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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

The Party and the Gun: Civilian Control of the Military in Nigeria vs. the United States

Despite its claim to be a stable democracy, Nigeria is a nation under constant threat of military coup. Since 1966 it has undergone four separate coups and subsequent military dictatorships. Compare this to the United States, a nation that has resisted military junta despite the near constant political jockeying within its institutions. To explain the continued fragility of Nigerian democracy and opposing resilience of the United States’, we must look toward the doctrine of civilian control of the military, which places ultimate responsibility for a nation’s military strategy in the hands of civilian officials rather than military leaders, a system that the United States has perfected where Nigeria has utterly failed.

United States

How has the United States perfected its civilian control of the military? In his book, Soldier and the State, Samuel P. Huntington lays out the blueprint for a successful relationship between civil and military leadership.

Huntington defines western military philosophy as “conservative realism…It exalts obedience as the highest virtue of military men. The military ethic is thus pessimistic, collectivist, historically inclined, power-oriented, nationalistic, militaristic, pacifist, and instrumentalist in its view of the military profession” (Huntington, 1964). The goal of civilian control doctrine is to meld this conservative realism with democratic institutions to create what Huntington calls objective civilian control.

To do this, Huntington places a large focus on the professionalism of the military, making the case that the modern American officer corps is a professional body composed of professional men. Huntington notes the correlation between professionalism in the military and conflict mitigation, stating, (the American military) “became a force for caution, sanity, and realism. The stronger the military voice, the less the likelihood of conflict” (Huntington, 1964). Huntington bases this argument on his definition of a “profession” being; expertise, responsibility, and corporateness. Which the American military holds in abundance.

Expertise is found throughout the officer corps and is grown from specialized skills such as the organization of strategic forces, the specialized schooling that officers undergo, and their administrative management. Responsibility in the officer corps in derived not only from the commitment to subordinates but also the commitment to the public, for whom they have a responsibility to protect. Corporateness is what defines and differentiates a profession from other professions. This is seen in the officer corps by their strict hierarchy, uniforms, and separation from civilian leadership. All of these qualities contribute to what Huntington calls the “professional ethic” within the American Military which binds the military and its professionals to the society they serve under.

The society plays a key role in why America is such a shining example of civilian control of the military. The constitution and liberal values were the defining factors during the founding of the United States, not the military action of the revolution. This means that the military was a device to be used in furthering the goals of the government. This is what Huntington calls objective civilian control, which is characterized by “civilian control derived from the transformation of the military into a tool of the state. The military’s role is to develop and apply the “ways and means” to implement ends, goals, and objectives defined by civilian political leadership” (Mandeles, 2009).

By tying the western military ideologies of conservative realism with American liberalism, the United States has successfully turned the military into an obedient tool to be used by the democratic institutions which are headed by civilian leadership. Ironically, America embodies the Mao Zedong quote, “Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party” (Mao, 1966).


Nigeria’s history is riddled with military juntas and coups. Nigerian military leadership has crossed over from military to civil a total of four times since 1966. This was due in large part to political disarray and corruption which drew no line between military and civil institutions. For example, the 1966 Nigerian Coup was a result of military officers deeming the political class corrupt. This complete lack of democratic values led to 29 years of military rule under various dictatorships.

In 1999, the military gave up power and a budding young democracy was born in Nigeria. But political culture does not change overnight. In fear of the past repeating itself, the political institutions have installed a series of coup-proofing measures to protect the regime. “Coup-proofing refers to regime survival strategies and tactics employed to prevent the military from seizing power. It entailed minimal civilian intervention in, or supervision of, the internal affairs of the military in exchange for regime security (Iheduru, nd) In short, the regime grants the military unbridled autonomy in exchange for the military committing itself not to the safety of the public, but to the safety of the regime. In Nigeria, coup-proofing entails “generous material improvements particularly for the officer corps and minimal oversight over budgetary appropriations for the security forces; as well as civilian leaders’ connivance or failure to sanction corrupt enrichment or mismanagement of those funds by the military hierarchy. This quid pro quo autonomy granted to the military by the civil leadership voids the hierarchy of a healthy objective civilian control of the military. Instead, Huntington calls this subjective civilian control.

Subjective civilian control gives “the military an independent role in setting national priorities. In subjective control, the military is one among other groups contending and competing for influence in setting policy and ranking national priorities”. (Iheduru, nd)

The state of civil-military relations within modern Nigeria is as degraded as it was in 1966. The military is free to operate as a state within the state and subsequently intervene in civil procedures whenever it sees fit. This leaves the door open for a powerful military to default on the quid pro quo coup-proofing arrangement and simply install a fifth military dictatorship in Nigeria.


The United States is a bastion of objective civilian control of the military, while Nigeria acts as a cautionary tale of subjective civilian control. Nigeria has placed itself in a precarious situation, if the nation wants to rebuild as a legitimate democracy, it must now overcome multiple institutional biases toward corruption both in the civil and the militaristic realms.

To do this, Nigerian civil leadership must first reform the political culture, making liberalism the cornerstone of the nation. Second, Nigeria must professionalize the military using western military values of conservative realism. Done correctly, this will submissively bind the military to the newly minted liberal society, creating a functioning and safe relationship between civil and military institutions.


Huntington, Samuel P. The Soldier and the State. Vintage, 1964.

Iheduru, Okey. “Political Culture and Military Professionalism in Nigeria.”, Arizona State University, n.d.,

Mandeles, Mark. “Review of Huntington, Soldier and the State.” Research Gate, May 2009,

Mao, Zedong. Problems of War and Strategy. Foreign Languages Press, 1966.



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