An Overview of the Evolution of the Nigerian Army

Following a naval bombardment on December 26 and 27, 1851, motivated by Britain’s desire for a share of regional trade, Lagos was brought under British gunboat influence.  The opportunity for Britain to do this was partially created by a dispute between elements of the Lagos traditional ruling House (Kosoko and Akitoye).  When Kosoko (who was allied with Portugal) refused to sign an anti-slave-trade treaty, he clashed with John Beecroft, British Consul for the Bights of Benin and Biafra, and Commodore Bruce, the naval task force commander.  Kosoko’s rival, Akitoye was installed as Oba of Lagos.  He quickly signed the treaty.

But it was not until 1861, following a gradual erosion of the powers of the Oba, that Lagos formally became a colony and was the first part of “Nigeria” to be incorporated into the British Empire, courtesy of an agreement signed under duress by Dosunmu, Akitoye’s son. 

The Lagos Constabulary was formed in 1863 to police the colony, protect British traders, and handle some raids into the hinterland.  It was also nicknamed “Glover’s Hausas”.  It evolved into the Hausa Constabulary in 1865, the Lagos Constabulary in 1873, the Oil Rivers Irregulars in 1886 and the Niger Coast Constabulary (NCC) in 1891.

From May 12-15, 1892 a battalion of the NCC (which included some Ibadan soldiers) defeated a 7000 man Ijebu army in what (other than the Abeokuta expedition of 1914) was the only case of full scale war during the British conquest of core Yoruba land.   The alleged offence was that the Ijebu, increasingly suspicious of British missionary and trading activities, had refused to discuss trade. 

However, despite the support of Ibadan against Ijebu, one company of the Niger Coast Constabulary, led by Captain D. W. Seward accompanied Captain R. L. Bower to Ibadan in late 1893.  Bower was posted as the “Resident and Political Officer in Charge”, allegedly to ensure that the peace treaty of 1886 which ended the Yoruba wars was kept, along with supplemental treaties between the British and Oyo in 1888 and 1893.

Supported by a field gun and one maxim machine gun, this is the force which later bombarded Oyo on November 12 1895, under the pretext of rescuing one Mr. Bakare whom the Alafin had castrated for having sex with one of the wives of the ruler of Iseyin.

Ekiti and Ijesha were secured by subterfuge and intimidation without a shot fired.

Following a series of boundary disputes and other irritants in the political relationship, in 1896, forces of the Emir Suleiman of Ilorin attacked the detachment of the Niger Coast Constabulary based at Odo Otin.   Before this, Suleiman’s predecessor, Emir Moma, had been overthrown in a violent coup by his Baloguns (Generals) for being too compromising with the Royal Niger Company and British administration in Lagos. After the Odo Otin incident further clashes occurred in January 1897 during which Balogun Adamu was killed by the Niger Coast Constabulary Force along with many casualties.  Finally on February 15 and 16, 1897 Ilorin was attacked and defeated. But resistance continued, necessitating repeated warnings from the resident British Commander (Lt. Col. James Willcocks) at Jebba.  After mediation by the Royal Niger Company, which was already in dispute with the British Government over control of troops, Ilorin agreed in 1898 for a small Royal Niger Company Constabulary force to be stationed inside the town.  This force was later taken over by Lugard.  Although no open war took place after this, small detachments had to sent back to Ilorin from time to time for counter-insurgency duties particularly when a substantial component of the Northern regiment left for Ghana to fight the Asante rebellion in late 1900.  Following a flag march and show of force, Ilorin was finally pacified in 1903.

The Niger Coast Constabulary was also busy elsewhere.

For example, Aboh (in Delta state) was heavily bombarded in 1882. On the other hand, in a variation of the theme, soldiers in support of the National African Company (which later became the Royal Niger Company) were used as allies by the Emir of Bida to put down a revolt against him by the Kede that year.  RNC troops got involved in acts of wanton barbarity against civilians by attacking Jibu (in Muri) first in 1884, then 1888 and 1891.  From August 25 to September 25, 1894, directed by Ralph Moor, the NCC conducted a difficult marine expedition against Nana of Itsekiri at Ebrohimi. Directed by Sir Claude McDonald, it conducted a “punitive” campaign against Brass from February 19 – 26, 1895, following an earlier successful attack on January 29 by the Brass resistance on Royal Niger Company facilities at Akassa.  Okrika, which had revolted in 1893, 1894 and 1895, felt the jackboot when in June 1896, Moor landed in a gun boat accompanied by 100 soldiers.   In the same year a ‘military patrol’ was sent to Effurun (near Warri) and (in violation of the Bida ‘treaty’ of March 1885) the Royal Niger Company established military posts at Jebba, Bayibo and Leaba. 

