Removal of the 17 officers - including nine brigadiers, six colonels, one major and a captain - marked a decisive blow in General Abacha's power struggle with General Babangida, the man with whom he mounted two coups d'etat in 1983 and 1985 but whom he helped to force from office last August. It was also an attempt to soothe tempers among junior officers, who blame the Babangida regime, in which General Abacha served as defence minister for eight years, for destroying the armed forces' public image and dragging down their morale and fighting readiness to 10-year lows.
The announcement of the 33- strong cabinet on Saturday was a balancing act to cool rising nationalistic tension in a country of 90 million people and 250 ethnic groups. The new cabinet contains several supporters of Chief Moshood Abiola, winner of the 12 June presidential elections cancelled by General Babangida, and four members of Chief Ernest Shonekan's interim administration that was overthrown by General Abacha on 17 November.
The naming of Chief Abiola's running-mate, Baba Gana Kingibe, as Foreign Minister, the retention of Don Itiebet as Petroleum Minister, and the return of Kalu Idika Kalu as Finance Minister, were expected to please Western creditor nations, which have criticised the Abacha coup and urged Nigeria to curb official corruption and mismanagement.
The cabinet, which is known as the Federal Executive Council, remains subordinate to the military- dominated Provisional Ruling Council. General Abacha, from the northern city of Kano, heads the council. The choice of his deputy, Lieutenant-General Odalipo Diya, a Yoruba Christian, was a gesture towards Chief Abiola's kinsmen in south-western Nigeria, where the cancellation of the 12 June elections sparked talk of secession.
General Abacha has portrayed his new government as an alliance of tough military officers and the cream of Nigeria's political elite attempting to halt economic collapse and the slide towards ethnic conflict.
The biggest names in the list of army officers forced to retire from today were: Brigadier Halilu Akilu, former director of military intelligence and the National Intelligence Agency; Brigadier Raji Rasaki, the ex-governor of Lagos state; and Brigadier John Shagaya, former commander of the First Division in Kaduna.
Other Babangida supporters, such as Brigadier David Mark, Brigadier Adetunji Olurin and Lieutenant-Colonel Sambo Dasuki - who is the son of the powerful Islamic leader and Sultan of Sokoto, Ibrahim Dasuki - were also swept aside. Gone too was the first commander of the controversial National Guard, Colonel Abdulmumuni Aminu.