Sunday, May 9, 2021 1:45 am
The New York Times report of March 13, 1976 put the story of Nigeria’s perennial human sacrifices by the bloodthirsty grove of coup-plotting most startlingly. The day before, newly appointed Chief of Defense Staff, Brigadier Musa Yar’Adua, had announced that former Defense Minister, Major General Iliya D. Bisalla and 29 others, had been executed by the seaside suburb of Victoria Island. The bar beach execution ground was jam-packed with thousands of onlookers who had come to watch the execution. The 30 persons 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 an earlier counter-coup of July, 1966 which toppled 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 May 15, 1976.
Bisalla’s inclusion among the coup plotters had sent shock waves round the country. He was highly respected and distinguished as an ex- military commander of an infantry division during the civil war and who was also renowned for his postwar conciliation efforts. About the oldest General of the lot at the time, when he 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. Not only was his military career ended. Bullets ended his life as well. Till today, Bisalla’s conviction and execution are still being put to the impunity of military era court-martial as there was no single tissue of corroboration of the allegation of his involvement in the coup plot, aside Dimka’s evidence.
Sixty nine years after the July 23, 1952 first coup in Africa called the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, led by Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser and which overthrew King Farouk and the Muhammed Ali Dynasty; 55 years after its first variant in Nigeria that took place in 1966, the word “coup” is rearing its ugly head again. It was a word Nigerians thought had been consigned to the realm of academic discourses or as statistical analyses of a past epidemic.
The Nigerian presidency and the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) resurrected the ghost of coup and coup plotting. 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.
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 remains resolute in the Defence of Nigeria’s democracy and its growth,” while 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 frenzy. The apprehension, even from government, on coup and its possibility became glaring and palpable. On Tuesday last week, Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, also 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. Elder statesman and SAN, Chief Afe Babalola, was one of the conveners of the conference. So Babalola, who has undoubtedly made more contributions to Nigeria’s growth, even more than Buhari, is now disgruntled?
Why would coup and coup discourses dominate political analyses of the chaotic Nigerian governance space at this time? Why has Buhari, who rode into power in 2015 in a galaxy of 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?
Until the 1990s when democratic waves began to sweep through 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 de tat 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 governance. Heloise Ruth First, South African scholar and anti-apartheid activist, wrote about this in a provocative book which she entitled Barrels 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 the provocative cliche that the worst civilian government is better than the best military government.
In Nigeria, for instance, the 1966 military coup that brought Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi and his wayfarer military colleagues into government truncated the series of development hitherto 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 future implosion and destruction. 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 administered. They had nil understanding of economics and society 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 and Sierra Leone. In the process, Nigeria failed to build a tomorrow for generations yet to come. Soldiers of fortune that the military conquerors proved to be overtime, enriched themselves and cronies. Many of them still living today are 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 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? 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 incompetent civil leadership and corruption, others put it at the doorsteps of dictatorial civilian regimes, mismanagement of the economy and desire of the military to posture as Messiahs.
Narratives of corruption today under Muhammadu Buhari are worse than what was in place that pushed Chukwuma Nzeogwu to plan the January, 1966 coup. Gowon and his triumvirates also claimed that killing of northerners was reason why he and the coupists of July, 1966 struck. Today, insecurity and killing of northerners and southerners are far worse under a man who was elected based on the belief that, as a retired General, his military bravura would stop genocidal insurgents.
Colonel Dimka must have sought forgiveness from Murtala Muhammed for killing that mercurial temperament soldier, if he could see what is happening today in Nigeria 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 Murtala’s government. In announcing the execution of the coup plotters of February 13, 1976, Yar’Adua also alleged that their grouse for killing Murtala was that his government planned to cut the number of members of the armed forces. Today, the quantum of such vices under Buhari is mind-boggling.
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 Chad neighbor and how his military unit shelled Chadian soldiers off 50 kilometers radius from the Nigerian border, which provoked President Shehu Shagari, Buhari and his allies claimed they upturned the Second Republic due to the widespread corruption of the political class. Can anyone juxtapose the corruption under Shagari and Buhari now? Paradoxically, then Major General Ibrahim Babangida, on August 27, 1985, also claimed that he overthrew Buhari because, “he was too rigid and uncompromising in his attitudes to issues of national significance.” Buhari has since morphed from being rigid into an ethnic jingoist who gives terrorism wooly padding 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. Vatsa allegedly finance the coup through a farming loan decoy granted to Lt. Col Musa Bitiyong.
-Read more on the Vatsa coup here
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. It based its strike, among others, on the lack of legitimacy of the interim government.
If we then juxtapose the alibi for truncating governments in Nigeria in the past with the current state of affairs under President Buhari, will one conclude that Nigeria was ripe for a coup, long due for a coup or shying away from its due worth of a coup? If the truth must be told, but for the fact that coups have lost their relevance in the world and military hijacks have proved to be incapable of solving democratic problems, the current state of hopelessness in Nigeria makes the country ten times ripe for a coup. Deliberately through his innate cronyism or as a result of his manifest incompetence, President Buhari has driven Nigeria to the brinks of war. The economy is prostrate, blood litters all parts of Nigeria and no time in the history of the country have things been this hopeless. To worsen matters, Buhari is so near, yet so distant from Nigerians, masqueraded from the world by a battery of lickspittle aides who appropriate and approximate his interface role with the people of Nigeria.
The above are why the reasons adduced for all the coups in Nigeria since 1966 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 government advertising ineptitude and incompetence like a sore thumb. The government has changed from its hitherto empty threats to criminal elements who are having free reign in all parts of the country, to a cowardly pleading with criminals to sheathe their swords. Under Buhari, the state, renowned for its awesome powers, has become castrated. 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 of Nigerians 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 and reactions of Nigerians? Abacha’s personal and governmental expiration, which elicited widespread jubilation unrivalled in Nigerian history, will be child’s play compared to what Nigerians will reveal as their projected reactions.
With all the above however, there is still no alternative to civilian rule. As horrible, close-to-breaking-point as Nigeria has become under Buhari’s watch, the hopelessness he foisted on the polity should increase future scrutiny of our leaders and squeeze a resolve from us never to have a Buhari-kind in government again. Ousting Buhari’s government and replacing it with a military junta will only give us Pyrrhic victory over one of the most infernal civilian rules in the history of Nigeria.
-Dr. Festus Adedayo is a journalist, writer, lawyer and public affairs analyst