Military’s Protracted Stay In Power: An error of judgment

Being an excerpt from the book, The Federal Republic of Nigerian Army (Malthouse, 2001) authored by the former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and Military Administrator of Plateau State, Major General Mohammed Christopher Alli (retd) who transited on Sunday, November 19, 2023 at the age of 79. He would have clocked 80 on December 25, 2023.

The final thesis in the analysis of the role of the military in governance must relate to the question, should the military have remained aloof in the times they intervened in politics?  Could they have contributed more to the nation building with the resources at their disposal?

Has Nigeria achieved greater stability and security in the post-Independence years with military rule?  Expectedly, the military claims that their contribution to the development process was to provide leadership and chart dynamic directions in times of crises.  Did they succeed?

My conclusion would be that the military’s protracted stay in power was an error of judgment, with the benefit of hindsight. It should have confined its energies mainly to: supporting civil power, strengthening and protecting political structures and democracy. It should have limited its emergence to short and sharp interventions not lasting more than six months, for new elections to take place. It would therefore have been corrective action directed primarily at rapid restoration of the people’s power and democratic structures.

No one can really qualify or quantify the opportunity costs to the nation with all certainty. One might consider the part played by the political class in the development of a political culture. Did the military, particularly General Ibrahim Badamasi, set out to discourage and disfigure the political class? Perhaps, Major Chuwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu will turn in his grave at these questions.

Knowingly or unknowingly, the military steered itself into a corner and straight jacket, from which lit was construed, by the deprived, in all seriousness, as a grand champion of a section of the country. At the end of military rulership, threats of confederation, real federation, restructuring, secession and devolution of powers pervade the political scenario with attendant fears and perpetual instability.

All tensions emanate from religion, ethnic nationalism and resource appropriation, or the concept of national patrimony as the basis of ownership of localized resources. They stem from the struggle by the Big Three, in triangular rivalry to forge hegemonies. Indeed, all ethnic nationalities, Igbo, Hausa/Fulani/Yoruba and others intrinsically need the Nigerian space to actualize their respective aspirations and would probably not ask for less.

However, the bonds of unity are constructed on old fixed structures that continue to vitiate whatever we do to achieve development and security.  The trickle-sown has been a vision into the dark, poverty levels multiplying against the backdrop of diminishing resources, and population increases. These are creating new, formidable tensions like violent crime, religious extremism, squint-eyed and fumbling citizenry, flawed citizenship, nepotism and youth revolt.  We are a nation under siege, largely out of our own making.

Peace in Nigeria, like unity, is a matter of who is giving grounds or who is paying the price for it. So long as the Hausa/Fulani are not killing themselves, or Ndigbo are not killing themselves, or the Yorubas are not dying, so long as the minorities are the ones dying, and it is not reported in the press, there is peace in Nigeria. Peace and unity can always be enforced by the big three, their whims and caprices become the solution. Others can be intimidated or forced into line by the use of the Armed Forces, indeed, the Nigerian Army. It has inadvertently allowed itself to become the political instrument of the mighty.

Speaking at a talk-shop organized by the Catholic Secretariat, Lagos, at the Yoruba Tennis Club on 14th May, 2000, Reverend Father George Ehusani had this to say on the subject of Forgiveness and Reconciliation:

“…. The events of the last one year surely bring to the fore the imperative of genuine national reconciliation. Perhaps the people and their leaders had underestimated the extent of the problems that had been built up in the land over the years of debauchery, when social injustice, economic isolation and political banditry reigned, breeding widespread anger and resentment that were kept in check all the while only by military might.”

He proceeds further: “With sporadic skirmishes that erupt from North to South, and East to West, over unresolved ethnic, religious, political and economic differences, Nigerians must now realize that there is a lot of structural defect in the land that we must deal with courageously.”

