The Politics of Military Coups


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The Politics of Military Coups


Sam Nda-Isiah



culled from DAILY TRUST of April 26, 2004


1966 was a very bad year for the British. Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister who had only recently won the election on a knife-edge majority was grappling with a rapidly faltering nation. The economy was in a shambles, which defied solution or even logic and the situation worsened by the day. To make matters worse, the usually stolid pound was collapsing and the government had to go ahead in obedience to some pedantic economic exigencies to devalue the currency further - a move that was thought by the ordinary citizens as implausible. The government was thought to have lost control. There was the threat of a mass revolt that could have made the country ungovernable. That was when an impudent discussion, once thought inconceivable, started between Mr. Cecil King, the influential publisher of Daily Mirror and Lord Louis Mountbatten, the queen’s cousin, an admiral who had retired two years earlier as the chief of defence staff. The topic: The possibility of a military take over of the government of the United Kingdom to restore some order and place the country back on the path of rectitude. The two powerful men had even started talking with military commanders it was alleged. Fortunately for Prime Minister Wilson and the UK, things picked up and stabilised, making the actualisation of the martial plans unnecessary. The Labour government proceeded to win a comfortable majority that same year since it got its act together. This brief story proves that a military coup is possible even in such unlikely places like the United Kingdom.

A few weeks ago, there were conflicting, sometimes contradictory reports about what is now referred to as a "coup scare". The Nigerian chief of defence staff and highest ranking military officer, General Alexander Ogomudia said a coup had been nipped in the bud, but the chief of army staff, respected for his professionalism, said there was no such thing. Some respected foreign media houses reported that a military coup had been aborted in Nigeria. Whichever report people choose to believe, the truth however is that several military officers cutting across the three services were arrested by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI). The president said it was not a coup but a "security breach". What does that mean in English? A certain Navy Commander Yakubu Kudambo, a Gbagyi indigene of the FCT has been declared wanted by the naval authorities in connection with this "security breach". And there are also rumours that one of the serving southern governors, who has had a cloak-and-dagger relationship with the president was implicated.

All things considered, there are two parts to this amorphous story. First, for the people in and around government who deceive themselves that a coup is no longer on the cards either because there is now a "democracy" (according to their own twisted definition of democracy) or that they have defanged the military as those at the top are fond of saying, this is a rude wake-up call. It was Lt. Gen. Jerry Useni who put it straight and succinctly recently. He said a coup is still very possible in Nigeria especially if the government continues in its current heartless anti-people posture.

The only remedy against coups is a working democracy and a good government. When democracy fails, a popular coup will in fact be encouraged as we saw in the British case. When General Yakubu Gowon’s regime was toppled after his now famous "1976 was no longer realistic", in a coup to which the then Brig Olusegun Obasanjo was privy, all the media houses in Nigeria wondered why the coup took so long to come. Even if the government is a bad and incompetent one, once democracy or a perception of it is in place, there will be no threat of a coup. By common consent, Obasanjo’s current government is a bad and terrible one, with a poor standard of statecraft. There is incontrovertible evidence that it is the most corrupt and most incompetent ever. It has "spent" an unprecedented amount on roads, NEPA, refineries, etc, with nothing to show for it. Nigerians die everyday because there are no drugs in public hospitals. The Obasanjo government has not procured a single medicine for its hospitals since it came to power five years ago - that is also unprecedented. And many of those who escape this because they can afford the drugs from chemists, do not escape the hired assassins, armed robbers and the ethnic militia groups like the OPC that prowl the land as if there is no government.

Nigerians don’t know where their money has gone (the executive arm of government said it has expended an unprecedented N6 trillion in the last five years but still does not pay pensioners and salaries regularly). And now, almost halfway into the year, there is no budget because the president insists he must be allowed to treat the nation’s money, expected from excess crude sales, like the money he gets from the sales of excess eggs and chickens from his farm at Ota. All these marks of maladministration were also there during Obasanjo’s first term. But because during the first term, there was a perception of democracy, people thought then that the government should be allowed to continue its nonsense till 2003 when there would be an opportunity to vote it out. Nobody thought of a military coup as an option then and if any suggestions of a military coup had been broached, it would have been shouted down by all segments of the society. Nigerians love democracy with a sentimental attachment and they always want to exercise it. But when it fails, they do not pretend about it.

