Remembering Nigeria’s First Military Coup, By Jibrin Ibrahim
At that time, the military had a good reputation. Following the publication of Samuel Huntington’s book “The Soldier and the State” in 1957, the political science establishment in the United States and Europe had been pushing the idea of the military as the most modern, disciplined and organised institution in Africa that could play the modernising role the Turkish military had played.
“Anybody who headed a military regime subverted the wishes of the people… We all subverted the wishes of the people.” – General Ibrahim Babangida (Tell magazine, 7/12/98)
Forty-three years ago, on the 15th of January 1966 to be precise, a certain Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu addressed Nigerians through Radio Kaduna announcing martial law and the takeover of power by the Supreme Council of the Revolution. Their aim, he said, was to “establish a strong, united and prosperous nation free of corruption and internal strife. Our method of achieving this is purely military”. By the end of the day, a significant part of the political class in the North and the West had been wiped out and the military had taken over the political system. In his column in Daily Times (3/2/1966), the late Tai Solarin blasted the civilian political class for destroying Nigerian politics through their twin evil practices of corruption and election rigging. He confidently boasted that “Now we have been saved – and we want to stay saved”. Today, we are all wiser and almost nobody believes the military can save any country.
At that time, the military had a good reputation. Following the publication of Samuel Huntington’s book The Soldier and the State in 1957, the political science establishment in the United States and Europe had been pushing the idea of the military as the most modern, disciplined and organised institution in Africa that could play the modernising role the Turkish military had played. Huntington, who died three weeks ago, was very influential in creating the ideological basis for supporting military rule.
They were presented as the African Cincinnatus. In Roman mythology, Cincinnatus was the model par excellence of human selfless service and civic consciousness. He had been invited by the representatives of the people in a period of national decay to carry out a fundamental civic responsibility – repair and reconstruct the decomposing political institutions and structures. Having brilliantly carried out his civic duty, he scorned the glory of power and the appeals for him to remain as ruler and left the scene.
In contrast to the mythical Roman hero, the soldiers in power in Nigeria were unwilling to relinquish power. In January 1966, General Aguiyi Ironsi declared that he was a temporary impartial arbiter accepting the responsibility of power only for the short time. He promised that his sojourn in power was necessary to reorganise the world of civilian politics, which would then take back the power that belongs to it.
Consistently, when military regimes were settling down as “natural rulers”, the Nigerian civil society had arisen, fought for the departure of the military to their barracks and insisted on a return to democracy. A certain form of political ethical code was thus imposed on the Nigerian military by civil society in the 1970s and 80s: That the military could organise occasional coup d’états for the resolution of acute political crisis, the reorganisation of structures and institutions and the organisation of elections, but they should not try to perpetuate their rule. That code has been broken, today; there can be no excuse for military rule.
The military, however, has ruled Nigeria for 28 out of the 49 years in which the country has existed as an independent entity and has impacted strongly on the country’s culture and institutions. As we reflect of the meaning of January 15th 1966 for our political system, it is clear to me that military rule ultimately impacts negatively on society by generalising its authoritarian values, which are in essence anti-social and destructive of politics. Politics in this sense is understood as the art of negotiating conflicts related to the exercise of power.
The military have succeeded in destroying Nigerian federalism, sacrificing it on the altar of over-centralisation. They are structurally incapable of running a federal system. Their unified command structure cannot accept a state government, which they consider to be hierarchically subordinate to the federal government, could have domains over which she is sovereign…
Military regimes have succeeded in permeating the civil society with their values – both the formal military values of centralisation and authoritarianism and the informal lumpen values associated with “barrack culture” and brutality that were derived from the colonial army. If today our political class are as crass, crude, violent and corrupt as they are, it is not unrelated to the fact that politicians have been acquiring a lot of “barrack culture” over the past three decades.
In Nigeria today, there is a decline in civility and a rise in violence in social interaction. In terms of governance, the most devastating impact of the military has been to spread the myth that they have a useful political role as an institution that could use its “monopoly” of force to prevent chaos. This is the context of General Babangida’s recent comments about the “good coup” in Guinea.
It will be recalled that since the Gowon era, the military regimes have used the “impending chaos” argument to postpone promised democratisation. The specific legacy from the military is therefore neither corruption nor authoritarianism, much as they took both to new heights. The military legacy is the fabrication of a political culture oriented towards the imposition of a command and control structure on the political process that is destroying the residual democratic values that have survived in the Nigerian society. This is the context that gives meaning to General Obasanjo’s declaration that the 2007 elections would be a do-or-die affair. That is the script Maurice Iwu used to organise massive fraud in the said elections. That is what Ogbulafor meant when he said the PDP would rule Nigeria for sixty years.
The Nigerian military, including retired officers, are today the major segment of the power elite. They are the richest people in the country and they occupy the summit of the most powerful organisations in the country’s polity and economy. It is not surprising that so many in the National Assembly have their background in the armed forces. The military, with its high concentration of corrupt and crass individuals, hedonists and putschists have wielded power for so long that they have become some of the most respected members of their communities.
The military have succeeded in destroying Nigerian federalism, sacrificing it on the altar of over-centralisation. They are structurally incapable of running a federal system. Their unified command structure cannot accept a state government, which they consider to be hierarchically subordinate to the federal government, could have domains over which she is sovereign, which as is generally recognised, is the essence of federalism. The current standoff between President Yar’Adua and Governor Jonah Jang is a reflection of this tradition. Following the coups in Mauritania and Guinea, the ideology of “good coup” is returning. We must remain vigilant.
This piece was originally published in the February 14, 2009 edition of Next newspaper.