Six years after Nigeria gained its independence from Great Britain in 1960, a bloody military coup transferred power to the nation’s armed forces.
The ensuing forty-year period was marked by eight different military regimes and a Civil War, which were often demarcated by similarly violent coups that overthrew the initial Republic. Brief interludes of constitutional republics occasionally emerged, but these periods were short-lived and quickly replaced by another military government.
The heads of these regimes were military strongmen, soldiers who had risen through the chain of command and sought to rule the nation with near-absolute power. Samuel Fury Childs Daly (PhD), a professor in Duke’s African and African American Studies department and author of the acclaimed book A History of the Republic of Biafra: Law, Crime, and the Nigerian Civil War, sought to dive deeper into the political philosophies of these authoritarian rulers.
Daly says the writings and opinions of these autocrats often receives insufficient attention in the modern accounts of Nigerian history. The title of his lecture through the Franklin Humanities Institute, “How Soldiers Think,” attempted to address this lack of analysis by asking several important questions: What did these soldiers believe? Why did they enact the laws that they did? How did they envision Nigeria’s future?
The story of Nigerian militarism, according to Daly, has its roots in the decolonization process. The soldiers and lawmakers of the later 20th century found their inspiration in one of the most famous decolonial thinkers: Frantz Fanon. Fanon’s two seminal works – Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of The Earth – were rooted heavily in his experience as a trained psychiatrist and a soldier for the Front de Libération National, the Algerian nationalist movement that fought against French colonial rule during the French-Algerian War (1954-1962). His advocacy for violent decolonization inspired anticolonial fury within Nigerian intellectuals and soldiers alike, leading to the widely accepted notion that military violence could be both reparative and restorative.
Fanon, in many ways, gave these soldiers a language of revolution, but, as Daly points out, many of them found his socialist politics to be too radical for Nigerian society. To the military rulers, the ideal system of governance was ascetic, masculine, and heavily disciplined.
In many ways, these soldiers sought to craft Nigeria in their own image–an image of order and self-control, a society where civilians needed to be tamed.
To create this society, the soldiers relied heavily on criminal law and the law enforcement apparatus. To them, law served as a tool of social engineering, albeit one that didn’t always work in their favor. Despite setting up a plethora of friendly judges throughout the judicial system, occasional rulings would rub military officers the wrong way. Nonetheless, they were able to exercise their heavy influence over the legislative and judicial systems to set forth programs aimed to reduce the perceived disease of chaos that plagued the Nigerian population.
One of the major initiatives Daly highlighted was the infamous War Against Indiscipline (WAI). The WAI initiated a number of often draconian programs such as the mandate to queue in an orderly manner for buses. Those who refused to form a line would be promptly whipped or beaten by an officer. Other social reforms outside of WAI centered heavily around sacrifice and control, such as the requirements for women to dress modestly and for men to stay fit; in fact, exercise was routinely used as public punishment for unruly activity.
These behavioral and punitive measures were heavily inspired by the rigid and militaristic upbringing of these autocrats, which is precisely why they were so unpopular with civilians. Daly describes several misconceptions within these leaders’ political philosophy – their treatment of politics as binary, their desire for conformity, their misconstrued knowledge of what their people want – that ultimately led to the instability of their regimes.
Through a unique combination of warped decolonization rhetoric, militaristic attitudes, and malleable jurisprudence, Nigerian political practices of the late 20th century offer a glimpse at the shortcomings of discipline as a primary political ethos. The societies formed under the military heads of state were illiberal and, contrary to the title of this article, decidedly unfree.
*the images from this article were obtained from Dr. Daly’s 2021 presentation “How Soldiers Think” through the Franklin Humanities Institute.
Post by Vibhav Nandagiri, Class of 2025