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Nigeria and the curse of Sisyphus (2)

By Douglas Anele

Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, also a school teacher, followed closely the footsteps of his mentor, Ahmadu Bello, although sometimes he disagreed with the latter. Balewa’s vision of Nigeria was defined by the Islamic hegemonist template of Fulani domination. In 1947, at the inauguration of the Richards constitution, Balewa told his listeners, which included Sir Arthur Richards, the Governor-General, that “We do not want, Sir, our southern neighbours to interfere in our development…I should like to make it clear to you that if the British quitted Nigeria now at this stage the northern people would continue their uninterrupted conquest to the sea.”

The following year, during the budget session of the Nigerian legislative council, Balewa reiterated his anti-Nigeria and Fulani imperialist rhetoric of 1947 with the following propositions: “Many [Nigerians] deceive themselves by thinking that Nigeria is one…particularly some of the press people…This is wrong. I am sorry to say that this presence of unity is artificial and it ends outside this chamber.…The southern tribes who are now pouring into the north in ever-increasing numbers and are more or less domiciled there do not mix with the northern people…and we in the north look upon them as invaders.”

From the foregoing, coupled with the decidedly pro-northern policies Tafawa Balewa implemented during the first republic at the behest of the Sardauna, it is a disgrace that peddlers of fake history particularly northerners shamelessly refer to these two caliphate colonialists as contributors to the evolution of modern Nigeria on the same level as genuine nationalists such as Herbert Macaulay and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe – they certainly were not.

Now, while the two most prominent post-independent northern politicians expressed their vision of Nigeria ruled by northerners, especially the Fulani, their counterparts in the south, Dr. Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, sometimes made public pronouncements that portray them as self-centred and materialistic.

According to Prof. Achebe, a perceptive student of Nigerian politics, James Booth, has highlighted the poverty of thought contained in the biographies of Dr. Azikiwe and Chief Awolowo, despite their significant contributions in the nationalist struggles of the 1940s onwards, in sharp contrast with the expressions of ideology contained even in the informal works of Tom Mboya, Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah. In 1937, for instance, Azikiwe pledged that “…henceforth I shall utilise my earned income to secure my enjoyment of a high standard of living and also to give a helping hand to the needy.” Chief Awolowo was actually more egoistic and made no pretensions about his own ambitions: “I was going to make myself formidable intellectually, morally invulnerable; to make all the money that is possible for a man with my brains and brawn to make in Nigeria.

”Notwithstanding their impressive achievements as political philosophers and administrators, the sentiments expressed by these two eminent Nigerians, and especially by Chief Awolowo, are more likely to produce corrupt wealthy politicians who are parasitic on the system than selfless leaders of the Nigerian people. Naturally, most human beings tend to use their talents and abilities to make more money and enhance their standard of living.

Still, those that aspire to become transformational leaders, in order to gain lasting genuine respect, loyalty and support from the people, must necessarily avoid words and actions that encourage bulimic quest for wealth in those they are supposed to lead. They must be men and women with the rare quality of subordinating natural attitudes and inclinations to the higher and more daunting task of exemplary leadership. In this regard, Nigeria needs to produce her own version of Mahatma Gandhi, Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela.

After the ill-advised military coup of January 15, 1966, the military officers that emerged as leaders inherited the onerous task of nation building. The first soldier to occupy the highest political office in Nigeria was late Maj. Gen. J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, described in some quarters as “the last Nigerian.” According to Frederick Forsyth, in The Making of an African Legend: The Biafra Story, General Ironsi was an honest man and he tried to preside over an honest government.

By all accounts, he worked hard to unify the country at a time when centrifugal forces were pulling her in different directions. Pursuant to that, he promulgated the much-inveighed and misunderstood unification decree of 1966. Unfortunately, he lacked the political sagacity and experience needed to nuetralise a highly influential segment of the northern elite, including those in the military, who orchestrated a toxic atmosphere of revenge based on the false notion that the bloody coup of January 15, 1966 was an Igbo coup against a northern-led federal government aimed at establishing Igbo political domination.

