By: Abraham Mohale, Junior Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History



A military government or military rule is a political regime in which the military as an organization holds a preponderance of power. The term ‘military rule’ as used is synonymous with ‘military regime’ and refers to a subtype of authoritarian regime. For most of human history attaching military to rule would have been redundant, because almost all political regimes in large scale societies of the premodern period fused military, religious, economic, and monarchical power. The separation of military and civilian powers and the development of professional bureaucratic armed forces in European states in the 18th and 19th centuries gave birth to the contemporary understanding of military rule.


Figure 1. Photograph of the military government of Chile (1810-1979) – Junta militar de chile (colorizado)
(Source: Military dictatorship-Wikipedia files).


A military dictatorship is a type of rule in which power is held by one or more military officers, acting on behalf of the military. Military dictatorships are mostly led by a single military dictator, known as a strongman or by a council of military officers known as a military junta. They are most often formed by military coups or the empowerment of military through popular uprising in times of domestic unrest or instability. The military nominally seeks power to restore order or fight corruption, but the personal motivations of military officers may include greater funding for the military or decrease in civilian control of the military. The term junta means a meeting, or a committee and it originated from the national or local junta organized by the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808. The balance of power in the military dictatorship depends on the dictator’s ability to maintain the approval of the military through concessions and appeasement while using force to repress opposition. Military strongmen may seek to consolidate power independently of the military, effectively creating personalist dictatorships. One of the problems of a military dictatorship is that military dictators are under constant threat of removal by fellow military officers, and countercoups are common against military regimes that fail to maintain support.

Politicization of the military is often willing to give power voluntarily rather than have the military destabilized. Military dictators are often less involved in political affairs than other regimes; their policies are mainly directed towards benefiting the military as an institution. Military rule is maintained by force more so than in other regimes, though military dictators often create separate security forces to maintain political control independently from the military. This is a classical difference between the military rule and insurgency or an informal group of militants that attempt to seize power in a government. When insurgents form a dictatorship, they are not constrained by formal military procedures, but their lack of organization can increase the likelihood of opposing factions developing within the group. Insurgencies sometimes grant military titles to their leaders, but they do not adopt a structure of a true military. Regimes created by insurgencies may or may not be recognized as military dictatorships. The military’s purpose in each may have an effect when it attempts to seize power. When international opponents prompt stronger national defence, a military is more likely to comply with the civilian government as the civilian government is likely to provide for the military.


Characteristics of a military government

In military rule or a military government all rules and decisions are dictated to the people, and all the administration is done by decrees. Military governments are undemocratic by nature.

Military rules give rise to dictatorships because of excess power wield by military governors, or leaders. A military dictatorship involves one man dictating what happens to everyone under their rule, due to excess power being wielded by the head of state or military junta.

Military governments rule by decrees instead of following a constitutional order. A military administration is characterized by absence of the rule of law, equality before the law and fundamental human rights.

In a military administration the officials are not elected as in a democratic system of government. They are not elected as such and are not representative of the people; this means in a military rule, there is no existence of political parties. Absence of national democratic elections is one of the main features when characterizing military governments.

The abuse of human natural rights is common within military governments. Brutality, torture and violation of human rights are some of the characteristics of a military rule. The armies are known by use of force and obedience of the last order is compulsory.

Most military dictatorships are formed after a coup d’état. This forceful takeover of governments take place when there is a perceived threat to the military or its interests as an institution, including cuts to military funding or civilian interference in the military affairs. Military officers have a vested interest in having increased pay and benefits while preventing political intervention in their promotions and military affairs.

One ambiguous fact is that not all military governments are dictatorships, for in many cases a civilian dictator will take power following a coup and relegate military officers. In some cases, the military may be invested with dictatorial powers during a popular uprising. The military is mostly well equipped to seek and maintain political power, as it is more modernized than other institutions with access to resources and training not available to civilian leaders.

One of the common characteristics of a military government is when they take over civilian administrations, they make a norm of trying former politicians or former leaders, especially the ones they perceived to be corrupt with the aim to recover all looted funds.