He explains that: “Many in the Igbo nation are resentful of the rest of Nigeria for the injustices of the 1967 to 1970 Civil War, the abandoned property imbroglio, and the alleged post-war marginalization of Igbo people in some vital segments of the national economy. Many in the Yoruba nation are angry with the rest of Nigeria for the injustices associated with the June 12 election annulment and the alleged post-June 12 persecution and marginalization of Yoruba people. The co-location of small ethnic nationalities, which we call the Middle Belt, is a today vexed by the appendage status accorded them in the nation’s constitution. Many of them allege that they have suffered numerous injustices because of being falsely associated with the North all this time, while they gained nothing from the Northern hold on power.

The citizens of the oil producing Niger Delta are poised for a show down with the rest of Nigeria, and if recent clashes are anything to go by, their youths appear to be well equipped for war with the rest of Nigeria, because of the callous exploitation of their natural resources for decades, while they are abandoned in a state of destitution. Many among the Hausa and Fulani Muslims of the core North who desire to live under the supremacy of Islamic Sharia are incensed that the rest of Nigeria wants to jettison their religious freedom. With each group, there is often bitterness over past hurts and wounds which have never been seriously addressed.”

It is an eloquent and most direct assessment of the political and economic conditions in Nigeria which existing political structures and their defenders wish to sweep, characteristically, under the carpet.  But then, it is only a skeletal sketch of our real politic.  Reverend George Ehusani is an act of faith for Nigeria, broad-minded, intensely agitated by the Nigerian condition, imbued with stony courage in his Sunday-Sunday medicine to cure Nigerians of the Abacha syndrome at the Church of Assumption, Falomo, Lagos. Listening to him was like watching the nation’s problem ooze out from the veins. There are few youths with his moral courage, eloquence, balance and commitment. He fought from the pulpit and in a cassock, to create a better nation for his flock.

While the Niger Delta peoples condescend without question or prevarication to sharing their endowments with the rest of Nigeria, we have denied them a voice through existing structures from contributing to decisions on how the benefits can be dispensed.  We have given them a devastated land in return, stone for bread, bullets for discourse, death (Odi-style) for abundant life, blood for clean water, disease for good health and darkness for light.  We have for some inexplicable reason stalled the development of solid minerals that abound in other minority areas. And so, sitting snugly on the resources of the endangered Delta peoples, we sharpen the military to quell any restiveness while one man, one vote ensures that they should be permanently crowded out of the decision-making process and platforms, ruling councils, parliaments, houses of assembly or presidency.

Such an insensate situation is only possible with the affairs of the minorities. The security forces are primarily designed to quell their patrimonial expressions. Their few sons and daughters who pass through the eye of the needle to the crumbs, are also too busy savouring and displaying the bits of silver from the master’s table to understand the issues of the Nigerian federation. You can count them at the tip of the fingers of one hand; they are the outposts of Nigeria’s power-brokers.

As we lampoon the North in all the years they held national political power, it is pertinent to emphasise that they hold the spotlight in our assessments because they had control of national power.  As I have endeavoured to demonstrate, coups are directed at the source of power, not at those who are peripheral to it or are not central to its equations. Major Chuwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu’s coup illustrates this. He took out Northern and Western leaders because they either controlled national political power or were affiliated to it at the time. Sir Ahmadu Bello and Chief Samuel Akintola confirm this.  Any other coup after that would be ingrained with the same parochial fervor because power in Nigeria had resided in a parochial ‘cacoon’.

The central theme of my thesis therefore is that the Big Three are to blame for the reverses in our development. Given the same control structures that prevailed in the last forty years, it is evident that neither the Ndigbo nor the Yorubas would have been less self-seeking and or less impetuous about a correct path to Nigeria’s development, justice, fair-play and equity. The regimes of General Aguiyi Ironsi and General Olusegun Obasanjo illustrate this.

As I have sought to impute, many of our leaders are really local champions generally. The competition for power and oil between the major tribes still defines the texture of Nigerian politics and economic relationships. No Nigerian leader since Independence, has been able or capable of rising above oil revenue, none would have moved the nation any inch without it.

The nature of peace is equally defined in this concept. So long as the three ethnic nationalities can snugly continue to maximize their benefits, even at the expense of genocide against the minority ethnic groups, there is peace. This in fact, is the essence of peace in Nigeria. Or, how do we explain the readiness of successive federal governments to direct the full force of security forces at minorities expeditiously, but not so at major ethnic tribes when they manifest their needs through violence.

