Democracy or Dictatorship? The Most Comprehensive Explanation Ever


In Modern times, two forms of government are common. These are democracy and dictatorship.

In a dictatorship, the institutions of the state are defective, stifled and lack full capacities, because they are ultimately controlled by one person, the dictator, who appoints people who do his will, right or wrong, he rules by decrees without a regular parliament. The people, who are his subjects are bound by his desires, inarticulate and powerless. Military rule is a form of dictatorship and the doctrine of  supremacy of decrees also reigns supreme.

On the other hand, Democracy has been defined as “The government of the people, by the people and for the people”. What can be deduced from this is that, democracy is rule by civilians, usually elected people. Democracy is rule by dialogue and persuasion and democracy embraces fundamental rights, legal and constitutional requirements.

Brief History

It is no news that Nigeria has had her own fair share of Military rule. The coup  of 14th January 1966 where, soldiers of mostly Igbo extraction led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, eradicated the uppermost echelon of politicians from the Northern and Western provinces. This and other factors effectively led to the Fall of the Republican Government.

Although Ironsi, an Igbo, was purportedly slated for assassination, he effectively took control of Lagos, the Federal Capital Territory. The President, also an Igbo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, refusing to intervene and insure the continuity of civilian rule. Ironsi effectively at Gun point forced the remaining members of Balewa’s Government to resign. He then made the Senate president Nwafor Orizu, another Igbo who was serving as acting president in Azikiwe’s absence, to officially surrender power to him, staging a coup of his own and ending the First Nigerian Republic.

Military Coup

The Military takes over government through Military coup, which may be bloody like the “Igbo coup” or bloodless like the takeover of power by Sani Abacha from Ernest Shonekan.

The original justification for military rule in Nigeria arose from the claim that the country’s civil politics were unruly and required a dose of military discipline and orderliness.

From Major General Aguiyi Ironsi to General Abdulsalam Abubakar, Military rule that stretched for most of Nigeria’s post-colonial period has had tremendous impact on the Nigerian polity.

The worst managed area under the military was, perhaps, the Nigerian economy which is still in the doldrums. The military left a heritage of many broken and unfulfilled promises. After thirty years of its rule; corruption, injustice, religious and ethnic intolerance, poverty and misery still abound indicating that, except in very few areas, Military rule largely failed and stunted the growth of a green Nigeria.

What exactly is Military rule?

Mao Tse Tung once remarked that power emanates from the barrel of a gun. Essentially, the Military rule simply means Military law.

Military rule is the extension of military law from military establishments over the whole country and civillian population.

The military law means prevalence of martial law, emergency rule and autocracy as opposed to civil law. Decrees become the supreme law of the land. As Obafemi Awolowo in his book, Voice of Wisdom said : “Under Military rule, the rule of law is not totally supressed but largely in abeyance“.

It has been argued that Civilian rule is slow, and has the appearance of inefficiency and Military rule is more efficient, but it is unarguable that Civilian rule is better and more desirable than military rule and its advantages grossly outweigh those of Military rule. Illustrations abound:

  1. Military rule has no respect for The rule of law: The rule of law means observance and supremacy of civil laws. it entails Equality before the law; as Thomas Fuller once stated; “Be ye never so high, the law is above you”. It is also means action according to law, independence of the judiciary and respect for the decisions, orders and processes of courts. It is the rule of peace and justice because where there is justice, there will be peace and progress. The three go in a continuous beautiful circle and once that circle breaks, there is no liberty.Rule of law means Government according to civil law and practice of a constitutional and democratic system of government.In a civilian, democratically elected government, there is respect for the rule of law and supremacy of the constitution.However, in a Military regime, the constitution is not supreme, some parts of the constitution are modified if not repelled. For example Chapter IV of the constitution which deals with human rights is modified.

    In the Buhari regime, Decree 20 which took effect retroactively led to the death of B. Ogedengbe, Bartholomew Owoh and Lawal Ojuolape even though the offence did not constitute a crime when they committed it.
    This is contrary to the constitution which in Section 36(8) states than no person shall be guilty of an offence that did not at the time it took place, constitute such an offence. These innocent men lost their lives due to the evils of Military rule.

    Additionally, Decree No. 45, 1968 validated all orders made under any enactment, ousted the jurisdiction of the Court from questioning the validity of any Decree; excluded the application of fundamental human right provisions in the Constitution and abated all pending proceedings in respect of any Decree.

    The use of ouster clauses prevented persons aggrieved by the actions of a military government from seeking redress in the courts. By barring access to the courts, the military became a totalitarian government.

