Contribution by: Kalu Onwuka Kalu

On the evening of August 26th 1985, Buhari was joined in his residence by Majors Abubakar Dangiwa Umar (a Harvard University educated officer born into an aristocratic northern family who was also the former ADC to former Chief of Army Staff Hassan Usman Katsina), Lawan Gwadabe, Abdulmumuni Aminu and Sambo Dasuki. Dasuki is the son of former Sultan of Sokoto Ibrahim Dasuki. After the five men watched the evening news, the Majors arrested Buhari at gunpoint. After the coup, Buhari was detained for more than two years, badly affecting his family life and causing him to divorce his wife Safinatu upon his release.

At 6am on Tuesday August 27, 1985: Brigadier Joshua Dogonyaro announced in a nationwide broadcast that Buhari had been overthrown in a bloodless military coup. After having a champagne breakfast to toast their success, the plotters’ inner caucus held a meeting at Bonny Camp to flesh out details of the new leadership. The meeting was attended by the following officers who arrived dressed in combat fatigues: Babangida, Maj-Gen Sani Abacha, Brigadier Joshua Dogonyaro, Brigadier Aliyu Mohammed (head of military intelligence), Navy Commander Murtala Nyako**, Lt-Col Ahmed Abdullahi (Minister of Communications), Lt-Col Tanko Ayuba (commanding officer – Nigerian army signal corps), Lt-Col John Shagaya*** (commanding officer – 9th mechanised brigade, Ikeja)*, Lt-Col Anthony Ukpo, Major Abubakar Umar (Administrator of the Federal Housing Authority).

*The 9th mechanised brigade was formerly commanded by Sani Abacha.
** Currently the Governor of Adamawa State.
*** Currently PDP Senator for Plateau North.

Nigerians were kept in the dark about the new leader until Maj-Gen Sani Abacha made a follow up broadcast at 3.30pm to announce that Babangida had been appointed the new leader. Babangida said he was unanimously chosen to lead by the new caucus without any disagreement. After Abacha’s broadcast a press briefing was held with over 100 journalists. Babangida’s old classmate Vatsa was in Saudi Arabia when Babangida took over. When he returned to Nigeria, he went to pledge his loyalty to Babangida. Now that his course mate was Head of State, Vatsa again assumed he had reached the end of the road and submitted his letter of retirement. Babangida rejected his retirement and retained him as Minister of the Federal Capital Territory.


Although it was little analysed at the time, Babangida became the first Nigerian military leader to refer to himself as “President”. Previous military leaders used the benign appellation “Head of State”. According to Babangida’s press secretary Major Debo Bashorun, the decision to call Babangida “President” was taken on the spur of the moment as Babangida was in a car en route to broadcast his inaugural speech. According to Bashorun:

“The coup itself was not a nationalistic one. He was trying to protect his interests by protecting Aliyu Mohammed who later became Chief of Army Staff, among other things……I drafted his first broadcast speech, and contrary to what has been said in some quarters, I believed the idea of calling himself President came to him on our way to NTA. It was unexpected. He altered the word Head of State to president in the car. We even forgot the Coat of Arms needed in the background at NTA. I had to go back to Dodan Barracks to bring it. With us at NTA that morning were Halilu Akilu, John Shagaya and Joshua Dogonyaro” (The News, January 24, 1994)

Whatever the origins of the decision to use the title “President”, Babangida acquired for himself, the sweeping powers of an executive president as stipulated in Nigeria’s 1979 constitution. The title “President” was not merely ceremonial. Babangida immediately acquired, and was not shy about exercising greater powers than any of his military predecessors. He reserved for himself, the unilateral right to appoint the Chief of General Staff, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the heads of the army, navy and air force, and the Inspector-General of Police. These appointments were previously made collectively by senior members of military regimes.


