By By Awa Kalu
I was taken aback when in the course of a discussion with a colleague concerning the Armed Forces Remembrance Day, I was reminded that January 15th this year, will mark the golden jubilee anniversary (50 years!) of the first coup d’etat in Nigeria which took place on January 15th, 1966. It cannot be denied that that event completely altered the legal and political calculus as well as social and cultural relations in this country.
The attempt in this piece will be to examine the build up to what nearly became a coup making culture, not only in Nigeria but in many other parts of Africa. As it were, this will be an excursion into the causes and consequences of coup making in Nigeria-at least from a lawyer’s point of view. In a book written and published as far back as1973 (Constitutionalism in the Emergent States).
Professor B.O.Nwabueze, SAN acknowledged that ‘organized violence is endemic in the society of the emergent states, but of the various types of violence mentioned… the coup d’ etat is the most widely prevalent’.
Predecessors in coup making
He also noted that “it is a phenomenon of the independence era”. Ironically, although twenty-one other African countries had witnessed
coups d’etat by the time Nwabueze’s book was published in 1973, Nigeria had celebrated only two, and suddenly, later overtook its predecessors in coup making-in terms of the number of coups hatched- at least by the last count (the last coup was the Abacha coup in 1993).
The point to note is that this country witnessed its first coup on January 15, 1966. In the same year, there was a counter coup and several others were to follow particularly in 1975, 1976, 1983, 1985 and 1993 etc. At this juncture, it may also be noted that it is not usually the business of lawyers to indulge in or dwell on recounting the history or causes of coups but no lawyer can escape an analysis of the consequences of such events.
In that context, relying on Professor Nwabueze’s profound knowledge of this area of law (and of politics), it is safe to suggest that “coupsd’etat are an incident of the political situation in these states”. The learned professor holds the view that “corruption, waste, concentration of wealth in a few hands, increasing unemployment, general maladministration especially of the economy, electoral malpractices and other types of political perversion of the constitutional system, tribalism- these are the main factors compounded in this situation.
They breed disillusionment and discontent against the rule of the politicians. This discontent is widespread in the society, and is shared alike by the civilian population and the military”. Furthermore, the learned professor illuminates the cause of coups by contending that “yet discontent with the discreditable performance of the ruling politicians provides only a superficial explanation of the recurrent phenomenon of coups in the emergent states.
When the deeper motivations are probed, most of the coups would be found to be the product of the ambition for political power among the
different elements in the society. Coup-makers usually come from the class of the young elite, both civilian and military. These have their own ambitions for power, independently of the failure of the ruling politicians. It is a characteristic of the elite in emergent states that they consider themselves as a privileged group, with a right to rule.
There is some kind of a distinctly elitist outlook towards the right to rule. Army officers qualify by their training and standing in the society as an elite, and so share in this outlook. They believe that they have as much right as the ruling politicians to determine the political destiny of the country, and that, when politicians begin to mess up matters, they owe it to themselves and to the country to intervene to put up matters right again”.
In addition, he argues that “their elitist outlook tends to outweigh the tradition of non-interference in politics which the ethics of their profession are supposed to impose upon them. They are inclined to subordinate tradition to what they consider as their obligation as an elite to the society. The clash between tradition and the promptings of their elitist outlook may sometimes create in them a genuine conflict of conscience, but the impulse to intervene and right matters usually prevails.
The tradition of non-interference in politics is maintained only so long as the command of the army remains in the hands of the expatriate officers, as is the case for some years after independence. The presence in the top command positions of expatriate officers acts as a deterrent to the elitist impulses of the indigenous officers.
Conflict of conscience
It operates to stay their hands, but only temporarily. For with the eventual departure of expatriate commanders under the pressure of the
policy of africanisation of the public services, this inhibition is removed, and the indigenous officers’ elitist belief in their right to determine the political destiny of the country asserts itself”. A close examination of the events of January 15th, 1966 will show the profundity of professor Nwabueze’s well articulated argument.
For example, it is very well documented that the five Majors who piloted the making of the first coup in 1966 were young, brilliant and
ideologues of some sort. A glance at the radio broadcast by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu announcing Nigeria’s first military coup on Radio Nigeria will underpin this point. In that broadcast, the young Major explained that “the aim of the Revolutionary Council is to establish a strong, united and prosperous nation free from corruption and internal strife”.
He claimed in that broadcast that “our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 percent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIP’s at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds”.
His speech ended in a flourish and in a prophetic manner he allowed that “like good soldiers we are not promising anything miraculous or spectacular but what we do promise every law abiding citizen is freedom from fear and all forms of oppression, freedom from general inefficiency and freedom to live and strive in every field of human endeavor, both nationally and internationally. We promise that you will no more be ashamed to say that you are a Nigerian”.
Had Major Nzeogwu lived a little longer, he would have come to terms with the reverberations that have lingered long after his epoch making
speech. In July, 1966, a counter coup was staged which claimed the lives of several military officers and civilians (just like the original coup of January 15th). Major General J. T. U.
Aguyi-Ironsi who was military Head of State as well as his host Colonel AdekunleFajuyi died in the counter coup which spiraled into a pogrom. From major historical accounts, the pogrom led to the declaration of the ill fated Republic of Biafra. In sum, a civil war broke out ostensibly aimed at quelling the rebellion.
