By Eric Teniola
DURING the intrigues leading to General Sani Abacha’s assumption of power in November 1993, Brigadier General Bashir S. Magashi was given command of the Brigade of Guards in September. He was a member of the Abacha Military Caucus that reviewed the military and the political situation resulting from annulment of the June 12, 1993, issuing a report titled “The Way Forward” with recommendations for a partial military regime.
Shortly after democracy was restored in May 1999, the government announced the compulsory retirement of all armed forces officers who had served for six or more months in military governments, including Major-General Bashir Magashi. In a book titled Making Africa Work, former President Obasanjo explained why he retired the military officers who had served in political offices. Former President Obasanjo wrote from 57 to 59 pages of the book, edited by Greg Mills, Jeffrey Herbst, Olusegun Obasanjo and Dickie Davies.
In the book, President Obasanjo declared: “the military’s intervention in Nigerian politics in January 1966 went on like musical chairs for 33 years, fouling the political air, causing instability and uncertainty, causing destruction of lives and properties, resulting in a civil war and leaving the country divided internally and isolated externally. This peaked when General Sani Abacha ruthlessly and recklessly pursued his programme of self-succession and life-presidency. Nigeria was impoverished economically, politically, intellectually and culturally. It became a pariah state. Nigerians deserted in droves and sought refuge all over the world. Nigeria was left prostrate.
“Those who raised their voices were either assassinated or put in jail, myself and my second-in-command as military head of state, Shehu Yar’Adua, included. We were arrested for a phantom coup and sentenced to long imprisonment. But for international intervention, we would have been killed. All the same, Chief M.K.O. Abiola, who was considered the winner of the aborted election of June 12, 1993, died in jail. The sudden death of Abacha was providential, opening the gates of prisons and political reform, reversing the exodus out of Nigeria. General Abubakar Abdulsalami, who succeeded Abacha, lost no time in releasing political prisoners and created a conducive atmosphere for Nigerian exiles to return home. He also opened the way for another attempt at democratic dispensation. It was in this new democratic experiment that I was persuaded to contest for the presidency of Nigeria.
“I joined one of the three political parties, the Peoples Democratic Party. Since the advent of the military in the political life of Nigeria, there had been debate on how to put an end to the recurrence and persistence of coup d’etat. Coups had become more and more destructive and destabilizing. No matter the excuses, they had a major negative impact on democracy, governance and unity of the country. Nigeria needed to put an end to its perpetual coups. The often prescribed solution of specifically putting a ban on coups in the constitution was not the answer.
“A coup is treason punishable by death only if it fails, and yet it puts the plotter in the State House if it succeeds. It was destructive and destabilizing practice, wasteful for the military itself, and undermining in terms of discipline, good order and military conduct. A junior officer takes a gun and looks at his political boss and senior officers through its sights, bumps them off and puts himself in the State House. He instantly becomes superior and senior to all political and military officers. Such was the situation existing in Nigeria between 1966 and 1999.
“On assuming office as President, I decided to put an end these incessant coups. I asked the military to submit the list of all officers who had either participated in coups in the past or benefitted in the dividends of coups by being appointed to political office as governors or ministers. Not knowing what the list was meant for, the military faithfully compiled it and submitted it to me as the commander-in-chief and chairman of council of each of the arms of service. Ninety-three officers in all were given six hours’ notice of retirement on a Friday, and ordered not to spend the Friday night in uniform or in barracks to prevent adverse reaction. The following Monday, the service councils met to ratify the retirement of all the officers. From my vantage position and background as a battle-tested and war-victorious general, I knew that an officer out of uniform and barracks is like a fish out of water, and their power and influence would be greatly diminished.
“The retirement of these 93 officers all in one day was salutary. It meant that taking part in a coup or benefitting from one could catch with you, no matter how long it would take, and for as long as you are alive. Their retirement did not stand in the way of any of them entering public life or making progress in it. Some of them later entered politics and became elected governors; some went into parliament; others got appointed as ministers or ambassadors. The idea was not to punish them for life but exclude them from positions in the military where they could be coup planners, coup plotters, coup executors or coup beneficiaries. And once an officer has tasted the trappings of a political life, of living in a government house, with free food and so on, he would easily look for excuses to want more if he is in a position to make it happen.
The fact that since 1999 there has not been a coup or an attempted coup in Nigeria speaks of the effectiveness of the measures taken to put an end to the destabilizing influence of coups on the political life and dispensation of Nigeria. Before 1999, and since independence, the longest that a democratic dispensation had lasted was six years – from 1960 to 1966.