The Supreme Military Council (SMC) was renamed the “Armed Forces Ruling Council” (AFRC), and had the following members:

Major-General Ibrahim Babangida
Chairman of the Armed Forces Ruling Council
Chairman of the Federal Executive Council
Commander in Chief – Nigerian Armed Forces
Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe
Chief of General Staff
Major-General Domkat Bali
Defence Secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Maj-Gen Sani Abacha
Chief of Army Staff
Air Vice Marshal Ibrahim Mahmud Alfa
Chief of Air Staff
Rear-Admiral Augustus Aikhomu
Chief of Naval Staff
Major-General Mamman Jiya Vatsa
Minister of the Federal Capital Territory
Etim Inyang
Inspector-General of Police
Brigadier Peter Adomokhai
GOC, 1 Mechanised Infantry Division – Kaduna
Brigadier Yohanna Yerima Kure
GOC, 2 Mechanised Division – Ibadan
Brigadier Joshua Nimyel Dogonyaro
GOC, 3 Armoured Infantry Division – Jos
Brigadier Donaldson Oladipo Diya
GOC, 82 Division – Enugu
Brigadier Gado Nasko
Commander – Nigerian Army Corps of Artillery
Brigadier Duro Ajayi
Commander, Training and Doctrine Command
Brigadier Paul Omu
Commandant, Command and Staff College
Brigadier Ola Oni
Director – Joint Services
Brigadier Abdullahi Mamman
Director of Army Training and Operations
Commodore Aloko
Flag Officer Commanding, Eastern Naval Command
Commodore Murtala Nyako
Flag Officer Commanding, Western Naval Command
Commodore Mauftau Adegoke Babatunde Elegbede
Flag Officer Commanding, Sea Training Command
Air Vice Marshal M Yahaya
Air officer Commanding – Air Training Command
Air Commodore Bayo Lawal
Air Officer Commanding, Tactical Air Command
Air Commodore Nura Imam
Air Officer Commanding, Logistics Command
Air Commodore Larry Koinyan
Air Force
Lt-Col John Shagaya
Commander, 9 Mechanised Brigade
Lt-Col Halilu Akilu
Director-General, Directorate of Military Intelligence
Lt-Col Raji Alagbe Rasaki
Commander, Army Headquarters Garrison and Signal Group
Lt-Col Tanko Ayuba
Commander – Corps of Signals

Of the original 28 members who constituted the AFRC when Babangida first came to power in 1985, only 5 were still in place when he stepped down 8 years later in 1993 (Abacha, Dogonyaro, Aikhomu, Nyako and Elegbede). Elegbede was later murdered after being shot to death by gunmen on June 19, 1994 along the Gbagada/Owonshoki expressway in Lagos.

The Military Governors were as follows:


Group Captain Samson Omeruah
Lt-Col Chris Garuba
Lt-Col John Mark Inienger
Group Captain Jonah David Jang
Major Abdulmumuni Aminu
Cross River
Navy Captain Ekpo Archibong
Lt-Col Yohanna Madaki
Navy Captain Allison Madueke
Major Abubakar Umar
Lt-Col A.M. Daku
Wing Commander M.N. Umaru
Group Captain Gbolahan Mudashiru
Lt-Col David Mark*
Lt-Col Oladayo Popoola
Navy Commander Mike Akhigbe
Lt-Col Adetunji Idowu Olurin
Lt-Col Chris Alli
Police Commissioner Fidelis Oyakhilome
Col G. Mohammed

*Currently the Senate President

Babangida recognised the importance of timing and his assent was hailed by the media and public. Professor Omo Omoruyi claimed that Babangida came to office unprepared and with no political programme. Nothing could be further from the truth. Babangida is the only Nigerian military leader that actively sought political power prior to coming to office, prepared for it and waited patiently for it to come his way. He was probably the most prepared military ruler in Nigeria’s history. Babangida subsequently revealed the extent of preparation that preceded his ascent to power:

“At the risk of being called immodest, if there is any military government that prepared itself before it went in, it’s our government. We knew what we wanted. We knew what areas to address, especially the economy. We read the barometer of the society and we knew what the people wanted.”[1]

What he lacked in formal higher education, he made up for with his skill at human relationships, and native cunning. He had been building a political empire for years inside the barracks. Babangida created an army in his own image with both his own personal charm and with spontaneous acts of kindness to colleagues and subordinates. He is known to have an exceptional memory for names and faces and is able to recollect the first names of colleagues, subordinates, journalists, opponents and even their family members. He was genuinely kind and an excellent conversationalist who wore an ever present smile in private, official and social gatherings with both military and political colleagues. He had a marketing team, an image, and most importantly he had enforcers in all branches of the army.


