The New York Times report of March 13, 1976 put the story of Nigeria’s perennial human sacrifices by the bloodthirsty groove of coup-plotting most startlingly. The day before, newly appointed Chief of Defense Staff, Brigadier Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, had announced that former Defense Minister, Major General Iliya Bisalla and 29 others, had been executed by the seaside suburb of Victoria Island. This bar beach was jam-packed with thousands of onlookers who had come to watch the execution. The 30 were killed for their roles in the assassination of military Head of State, Murtala Ramat Mohammed, alongside his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Akintunde Akinsehinwa. While announcing the execution, Yar’Adua also called on Britain to extradite ousted Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, then student of Political Science at Warwick University in England, to answer charges of co-plotting the coup. Gowon, by Col Buka Suka Dimka’s confession, had invited him to London when he (Dimka) traveled to Madrid, Spain on official assignment and asked him to contact Bisalla for execution of the coup. Of the 125 people arrested, 40 were released and 32, including Bisalla, were sentenced to death. This included Abdulkarim Zakari, a radio journalist, said to be a relative of Victoria, General Gowon’s wife. Dimka, who also participated in the earlier counter-coup of July, 1966 which topped General Aguiyi Ironsi, was as at this time still being interrogated to further implicate Gowon. He was later publicly executed at the Lagos Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison, on 15 May 1976.
Bisalla’s inclusion among the coup plotters had sent shock waves round the country. Highly respected, ex-commander of an infantry division during the civil war, a man who distinguished himself as military commander, as well as in postwar conciliation efforts, and about the oldest General of the lot, when Bisalla was arrested, upon Dimka’s canary-like confession, Bisalla was reported to have soliloquized, (in my paraphrase) “how can these young boys end one’s military career like this!” Huge and tall, Bisalla was dressed in a cream-coloured safari dress as he walked down to the stakes. His career was not the only thing that was ended. Bullets ended his life as well.
Forty five years after, “coup,” a word thought to have been consigned to the realm of academic discourses and as statistical analyses of a past epidemic, is rearing its ugly head again. The Nigerian presidency and the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) resurrected its ghost. Elder statesman, Robert Clark, SAN, initially belled the cat by amplifying what hitherto were hushed tones on Nigerian streets. Speaking on a Channels Television programme recently, he had said that, in view of the near total collapse of Nigeria in the hands of President Muhammadu Buhari, he should hand over the administration of Nigeria to the military. “There is no gainsaying that Nigeria is on the way to collapse. Nigeria has to be changed… We want a state of emergency to be created in Nigeria today… and allow a military governance over (the) states,” he said.
Onyema Nwachukwu, Brigadier-General and Acting Director Defence Information, in a May 3, 2021 press release, would however have none of this doomsday prophesy. Warning politicians and soldiers against any collusion to foist another military coup on Nigeria, Nwachukwu said that, canvassing coup was an “anti-democratic utterance and position,” and “warn(ed) misguided politicians who nurse the inordinate ambition to rule this country outside the ballot box to banish such thoughts as the military under the current leadership remain resolute in the defence of Nigeria’s democracy and its growth,” while finally reminding “all military personnel that it is treasonable to even contemplate this illegality” as “the full wrath of the law will be brought to bear on any personnel found to collude with people having such agenda.”
If anybody thought that the idea of a military coup was the figment of the imagination of the above two actors, the Nigerian presidency also jumped into the same coup ocean. The frenzy, even from government, on coup and possibility of a coup became glaring and palpable. On Tuesday last week, Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, alleged that some “disgruntled religious and past political leaders” were plotting to convene what he called “an illegal National Conference” and their ultimate aim was to pass a vote of no confidence on Buhari, leading to overthrowing his government.
Why would coup and coup discourses dominate political analyses of the chaotic Nigerian governance space at the moment? Why would a Buhari, who rode to power in 2015 in a galaxy of a talisman-like public acceptance, become, six years after, this disreputable and worthless in the estimation of same Nigerian people? Is the sociopolitical discontent and instability in Nigeria so hopeless that a military coup should seethe below the surface as solution? Hopelessness of a Nigeria by May 2023 when Buhari is expected to hand over power further sinks patriots into a state of depression.
