Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Drinking from the Gutter...
A reflection on the Nigerian coup

By Gogo Li, our correspondent in New York

Who will dare tell the world now that the African is capable of governing himself? When a mighty nation like Nigeria is brought to her knees by a single radio announcement, and a population of 80 million Nigerians is immediately cowed, what will she do when the South Africans arrive?
For title, I was going to use - ARGENTINA, THE THIRD WORLD AND THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME - when the coup in Nigeria happened. To the new rulers of Nigeria. I can only say: The walls have been dug, the pipelines have been laid, the waters of civilization have began to tickle in but you couldn't wait. You had to go to the gutter.

It is always tricky to speculate about the future with any certainty. But it has never be difficult to do a post mortem on history. This coup, in the Alican context, is deja vu. What is yet to be documented for all coups is the cost impact on these societies they seek to help.

On 31st December, 1983, Brigadier General Sana Abacha of the Nigerian army announced a coup, claiming to represent the Federal Armed Forces. Four years previous, the same army had allowed a return to civilian rule. It was a tenuous beginning at first, but Nigeria soon earned the accolade of the most populous democracy in Africa. Barely four months ago, the nation returned ex-president Shehu Shagari to a second four year term. But the army struck again, for the fifth time. They struck precisely because of the same reasons they had struck for the past four occasions. And with this came an end to what would have been a rich experience in self rule for black Africa

Thus, Nigeria has failed to provide a much needed lesson in leadership. There were accusations of vote riggings in the last election. But even those who made the loudest charges would be the first to admit that Shagari would have been returned to power, vote rigging or not.

It is hard to know at this point, and too late to ever know, whether the second election of Shagari could have made a difference to the state of Nigerian affairs. But for a clue, we can always look at Argentina.

Argentina, like Nigeria, is a vast country. Both are situated in politically unstable regions. The debacle of the Argentina war with Britain over the Falkland Islands, reminds one of the Biafra war of Nigeria, albeit, with different results. But a similar result was that both countries were forced to consider, individually, a return to civilian rule after the war.

The similarities were not supposed to run out soon, since each of the two countries was to embark on the creation of a civilian government, and experiments in civilized rule. The effects of these experiments, it was assumed, would help create stability for the respective regions of South America and Africa, and examples for all third world nations alike. Nigeria's part of the experiment just fizzled out.

In taking over the country, the Federal Armed Forces had cited instances of corruption. True, the scale of corruption in Nigeria is beyond the imagination of the average individual. It is also true that the entire continent of black Africa is rife with corruption. Even so, let us pretend, for the moment, that corruption is typically and indigenously an African phenomenon; to please the sympathizers of military regimes in Africa: That, simple matters of civic obligation like voting can not be accomplished without a heavy bribe The question then is whether military takeovers are the only means of ridding the continent of this endemic trait?

The democracies of the world seem to think so, with the way they hail coups in Africa. Never mind the fact that after the harsh rule of Idi Amin Dada, Uganda could now not claim to be "the pearl of East Africa". And not to forget the fact that these same democracies, out of feelings of self righteousness, named the coup compulsive nations of South America "banana republics"

There is a committed effort by the above to deny that corruption has an attraction for the coup makers of Africa: both as an excuse for seizing power and a reward because of its synonymous relationship with power

In Africa and elsewhere, protestations aside, it is predominantly the privileged who stand a good chance of getting corrupted, for example, those with political clout. In this light, it is not difficult to understand the jousting between the soldiers and the politicians

For, corruption in Africa is an end in itself, the end being a pot of gold, and the path to which is power struggle Except, the army is playing it rough and brutal

It is not difficult to remember the last military rule in Nigeria, Ghana or Uganda. It is also easy to reminisce the conditions of those periods. In 1966, General Aguys-Ironsi was in control of the Federal government. A year later. Nigeria had embarked on the Biafra war. In 1971, Milton Obote was ousted from power by Idi Amin Dada Eight years later, an estimated number of 300,000 persons were dead. In 1968, a coup led to Generals Afrifa and Kotoka toppled Nkrumah from power. Nineteen years later, Ghana is struggling to arrest the wretched state of affairs in the country. Were it not for the terrible consequences of these joustings between the "corrupted" and the "soon to be corrupted", coups in Africa would have been farcical indeed! But who is telling about the effects of these anarchic state of politics on the African persona?

Who will dare tell the world now that the African is capable of governing himself? When a mighty nation like Nigeria is brought to her knees by a single radio announcement, and a population of 80 million Nigerians is immediately cowed, what will she do when the South Africans arrive? Which African country can now dream of holding its army in check?

An African in America can't help but note the silence of the editorial pages concerning this event in Nigeria. But when Black Americans become silent as well, he begins to wonder what the difference is between the Polish Army and the Army in Nigeria. Why do Israel, Poland and the Irish Republican Army always grab the headlines in America?

He would also wonder about the mental health of the international community of nations. Shouldn't they be suffering from the dizzying effects of the musical chair governments in Africa by now? Does it matter to these nations that human lives are at stake, or does the quick cure promise of a coup supersede all else?