    In a seminal work on ouster clauses, Chief Gani Fawehinmi identifies ‘several garbs’ in which ouster clauses appear. These include  retrospective laws made to protect unconstitutional laws; laws enacted to cover up the failure of leaders to hold consultation or obtain statutory consent, advice or approval required by the legislature; laws to cover up failure to comply with fundamental rights; laws to prevent the use of general process of courts; laws to stop court proceedings and nullify court orders; and laws to prevent the court from committing erring public officers for criminal contempt.

  1. In a Civilian regime, There is respect for human rights: Human rights are the freedoms, liberties, immunities or benefits which according to natural law, modern values and international law, all human beings are entitled to enjoy as a matter of right in the society in which they live. Fundamental human rights are entrenched in our constitution. According to Kayode Eso; the nature of a fundamental right, is that which stands above the ordinary laws of the land and which in fact is antecedent to the political society itself. it is a primary condition to a civilised existence.It can be therefore deduced that where fundamental human rights cease to exist, civilization comes to a halt and barbarism reigns supreme. and this, is the very meaning of Military dictatorship.The Military have no respect for human rights, this is showcased in the fact that many sections of Chapter IV of our constitution which deals with human rights are suspended.

    Press freedom is bridled and journalists live under fear of telling the truth. We have not forgotten Dele Giwa, the Journalist who was murdered in cold blood by a letter bomb for speaking out against the Military government.

    Similarly, Alhaji Shuguba was wrongly deported and this is an infringement on his right to freedom of movement.

    Gross inhuman and unthinkable acts are committed by the Military and no one is brave enough to say anything, for as Dictator; Idi Amin once said; “Freedom of speech, that you have, but freedom after speech… that I cannot guarantee“.

  2. In a civilian regime, there is usually separation of powers among the three arms of government: This is the executive, the legislative and the judicial arms of government. This will encourage checks and balances and ensures transparency, responsibility and accountability.

    It is however unfortunate to note that this is the direct opposite in the case of Military regimes, where the legislative and executive arms are fused and even the judiciary which is supposed to be the bulwark of the liberty of the ordinary man is not really independent.

    Where this is the case, in the words of Baron De Montesquieu; “Political liberty is to be found only when there is no abuse of power. Experience shows that every man invested with power will abuse it by carrying it as far as it will go.. To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the nature of things that one power should be a check on another… When the legislature, executive and judicial powers are united in the same person or body.. There can be no liberty“.

  1. Civilian rule invites inputs, criticisms and the functioning of a free press and free debate among subordinates and the people: A civil administration elicits support and co-operation and it is also adaptable to easy change and modification. The Civil administration operates on a voluntary basis and thereby elicits loyalty and devotion, which no military force can instil. Military government operates a chain of command and there is little individual initiative at the bottom.

    The Military operates by order that allows little or no deviation. Military regime is a process, procedure or system with expertise; adapted and rooted in war and combat.It is a system rooted in martial law and force. It is a system that demands obedience always and in its purest form leaves no room for debate or opposition from “bloody civilians”.

  2. In a Civilian regime, the mandate of a constitutional and democratic government to rule and its tenure of office is usually stipulated in the constitution or in a law and its assumption of office or continuation in power is determined by the electorate through votes during elections.

    A dictatorship usually does not have a constitutional or legal mandate to rule and its tenure of office is not owed to the people. It either determines its own tenure or such tenure is determined by civil action of the people or military coup as may be.

    Examples exist in the likes of Libyan President; Muhammad Gadhafi who ruled over Libya for over thirty years in government characterized by denial of human rights, arbitrary use of power and tyranny.Furthermore, a constitutional government is usually transparent, responsible and accountable to the people who may renew its mandate to rule at elections.


By considering the features and the differences between the two concepts it can be established that Civilian rule is greater than  Military rule because with the transcendental, unbridled possession of power by a man or group, abuse is imminent. Although in Military rule, it provides for a more expedient and effective attainment of national goals and objectives, the effect would be costly for the structure of the political and legal order. Where the rule of law does not exist, society starts to die.




  1. Time Magazine “Nigeria” : The men of Sandhurst.
  2. “Operation Aure”.
  3. See G. Fawehinmi ‘Ouster of court’s jurisdiction by statutes’ in E. Smaranda Olarinde et al (eds) contemporary issues in the Nigerian Legal system(1997) 67.
  4. Chief FRA Williams quoted in Kayode Eso; The impact of Military rule on the judicial system.
  5. M. Ese; (1999) Administrative law. Ikeja: Princeton Publishing Co.


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