Until the 1990s when democratic waves began to sweep over Africa, the continent had been a hotbed and volatile region of the pestilence of military coups. Between January 1956 and December 2001, there were over 200 coups in 48 independent Sub-Saharan African states, including Nigeria. Many others have since taken place, 21 years after. Whether in the 80 successful coups d’etat that took place during this period of 45 years interval, the 108 failed attempts and 139 reported coup attempts, the pestilence of coup in Africa during this period cannot be overemphasized.
In virtually all the countries on the continent where coup took place, as Salvationist as they portended to be, the military have often left such countries worse than they met them. Either through their inordinate ambition to transmute into civilian dictatorship, sit-tightism or recourse to draconian rule, the barrel of a gun defined a huge chunk of African (mis)governance. Heloise Ruth First, South African scholar and anti-apartheid activist, wrote about this in a provocative book which she entitled The Barrel of a Gun. In the book, she said that coup had always left Africa shattered and underdeveloped. Perhaps as recompense for her revelations and activism, First was parcel-bombed by assassins on August 17, 1982 in Maputo, her exile country of Mozambique, by persons later discovered to be South African police.
Over the years, it has become clear that the military intervenes in political affairs in the region mainly for reasons not outside the locus of personal greed. They have been found to be hugely motivated by the “rents” and juices they always extract from gaining power and control of the state. Indeed, experiences of military destruction of Africa in the last 64 years have birthed that provocative cliché that the worst civilian government is better than the best military government.
In Nigeria, for instance, the 1966 military coup that brought Aguiyi-Ironsi and his wayfarer military colleagues into government truncated the series of development witnessed in all the three regions. It also collapsed the federal system of government that was the best answer to the Nigerian plural question, setting the country on a path of implosion and destruction that is here already. Soldiers barely off mental diapers but who had acquired fat epaulettes on account of their involvement in coup-plots, suddenly took over the administration of Nigeria, many of them in their 20s and 30s.
Other than “about turn!” “salute!” and “stand at ease!,” many of the soldier-rulers didn’t have understanding of how a country as diverse and multi-ethnic like Nigeria could be managed. They had nil understanding of economics and society as well and thus dragged Nigeria to their personal mental prostrate levels. In defence of ego, soldiers took Nigeria to a very costly war and could not manage the huge petro-dollars that accrued to the country. That was why Yakubu Gowon, on a visit to the Bahamas, could announce that Nigeria was so stupendously wealthy that she didn’t know what to do with her wealth. Nigeria was so audaciously profligate that she paid salaries of workers in some African countries, pumped billions into liberation movements in Africa and as recent as in the 1990s, was playing Father Christmas roles in Liberia, Sierra Leone and some other countries. In the process, Nigeria failed to build a tomorrow for generations yet to come. Soldiers of fortune that the military conquistadors proved overtime to be, they enriched selves and cronies, with many of them still surviving today being billionaires, owning wealth as stupendous as King Solomon’s concubines.
There is virtually no country on the continent that has not witnessed the chaos of military putsch, except South Africa which is buoyed by its very strong institutions and strong adherence to democratic ethos. The worst of them is Burkina Faso, which has never witnessed any peaceful transition of political power since its independence. Till date, that country, made famous by Thomas Sankara and his quixotic killing by his friend, Blaise Compaore, has witnessed the highest coup attempts on the continent, with ten coups and attempted putsches.
The question to ask is, why have unconstitutional hijacks of democratic governments in Africa become pastimes of the military? What can be said to be the real sociopolitical conditions of Africa that nurture this seedbed of hijacks of power? While some experts say that the prevalence of coups in Africa cannot be divorced from civilian incompetent leadership and corruption, others put it at the doorsteps of dictatorial regimes, mismanagement of the economy and desire to be seen as Messiahs by the military class. Coups have always followed this modus operandi: A group of disgruntled lower-cadre officers amplify their dissent and are later joined by senior ones. Within a few days, they take over the system, causing chaos, killings and in the melee, forcing the civilian government to step down.
