Since 1966 when the military in Nigeria invaded the political arena and pulled their stunts, characterised by coups and countercoups that were spiced with a few years of civilian intervention here and there, Nigeria as a nation has not really had the experience of true democratic evolution. It is over fifty years, and for the majority of Nigerians it is like waking up one sunny morning to embark on a long journey and discovering that despite the flood of sunlight, you still continue to hit your foot against a huge stone every ten steps you walk. Apart from the pain, or perhaps because of the pain, it will decidedly take a longer time to arrive at your destination, tired or even completely worn out.
Bishop Matthew Kukah has ironically suggested in his book “Witness to Justice” that we [humanity] may never know the real reason for the military intervention of 1966 and beyond. But I think we do know. Even Bishop Kukah himself captured the reasons for this dastardly act of the military in Nigeria in the same book. The first was the lust for power on the part of the top military officers. The issue of falling in love with absolute power has been dealt with by many writers. In summary, when one wants power, there are demands. First, the one becomes emotionally bereft. The quest for power first deprives one of emotion, and later it denies one a conscience. At that point, one can do just about anything to remain strong and “relevant”.
The second was the need to settle scores within military circles. The third, and perhaps the most compelling, was greed for material wealth. And again, before the very first coup that Majors Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Chukwuma Nzeogwu hatched, there had also been serious trouble in the Western Nigerian House of Assembly. That was another reason or rather another flimsy excuse for the military boys to strike at the fragile root of democratic evolution in the country.
The hard fact that counts though is that the military cannot be entirely singled out for blame in the situation Nigerians found themselves from then on. Even the names of the dominant parties in each of the three major regions before the first military invasion of democracy in the country suggested what the parties were up to. At the federal level, the Northern Peoples’ Congress, NPC which was the dominant party in the country left no one in doubt of its ethnically-motivated vision and mission. The East was dominated by the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons. The name of this party also underlined its import and focus. The use of the word “council” to depict the base and quality of its composition seemed to suggest that it was a party whose leadership precariously leaned on the shoulders of the community’s elders.
The West was dominated by the Action Group. The name also pointed to the party’s focus and commitment. The two words, “action” and “group” looked simple. But in actual fact, they were pregnant with meaning.
As far back as 1945, their leader Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who was then in London, had formed the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, an ethnically-motivated cultural organisation of Yoruba elite comprising of Yoruba chiefs, professionals, academicians and business moguls. Awolowo’s ambition was to bring all those relevant Yoruba indigenes under one umbrella and to sensitize the organisation on the “threat” of Igbo domination of the country which could happen in the near future. Any form of Igbo domination in the country must be resisted.
By 1948, he had set up branches in Nigeria which were to highlight the need for Yoruba education, to screen scholarships for indigent citizens whose parents could not afford to train at school and to maintain the dignity and strength of Yoruba monarchical and similar institutions. This was the organisation which basically formed the Action Group, AG, the dominant political party in Western Nigeria at the time.
By 1962, the AG had strongly entrenched its foot-hold in the politics of Western Nigeria. But as destiny would have it, the party leaders fell apart and the party became fragmented. As the seriousness of the crisis escalated in the Western House of Assembly, the NPC-led federal government declared a state of emergency in Western Nigeria. It took over the administration of the region and appointed the personal physician of the Prime Minister, Dr. Majekodunmi as the sole administrator of the region.
The disagreement within the Western Nigeria House of Assembly, alsoknown as the Action Group Crisis of 1962, was so serious that legislators physically fought themselves and the Mace was broken on one legislator’s head. It was an act of hooliganism that the country was experiencing for the first time since the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern Protectorates in 1914. It was also one of the major loopholes the politicians of the First Republic made easily and readily available to the military. And they took advantage of the situation.
As has been appropriately noted by many pundits, the taste of power is never relinquished without a fight. So, the moment the military tasted power in the political dispensation, they felt the need to remain “relevant” in the scheme of things in the country. They institutionalised their form of rule from what they knew of British colonial administrative style, capitalising on the vulnerability and inherent fears of indigenous communities.
As Bishop Kukah has also noted, the failure of the military to effectively get the country on a proper footing in the democratic process and the arduous journey towards nation building was not necessarily because the military had no such intentions. Not that the policies they adopted were skewed. Not that there were no competent men and women in the country to implement those policies. The fact, and that is the truth that even the military should accept if their intention in Nigeria is genuine, is that by its very nature, the military and its institutions were never designed to manage a pluralistic society such as Nigeria is, with over 250 ethnic groups and 250 languages.
The military establishment as an institution deals with order and unquestioning obedience. It deals with strict hierarchy and command control. These are diametrically opposed to the demands of democracy. Democracy in a pluralistic society such as Nigeria demands dialogue, collaboration, consensus and shared values. These are the ingredients that create the favourable conditions for integration and a common vision and mission, which in this case, is nation building. This is also why many Nigerians came down heavily on the head of state, General Buhari, when as a retired military officer he dared suggest that the unity and oneness of Nigeria was not negotiable. In a democratic setting, it should be negotiable.