Nigerian military regimes usually derive public acceptance and popularity by discrediting their predecessors, and by making grandiose promises of popular policy changes. Babangida understood these rules of the game. He explained that “When you stage a coup, you have to tell people what they want to hear, so you can get accepted.” His first political acts were aimed at gaining public acceptance and presenting himself as a smiling gap toothed General and benevolent dictator. He released politicians and journalists detained by Buhari’s regime and repealed Decree 4: the Public Officers (Protection Against False Accusation) Decree which made it a criminal offence to publish any article that brought the government or any public official into disrepute. Journalists Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor of the Guardian Newspapers were unfortunate enough to fall foul of Decree 4 and were imprisoned by the Buhari regime. Babangida released both Thompson and Irabor. Irabor would later become the press officer to Babangida’s deputy and in June 1993 would stain his name forever by allowing it to be associated with the gravest electoral event in Nigeria’s history when he circulated a statement annulling the results of the June 1993 presidential election. Babangida also suspended the execution of drug dealers.


Babangida’s superior charm made him appear more personable to senior and mid-level officers than the disciplinarian Buhari. Babangida was therefore able to gain broad support for his new regime. He neutralised potential critics by reaching out to renowned figures outside the military and convincing them to join the government. This gave him a first tier of military support, and a second tier of civilian support consisting of respected public figures who by their support of Babangida’s regime, tainted any possible future criticism of him. He gave his regime intellectual legitimacy by appointing technocrats such as Professor Wole Soyinka (chairman of the Federal Road Safety Corps), the respected World Bank economist Kalu Idika Kalu (Minister of Finance), esteemed professor of virology Professor Tam David-West (Petroleum Resources), Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti (Minister of Health) and Professor Bolaji Akinyemi (Minister of External Affairs).

On September 12, 1985 the following 22 ministers were sworn in to the federal cabinet:
Lt-General (rtd) Alani Akinrinade
Minister of Agriculture
Major-General Domkat Bali
Defence Secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Maj-Gen Gado Nasko
Minister of Trade
Brigadier Jeremiah Useni
Minister of Transport and Aviation
Lt-Col Tanko Ayuba
Minister of Communications
Professor Jibril Aminu
Minister of Education
Rear-Admiral Patrick Koshoni
Minister of Employment, Labour and Productivity
Professor Bolaji Akinyemi
Minister of External Affairs
Maj-Gen Mamman Vatsa
Minister of the Federal Capital Territory
Dr Kalu Idika Kalu
Minister of Finance
Alhaji Lawal Mala
Minister of Industries
Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti
Minister of Health
Lt-Col Anthony Ukpo
Minister of Information
Lt-Col John Nanzip Shagaya
Minister of Internal Affairs
Prince Bola Ajibola
Minister of Justice
Alhaji Rilwanu Lukman
Minister of Mines and Power
Dr Chu Okongwu
Minister of National Planning
Professor Tam David-West
Minister of Petroleum Resources
Lt-Col Ahmed Abdullahi
Minister of Social Development, Youth, Sports and Culture
Professor Emanuel Emovon
Minister of Science and Technology
Air Commodore Hamza Abdullahi
Minister of Works and Housing
Air Vice Marshal A.I. Shekari
Minister of Special Duties
He set 1990 as the date for the return of civilian democratic rule, inaugurated a Political Bureau and encouraged public debate on a future democratic model for Nigeria. These measures made him immensely popular during his early days and he was hailed as a liberal and enlightened military ruler with a genuine concern for human rights and with an intricate reform agenda. His appointment of Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe as his deputy was hailed as evidence of his foresight and attempt to rehabilitee Igbos back into the military hierarchy. On assumption of the post, Ukiwe’s title was changed from “Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters” to “Chief of General Staff”.