As Forsyth observes, Ironsi was totally devoid of cunning and manifested little aptitude for the intricacies of diplomacy required for navigating successfully in the complex and muddy political waters of the Nigerian state. Meanwhile, some of Irons’s colleagues in the army had a low opinion of him. A glaring example is Ben Gbulie who in his book, Nigeria’s Five Majors, describes Ironsi as “inept and inefficient – hardly the caliber of officer to command an army. In fact, the coup planners considered him unfit to command even a funeral detail.” Ironsi’s naïve strong belief in national unity made him surround himself with personal assistants and bodyguards mostly from the north, which ultimately played into the hands of northern soldiers that murdered him on July 29, 1966. Thus, he did not learn from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that “security gives way to conspiracy.” It must be acknowledged that despite his failings, Ironsi, like Balewa before him, did not deserve the fate that befell him. As if the curse of Sisyphus was upon him, his efforts to unify the country turned out to be an exercise in futility.

Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon who emerged as head of state after the bloodthirsty revenge coup of July 29, 1966 manifested an intriguing chameleonic disposition during the heart-wrenching hours leading to the kidnap and eventual murder of Ironsi and Col. Adekunle Fajuyi by soldiers led by Maj. T.Y. Danjuma.  As chief of army staff to the late head of state, it was his duty to ensure that every military officer in the country was loyal to the supreme commander. Chuks Iloegbunam has documented in his provocative work, Ironside, how Gowon in a telephone conversation with Danjuma actually betrayed his boss, which makes him complicit in the plot against Ironsi.

Gowon was the biggest beneficiary of the July 29 coup because he became head of state as a result, instead of Lt. Col. Murtala Ramat Mohammed, the arrowhead of the coup. Probably, Gowon was not involved in the initial plan to overthrow Ironsi. But it is highly plausible that when he saw the opportunity of becoming head of state, particularly given that Brig. Babafemi Ogundipe, Ironsi’s deputy and most senior military officer in the country at that time, could not assert his authority over the mutinous northern soldiers, Gowon cleverly exploited the situation.

Clearly, by established military convention and tradition which demands that when the supreme commander for whatever reason cannot function the next most senior officer should take over, Gowon was not the legitimate or rightful successor to Ironsi. But because he was the highest ranked northern military officer and given that Murtala Mohammed suddenly and unexpectedly acknowledged Gowon’s seniority, the latter became head of state. But what kind of person was Gowon? Did he have what it takes to govern Nigeria at a time when her very foundation was at the brink of collapse?

On the surface, Gowon who had only grammar school education before joining the army seems to be a cool-headed, personable and calm person that cannot hurt a fly. However, according to Forsyth, those who knew him well, including his colleagues in the army, described him as having a strong disposition to vanity and a strain of spite behind the instant charm that endeared him to many foreigners since he came to power.  Alexander Madiebo claims, in The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran war, that Gowon, for unknown reasons, had been very popular with British authorities during his training in Britain and throughout his military service in Nigeria, and was very helpful to his southern colleagues by occasionally putting in a good word for them to the authorities.

Gowon’s emergence in power created a precedence that seriously compromised professional discipline in the army. Henceforth seniority was pushed aside as political power rested not with the titular leader but with those who had first access to, and use of instruments of violence. In the coup that brought Gowon to power and afterwards, northern soldiers exploited their numerical superiority in the infantry, gained access to weapons and took over their units because they had ready access to the amouries.

Gowon was a thirty-two years old bachelor when he assumed the mantle of leadership, or more precisely, had it thrust upon him by Murtala Mohammed and other northern soldiers who participated in the revenge coup. At that point in time, Nigeria urgently needed an astute, disciplined and experienced detribalised leader who could muster enough courage to take and implement the needed tough decisions for the good of the country.

But it is doubtful whether Gowon had those attributes because, as Prof. Achebe observes, he was “blinded by ego, hindered by a lack of administrative experience, and obsessed with interpersonal competition and petty rivalries” especially with the military governor of the defunct eastern region, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. The curse of Sisyphus can be seen in the manner Gowon handled four extremely significant circumstances in his administration, namely, the Aburi accord, the pogroms against mostly the Igbo living in northern Nigeria which ultimately precipitated the civil war, the war itself, and the post-war challenges of forging national unity. To be continued.

 

 


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