So, now that we know that the military institutions in Nigeria, due to the nature of their set-up, are more likely to compound rather than effectively deal with the challenges of cohesion and nation building that Nigeria has continued to face, what is there more to do, to ensure that the country smoothly continues to move forward in its journey towards democracy and nation building? Bearing in mind that the general conception in African politics is usually that of the winner-take-all, what do we do? Knowing that this concept of winner-take-all often makes it “necessary” for the ruling organisation to mobilise every available state apparatus to invest so much power in itself that it can effectively deal with any form of opposition, where do we go from here?
In his book: “ There was a Country”, Professor Chinua Achebe rightly notes that “once a people have been dispossessed and subjected to dictatorships for such a long time as in Nigeria’s case, the oppressive process also effectively strips away from the minds of the people the knowledge that they have rights.” I highlighted this dilemma in one of my articles. Over the years many people have tended to suggest that there is trouble in especially the Northern parts of the country because the North has remained underdeveloped and I asked, by who?
Among all the 15 Heads of State who have administered Nigeria since its independence in 1960, two came from the West. One was a military officer, the other a business mogul who was only allowed in office for less than three months. Three came from the East. One was a military officer who was cut short just six months into his leadership. The other two were civilians. Eight came from the North. Six of these were military officers. Two were civilians.
From the West, General Olusegun Obasanjo was Head of State for 3 years and 258 days from 16 January 1976 to 1st October 1979 when he voluntarily relinquished office and again for 8 years from 29 May 1999 to 29 May 2007. Chief Ernest Shonekan was Head of State for only 83 days from 26 August to 17 November 1993.
From the East, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was ceremonial Head of State for 2 years and 107 days from 1st October 1963 to 16 January 1966. Azikiwe was deposed in a military coup. General Aguiyi Ironsi became Head of State for 177 days, from 16 January 1966 to 12 July 1966. He was assassinated in a military counter-coup. Dr Goodluck Jonathan was Head of State for 5 years and 25 days from 5 May 2010 to 29 May 2015. He conceded defeat to the incumbent President at the 2015 elections.
From the North, General Yakubu Gowon was Head of State for 8 years and 362 days from 1st August 1966 to 29July 1975. Gowon was ousted in a military coup. General Murtala Muhammed was Head of State for 199 days, from 29 July to 13 February 1976. Muhammed was assassinated in a military coup.
Alhaji Shehu Shagari was Head of State for 4 years and 91 days from 1st October 1979 to 31st December 1983. He was ousted in a military coup.
General Muhammadu Buhari who is the current President was the Head of State for one year and 239 days from 31December 1983 to 27 August 1985. He too was ousted in another military coup. General Ibrahim Babangida was Head of State for 7 years and 364 days from 27 August 1985 to 26 August 1993. Babangida was also ousted in a military coup. General Sani Abacha was Head of State for 4 years and 203 days from 17 November 1993 to 8 June 1998. Abacha died in office. General Abdulsalami Abubakar was Head of State for 355 days from 8 June 1998 to 29 May 1999. He voluntarily relinquished office.
Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar ‘Adua was Head of State for 2 years and 341 days from 29 May 2007 to 5 May 2010. Yar ‘Adua died in office.
This means that for the over 55 years Nigeria has had independence, the Easterners have ruled for about 8 years, the Westerners for about 12 years and the Northerners for about 35 years.
But instead of concentrating on issues that would bind the various ethnic groups in the country more closely together, instead of focussing on bridging the gap between the extremely rich families and the extremely poor ones across the country, these military “leaders” – most of who hailed from the North – kept only accumulating so much money for their families.
The masses of the people began to wonder if those whom they trusted with their votes were actually showing love for their country and its development or were they voted into public office purely for the benefit of their own families and friends? That, unfortunately, remained the general impression on which hinged one of the most important changes that Nigerians have continued to look up to. Nigerians will continue to need that reassurance that government is there to serve the interest of those who voted it into public office.
Politics of fear and distrust in nation building leadership only give way to the politics of greed and nation destroying. We now know that military adventurism was never meant to be a panacea for Nigeria’s match towards democracy. So, let the military and those who have military education stay off politics in Nigeria. If Nigeria must get there, the academicians in the country are the ones who must rally to the rescue. To effectively build a Nigerian nation of everyone’s dream, Nigerian politicians must dispense with the politics of fear. No more going to shrines. No more cults. No more dark forces. No more nocturnal visits to native doctors and babalowos. No more seeking of spiritual forces to fight political enemies.
This was one more symbolic legacies of one of the founding fathers of true democracy in the country: it was one lesson Dr Goodluck Jonathan taught Nigerians and their political class. It meant so much to Nigerians that former President Goodluck Jonathan was the first man to congratulate General Buhari as the results of the Presidential election filtered in and Jonathan realised his party was losing out to the opposition. Jonathan’s legacy was that of the academic class. And that is what Nigeria needs. Not money sharing cults. Yes. Nigerians need to say never again to the politics of fear.
Mr Asinugo is a London-based journalist and publisher of Imo State Business Link Magazine.