In portraying himself as a listening President that valued public opinion, he also threw the nation’s economic policy into public debate. He invited public debate on how to deal with over $20 of billion foreign debt that Nigeria had accrued, and whether to seek additional loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Public opinion opposed further IMF loans so Babangida suspended negotiations with the IMF and rejected its loan, in a move that proved popular with the macho patriotism of the public. However the ever shrewd Babangida and his Finance Minister Kalu Idika Kalu imposed a set of economic reforms called the “Structural Adjustment Programme”, that were even more punishing than what the IMF demanded. These included doubling the price of petrol, tripling the price of diesel petrol, salary cuts, and massively devaluing the Naira. These moves triggered off a cycle of rapid inflation that severely battered the middle and lower income classes.


Babangida started well and with good intentions, bust lost his way after realising how easily the public could be manipulated in a developing country. In the midst of the backslapping for Babangida, no one noticed that he retained the most detested Decree of all from the Buhari era: the dreaded Decree 2 of 1984 – the State security (Detention of Persons) Decree. This Decree permitted the Federal Military Government to detain any person considered by the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters to be a security threat, for up to three months without charge or trial. Civil liberties organisations breathed a sigh of relief when Babangida took over, expecting Babangida to repeal Decree 2. Babangida not only retained it, but extended the detention period under Decree 2 to six months and later used it to detain those civil liberties and pro-democracy movements that had welcomed his assent to power. In the flurry of activity no one noticed that the “War Against Indiscipline” anti-corruption drive launched by the Buhari regime was also terminated. Time Magazine quoted a British source who claimed that “Babangida will always fall short on ruthless measures against corruption because nearly everyone involved in the government is corrupt.” Additionally no one questioned why he was releasing corrupt public officials that had been jailed on charges of massive looting of state treasuries. The Buhari regime created military tribunals to try public officers from the Shagari era that were accused of embezzling public funds. These tribunals were extremely controversial. They were chaired by military officers and had the power to impose massive prison sentences. The tribunals were composed as follows:

Lagos Zone:

Brigadier Paul Omu (Chairman)
Brigadier Malami Nassarawa
Navy Captain Godwin Ndubuisi Kanu
Lt-Colonel Adeyinka Martins
Mr Justice Timothy Oyeyipo

Kaduna Zone (Kaduna, Kano and Sokoto States, and the Federal Capital Territory)

Navy Captain M.A.B Elegbede (Chairman)
Lt-Colonel Ibrahim Gumel
Lt-Colonel Mohammed Maina
Wing Commander John Abakpolor
Mr Justice Paul Nwokedi

Ibadan Zone (Bendel, Kwara, Oyo, Ogun, and Ondo States)

Brigadier Charles Ndiomu (Chairman)
Commander Ibrahim Ogohi
Lt-Colonel Yohanna Madaki
Wing Commander Camica Ohadumere
Mr Justice Saleh Minjibir

Jos Zone (Bauchi, Benue, Borno, Gongola and Plateau States)

Brigadier Peter Adomokhai (Chairman)
Navy Captain Jubril Ayinla
Lt-Colonel Isaac Adebunmu
Wing Commander Sunday Cole
Mr Justice Joseph Ogundera

Enugu Zone (Anambra, Cross River, Imo and Rivers States)

Air Commodore Muktar Mohammed (Chairman)
Lt-Colonel Samuel Victor Leo Malu
Wing Commander S.B. Suare
Navy Captain Thompson Odibo
Mr Justice Alhassa Idoko
The only right of appeal from the tribunals was to the SMC which was also exclusively comprised of military officers (and the Inspector-General of police). The military were effectively acting as prosecutor, judge and jury. Unsurprisingly the Nigerian Bar Association barred its member lawyers from participating in the tribunals. Nonetheless the trials went ahead and convicted and jailed several prominent politicians and officials including:

Former Rivers State Governor Melford Okilo was jailed for 21 years for illegally holding bank accounts abroad, contrary to laws applying to Nigerian public officers.
Finance Minister Victor Masi was convicted of corruptly receiving nearly $5.45 million from a construction company.
For Kano State Governor Abubakar Rimi and his successor, Sabo Bakin Zuwo were jailed for 21 years for illegally accepting bribes to facilitate a property deal. Boxes full of cash were found in Zuwo’s home after a raid.
Among other prominent politicians convicted by the tribunals were Anthony Enahoro, Jim Nwobodo, Ambrose Alli, Adamu Atta, Aper Aku, and Awwal Ibrahim.

