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Nigeria, a dark horse paradise

By Ochereome Nnanna
ANOTHER “dark horse”, Governor Namadi Sambo, comes riding in as Vice President of Nigeria. Nigeria is a paradise for dark horses.

We are not like other climes where the white charger is prized and reserved only for the royalty. Before we go into exploring our reason for preferring political dark horses, let us take an inventory of the catalogue of dark horses that have ruled this country since the end of the civil war. And before that, let us even find out what a dark horse is.

The Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (I don’t know if it falls into Chinua Achebe’s “bad dictionaries” that confuse rather than enlighten the researcher) defines a dark horse thus: “(1)a usually little known contestant (as a racehorse) that makes an unexpected good showing; (2) a political candidate unexpectedly nominated, usually as a compromise between factions”.

Let me add, with the benefit of our own experience in Nigeria, that a political dark horse includes those people who never wanted high political offices but were “forced” to take them. They were those who, when sugar was forced into their mouths, rather than spit it out they licked, swallowed and proceeded to want more such that people died in the wake of their struggles for more sugar! And Nigeria being a paradise for dark horses, most people now want to be seen in that light, and thus the penchant for politically-ambitious people to announce with glee that they are “under pressure” to contest for offices.

Some would say that our romance with dark horse started in July 1966 after the coup that toppled Nigeria’s first military Head of State, General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi. Lt Col Yakubu Gowon was not the most senior military officer to succeed Ironsi. In fact, the question has not been answered till date as to who appointed Gowon our Head of State, since he only participated in the counter-coup without being its leader. Some say it was the British government.

Whoever did, the emergence of Gowon was a surprise to many, and that was probably why the Military Governor of the Eastern Region, Lt Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, standing on the principle of seniority, discipline and orderly succession in the military, opposed his appointment.

Ten years later when General Murtala Mohammed was assassinated, another “dark horse” emerged to lead Nigeria. General Olusegun Obasanjo was Murtala’s deputy; a GOC during the war and a former Federal Commissioner (Minister).

He was not an unknown quantity. Succeeding his boss was the natural thing to do, but that was a time when the North was still Nigeria’s monster master and could have rudely shoved him aside for a Northern officer just like in 1966.

In fact, Obasanjo himself was aware of this and protected his hide by pleading “unwillingness” to take up the number one job. Fellow officers of Northern extraction who knew his pro-North antecedents calmed his fluttering nerves and assured him he would be safe in that office provided he carried Murtala’s agenda to logical conclusion and handed over back to the North.

Obasanjo did the job to the applause of the North and the heckling boos of his tribesmen.
And who was the Northerner chosen as the first elected executive president of Nigeria? You got the answer correct:

Alhaji Shehu Shagari; a mild-mannered gentleman whose ambition was to be a senator. He was chosen by the Northern political establishment (whom Dr Mvendaga Jibo dubbed: the Kaduna Mafia) over other flashier, more ambitious and more articulate candidates, such as Alhaji Shettima Ali Monguno, Mallam Adamu Ciroma and Alhaji Maitama Sule.

Even Shagari’s running mate, Dr Alex Ekwueme, was another dovish gentleman often given to elaborate academicism. He was a professional who looked lost on the political terrain. He was chosen (by the North!) as Shagari’s running mate – over and above the flamboyant and politically savvier Dr Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe and J. O. J Okezie.

In fact, the North was so determined to pair Shagari with as harmless an Igbo running mate as possible that they toyed with the idea of picking a woman from Anambra State, but for the protests of a few senior military officers of Igbo extraction such as Ebitu Ukiwe, who felt that the “joke” was being taken a bit too far. Those were the days when women were still “women”.

It was probably because Chief Moshood Abiola was not a dark horse that his election was annulled by the government of General Ibrahim Babangida. The political elite of the North, both in the military and outside, obviously felt they might not be able to “control” Abiola and decided to stop him before he climbed into the throne.

It was their fear that Yoruba would pull out of Nigeria that forced them to reluctantly concede power to the West in 1998, but they gave it back to their “trusted” dark horse, Obasanjo to dance to their tune for just four years and hand it back.

Obasanjo burst out of his dark horse costume once in power, stayed for eight years and wanted to go on for life if not for the collective refusal of all Nigerians.

Funny enough, Obasanjo decided to mimic the North by playing the puppeteer. He gave them a dose of their own medicine. He went deep into the North and chose an ailing governor who had completed his eight years and wanted to spend the rest of his life as an honorary university teacher.

Even though Umaru Yar’ Adua collapsed during the presidential campaigns and had to be rushed abroad for treatment, Obasanjo (who had also paired him with another wimp governor whose countenance spelled mumulity in capital letter, Dr Goodluck Jonathan) went ahead to crown Yar’ Adua President of Nigeria. The rest is history.
Let’s continue this on Monday.


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