Perhaps, we are all waiting for the results of the experiments in Argentina. Human right violation was a crusading issue for President Carter, except he did not know about that of Africa. Argentina became the focal point of investigation of human right violations, when Jacobo Timmerman, the former publisher of La Opinion, made it an international issue. The instances of these violations are being unearthed in unmarked graves in Argentina today.


In Argentina, during the period of 1976 to 1979, some 6,000 persons disappeared (and were wisely presumed dead), according to Time Magazine. The present administration of Raul Alfonsin is using the mandate of the ballot to bring to justice all members of the junta who contributed to make the life of the average Argentinian one of nightmare. While the world watches these proceedings with some respect, it seems to have no attention left for what is happening in Africa.

The concern for happenings in Africa is hypocritically centred on corruption. Not on the destabilizing effects of coups. Yet, it is this vicious circle of military-civilian-military rule that contributes to the stench of corruption in Africa. This vicious circle must be broken. One thought it was broken in 1979.

This "31st December" mark for coups in Ghana and Nigeria, 1981 and 1983 respectively, is more than a mere coincidence. It demonstrates the propensity of the two armies to emulate each other. There is never the consideration of the ability to correct what is wrong. It is only those who don't wish Africa well who applaud when the soldiers come stomping in.

Those who wish Africa well will pray that the Argentinian example prevails. Until the recent election in Argentina, the political life of the country could best be described as tumultuous. The only difference between Nigeria and Argentina in this respect is that the latter has had a long history of it. Probably, the awareness has finally come to Argentina that there is no cover to a "banana republic" than its peel.

But, any trip to outside Africa for solutions to African problems must first entail an understanding that corruption is not necessarily the problem. The very underpinnings of the African society are warped: The politician uses his position for personal gains, the traffic officer writes his own summons, judges and dismisses cases on site; to the benefit of his pocket. The soldier just became aware of his own power to steal from public coffers.

In this regard, the soldier is the most awesome culprit. He extorts. He kills. He maims. He is the biggest mischief maker in Africa today.

Strangely enough, the whole period of the struggle for independence didn't see the participation of an active soldier. There was no rebelling by the soldier against the colonial master. Independence wasn't that important. His conscience never deserted him even though he fought in the thick of two world wars for another nation, and for a meager pay. He waited patiently for his turn to "be mentioned in dispatches". It never occurred to him that he was a cannon fodder.

The cannon fodder has become a source for leadership class in Africa today.

Perhaps, the colonial master was the first to appreciate the joke in the quick transformation from the cannon fodder to the ruling class. Thus, he is the first to welcome his boy after every coup with the words, "good, pragmatic, above corruption, and Sandhurst, or whatever, trained". It is time he learnt about their boys. Three years in office made all of them very wealthy men.

Of course, Africa deeply appreciated the colonial tradition. Witness when he talked about his experience at Sandhurst, where he said he commingled with kings, dukes, princes and nobles, and that they were taught that "all men are created equal"; without realizing that he was the only simpleton who didn't understand the intent of the message.


For this equality Idi Amin Dada de- stabilized his country. Even he didn't try so hard to ingratiate with the neo colonial system. Yet, when he overthrew Obote, he found it difficult to escape the "good old chap" reference.

Historically, the civilian has done better for his country than the soldier. Witness Nkrumah versus the bunch of rascals who came after him, or Tafawa Balewa and Aguiyi-Ironsi. Very soon, the difference between Shagari and the new rulers will show.

Next mischief maker is the civil servant, the top one. He operates like the eel, slipping past governments and leaving them dead in his wake. This erudite man of administration claims "to be only a public servant", and as such, he serves all governments. Never mind who or what kind. Wonder who originally fed him this nonsense, but don't blame the British..

The present regime in Nigeria recognizes this "shifting allegiance" tendency in the civil servant, and is alarmed; because it is going to be saddled one more round with moral dead weights. So, it has asked those who do not feel comfortable with the change to resign. Fat chance!

Meanwhile, the intellectual has just finished the business of pushing the old regime out because it was inept, corrupt, and fortunately lax in the persecution of "subversives". He comes to the trough salivating. Understandably, he had no power, in the past, to grant import licenses. He comes to government very thankful, because of fate's timely snatch of his being from the jaws of certain poverty.


The intellectual's impact is two fold; he had prepared the minds of his wards for the revolution. No wonder the universities are first to welcome the messiahs. (Thank you junior Jesus.) He also lends his prestige to theories about government that are yet to be identified.

The remaining institutions, the police, the sanitation workers, the trade unions and the like, are all fellow travellers. The same trait of serving self through opportunities runs through all of them.

But, the real blame lies with the politician. Through a series of blundering, he has led the soldier to the throne of power. It is his greed and lack of foresight that has brought Africa to grief. To him one must say, "the child that will not let his parents rest, will himself not sleep a wink".

The politician is back in power in Argentina, and the soldier is out. Hopefully, good sense will prevail. There will not be any stuffing of individual pockets, at least not on the scale as before. The civil servant will be selective. He will offer his service only to those who are constitutionally elected. As for the intellectual, he will be criticizing as before, except this time, he will direct it against those who are likely to create confusion for development. Hopefully, one soldier will be kept in the museum for ceremonial purposes.

It is difficult to know what Shagari would have done, but we will be watching Argentina.

talking drums 1984-01-16 waiting for confusion in Nigeria - another food crisis year