When time came in 2003 for elections, Nigerians trooped out. The turnout was unprecedented in most parts. Many people who had never voted in their lives turned out. They defied the harsh weather conditions in many parts. When Guobadia’s INEC announced the results, Nigerians knew right away that those were not the results of the election they had participated in. At least for those who voted. There was no voting in at least 15 states including all the states of the South South and South East, where masses of people were murdered in cold blood by thugs. These and many more were captured in the reports of the independent election observer teams from Europe, the Commonwealth and the United States. The Catholic Church and other NGOs also said so in very clear terms in their reports.

There was melancholy and despondency all over the land. And when the people wanted to exercise their democratic right to protest, the government rolled out its armoured tanks and dared anyone to enter the streets. The people were asked to go to the courts if they had any grievances. But they had no faith in the election petitions tribunals, because the government constituted them, the same one that had just subjected them to the most wanton election rigging the country had ever known. Many knew that the judiciary had been suborned into the entire rigging process, but some went to court nonetheless. Today, one year after the elections, the presidential appeal election tribunal has not delivered its judgement. In other courts, very glaring cases like those of Plateau, Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Benue and a whole lot of other states, the acclaimed election riggers got their elections legalised. In Akwa Ibom and Plateau states, where it was proved that the judges received bribes from the governors, those governors also won the cases. In Akwa Ibom state for instance, the judges have been removed as a result of the revelation of bribery they were involved in, but their judgment remains in place, so Governor Victor Attah remains the governor. How ingenious! Only in Nigerian democracy, isn’t it? In Rivers state, where it was proved beyond doubt that more people than were registered voted on election day, the courts legitimised the elections. The only people enjoying this are the lawyers on all sides who earn fat fees, while the people decline further into depression and despair. In Adamawa State where a respectable judgment appears to have been delivered, it was because of the fight between the president and vice president, with the former seizing the opportunity offered by the election tribunal to teach the latter the lesson of his life. To get favourable results from the courts in this democracy, it appears one will now have to depend not only on the munificence of an above-the-law president, but also his moods, whims and caprices.

After the elections, the government turned again to the military and retired a few more innocent officers, whose faces looked like those of coup plotters. But since Obasanjo and his cheerleaders murdered democracy a year ago, they have murdered sleep. Since then, they have become edgy, irascible and afraid of their shadows. Even though they deceive themselves in public, that a coup was no longer possible; that Obasanjo has at last broken the jinx of transfer of power from a "democracy to a democracy", they know it is a lie and people lie loudest when they lie to themselves. The current Obasanjo regime can be worse than the worst military regime. There is evidence at least that the late Abacha, who the president’s men oppugn as the worst ever, was a better manager of the economy (compare exchange and inflation rates), better manager of the polity (you never hear of OPC, Bakassi, etc, armed robbery was curtailed at least in Abuja and Lagos), and had better developmental achievements to its record (the Gwarimpa Housing Estate is the largest of its kind in Africa, for instance) not to talk of the mother of them all, his PTF which constructed roads, provided drugs and medicines in hospitals in all local governments of the country, refurbished hospitals, universities, secondary and primary schools all over the country and also provided gainful employment and custom to the middle class, now on the verge of being wiped out.

As things stand today, a change will have to happen in Nigeria anyway, as it is impossible for things to continue this way and it is the Obasanjo government that will have to determine what manner of change this might be. This change will either be in the form of the government itself changing its style and becoming more responsive and responsible and most importantly, restoring democracy as in 1999 or inexorably some other factors that will engender the change will have to come to restore democracy. The government may think it has retired the "professional" coup makers, so there is no need to sit up, but that was what President Shehu Shagari also thought after he had retired Gen. Joe Garba and a few other top military officers in 1980 to prevent a coup. A coup is always possible anywhere there is a failure of government - not to talk of one with an abysmal record of corruption, incompetence and lack of legitimacy - and as we saw in the case of the United Kingdom, it can even be popular. Obasanjo himself prayed a day before the last local government elections (another reason that proves a coup is still possible in Nigeria) in a nationwide broadcast, when he said any mandate that is dubiously acquired through rigging will not last and that God should deal with election riggers, to which Nigerians shouted a resounding Amen. Nigerians were happy to say Amen to the president’s prayers because they remember that God answers such fervent prayers offered by leaders with dispatch. When Abacha in 1998 asked Nigerians to pray to God to remove any obstacle to peace in the country, God answered at once. And the obstacles were removed. God has a thousand and one ways of answering prayers and He will certainly answer our president’s supplications.