The grunts and grumbling within the union are reverberating around us and the world. Those who are overwhelmed by the conservative and rigid notions of unity are holding the nation to ransom. The wind of change is in motion and will smash in due course all obstacles to the realization of our diverse potentials and collective opportunities as the great Sir Ahmadu Bello implied at the 1957 Constitutional Conference.

As a sign, the politics of ethnic nationalism has seen the de-coupling of the area of Midwest from the Yoruba West, the Eastern Delta from the Igbo East and the emergence of the South-South bloc. The Middle Belt is now decoupling from the Northern hegemony. This movement must subsequently lead on to increased ethnic identification and ethnic nationalism among the constituent nationalities, within the nation. Those who wish to stand in the way of peaceful change will reap the whirlwind. Wisdom may flow in the veins of our elders, but their failure to grasp the forces and need for change is lodged in their medulla oblongata. We are faced with a conflict of new ideas, of times, of understanding and requisite actions.

Contemporary history is replete with antecedents, worldwide.  As can be observed, from 1914 to 2000 and since Nigeria was surreptitiously amalgamated and consigned to the major tribes, it is now turning a full circle. The diverse political expressions are instructive: devolution, confederation, federalism, secession or forced unity, the options are clear to all Nigerians. We either recognize these emerging configurations or Nigeria would have failed.

When the signs and opportunity were evident, it demurred and vacillated. Nigeria is God’s own country if its value systems and paradigms are just.  We should not be constrained by the vision of the foreground; we should liberate our nation by the opportunities in the horizon or, new and fresh frontiers. We should not be frightened of experimentation in a world built, formed and sustained by human inventiveness and innovation. The third millennium offers a great opportunity to those who are not afraid to dare, but are sincere in their course of action.

In the political party spectrum, balance of power between parties, and not rotation of the presidency, holds the key to choice or healthy rivalry for allocation of resources. It is not surprising that even General Olusegun Obasanjo acknowledges Nigeria as the most corrupt nation on the face of the earth, possibly in the universe, this inevitably translates into the nation’s body polity and it is ordered by it.  Whether by constitutional dictate or social orientation, our national foundation is primed to the chemistry of an earthquake rumbling to volcanic implosion and explosion.

It is a nation sustained on the threat of the use of force not discourse and consensus; it is based on the numbers and might of the majority which ensures that the voice of the weak is perpetually subdued, stifled and submerged in the realms of one man one vote. It is a condition sentenced to perpetual instability.

We need justice not force, political alternatives not a one-party state, compatibility of ethnic nationalities and not hegemonies and static, unified structures. We need to bridge the rich-poor class, not the impoverishment of a wider population or the extinction of the middle class, the catalyst of growth. We need open opportunities not patronage that exalts mediocrity and brazenly demeans excellence. We need communal patrimony, not majority conquest of resources. All these will ensure that we do not forge a tale of many cities or many nations or the debacle of people’s revolt.

The phenomenon of King Jaja of Opobo, Isaac Boro, Ken Saro Wiwa, Orkar/Mukoro, Egbesu, Oduduwa Peoples Congress, Arewa Peoples Congress, Biafra, Urhobos, Tivs, et cetera, may be construed as insurrections, but they are really youth revolts against the status quo founded on subterfuge accepted by their elders. And like the legendary Soweto youth revolt, Kosovo ethnic nationalism, Eritrea Independence movement, history is on the side of the deprived and oppressed.

These movements sow seeds that are transferrable from generation to generation.  Such seeds once sown, on the part of perceived or apparent oppression, are bound to germinate, gestate, ferment and find space in time. The nation may not disintegrate, but the status quo and inherent lies must surely collapse. Only time will tell. The time is now for the Nigerian nation to convert its ageing leaders to this digital age, one of intellectual poise, discussion, dialogue, inventiveness and dynamic experimentation and responses.