In 1897, tensions with Bida over violations of the 1885 treaty, led to the RNC-Bida war.  In 1896, the Emir of Bida had withdrawn all Nupes who were in service of the RNC as pilots along the Niger waterways.  The Nupes then captured a whole NCC unit along with its weapons.  In response, the NCC attacked, first securing Kabba, then taking on Bida itself from January 26-28, using an army of 507 African foot soldiers led by 32 European officers and NCOs.  (Emir Abubakar initially escaped to Kontagora, but returned to power in Bida in 1898).

A few weeks later, the largest single military operation was conducted by 1500 combatants in nine ships, also directed by Ralph Moor, resulting in the fall of Benin on February 18, allegedly in response to the ambush and killing, by soldiers of Benin, of James Phillips, but in reality designed to control trade with the hinterland.  

In 1898, military operations were launched by the Royal Niger Company during the first phase of the Ekumeku resistance in Anioma area.  A counter-insurgency campaign was also organized against Generals Ebohon and Ologbose of Benin.


In 1900, the Southern Nigeria Regiment, West African Frontier Force, was created after the amalgamation of NCC, 3rd Battalion West Africa Field Force, and Royal Niger Company Constabulary companies which had been raised in 1886 in Southern Nigeria.  In 1901, the Lagos Battalion, West African Frontier Force was established, followed in 1906 by the 2nd Battalion, Southern Nigeria Regiment, West African Frontier Force, and the 1st Battalion, Southern Nigeria Regiment, West African Frontier Force.   These forces were later amalgamated in 1914 with the Northern Nigeria Regiment, to form The Nigeria Regiment, West African Frontier Force. 

The Southern Nigeria Regiment was very heavily involved in internal security work, dispatching what were termed “military patrols” to many parts of southern Nigeria to psychologically subjugate its peoples and destroy their social authority systems and rituals.  Examples include Orokpo (1901), Aro expedition (1901-02), Uzere (1903), Etua (1904), Ezionum (1905), Ezza and Achara (March – May 1905), Iyede (1908), Ozoro (1910 and 1911), Oley (1910).

Repeated waves of further resistance by the Otu Okolobia of the Ekumeku movement of Anioma area were put down forcefully in 1902, 1904 and 1909. [Many years later another such insidious guerrilla movement was crushed in parts of present day Edo state].

Some additional detail about the Aro expedition is in order.  After several years of political and economic tension, crystallized by a fairly typical Aro “hit and run” attack on Obegu, a formal military operation was launched against Aro and the shrine of the Long Juju in November 1901. On November 28, Lt. Col. H. F.

Montanaro led 87 officers, 1,550 soldiers and 2100 carriers in four axes of advance from Oguta, Akwete, Unwuna and Itu on a counter-insurgency campaign.  The Long Juju shrine was blown up.  But as it turns out, the underlying presumption behind the Aro campaign was false.  It certainly did not succeed in securing control of Igbo territory in its entirety.  In the years that followed, repeated ‘military patrols’ had to be sent out to various parts of Igbo land.

In August 1914, as the First World War gathered pace, an Egba revolt was militarily crushed by the Nigeria Regiment, bringing the “independence” of the Egba to an effective end.   

Commandants of the Southern Nigeria Regiment:

From September 21st, 1896 Capt. C.H.P. Carter (Royal Scots)

From January 1st, 1900 Brevet Maj. C.H.P. Carter, CMG (Royal Scots)

From February 12, 1901 Brevet Lt-Col. A.F. Montanaro (RA)

From August 3rd, 1905   Brevet Maj. H.C. Moorhouse, DSO (RA)

From June 1st, 1908   Brevet Maj. H.M. Trenchard, DSO (RSF)

From September 25, 1911 Maj. F.H. Cunliffe (Middlesex Regt)


On August 26, 1897 the West African Field Force was created by Captain Frederick Lugard from a nucleus of the Royal Niger Constabulary which had itself been raised in 1886.  The 2nd and 3rd Battalions were formed in 1898.  By the end of 1899, the British government had abrogated the charter of the Royal Niger Company.  During a ceremonial parade of troops at Lokoja commanded by Lt. Colonels Morland, Lowry Cole and Willcocks, he formally proclaimed the protectorate of Northern Nigeria and sent copies of his proclamation to traditional rulers all over northern Nigeria.  Some of these rulers, like the Emirs of Bida, Muri, Keffi, Bauchi, Nassarawa and Gwandu, the Etsu Nupe and the Sultan of Sokoto, were not unfamiliar with European proclamations based on alleged “treaties”, but the tone of Lugard’s declaration, backed as it was by an armed force, was another matter entirely. 

