Machiavelli : General Ibrahim Babangida and the Nigerian Military in 1990

Before the Nigerian civil war the army was light infantry of 6,000 soldiers, its air force had no frontline fighter jets or air lift capability and its navy could not provide support for the army. By 1990 the air force had 95 fighter jets, including Hercules C-130’s, Jaguars and Alpha jets and had developed close air support capability. It also had nearly a hundred L-39 jet trainers with light attack capability.

The army had four mechanized divisons, two light rapid deployment divisions, one armoured division, lots of modern artillery pieces and some of best artillery troops on the continent,  anti aircraft guns, fighting vessels and 257 army battle tanks.

A Nigerian Air Force Jaguar Jet in 1990.

The navy had aquired a flagship, (NNS ARADU in the 80’s), four missile crafts with Aspid anti ship missiles, a landing ship, a fast patrol craft, minesweepers and lynx helicopters. The Nigerian military was especially concerned with developing its maritime capacity in order to defend its vulnerable offshore oil infrastructure against potential enemies.

In the early 1990’s the Nigerian Army sent its troops to Lebanon, Kuwait, Western Sahara, Somalia and Rwanda. Seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council to enhance Nigeria’s image as a regional power and be recognized as such, Nigeria’s military ruler Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, wished to portray the country as a responsible global citizen.


The formation of a military arm to ECOWAS – ECOMOG, and the disproportionate allocation of resources and support ( Nigeria provided 85% of the funding, %80 of its armed personnel, 100% of its airlift capacity, %90 of its naval support system, %90 of its Amoured and artillery units and %100 of its combat aircraft) for ECOMOG gives credence to the assertion and fears by many member states that the ECOMOG mission was being used as a testing ground for both the effectiveness and viability of Nigeria’s vast military arsenal and act also as a deterrent to any hypothetical enemy, and for good reasons.

Nigeria found itself in an awkward position of having territorial disputes in the land and maritime domain with virtually all of its neighbors. The Chadians lay claim to several Islands and villages in Borno. Tensions in the Bakassi Peninsula have seen the exchange of gun and artillery fire between Nigerian and Cameroonian forces. In the Gulf,  Equitorial Guinea were also making territorial claims, disputing Nigeria’s claim of an 200 Mile EEZ.

Having embarked on a twenty year arms buildup fuelled by the oil boom of the 1970’s, some senior members of the Nigerian Army were keen to test out both their new weaponry and the battle readiness of their troops.  It must be understood that despite having overwelming military superiority, an estimated 75 percent of Nigerian soldiers had not been involved in armed combat in 1990. 

The Cameroonians however compensated for their inferiority with superior and exellent training and brute strength. The Chadians had experience fighting in the desert, these are the guys whose exploits in the desert against Libya gave rise to the term “Toyota War”. They had experience against Libya,Sudan and Nigeria.

Nigeria hoped putting out a show of force and power projection by their intervention will help deter countries like Cameroon and Chad with which Nigeria had border disputes. Senior members of the Nigerian Army led by Babangida , thus staked their honour and professional reputation on success in Liberia. This helps to explain Nigeria’single-minded determination to bring peace in Liberia even at great economic cost to itself at a time when the country had an external debt of $33 billion and against a growing tide of domestic public opinion.

Nothing unites a country and elicites national pride like war. Babangida’s regime forcefully presents the case for the necessity of the intervention at home and abroad. Bangangida instructed his Foreign Minister Rilwanu Likeman and his permanent representative to the United Nations, Ibrahim Gambari to push the ECOWAS peace plan aggressively at the world’s highest diplomatic body,….and boy did they deliver !

Addressing the UN Security Council on 8 August 1990, Rilwanu Lukeman explained ECOMOG’s reason for intervention in Liberia as “first and foremost” to stop the senseless killings of innocent civilians and foreign nationals, and to help the Liberian people to restore their democratic institutions.

Babangida however discovered that support was much harder to secure from some ECOWAS member States. There was much hostility toward the establishment of the multinational force by French speaking member states. Many habitually sceptical ECOWAS members feared that Babangida, whom they had nicknamed “Machiavelli” for his manipulative cunning was attempting to use the Liberian as an excuse for total regional hegemony. Many feared that Nigeria’s disproportionate economic and military might gives it the unprecedented ability to intervene in their countries and accused Nigeria of Neo Colonialism. Babangida famously stated member states wishing to leave the regional bloc were free to do so, but he will not in good conscience watch as thousands of men women and children are killed by blood thirsty warlords. Failure to intervene will achieve nothing but the prospect of it spilling across the border into other states.

Babangida used his ability to forge personal relationships to good effect with key countries like Ghana, Gambia and S-Leone. The personal chemistry between Babangida and Jerry Rawlings cemented the Anglo Abuja-Accra axis, which was crucial in drowning the opposition of French speaking member states, who call the invasion of Liberia as Nigerias imperialistic ambition in the region.

The Gambian support for ECOMOG was important, so Babangida sent judges to work for the Gambian judiciary and also appointed a Nigerian -Colonel Abubakar Dada head of the Gambian army. Finally Sierra Leonean leader Joseph Momoh had been a classmate of Babangida’s at the Nigerian Army Staff Collegem and they remained good friends ever since.
The Anglophone dominantion of West Afruca was complete.

End of Part 1.


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