The civil war ended in 1970 with the Federal Government of Nigeria promising a policy of Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation. It is left to social scientists to determine whether those policies were ever carried to fruition. What cannot be denied is that the
issues that led to the January 15th uprising as well as its counterpart of July 1966 did not go away for which reason we experienced the upheavals arising from several other coups.
In that connection, Nigeria lost one of its finest military officersi.e Major General Murtala Mohammed in a military coup in 1976 leading to the ascendancy on to power of another military officer – OlusegunObasanjo GCFR, who continued from where General Murtala Mohammed stopped in the process of returning the country to civilian democratic governance. It is instructive to note that General Obasanjo erected a civilian administration on the platform of the defunct constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1979. Internal contradictions, as would soon become obvious, have led to the promulgation of one constitution or the other from 1914 to 1999.
Perhaps, it may be instructive to provide a bird’s eye view of Nigeria’s constitutional history from 1960 when the country gained political independence from Great Britain. At independence, the Union Jack (the Colonial Flag) was lowered and the Nigerian Flag hoisted in its place because there was an Independence Constitution which spelt out the charter of government. The Independence Constitution was supplanted by the Republican Constitution of 1963 by which we jettisoned monarchy in favour of republicanism.
A few years thereafter, the Republican Constitution was overthrown and in its place, we had rule by Decrees and Edicts. After a series of
coups and counter coups, a new dawn was heralded by the introduction of the 1979 Constitution. The major factor of thatconstitution was the rejection of parliamentary democracy in favour of the presidential system. By late 1983, we had become fed up with that constitution and same was replaced by a new military junta. Again, many more Decrees and Edicts came to the fore. The Buhari/Idiagbon duovirate after a short while gave way to the Babangidaadministration which after several years also gave way to the Interim National Government (ING) headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan.
As is very well known, the ING was also shoved aside by military action by the regime of General SaniAbacha. Following the sudden death
of General Abacha, another General, AbdulsalamiAbubakar took over the reins of government and eventually promulgated the constitution of 1999. Needless to add that both General Ibrahim BadamasiBabangida and General SaniAbacha engineered their separate constitutions in 1989 and 1995 respectively.
What history shows is that apart from the Buhari administration, each single regime between the time of independence and now, has tried its hand at constitutional engineering. Why is this so? It is difficult to hazard a guess but we may find solace in the scathing criticism of some students of African politics. A passage by Robert Jackson and Carl Rosenberg quoted by Professor B. O. Nwabueze in volume 1 of his latest epochal professional effort titled CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY IN AFRICA(p. 13) is quite instructive.
They claim that “most African States have abstract constitutions and institutions…but very few have them in fact; the formal rules of the
political game do not effectively govern the conduct of rulers and other political leaders in most places most of the time. In so far as rules are followed by African rulers it is only after they have been changed by the ruler or oligarchy in question to suit his or their personal-political convenience. But rules of expediency are not, patently, rules of institutional government.
They are better conceived as instruments of power and not as normative restraints on power, being wholly instrumental to holding power, they
are the hallmarks of political authoritarianism, which is closely allied to personal rule. In institutionalized systems, personal calculations are made, but in terms of the universally accepted rules and requirements of the political game; in personal terms such calculations are not mediated by reference to rules agreed to by all leaders and factions.
Thus, for example, while the governing partyand its rivals in a constitutional democracy will go to great lengths to win elections, they will not seek to abolish elections to stay in power or manipulate the electoral rules or their supervision to the point where they no longer are basically fair. By contrast, such manipulation is precisely what we should expect to see in a personal, authoritarian regime”.
The authors, Jackson and Rosenberg also insist that in a situation where personal rule triumphs over institutional government, “persons take precedence over rules, the office-holder is not effectively bound by his office and is able to change its authorityand powers to suit his own personal or political needs. In such a system of personal rule, the ruler and other leaders take precedence over the formal rules of the political game; the rules do not effectively regulate political behavior, and we therefore cannot predict or anticipate conduct from knowledge of the rules.
To put this in old-fashioned, comparative government terms, the State is a government of men and not of law”
The discerning reader will not fail to grasp from the interstices of the above quotation that this is the condition of political office holding in Africa and this has made it impossible for our collective destiny to be remedied or ameliorated. The change from one regime to the other, whether civilian or military has often meant stagnation and confusion.
In the case of our dear country, the attempt at the management of our post independence democracy led to the first coup in January 1966. The intermediation of other coups before a further democratic attempt in 1979 did not take us too far neither did our journey between 1983 and 1999 lead to any promised land. Current revelations of the goings on between 1999 and 2015 have not brought any succour but we are in an era when change as a political mantra appears to offer hope. For now, it may be said without equivocation that the 1966 experiment did not result in much except an offer of political and economic fiasco.
Accordingly, 50 years on, as a former teacher, I have no pass mark to award to the past. Let us therefore march into the future with unadulterated hope, if for nothing else, as an acknowledgement “of the labours of our heroes past”. Long live the Federal Republic of Nigeria.