Nigeria is gradually becoming a nation of no-dominant values except that everything and anything can be rationalized and accommodated.  Government’s decree is a holy option. We would frequently say, in a dismal tradition of polity surrender, it’s all right, let’s put it behind us, let’s have peace, it’s his turn and he will come and go, they are better than politicians, do not argue with a man carrying a gun, he will be there for a while, do not rock the boat, chop-I-chop, not in our character (a lie), anything but the moral courage to uphold any precepts or ideals and principles for long, Again, I would fall back to Segun Gbadegesin when he observes that: “many of our people would rather blame everything on destiny and God’s will. They trivialized our terrible circumstances by attributing the death of a 14-year-old in the hands of armed robbers to God’s will. Even our traditional sages think differently…. If a small child dies, they say it is God’s will, if an adult dies, they say it is God’s will, it would appear that God has nothing better to do than to go about the world creating pain and sorrow.”

Nigerian Army

He accepts that this fatality “has therapeutic effect. But a therapy that is initiated and sustained by a philosophy of resignation to fate can only dehumanize us.”  Finally, he advises us to stand up to what we believe in, and to stand long enough to be unequivocal.

Anyone, no matter how unstable, can govern Nigeria if he can deceive, manipulate, appeal to base sentiments, enrich and empower a few people because we are slaves to power, wealth, fame and rhetoric. It is therefore no wonder that, no less a personage of General Olusegun Obasanjo observed, after his release from prison, that aspiring Nigerian leaders should be subjected to sanity and mental stability test before they can hold leadership positions. It is as usual, the rhetoric of one out of power. We have suggested new dimensions and parameters for collective values namely: democracy, the rule of law, secularism, federalism, and one citizenship.

One may add, the environment and defence of the constitution to the end, unreservedly. It is my contention that these paradigms, in addition to equitable resource dispensation or revenue allocation formula, will form the basis of a lasting Nigerian federation. They should provide the parameters for national civic education and referendum beyond which no individual leader or interest group can trudge by military fiat or otherwise, without a roaring resistance from the population. It is a pity that our capacity for resistance to authority is questionable.

The leadership path cut by Nigeria for itself since Independence and by the military particularly, in their years in power, has paid questionable dividends.  As Nigeria’s Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, Chike Obi, enunciated, our leaders can follow the Churchillian path of “open criticism, not silent opposition. He surrounded himself with men of strong character and high professional attainment and he expected them to be outspoken.”  It is apparent that we had in the past chosen and welcomed the Hitlerian nuance.  He who “imposed restrictions on information available to his subordinates as an essential feature of his exercise of power, for it meant that no one could argue with him on a basis of equal “knowledge.”  Our leaders exploit our poverty and ignorance because, that is the foundation of deceit and our misrule.  Nigerians, therefore, need not only to be outspoken against, and for their leaders, they need to outrightly speak out, regional, religious and ethnic affiliations notwithstanding.

The Armed Forces, indeed, the Army is not greater than the nation. Patriotism is not an exclusive domain of the military; they are neither the custodians of the nation, nor the defenders of the constitution. They are a miniscule part of the whole. This defence function is a collective duty of the diverse and united peoples of Nigeria, presumably educated and schooled in the state system and conscious of their individual and collective obligations. Those soldiers who are overwhelmed by a misconstruction of their role in a modern state have to be held to account, for their self-appointed messiahship.

One, for interrupting the nation’s political growth rudely; two, for all the blood spilled in secret trials and set-ups. It is an outstanding tenet of our legal system that any breach of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria or statutes must be redressed and not rewarded. The inclusion of successful coup makers in the Council of State in the 1999 Constitution is therefore a contradiction of the context and content of the laws.

It is inadvertently an endorsement of the coup culture and the message is clear.  To entrench a democratic profile and visage, the nation must uphold the laws of the land.  If it takes a century to act, so why not?  Or else, it would be assumed that the nation’s reticence on the matter is a suggestion that certain regions, areas, interest groups, institutions and individuals are above the law. It is an encouragement for future generations that the part to power, wealth and fame a through the barrel of the gun.  We cannot afford the luxury of perpetuating the Federal Republic of the Nigerian Army.

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