Lugard had entered the service of the British East Africa Company in 1889 after a short military career and was sent to Uganda in 1890. After establishing British dominance there he returned to England in 1892 and played a key role in lobbying the British government to declare a protectorate over Uganda in 1894. It was after this that he was appointed British Commissioner for Northern Nigeria, charged with the task of curtailing French and German influence in the region.

In May 1900, the Northern Nigeria Regiment, West African Frontier Force was established by amalgamation of West African Field Force and Royal Niger Constabulary companies in Northern Nigeria.  Later that year 1200 troops of the regiment under Lt-Col. James Willcocks were sent to Ghana to partake in the Asante campaign.

Lugard established a military base at Wushishi under one Major O’Neil, an act that immediately precipitated confrontation with forces of Bida and Kontagora which cut off the Kaduna waterway in a logical response.

Lugard’s response was to justify further military action under the guise that he was fighting slavery. 

Thus, on January 31, 1901, Kontagora was attacked by a well armed British force of 10 officers, 3 NCOs and 322 soldiers led by Colonel Kemball, using a tactic of firing in volleys at peasants who were mostly armed with bows and arrows.  This was followed by an assault on Bida, led by Lugard himself, on February 19, 1901, driving Abubakar out for the second time.   Yola was overrun by force of arms in early September by a unit of 13 officers, 7 NCOs and 365 men led by Colonel Morland.  As was the case in other emirates, the British left a garrison there afterwards. Bauchi was occupied on February 16, 1902.

Then there followed a concerted military campaign to subjugate surrounding peoples.  Using a ‘scorched earth’ policy, bloody military expeditions were launched against minority groups like the Angass, Sura, Ningi, Wajah-Tangale, Dass, Ziggam, Jengre and others, all defenceless against the Maxim machine gun.

Some of these campaigns were not completed until 1907.

The Tiv were a special case.  Beginning with the “Telegraph Line” affair, repeated clashes occurred with the British in 1900 and 1901.  The first major British offensive against the Tiv in 1900 was commanded by Lt. Col. Lowry Cole.  Even after the large Tiv military expedition of March 1906 led by Lt.Col. Hasler (interrupted by the Satiru rebellion in Sokoto), the pacification of Tiv land did not really take place until about 1914.  Between 1907 and 1914, the British foreign office, worried about the repeated reports of bloodshed, changed tack and forbade large scale military (i.e. genocidal) action in Tiv land by local colonial officials.  Lugard’s successor as High Commissioner, Percy Girouard, along with Ruxton who was the Resident in Tiv territory, opted for peaceful penetration.

Zaria was captured in 1902, followed by the military subjugation of Kano and Sokoto in 1903.  In preparation for the Sokoto operations Lugard had pre-positioned troops at Argungu and Gwandu.  On March 15, 1903 25 Officers, 5 NCOs, 68 gunners, 656 soldiers, 400 carriers and 3 medical personnel, supported by 4 Maxim machine guns and four 75 mm field guns took on a lightly armed force of Sokoto defenders, 2000 on horseback and 4000 on foot.  The Sokoto force made the tactical error of choosing to fight in the open, leaving the fortifications of Sokoto behind and exposing themselves to murderous machine gun fire.  After less than two hours of fighting, characterized by repeated volleys of live fire from the British, the brave but outgunned defenders broke and ran. The flag of the caliphate was, however, recaptured from the British after that battle.

In pursuit of Sultan Attahiru I, the British were misled into attacking Burmi on May 13, 1903.  But he was not there.  Nevertheless a bloody battle ensued in which the ruler of Burmi (Musa) died.  As usual, the British used heavy firepower, firing well over 10,000 shots at peasants mostly armed with bows and arrows.

This did not deter the defenders and they gained additional reinforcements from surrounding communities, eventually forcing the British to retreat. 

This heroic stand by the defenders of Burmi led to a reorganization of the British offensive.  Troops from Sierra Leone, Gold Coast (now Ghana) and southern Nigeria were placed on standby for possible transfer to Northern Nigeria. 

Attahiru himself returned to Burmi to make his last stand at the second battle of Burmi.  Using a strategy similar to what was used in Benin, British forces deployed to isolate the town from potential reinforcements, before launching the final main attack on July 27, 1903, supported by 4 maxim machine guns and two 75mm field guns.  Attahiru beat back the first wave of attacks before falling to a bullet along with many of his key supporters.  Among other casualties, the British lost an officer, one Major Marsh.

The fall of Sokoto is generally regarded by historians as the final act in the military subjugation of Northern Nigeria.  But as I have noted above, acts of resistance continued for many years in other parts of the region.  Lugard deposed the Emir of Katsina in 1904 allegedly for his opposition to British rule.

The Northern Nigeria Regiment was later amalgamated with the Southern Nigeria Regiment, to form The Nigeria Regiment, West African Frontier Force on January 1st 1914.