Narratives of corruption today under Muhammadu Buhari are worse than “why we struck,” the odyssey of Chukwuma Nzeogwu’s January 15, 1966 hijack. Insecurity and killing of northerners and southerners are far worse today under a man who was elected based on misplaced bravura expected of a retired military General, than killings of Northern politicians and officers adduced by Gowon and his triumvirates as reason why the coupists of July 29, 1966 struck. The coup had begun as mutiny roughly midnight and then became a full-blown coup.
Colonel Dimka must have sought forgiveness from General Murtala Muhammed for killing that mercurial soldier, based on seeing what is happening now from the land of the dead. Speaking in a national broadcast after the assassination of Muhammed, Dimka had said that the widespread orgy of “corruption, indecision, arrest and detention without trial, weakness on the part of Mohammed and maladministration in general” were reasons why he overthrew the Kano-born Murtala’s government. In the announcement of execution by Yar’Adua, he also alleged that the coup plotters’ grouse was the planned cuts in the armed forces. The people slated for sack from the army were to be absorbed in the police, customs, and prison services. Today, the quantum of such vices under Buhari cannot be matched by those under Mohammed.
Apart from the schism between him as Commanding Officer of the 3rd Division when he stiff-neckedly cut off fuel and food supplies to Nigeria’s neighbor, Chad and how his military unit shelled Chadian soldiers off 50 kilometers radius into their country, actions which provoked the ire of President Shehu Shagari, Buhari and his allies claimed they ousted the Turakin Sokoto due to the widespread corruption of the civilian class. With benefit of hindsight, how is the quantity of corruption under Buhari now? Paradoxically, then Major General Ibrahim Babangida, on August 27 1985, had claimed that he overthrew Buhari because, “Regrettably, it turned out that Major General Muhammadu Buhari was too rigid and uncompromising in his attitudes to issues of national significance.” Babangida also claimed that, “efforts to make (Buhari) understand that a diverse polity like Nigeria required recognition and appreciation of differences in both cultural and individual perceptions, only served to aggravate these attitudes.” Buhari has since morphed from being rigid into an ethnic jingoist, enabler of terrorism and supervisor of a comatose economy.
The Major General Mamman Jiya Vatsa December 1985 coup against Babangida was said to have cited worsening situation among military personnel, among other reasons, for its attempted coup. It was allegedly financed by Vatsa through a decoy of a farming loan granted to Lt. Col Musa Bitiyong. The April 1990 coup that followed, masterminded by General Gideon Orka, claimed that the Hausa-Fulani had constituted themselves into the lord of Nigeria. The last known military overthrow of a civilian government in Nigeria was the palace coup led by General Sani Abacha and which took away the interim administration of Ernest Shonekan on November 17, 1993. It based its strike, among others, on the lack of legitimacy of the interim government.
If we then juxtapose all those alibi for truncating governments with the current state of affairs under President Buhari, will one say that Nigeria ripe for a coup, is due for a coup or shying away from its due worth of a coup? Unless our aim is to deceive one another, but for the fact that coups have lost their relevance in the world and military hijacks have proven to be incapable of solving democratic problems, the current state of hopelessness in Nigeria has shown that Nigeria is ten times ripe for a coup. Deliberately or through his manifest incompetence, President Buhari has driven Nigeria to the brinks of war. Reasons adduced for all the coups in Nigeria since 1960 pale into insignificance when compared to the abyss that Buhari has taken Nigeria. Killings under his watch will rank side by side killings during the civil war, with the Buhari government advertising ineptitude and incompetence like a sore thumb. Even under Abacha, there was never this level of general consensus that Nigerians are being ruled by Mephistopheles himself.
How the DHQ, DSS and even the Buhari government itself will know the completely sunken worth of this government is for them to sample opinions on the streets. The question they should ask is, if the military takes over from Buhari today – God forbid – what will be the general mood of Nigerians? It was only under Abacha that a leader’s personal and governmental expiration elicited widespread jubilation in Nigerian history. I am sure the organizations above will not be shocked as they should all know the expected outcome of their projected opinion survey.
With all the above however, there is still no alternative to civilian rule. As horrible, close-to-breaking-point as Nigeria has become, what the situation should do is to get us all to resolve never to have a Buhari kind in government again. A military government will only give us pyrrhic victory over one of the most infernal civilian rules in the history of Nigeria, only for the military coupists to best him in maladministration not long after.