Dictatorship and Military Coups


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Dictatorship and Military Coups


Edwin Madunagu

culled from GUARDIAN, April 22 2004

WE start with the front-page report in The Guardian of Thursday April 1, 2004, titled "Military authorities move Al-Mustapha from prison." The summary of the report was that at about 2.00 a.m the previous day, Wednesday, March 31, "some 200 armed men and mobile policemen" came to Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison, Lagos, where Major Hamza Mustapha had been detained on court orders, and "seized" him.

The Comptroller-General of Prisons, in whose custody the detained army officer was placed, gave the approval for the seizure and eventual transfer of the former security officer to late General Sani Abacha to "an unknown destination". This report, if substantially true, as I think it is, was a sufficient indication that not only the army, but the entire country, was in trouble.

But in Nigeria, playing with the intelligence of the people, through massive deception, has always been a mode of governance. Fortunately, however, many Nigerians can reasonably and correctly analyse most of what they see or hear " official pronouncements notwithstanding. And Nigerians who are trained and equipped through the strivings of the masses to be able to do so owe themselves and their countrymen and women a duty to continuously do this analysis, and sound early warnings.

Putting aside the official and semi-official statements that were later issued by, or extracted from, the government and the army, let us proceed from the verifiable reports obtained from the media and eye-witnesses. First, the armed contingent that came to, or was sent to, Kirikiri was large enough to put down an incipient rebellion, or initiate one. Secondly, this force came to "seize" a junior army officer who has been in one form of confinement or another for over five years. Thirdly, the regime which the army major served was officially replaced almost six years ago and the army in which he is an officer has since been so thoroughly purged and restructured that one can say that it is now, in fact, a different army from the one he knew when he and his master were in power. Fourthly, although the prison authorities claimed that the detainee's seizure and movement were authorised by them, what happened was, prima-facie, an illegality.

The officer was detained at Kirikiri by a Nigerian court, and only that court can discharge or move him by its own decision, or by the decision of a higher court, or by the pronouncement of a political authority constitutionally empowered to do so. I say to those who claim to have brought, or restored, democracy to Nigeria: What happened at Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison in the early hours of Wednesday, March 31, 2004, together with the official attitudes towards it, shows that Nigeria is as far away from democracy as the sun is from the earth. The characters of those involved in the episode, and the crimes attributed to them, are immaterial in this assessment. Democracy is not designed for, or against, individuals.

The nation later learnt from various sources that the army officer in question was either planning a coup, or was involved in a coup plan, at the time of his forcible seizure from Kirikiri. The question that jumped out of my mouth when I heard this rumour was: How can a person in the circumstances described above be planning a coup

bulletI immediately realised that this was a very na•ve question. Is this not Nigeria
bulletIs the Nigerian army not the one described by a former respected Chief of Army Staff as "army of anything goes"
bulletIn any case, the initial statement from the Federal Government was to the effect that there was no coup plot, that what happened was a "security breach" by some soldiers and civilians and that the breach was being investigated. There was a hint that civilians and serving soldiers were involved. The army first denied that there was anything at all. I could sense some nervousness from the way the army chief and his spokespersons responded to media questions.

We should sympathise with, or even salute, those Nigerians who have vowed to resist any coup d'etat with their blood. I believe many of them are sincere and patriotic. But then much more than sincerity and patriotism is required here. You can only resist a coup d'etat if you know that what is happening, or has happened, is a coup d'etat, or if the people who are in the position to say so declare that what is happening, or has just taken place, is a coup d'etat. Otherwise, you, the coup resister, may become a coupist or a coup suspect. Suppose, in the concrete case under review, an honest and patriotic Nigerian had noticed the unusual operations around and inside Kirikiri Prison, and had decided - quite justifiably for anyone who believes that Nigeria is a democracy - that what he or she was seeing was an incipient d'etat, and had acted on that perception. It would have been a multiple tragedy. If the patriot came out alive, he or she would have been told by the prison commander that what happened at Kirikiri was normal, and that, in any case, it was authorised; government spokespersons would have declared that nothing unusual happened, that it was a mere "security breach"; the army would have denied knowledge of any military movement.

What I have said so far is not simply a comment on the recent "coup scare". It is also a fragmentary essay on manifestations or attributes of dictatorship. There is a relationship between dictatorship and military coups. I make two propositions. First, every class rule is a dictatorship. And this dictatorship is essentially a dictatorship of a class, or a coalition of classes, over other classes and groups in the polity. Since a state rules over a polity as a whole, this dictatorship is, in the formal sense, a dictatorship over the polity. But we know the victims. To the extent that every class rule is a dictatorship it can be said that practically every state in the world is a dictatorship. This is a maximalist position, I admit. But it is correct; or, rather, it is more correct than any other position on the question of social classes and political power. My second proposition is that states and regimes vary in democratic content, from near - zero to the maximum democratic content compatible with class rule. Nigeria's dictatorship has a miserably low democratic content.

The poor democratic content of governance in Nigeria is manifested in various ways including election rigging; disrespect for basic human rights, the dignity of the human person, and the rule of law; contempt for the constitution and its provisions; political intolerance; maginalisation of the broad masses of the people and groups including women, children, workers, and ethnic minorities, in decision-making processes; unilateral imposition of harsh material conditions on the people; state repudiation of agreements entered into with the citizens, etc. The masses are primary victims. But fractions and factions of the ruling classes and power blocs that are temporarily disaffected or out of favour also complain. The latter are however usually in stronger positions to respond to situations they do not like. One of the responses of disaffected fractions and factions of the ruling blocs to situations they do not like is the coup d'etat, actual or threatened. By the way, the bloc, or faction, in power also uses the charge of attempted coup d'etat as a weapon against the "opposition" factions. Either way, the masses are primary victims. Many innocent lives have been destroyed in this country in the name of state security. I have no illusion that that era has come to an end.

Although I have told this story several times in the past, I will tell it again, but now in a summary. I met a military governor in an official capacity a fairly long time ago. In the course of our discussion, the governor advised me to rule out a presidential contest from the set of elections proposed for the return to civil rule. When I asked why I should do this, he replied that a presidential election had already been held. "When and where

bullet", I asked. "Just before dawn on August 27, 1985, and in Lagos", he replied. "Who were the candidates and who were the electors
bullet", I pursued. He replied that General Babangida was the only candidate, and Nigerian army officers were the electors. The governor then went on to make a declaration, namely, that the Nigerian army was a legitimate segment of the Nigerian nation and had, through its patriotism and courage, demonstrated its right to elect a president. Other segments of the population could go ahead and fill other political offices. The army - or any armed faction, for that matters - has earned the authority to choose presidents and of course, depose presidents.

It is difficult to say how far this "militarised" consciousness still rules the Nigerian army, the purges and education of the last five years notwithstanding. The least we can say is that the low democratic content of the Nigerian polity, together with the severely restricted spaces for mass political intervention and participation, continuously feeds this type of consciousness, not just in the military, but in the society as a whole. Only mass political empowerment and active political participation of the people can bury "militarised" consciousness and its manifestations: coup scares, actual coup, and false allegations of coups.



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