The role of military governments in Africa and South America

The role of military governments especially using the previous administration of Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and South American countries as a model is interesting, because they give a clear definition and understanding of how this institution operates. Nation building as a concept can be viewed as conscious efforts by governments, agencies, institutions, and infrastructural development of a nation. In Nigeria, the discussion on nation building has been on the front burner since the country’s independence in 1960. Sequel to the above, several institutional frameworks have been put in place by successive Nigerian governments to fast-track the process of nation building in the country. Some of these government and non-government institutions have recorded varied degrees of success, yet others have been a colossal failure. The primary responsibility of the military anywhere in the world is to defend a country against any external interference. Nigeria’s political history has witnessed a sharp deviation of the military from its constitutional duty to embark on a voyage into Nigeria’s political arena, leading to several coups and countercoups between 1966-1999 (Ehimatie, 2018). That is why Nigeria has experienced military rule for about twenty-nine years out of her fifty-eight years of independence. This development has generated many controversies and criticism of the military juntas, as being responsible for the avalanche of Nigeria’s socio-political and economic problems. Thus, Kwame Nkrumah (1965) remarks “the duty of the armed forces is to defend and support the civilian governments and not to overthrow it. It is not the duty of the army to rule or govern, because it has no political mandate”. Despite the wide condemnations, Nigeria’s military had contributed much to nation building.
The legacy of military governments is a complicated issue. It is easy and generally correct to label South American military governments as dictatorships, dictaduras in Spanish, or ditadura in Portuguese. Above all these military officers came to power by overthrowing civilian governments or fellow military governments. In Chile, Augusto Pinochet (ruled from 1973-1990) is still remembered positively by many Chileans, because he brought security, improved the economy, and industrialised the country. Similarly in Argentina the Partido Justicialista is the heir of the Partido Peronista who carried out significant infrastructure projects, including building schools, highway systems – even the national football stadium. Unmistakably all this was done by military juntas, and they were leading military governments.


Figure 2. Olusegun Obasanjo, former Nigeria’s military ruler and civilian president.
(Source: Internet:

Chief Olusegun Obasanjo is a Nigerian retired military officer and a statesman who served as Nigeria’s head of state from 1976 to1979 as a military ruler and later as its civilian president from 1999 to 2007. In 1975, a military coup established a junta with Obasanjo as part of its triumvirate. After the triumvirate’s leader, Murtala Muhammed was assassinated the following year, the supreme military council appointed Obasanjo as the head of state. Continuing Murtala’s policies, Obasanjo oversaw budgetary cutbacks and expansion in access to free education. Increasingly aligning Nigeria with the United States of America (USA). He also emphasised support for groups opposing white minority rule in Southern Africa. Committed to restoring democracy, Obasanjo oversaw the 1979 election, after which he handed over control of Nigeria to the newly elected civilian president Shehu Shagari. He then retired and came back to politics in 1988 after he was released from prison. He was imprisoned for his political activism and protests against the former military administration of Sani Abach. After Sani Abacha’s death, the then Nigeria military ruler, Obasanjo, entered electoral politics and became the PDP candidate for the 1999 presidential election, which he won comfortably. As president, he depoliticised the military and both expanded the police and mobilised the army to combat widespread ethnic, religious, and secessionist violence. Mr Obasanjo has played a pivotal role in the regeneration and repositioning of the African Union, including helping to establish the new partnership for the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), designed to promote democracy and good governance. He has consistently supported the deepening and widening of regional cooperation through the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the Co-prosperity Alliance Zone (COPAZ) incorporating Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo. He has also served as chairman of the group of 77, chairman of the Commonwealth heads of Government meeting, and chairman of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development’s (NEPAD) heads of state and government implementation committee. Mr Obasanjo has also been involved in international mediation efforts in Angola, Burundi, Namibia, Mozambique and South Africa. In 2008, the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki Moon, appointed Obasanjo as his special envoy to the Great Lakes region, where he has played an integral part in mediation efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is a story of a revolutionary selfless militant, a triumvirate junta leader, a self-made politician who used military rule to democratise his native land, a man who crafted himself as a civilian, a regional and international mediator. A man who understood the role of military in civilian democratic politics.



Military governments, “dictatorships” and “military dictatorships” tend to be used as interchangeable with synonyms. There is an obvious logic for this, as military governments generally governed with an iron fist, cracked down on civilian opposition movements and individuals, restricted freedom of expression, cancelled elections or fixed them to remain in power, and carried out gross human rights violations. History also tells us military governments in some countries have been used as instruments of social cohesion, nation building, and economic and political development. Writing this article as a military scientist and analyst, I whole heartedly agree with most scholars that despite good intentions of some military juntas, military rule is the most inhumane, brutal, and most barbaric form of government.


Onyekachukwu, E.P. (2019) “title Appraising the role of Military Governments towards Nation Building in Africa: A Focus on Murtala-Obasanjo Administration in Nigeria, vol 3(1), pp. 103-155. Journal of Nation-building& Policy studies.

Internet Source, Characteristics of Military Government, accessed (12 May 2023), available at https: //www.walvben.Com

Wilder, A.S. (2022) (title) South American’s military governments during the Cold War: a discussion of inter-state warfare, Research article.

Internet Source, (title) Olusengun Obasanjo, Wikipedia/ https:// en. m.

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