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Nigeria and the curse of Sisyphus (5)

By Douglas Anele

Picking up the thread of our discourse on Nigeria and the curse of Sisyphus from where we left it penultimate Sunday, it is important to reiterate that Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari and his very visible deputy, Brig. Tunde Idiagbon, having correctly identified corruption and indiscipline as the biggest obstacles to national development, made the cardinal error of thinking that draconian methods without a well-thought out systematic plan or agenda for social transformation would bring about positive attitudinal change in Nigerians.

A broad section of the public initially supported the outrageously lengthy prisons terms handed by military tribunals to several politicians of the Second Republic and the War Against Indiscipline (WAI) launched by the federal government. In my opinion, WAI was Buhari’s most enduring legacy as a military head of state because to an extent its emphasis on positive work ethic and social etiquette, patriotism, discipline, environmental sanitation and zero tolerance for corruption resonated with millions of Nigerians for whom Shagari’s government had become synonymous with indiscipline and corruption. But then, there is a plausible argument that ringleaders of the coup were motivated more by their own political ambitions and subterranean plans by caliphate foot soldiers to prevent Dr. Alex Ekwueme, an Igbo, from becoming President in 1987 than by the desire to fight malignant corruption and indiscipline, which Buhari and his cohorts cited as justification for it.

That said, despite the incoherent historical revisionism peddled ad nauseam by aging pachydermatous Buharimaniacs like Profs. Tam David-West and Itse Sagay among others, Buhari’s military government was a colossal failure as a result of its brazen nepotism in favour of the muslim north, excessive curtailment of human rights and press freedom, and shambolic economic management. Of the sixteen members of the SMC in 1984, only five were from the south: also key positions in the military and federal ministries were dominated by northerners. I have already mentioned that Buhari preferred a fellow Fulani muslim from Niger republic to a fellow Nigerian, Dr. Peter Onu (who, according to Emeka Nwabufor, a veteran journalist and media consultant, hailed from Igala but had a surname that made most people, including Buhari, think he was Igbo) for the post of secretary-general of the OAU.

Buhari’s obnoxious Decree Two granted the chief of staff supreme headquarters powers to detain up to six months without trial anyone considered a security risk by the military government: its cousin, Decree Four, forbade any journalist from disseminating information considered embarrassing to any government official. Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson of The Guardian newspapers were the first victims of Decree Four. Dora Ifudu, a reporter with the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) who was following up on senate’s investigation of the alleged missing 2.8 billion dollars of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) when Buhari was in charge of the petroleum ministry, was summarily sacked.

But a more incendiary abuse of the most basic human right, the right to life, by Buhari’s military dictatorship was the public execution of Bartholomew Owoh, Bernard Ogedengbe and Lawal Ojuolape on the basis of a retroactive law which prescribed capital punishment for anyone convicted of drug related offences. On the economy, Gen. Buhari and his advisers, by adopting the centralised military command-and-control paradigm, displayed shallow understanding of the complex mechanisms that drive economic development. His attempt to restructure the economy by placing strict limits on government expenditure, stopping external borrowing, counter-trade, pegging of the exchange rate at one naira to a dollar and fifty cents, and change in the colours of different denominations of the naira among others were intended to curtail financial rascality and enthrone prudence in managing available resources.

Still, after rejecting the “conditionalities” recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Buhari implemented austerity measures that led to massive retrenchment of workers in both the public and private sectors, and spiraling inflation. Many industries closed down because they could not access foreign exchange to import essential raw materials and equipment, while price controls imposed on essential commodities led to severe scarcity of those products in the market.

Overall, Buhari’s economic team, if there was anything like that at the time, lacked creativity and technical knowledge needed to pull Nigeria out of economic doldrums. The existential condition of the masses deteriorated steadily and became worse than it was during Shagari’s lackluster administration. At this point, not surprisingly, Nigerians that hitherto hailed Buhari as a saviour began to clamour for his replacement. Their wish came to pass in August 27, 1985 when Brig. Sani Abacha announced that Buhari had been overthrown and replaced by Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. Once again, the curse of Sisyphus had reared its ugly head.

The coup that brought Babangida to power, like others before it, can be justified by the increasing frustrations among Nigerians due to steep drop in their wellbeing and declining economy. Of course, the situation was worsened by the repressive rule of Buhari and Idiagbon. Nevertheless, since the “rematch” of July 29, 1966, members of the Nigerian army especially from the north had learned that a successful coup is a veritable avenue for amassing wealth and power within a short time. Power-and-wealth-hungry soldiers can easily find excuses to seize power by force.

Meanwhile, as the coup against Gen. Murtala Mohammed amply demonstrates (including the karmic tenor of his brutal fate), the Nigerian army contained officers who had no qualms about killing their superiors in order to pursue political objectives or settle scores. Karl Maier in his book, This House has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis presents Babangida’s Machiavellian rationale for the coup that brought him to power thus: “You see, we are very smart people. We don’t intervene when we know the climate is not good for it or the public will not welcome it. We wait until there is frustration in the society. In all the coups, you find there is one frustration or the other. Anytime there is frustration, we step in. and then there is demonstration welcoming the redeemers.” Gen. Babangida’s message is clear: coup plotters wait patiently for frustration to build up in the country and, pretending to gullible Nigerians that they were redeemers, step in – and the game of musical chairs continues.

As is the case with even the worst government anywhere in the world, Gen. Babangida’s government was an admixture of successes and failures, although the latter were by far weightier than the former. Given the suffocating atmosphere created by the Buhari-Idiagbon regime, Babangida was enthusiastically welcomed by redeemer-seeking Nigerians, a situation that he exploited fulsomely. He released a number of politicians and journalists jailed by his predecessor, and instituted economic and political re-engineering programmes that eventually ended up as egregious failures. On the economic front, the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) that Babangida and his cohorts dressed up in nationalistic rhetoric and promoted as home-grown and, therefore, as a better alternative to the one proposed by the IMF, was very devastating to the generality of Nigerians.

It widened the gap between the rich and the poor, and exacerbated the problems of inflation, declining manufacturing capacity and severe unemployment which the regime inherited from Buhari. According to Maier, “Under Babangida the government’s weak fiscal discipline and [his] direct control of the Central Bank doomed the SAP. Oil licenses were granted to indigenous companies run by IBB’s cronies. While rampant unemployment and rising inflation slammed the middle classes and the urban poor, a relatively small group of banks, speculators, corrupt government officials and importers of cheap foreign goods prospered.”

Regarding efforts to stem corruption, Nigerians, mostly the youths, started embracing more and more the radioactive philosophy of “wealth without genuine work.”

Babangida’s  political transition programme ended with the annulment of the June 12 presidential election results. The complex issues surrounding the transition to civil rule from 1986 to 1993 are well-known, most of which have been documented by scholars and other interested parties.

To be concluded.


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