Commandants of the Northern Nigeria Regiment

From August 26, 1897 Capt. Sir Frederick Dealtry Lugard, CB, DSO (Norfolk Regt)

From September 9, 1899 Lt-Col. James Willcocks (Leicester Regt)

From July 23, 1901      Brevet Col. F.L.N. Morland, CD, DSO (KRRC)

From September 24, 1904   Brevet Lt-Col. A.W.G.

Lowry-Cole, DSO (RWF)

From September 25, 1907   Brevet Lt-Col. J. Hasler (East Kent Regt)

From February 8, 1909   Maj. E.F. Strickland, DSO (Norfolk Regt)


The Nigeria Regiment, West African Frontier Force, was formed by amalgamation of Northern Nigeria Regiment, and Southern Nigeria Regiment on January 1st 1914.  In 1928 it became the Nigeria Regiment, within the Royal West African Frontier Force.  This structure persisted until it was renamed the Queen’s Own Nigeria Regiment, Royal West African Frontier Force in 1956.

On October 1st, 1960, when Nigeria became independent, it became the Royal Nigerian Army. Finally, in 1963, it became known simply as the Nigerian Army – when Nigeria became a republic.  An act of parliament codified this change. The first GOC of the (Royal) Nigerian Army was Major Welby-Everard. In 1965 the first indigenous Nigerian GOC was appointed.  He was Major General Johnson Thomas Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi.

During the first world war, nine (9) battalions of the regiment fought And distinguished themselves at Douala, Garoua and Banyo in the Cameroons from 1914-16 and at Behobeho and Nyangao in East Africa from 1916-18.  

During the second world war, units of the Nigeria regiment distinguished themselves at Juba, Goluin, Marda Pass, Babile Gap, Bisidimo, Colito, Omo, and Lechemti during the Abyssinian campaign in East Africa from 1940-41.  In Burma, from 1943-45, as part of the 81st and 82nd West African Divisions, the regiment fought in North Arakan, Kaladan, Mayu Valley, Myohaung, Arakan Beaches, Kangaw, Dalet and Tamandu.

It was a component of Chindit operations in 1944.

This is the list of its various Commanders:

From October 24,  1913  Brevet Col. C.H.P. Carter, CB, CMG (Royal Scots)

From September 6th, 1914 Maj. F.H. Cunliffe (Middlesex Regt)

From 1914-1918  acting commandants as required

From 1918-1920  vacant

From March 20th, 1920  Col. G.T. Mair, CMG, DSO

From 1924  Col. J.F. Badham, DSO

From 1926  Col. W.B. Greenwell, CMG, DSO

From 1929  Col. C.C. Norman, CMG, DSO

From 1931  Col. W.R. Meredith, CBD, DSO

From 1936  Brig. D.P. Dickinson, DSO, OBE, MC

From 1939  Brig. W.R. Smallwood, DSO, MC

From 1940-1946  vacant

From 1946  Maj-Gen. C.R.A. Swynerton, CB, DSO

From 1949  Maj-Gen. C.B. Fairbanks, CB, CBE

From 1952  Maj-Gen. J.H. Inglis, CB, CBE

From 1956-1960  Maj-Gen. K.G. Exham, CB, DSO Post-Independence – Major Generals Welby-Everard and Aguiyi-Ironsi (see text)


It is not possible to do justice to the complex history of the army that became the Nigerian Army in a few pages on a website.  What I hope I have achieved by this piece is to sensitive modern Nigerians to pay more attention to the wars of colonial conquest and give credit to whom credit is due – our ancestors who fought to resist the loss of our independence.  Young Nigerians should come away with a better understanding of the very violent manner in which Nigeria was created and the heritage of the use of force. As I have said before, the Armed Forces Remembrance Day also ought to honor our ancestors who resisted the British.

One would hope too that the modern Nigerian Military will study every one of the battles of colonial conquest in great detail, learn appropriate lessons and derive what can be derived and applied from the military doctrines of our ancestors.  The names of our traditional military heroes should be just as familiar to the modern Nigerian soldier as the names like Cromwell, Washington, Pershing, Montgomery, Wingate, Rommel, Manstein, Napoleon, Bismarck, Alexander, Hannibal etc..  Some aspects of modern Nigerian Military uniform ought to be taken from the uniforms of the great pre-colonial armies, rather than just parroting British, American and German uniforms.

Another good lesson is for the army of Modern Nigeria, in its quest for legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens, to distance itself from some of the barbaric methods of the colonial army that gave birth to it. 

Lastly, at a time of increasing insecurity and repeated ethnic clashes, battles and wars, one cannot but come to better understand what it is that binds us as a country – the unfortunate but common history of British conquest. The details of how we lost our independence the first time around contain many pointers that should help us avoid repeating history.

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