The second part of the story borders on Major Hamza Al-Mustapha. How would a person in captivity, who is being detained in a maximum security prison like the Kirikiri be involved in planning a coup? If Al-Mustapha was arrested by the DMI as we now know and we hear there’s even an SIP constituted to investigate him and others involved in the "security breach", then there are good grounds to believe that he is being charged with something akin to a coup. Al-Mustapha was first arrested in 1998 by the then government of General Abdulsalami Abubakar for planning a coup. He remained in prison until Gen. Abubakar handed over power to Obasanjo in 1999. It remains curious why Gen. Abubakar didn’t discharge or even convict him before leaving service but preferred instead to hand him over to Obasanjo with predictable consequences. When the coup story appeared to have become silly, the Obasanjo government changed the charge. It became that he had a hand in the murder in cold blood of Kudirat Abiola. For that, he remained in prison for another five years without trial. Within this time, other enemies of the president including Mohammed Abacha (the late Gen. Abacha’s son) and General Ishaya Bamaiyi, Abacha’s chief of army staff when Obasanjo was incarcerated, joined him in prison. The idea is to get even with Abacha’s top men. Every effort to get General Jerry Useni to join them has so far failed but the president is still trying. Then this story appeared that Al-Mustapha was planning a coup again. Then there was another one that he got Obasanjo’s personal phone numbers and called to give him a piece of his mind. Then recently, some people started saying it was Al-Mustapha’s strike force men who have been killing and assassinating top people so as to create the spectre of instability. Does this not give the image of a government desperately trying to pin something on someone? Abacha was smarter in framing his enemies.

If Al-Mustapha has been involved in any malfeasance against the state - and the way many of his enemies talk, they believe he has a case to answer - then by all means, let him be tried publicly before a competent court and made to pay for his wrongdoings. It is obvious from the president’s conduct that he himself believes the former CSO has a case to answer, even though he does not think people like Ganiyu Adams (who’s now being treated like a statesman by his government), Fredrick Fasheun and even Senator Iyiola Omisore have cases to answer. If that is the case, he should try him immediately together with Ishaya Bamaiyi, James Danbaba and others because he has no right to keep anyone in detention without trial indefinitely. And for those who are now testing their creative gifts by postulating that Al-Mustapha’s men have done all the killings since 1999, they should marshal their evidence and also go to the courts. One day and this will be very soon, the truth will emerge.

The president has been complaining that Abacha imprisoned him without any just cause even though we remember that he was not detained without trial as he is now doing to others. Nigerians also remember that Abacha tried Obasanjo under The Treason and Other Offences (Special Military Tribunal) Decree 1976, otherwise known as Decree N0. 8 of 1976 promulgated by Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo himself when he was head of state in 1976. Obasanjo himself had executed several soldiers and civilians under this decree including former Governor Joseph Gomwalk and Col. A. D. Wya who hardly participated in the Dimka coup that assassinated his predecessor. Gen. Gowon barely escaped. It was even because Obasanjo’s own decree was modified and given a human face to give allowance for appeals to the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC), that Obasanjo is still alive today. In its original form, the decree had no provision for appeals and Obasanjo would not have had his punishment mitigated from death sentence to 25 years’ imprisonment.

If Obasanjo who is a living beneficiary of God’s copious favour and mercy will not find a place in his heart to show same to fellow human beings who just happen to be lesser beings under his rulership, then he should be prepared to receive the judgement of people who behave that way. God is no respecter of man, even if that man is the president of Africa’s largest nation.

Sam Nda-Isaiah is the publisher of Leadership Confidential


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This page was last updated on 10/27/07.