Given that most of the convicted were already over fifty years old, they were likely to die in prison if they served the rest of their sentences. The tribunals effectively put Nigeria’s political elite in jail. However the controversy surrounding the tribunals’ composition created enough justification for Babangida to release the jailed politicians without the public asking whether irrespective of the nature of the tribunals, the defendants were actually guilty of the offences they were convicted of.


The new regime included several trusted and loyal officers who served under Babangida during his days as commander of the armoured corps. He also did not make the same mistake as Buhari by failing to reward the officers who were instrumental in getting him to power. The two senior officers that were the public face of the coup (Maj-Gen Abacha and Brigadier Dogonyaro) were appointed Chief of Army Staff and GOC of the 3rd armoured division respectively. He also included relatively junior officers from the coup in the AFRC (Lt-Cols Shagaya, Halilu Akilu, Tanko Ayuba and Raji Rasaki). Other Lt-Cols that were instrumental to the coup were also awarded by being appointed Military Governors (Lt-Cols John Mark Inienger, Yohanna Madaki, David Mark, Sambo Dasuki, and Majors Abubakar Umar and Abdulmumuni Aminu) or being appointed to the Federal Executive Council (Brigadier Jerry Useni and Lt-Cols Ahmed Abdullahi and Anthony Ukpo). He could not have got to power without these men and they remained his support base and the spine of his regime. This inner caucus was reinforced by Babangida’s colleagues and old school mates from Bida whom he planted around him in the concentric circle immediately adjacent to the coup caucus. The Bida alumni included Maj-Gens Mamman Vatsa and Gado Nasko – both of whom were in the Federal Executive Council. Only those who risked their lives for him and who were trusted were allowed within his corridors of power.

Babangida’s constant gap toothed smile and genuine bonhomie was a welcome departure from the stern glacial countenance of Buhari and Idiagbon. His charm was also enough to disarm the most cynical sceptic. However when it came to security and his personal survival, Babangida’s “Mr Nice Guy” image had its limits. Babangida was security conscious to the point of paranoia. His paranoia stemmed from his experience as an expert coup plotter over three decades. He later revealed in an interview with Tell Magazine that he had been involved in every successful coup in Nigeria’s history – making him the Nigerian army’s most prolific coup plotter. He was well aware that others in the army were willing to take him on:

“When I became the President, there were about 23 of us who were the coup plotters at that time and immediately that coup was successful, I sat the 23 of us together and said: congratulations, we made it but remember one thing, just like we took up guns and toppled a government we also have to watch because somebody would one day want to topple us and this is because I understood the nature of the Nigerian person.”


It did not take long for Babangida’s prediction to materialise. Babangida’s rise to power was followed the customary purge of personnel whose loyalty could not be guaranteed. However, Babangida had not purged thoroughly enough. In early December 1985, rumours of a coup plot began circulating in military and political circles. With the government making no announcement on the allegations, several names were mentioned as alleged instigators of a coup. The rumours swept around the barracks too and the name of Mamman Vatsa (Minister of the Federal Capital Territory) crept up. The rumours got to Vatsa’s orderly who did not know how to approach his boss about such a sensitive issue. The orderly therefore disclosed the rumours to Vatsa’s wife, who in turn urged her husband to talk the issue out with Babangida.

Babangida and Vatsa had been friends since boyhood and were old classmates in school, having attended the Bida Middle School together. They were also course mates from their cadet days having enlisted in the Nigerian Military Training College on the same day, commissioned into the army on the same day and holding equal rank and seniority to each other. In the company of two of their mutual friends (one of whom was Gado Nasko), Vatsa met with Babangida and asked him how he could suspect his own friend of coup plotting. According to Babangida Vatsa asked him “You heard I was planning a coup and couldn’t even ask me. What kind of friend are you?” Babangida replied “I didn’t believe it or are you planning a coup?” Vatsa replied in the negative.

