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Nigeria and the curse of Sisyphus (4)

By Douglas Anele

The second is the war against corruption. In his book cited earlier, Max Siollun lists the names of prominent Nigerians allegedly guilty of corrupt enrichment and whose money and properties were confiscated by the federal military government. They include Anthony Enahoro, Edwin Clark, Samuel Ogbemudia, Abba Kyari, Philip Asiodu and so on. Although many Nigerians exasperated by the lethargic and lackluster regime of Gen. Yakubu Gowon enthusiastically welcomed the no-nonsense anti-corruption posture of Gen. Murtala Mohammed, the positive transformative effect of his coming into office had begun to die down even before he was assassinated in February 13, 1976.

It is interesting to remark at this point that Gen. Mohammed appointed governors to states other than their states of origin in order to promote national unity. For example, Cols. Anthony Ochefu and Zamani Lekwot were posted to East Central and Rivers states respectively, despite the fact that there were qualified officers from the two states that could do the job. When Maj-Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi proposed the same measure in 1966, he was bitterly opposed by many northerners and eventually killed in a bloody mutiny led by Mohammed. Now the question is: was Mohammed’s violent death a case of karma, the law of reaping what one sowed? A plausible case can be made that the late military strongman did not have enough time to consolidate his rule and make his impact felt on a larger scale for many years in the future.

It is also true that some of the measures taken by his government, especially the haphazard or shambolic mass purge in the civil service, indicate the strengths and weaknesses of being led by an impulsive, irascible, no-nonsense ruler without a well thought-out blueprint for radical social transformation. Those that nostalgically refer to Gen. Mohammed’s brief tenure as a golden age in Nigeria’s history forget that he governed under more favourable conditions than his predecessors. His legacy would have been different if he had faced the same kind of crises that Ironsi and Gowon grappled with when they were in power. As William Shakespeare correctly observes in his work, As You Like It, “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

After Mohammed’s tragic death and the need arose to choose a new ruler, two leading candidates emerged as his replacement. Now, a sizeable percentage of members of the northern-dominated Supreme Military Council (SMC) favoured Lt. Gen. T.Y. Danjuma to fill the position. However, Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo was the more senior and experienced of the two. Ab initio, both men were reluctant to take up the challenge, probably because they did not want to create the impression of being eager to benefit from the sorrowful demise of Gen. Mohammed.

Eventually, although Obasanjo himself endorsed Danjuma as the new head of state mainly because he had lost faith in the loyalty of the Nigerian army, Danjuma’s argument that the SMC should adopt seniority and allow Mohammed’s deputy (Obasanjo) to succeed the latter was accepted. Here, once again, one can discern an aspect of the Sisyphean rigmarole that characterises Nigerian history. When Aguiyi-Ironsi was murdered, northern officers like Danjuma did not allow Brig. Babafemi Ogundipe, Ironsi’s deputy, to replace him. This time around, Danjuma, probably based on the recognition that, like himself, ringleaders of the 1976 coup were Christians from northern minority ethnic groups and that some northern Muslims were already alleging that the coup was a premeditated action by middle belt Christians against a Muslim head of state, cleverly invoked seniority probably to escape the same fate that befell Ironsi a decade earlier.

Lt. Gen. Obasanjo, became head of state and later promoted himself to the rank of full general. In his first emotion-laden broadcast to the country, he pledged to continue with the policies laid down by the SMC under the dynamic leadership of Murtala Mohammed. Obasanjo tried to fulfil his promise to Nigerians. He introduced Operation Feed the Nation, a programme meant to reinvigorate agriculture which had been neglected since the discovery and export of crude oil gathered momentum few years after the Biafran war. But his tenure was marred by wasteful expenditure and corruption, instantiated in 1978 by the 2.8 billion naira allegedly missing from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) when Col. Muhammadu Buhari was in charge of the petroleum resources ministry. In a sense, Obasanjo’s greatest achievement was the actualisation of Gen. Murtala Mohammed’s pledge that Nigeria would be returned to democratic rule by October 1, 1979.

