nigeria Regiment of the West Africa Frontier Force (WAFF).

The third unit, known as the Oil
Rivers Irregulars, was created in 1891 and later designated the Niger Coast Constabulary predominantly Igbos and formed the Southern regiment of the West African Frontier Force (WAFF).
In 1928, WAFF was renamed the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) and expanded to six battalions from four to serve in the north and south with major installations in Sokoto, Kano, Zaria, Kaduna and Calabar.

During the World War 11, Nigerian Army expanded to 28 battalions which served outside Nigeria as part of the Allied War effort. After the war, RWAFF returned to its primary functions of internal security, police actions, punitive expeditions, collection of taxes, tackling local disturbances and breaking strikes.

The experience garnered in World War II led to the establishment of a two-brigade system for combat support and combat service support. In 1956, the Nigeria Regiment was renamed the Nigerian Military Forces, and in 1958 the colonial government assumed control.

In 1960, when Nigeria gained her independence, there were 82 Nigerian officers, mostly Igbos, while the soldiers were predominantly Hausas or military personnel from the North.

Military Intervention in Politics and Wars

With the coming of the military via the 1966 coup and the counter coup in July 29 of the same year stemming from political crisis in 1964, the military remained in power until 1999 with an interval of four years of democratic rule between 1979 and 1983.
The military also fought a bloody three-year civil war to keep the nation together with colossal loss of lives.

In the mid 80s and 90s, the Ibrahim Babangida and General Sanni Abacha-led regimes deployed Nigerian troops under ECOMOG to fight wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone restoring democratic rule in both countries with incalculable losses in terms of men and materials to Nigeria.

The military high command in 2017 deployed a war ship in the Gambia that helped force former President Yahya Jammeh out of power and Gambia after refusing to leave office, having lost the presidential election.


As a modern 200,000 strong military, the Nigerian Army, Nigerian Navy and Nigerian Air Force have continued to engage in capacity building initiatives, including training of special forces both foreign and local, training of pilots including female pilots, technicians engaged in repair of aircraft and other military equipment.

Speaking recently, the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, reviewed the exploits of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) since inception in 1964 and declared that the organisation has acquired the ability to conduct multiple air strikes when compared to the past.

Abubakar, who spoke at an occasion in Abuja to celebrate the organisation’s 56th anniversary, said the NAF had made substantial progress, especially in the deployment of air power. He recalled that in the 60s, bombs were rolled out from the aircraft cabin with bare hands but over the years it had acquired the capacity to attack enemy locations in the North-east and other flashpoints in the country at the same time.

Global Military Ranking

The 2018 and 2019 Global Military Strength Ranking puts Nigerian military at No. 43 ahead of such European nations as Belgium, Portugal and the Carribbean nation of Cuba.

A global military ranking institution, Global Fire Power (GFP), citing United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Fact Book credits Nigeria with 181,000 total military personnel (other sources say 250,000) , 172, 400,000 available manpower from a population of 190 million. That is to say that at any time, the country could draw from available manpower especially in war times.

Those fit for service stands at 40, 710,000 while citizens reaching military age stands at 3, 456,000.
Out of the total military personnel, 124, 000 are active(other sources say 162,000) while 57,000 are reserved.

Nigeria’s total aircraft strength is 124, with 9 fighter aircraft, 21 attack aircraft, 52 transport aircraft, 47 trainer aircraft with a helicopter strength of 43 and 11 attack helicopters.

The Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar said recently 30 aircraft were purchased in the last three years in addition to the controversial 12 Tukano fighter planes acquired recently from the United States when they are delivered.

The Nigerian Air Force deployed fighter planes that flew over 30,000 hours in the north-east in the last one year, while the navy has since established a base in Baga, around Lake Chad in a joint effort to neutralise terrorist group, Boko Haram and the Islamic State for West African Province (ISWAP).

The GFP ranking also credits Nigerian Army with 148 combat tanks, 1,420 armoured fighting vehicles, 25 self-propelled artillery, 339 towed artillery and 30 rocket projectors.

Nigeria’s total naval assets stands at 75 with four frigates and 93 patrol craft. The navy recently acquired 300 patrol boats to boost its arsenal.
There were also recent purchases of battle tanks by the federal government to boost the military’s war against insurgency in the North-east.

Promotions/Staff Welfare/Housing

In spite of the challenge of insecurity faced by the military establishment, the military high command has ensured regular promotions for the rank and file.
The military has also had female officers, who rose to the rank of Rear Admiral and Major General.
Presently, there are female officers on the rank of Brigadier-General and Commodore.

Some personnel (Army) who spoke to THISDAY anonymously maintained that they have never had it so good in terms of remuneration and other favourable welfare packages.

“Buratai has done well for us. We now retire earning the same salary while in office as pension”, an army officer said.

The service chiefs have also embarked on the commissioning of several housing schemes across the country for personnel to the point that the three services have housing and construction companies set up to build houses for military personnel and the civilian population.

For instance, the Naval Building & Construction Company Ltd is presently selling to the public lands and houses at the Navy Estate Phase II, Karshi, Abuja. The Lagos State government recently granted approval for the company to construct 800 housing units in Badagry, Lagos State.

Insecurity/Human Rights

The military today is facing multiple challenges of insurgency, armed banditry, piracy, poor funding among others. It has been argued severally that military personnel and resources are overstretched by the reason of having its hands in many pies including areas of internal security traditionally handled by the Nigerian Police.

More than 20,000 people have so far been killed since the commencement of hostilities in the North-east including close to 1000 soldiers or more even as it battled armed bandits in other theatres of war in the North-west and North-central.

The military also faces human rights issues especially extra-judicial killings. Two international human rights groups, the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International (AI) have severally accused it of involvement in extra-judicial killings in the North-east and South-east.

A case in point is the recent massacre of 23 members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in Emene, Enugu. Amnesty International had also accused the military of killing 150 members of the group in the past. The human rights issues taking seriously by Western arms manufacturers have also hampered the sale of needed military equipment to Nigeria to contain insurgency and other challenges of insecurity.

In essence, as Nigeria celebrates its 60th independence anniversary, the federal government needs to plug the loopholes that gave rise to multiple challenges of insecurity which has also dimmed the image of the military establishment.