The coup rumours were so wild that even Nasko’s name was being peddled as a suspect by rumour mongers. Babangida refused to believe Nasko was involved and said “I don’t like to hear this nonsense.” The matter was forgotten until the ultra security conscious Babangida became convinced that there was a genuine coup plot. At this stage, Vatsa was likely to escape with his life since Babangida was unsure of his guilt. However, Vatsa made a crucial mistake. According to Babangida:

“While the investigations were going on, the investigators said they wanted to take him into Intercell (Interrogation Centre), but I insisted that Vatsa should not be treated like others, not while I was the head of government. First he was (and still is) my friend, secondly, he is a General. I told them the best I could allow him was for him to be restricted to his house….then there was an attempt to escape through the hole of an air conditioner and that’s where we had to concede to put him in the cell.”[2]


On December 20, 1985 the government formally acknowledged the issue when Maj-Gen Domkat Bali (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defence Secretary) announced that “officers from all the services were recruiting followers and concluding plans for the overthrow of the government.” Bali claimed the plotters planned to overthrow the government because:

They opposed the retention of some public officers from the former regime.
The new regime was too concerned with human rights.
The drafting of middle grade officers to public office.
The government’s rejection of a loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Analysed objectively, the reasons stated by Bali for the coup seem amateurish but were not disbelieved or critically appraised by a gullible public that was still intoxicated on Babangida’s charm. If these were the real reasons, the plotters would have had immense difficulty in convincing the public and their armed forces colleagues that these were sufficient justifications for a violent coup. A more plausible synopsis is that the coup was the culmination of the power struggle between the pro-Buhari and pro-Babangida factions in the army. The plotters belonged to the former faction and might have advocated a return to the disciplinarian ethos of the Buhari regime. This gave the government latitude to embellish the coup’s rationale in Bali’s statement. However Bali did not name the perpetrators. This led to a further round of rumours and gossip about the potential suspects. Babangida later jocularly suggested that the only officer not to be linked with the coup was Babangida himself.


On December 27, 1985 (exactly one week after Bali’s announcement) the Information Minister Lt-Col Anthony Ukpo named the coup suspects:

Maj-Gen Mamman Vatsa
Brigadier Malami Nassarawa
Group Captain Ita David Ikpeme
Group Captain Salaudeen Latinwo
Lt-Col Musa Bitiyong
Lt-Col Moses Effiong
Lt-Col Michael Iyorshe
Lt-Col Emmanuel Obeya
Lt-Col Christian Oche
Major Daniel Bamidele
Major D. Edwin-West
Wing Commander Ben Ekele
Wing Commander Adamu Sakaba
Squadron Leader Martin Luther


Ikpeme and Latinwo were former Military Governors. Ikpeme formerly governed Ondo state, and Latinwo formerly governed Kwara state. Ikpeme and Latinwo were subsequently released after interrogation and were not tried. Nassarawa was the commandant of the army’s infantry school in Jaji, and one of the surviving northern officers that staged a mutiny in July 1966. Additionally it was the first time that air force and navy officers were accused of coup plotting. A Special Investigation Panel headed by Sani Sami was tasked with investigating the coup. The panel also included police officer Alhaji Gambo Jimeta, Group Captain Anthony Ikhazobor and the panel secretary was Lt-Col Ajibola Kunle Togun. As a result of these investigations over 100 other officers were arrested and interrogated. Eventually in addition to the 14 officers above, Lt.-Col J.O Onyeke, Captain G.I L Sese, and Lt K.G. Dakpa were also implicated and included in the list of officers to be tried by a Special Military Tribunal. Solidarity rallies were held in support of Babangida. These solidarity rallies would become a common feature of the military regime that succeeded him.

Next Part: The Vatsa Affair: “Did you hear that? Those guys are being shot. These people mean business”.

READ ALSO  P&ID: US Court allows Buhari govt access to GEJ, Patience’s bank accounts

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