Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Whispering Drums With Maigani

by Musa Ibrahim

The Making Of A Coup

"If a man with a gun and a military following can impose his will on a nation when he disagrees with the actions of the elected government, then another man with a gun and a military following is entitled to replace the present ruler when things become too much for him in his turn..." The London Times, January 1984. There is usually no much ado when soldiers in Africa intervene to overthrow civilian regimes because of the universal and standard litany that accompany such overthrow. The charges against the civilian governments have often been the same - mismanagement of the economy, corruption and indiscipline, weak and inept leadership and everything bad under the sun, vague as they may be. Besides, with the military's self-imposed image as the custodian and protectors of their various societies, each of their actions are supposed to be seen from a moral and unselfish point of view and therefore unquestionable. In other words, all military coups against civilian governments are supposed to be viewed as right and justifiable and therefore acceptable. But in the history of Africa, military coups have not only been against civilian governments alone. There have been military coups against military regimes. This is why a logic of military coups in Africa has always proved logically impossible.

In fact, political analysts have agreed that there is no reason why a military coup should occur at all since military regimes themselves have often been overthrown through a coup d'etat. But coups have continued to occur all the same and students of politics have continued to bring out a set of explanatory schemes to explain one military coup after the other. For the purpose of this write-up, the question to be answered is: why does the military intervene only to be overthrown by another military regime?

Again there are many explanatory schemes advanced by social and political scientists, some more plausible than the others, some more coherent than the others. The most advanced of these, often put forward by the military itself are the custodian theory and the reference group theory. The custodian theory is simply the notion that since the military is the custodian of the nation's laws they have the right to intervene when they feel the laws are being flouted. The reference group schema is a sophisticated extension of the custodian theory with its basic underlying assumption being that an individual's behaviour is likely to be conditioned or influenced by the behaviours of those he admires.

Translated into the mechanics of a coup, this means in effect that another section of the military is most likely to intervene to overthrow a fellow military regime when the role performance of the military political leadership falls short of the expectation held by the military, or when the military feels it is comparatively disadvantaged relative to other groups that it can compare itself to.

The custodian theory was employed by Colonel (later Major-General) E.K. Kotoka of Ghana to explain the overthrow of President Nkrumah in 1966 and was used by the military again to overthrow Busia. Brigadier (later General) Murtala Ramat Mohammed of Nigeria employed the group reference theory to overthrow the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon in 1975, saying that the administration of Gowon had fallen below the expectations of the military. It is within this context that I want to examine the happenings and differences now emanating within the hierarchy of Nigeria's present Supreme Military junta.

When Nigeria's generals staged their midnight coup on the 31st December 1983, it was on the pretext that the civilian administration was no longer operating within the dictates of the laws of the land as embodied in the 1979 Constitution. Employing the custodian theory as a justification for their coup, they decreed that theirs was basically a corrective regime. Their first task therefore was to bring as head of state, somebody within their ranks that will symbolise and embody their anti-corruption crusade in order that the regime may gain legitimacy in the ranks of the populace. In this regard, there were two contenders General Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida.

Indeed, because of his immense popularity within the rank and file of the army, Babangida was considered a hot favourite and the best candidate for the post. He has an unblemished and enviable military career behind him and is the one general who, despite having been a figure to reckon with previous military administrations had never held a political appointment in the past. But ironically, it was Babangida who supported and put weight behind Buhari when the time came for the selection of a new head of state.

To many insiders, Buhari was described (from the initial stages) strong willed, well-intentioned and determined to undo some of the follies of the politicians. His modest unostentatious life-style as well as political role in past military administrations (he was a governor later a minister in charge of Nigeria’s petroleum products), made him suitable compromise candidate for post of head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. But experience has shown in Nigeria since independence, good intentions and apparent determination do not in the end count as evidence of good government or leadership. Nigerian populace only judge results. It is the lack of results from the pre military leadership that has brought about the present stalemate and wagging of tongues.

As far as Buhari's personal credibility is concerned, a huge cloud has hung over that following rumours and revelations about his property holdings which included a personal residence built at a staggering cost of N700,000, a 20,000 acres of farm which six million naira was invested and his not too straight dealings when both governor and petroleum minister. Besides, because of the company Buhari now keeps, he is increasingly being propelled into the wrong direction to the extent that the commander-in-chief is at the moment officially accessible to only a handful of public and private advisers. The result is a complete alienation of Buhari from the yearnings and aspirations of the people and from collective leadership of the regime.

It is again a known fact that Buhari himself and a few of his officials and close aides are flouting the need for leadership by example. There mounting evidence that the nation’s No.2 man, Idiagbon, who is the chief launcher of the anti corruption crusade and the architect of WAI is not practicing what he preaches. He is said to be involved in the indiscriminate issuance of import licences, and the distribution as well as hoarding of essential commodities.

There is Rafin Dadi, Buhari's security boss who is suspected to be indulging in secret unofficial spending. It is known that most of his financial improprieties are from funds meant for external security. And there is the unwarranted involvement of Dodan Barracks in the distribution of essential commodities. As regards this, it is Buhari's military aide, Major Jokolo who is solely in charge of the allocations of essential commodities to both prospective consumers and retailers.

The list of imperfections in the regime seems endless and the military is increasingly becoming restless, bent on trying to salvage what is left of the image, reputation and personality of the military institution. There are two options or choices here. The military may either prop up a regime that has seemingly lost the will to act and which has brought the army into disrepute with the populace, or remove the principal actors and so terminate the regime. Murtala Mohammed was faced with the same choices during the Gowon regime. He chose the later and gave the country a new lease of life. It is the same dilemma facing Nigeria's military today and what course of action they decide to take is entirely up to them. But let it be made clear to them that time is running out and the people are getting impatient.

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