The new democratic constitution with a powerful executive President and a bicameral National Assembly was cloned from the United States. As was the case at the dawn of independence in 1960 when Alhaji Balewa, a northerner with much lower intellectual credentials and pedigree than the two foremost southern politicians, Dr. Azikiwe and Chief Awolowo, became Prime Minister, Alhaji Shehu Shagari became the first executive President notwithstanding that Azikiwe and Awolowo who, by global best practices were more qualified, also contested the presidency with him. For the second time, it appears that Nigerians prefer to be governed by less qualified compatriots even when better options were available.

In fact, the choice of Alhaji Shagari by the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) as its presidential candidate and an accomplished intellectual and professional, late Dr. Alex Ekwueme, as his deputy is a clear indication that in Nigerian politics, ethnic and religious consideration tends to supersede meritocracy in the choice of leaders. Nigeria did not make much progress during Shagari’s administration, although state governors like Chief Sam Mbakwe (Imo), Alhaji Abubakar Rimi (Kano) and Alhaji Lateef Jakande (Lagos) were widely reputed to have performed above average. Like the cement armada fiasco of the Gowon era in the 70s, the rice importation scandal involving Alhaji Umaru Dikko, minister for transport, epitomises the level of financial rascality and corruption in the second republic. As a result, when the military struck again on the very last day of 1983, Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief based on the naïve and mistaken belief that at last a messiah will emerge to rescue them from the mediocrity of the immediate past administration.

Alhaji Shehu Shagari was succeeded by Maj-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, who shares the distinction with Ironsi as the only military heads of state that did not promote themselves shortly after assuming control. Buhari, it would be recalled, participated in the coups that removed Ironsi and Gowon from office. On assumption of office, he repeated the puerile shibboleth of military governments dating back to ironsi that his regime is a “corrective government.” The linchpin of his administration was the War Against Indiscipline (WAI), whose principal aim is to tackle corruption, indiscipline and other social malaise that had been plaguing the country since independence.

At the beginning, in a manner reminiscent of the feeling of millions of Nigerians towards Murtala’s government, people (myself included) thought that the coming of Buhari meant a clean break from the corrupt past and the beginning of a new Nigeria in which hard work, discipline, patriotism and appropriate social etiquette would predominate among the citizens irrespective of social and economic status, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and political orientation. After the euphoria of lengthy jail terms handed to allegedly corrupt politicians of the second republic, coercive imposition of the queue culture and attempted kidnap of Umaru Dikko had faded, Nigerians gradually realised that Buhari was ruling them with iron fists, that some of their fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the press, had been curtailed. Buhari and his deputy, Brig. Tunde Idiagbon, ruled the country as if it was a police state.

Buhari’s obdurate dictatorial disposition to governance corroborates the assessment of his character by Lt. Gen. T.Y. Danjuma when the SMC was searching for a new Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters after the death of Gen. Murtala Mohammed. According to Danjuma, as reported by Siollun, Buhari is an upright and strict army officer. But he was a very rigid and inflexible person, which made him unsuitable to occupy any political office. The nepotic and clannish character of Buhari was evident when he was military head of state. For instance, it was widely alleged that in 1985, when the post of Secretary-General of the Organisation of African Unity, (OAU) was vacant, with an Igbo, Dr. Peter Onu, as the acting secretary General, Buhari not only actively campaigned against his fellow compatriot but also voted for Ide Oumarou, a fellow Muslim Fulani from Niger republic. This incident, in my view, destroys claims by fanatic, historically blind Buhari apologists, notably Festus Keyamo and Profs. Itse Sagay and Tam David West, that Buhari is a patriot who has always placed Nigeria’s interest above personal ethnic and religious considerations.

When I analyse his “second coming” I will present arguments to demonstrate that President Buhari is an unrepentant caliphate colonialist who sees Nigeria through ethnic and religious lenses dictated by the Quran and the late Sardauna of Sokoto, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello.

 


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