Twilight of the (Military) Gods, By Chris Ngwodo
Odinkalu and Osori have delivered a tour de force. “Too Good to Die” is a brilliant and penetrating examination of the mindset of martial authoritarianism that still frustrates Nigerian democracy twenty years after the jackboots supposedly goose-stepped into the night. For anyone that wants to understand Nigeria’s political psychology, this book is highly recommended.
2019 is significant, not just because of the high tension melodrama with which elections are customarily charged but also because it will mark the 20th anniversary of the end of military dictatorship in Nigeria. The Fourth Republic has been the longest stretch of democratic governance in Nigerian history and has virtually doubled the life span of previous efforts during the six years of the First Republic and the four years of the Second Republic. While those eras felt distinctly like interregnums, the present dispensation has lasted long enough to evoke a greater sense of permanence. Within this period, a generation has emerged that has never heard martial music pierce the stillness of the dawn or the thunder of gunfire and heavy artillery awaken a nation to a violent change of guard. A generation has come of age that never clutched transistor radios to hear the ominous annunciations of national salvation by soldiers or borne witness to the bloody recrimination and brutal purges that followed abortive power grabs. Despite this, martial despotism continues to cast a long shadow over our institutions and public life.
Since 1966, Nigeria’s politics has been held captive by a military god complex – a totalitarian worldview that has seen a praetorian guard chart the course of Nigeria’s destiny, coopt and corrupt every institution in its quest to recreate the polity in its image with ruinous consequences. This is the central assertion put forward by Chidi Odinkalu and Ayisha Osori in their riveting new book, Too Good to Die: Third Term and the Myth of the Indispensable Man in Africa. The military god complex is a metaphor for the cocktail of moral superiority and hubris garnished with liberal doses of Machiavellian megalomania and delusions of grandeur that inspired military adventurism in Nigerian and African politics.
Within a few decades of their intervention in politics, the military had effectively constituted itself into Nigeria’s foremost political party, arrogating to itself the right to summarily terminate elected civilian governments that it adjudged to be failing the Nigerian people. In its self-appointed role as the custodian of national destiny, the military also decided which citizens and groups had the right to participate in politics, and also decided at various points that politics itself was a serious distraction from the urgent task of running the country – a task which it made clear that civilian politicians were unsuited for. From announcing themselves as remedial first responders on the scene of a national crisis in 1966, the military moved on to implement a seizure of the state and a capture of public resources so total that by 1999, they had enough wealth to hijack the nascent Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and place one of their own in the presidency at the expense of civilian elites.
What naturally grew out of martial supremacy was a profound sense of indispensability among the military dictators that ruled Nigeria with all but a handful attempting in various ways to either extend their time in power or to remain in office by staging sham transmutations into civilian leaders. As a former military dictator and civilian president and a figure apparently providentially positioned to participate at various critical junctures of Nigeria’s history, Olusegun Obasanjo, may be the most apt personification of the military god complex. And it is through the lens of his failed attempt to amend the Constitution and grant himself an opportunity to run for a third term in office that Odinkalu and Osori examine a pathology that they have dubbed “the military god complex”, and the phenomenon of indispensable men in Africa, as well as the resilience of militarism in public life.
Short shrift is made early of Obasanjo’s consistently implausible denials of involvement in the Third Term saga as the authors marshal compelling evidence showing that he, in fact, orchestrated a complicated plot to amend the Constitution. In this sense, Too Good to Die reads almost like an unauthorised biography of Obasanjo and a comprehensive deconstruction of his legacy. It is by no means a hagiography but nor is it a harangue. Instead it is a masterful reconstruction of a chain of events beginning from the military intervention of January 1966, leading up to Obasanjo’s attempt to prolong his presidency and achieve political longevity in a way that none of his predecessors, even during the era of military rule, were able to quite manage. The authors argue that “few events since the end of the Nigerian civil war and surely none since the return of elective politics in Nigeria in 1999 have been as far reaching in their consequences for the country as the Third Term Agenda.”
The Indispensable Men
The indispensability syndrome has both personal and public manifestations. Of the four men that have led Nigeria since 1999, two have been former military dictators. Of the two civilians, one, Umar Musa Yar’Adua, owed his political ascendancy to the political machine created by his elder brother and one of Nigeria’s renowned soldier-politicians, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, who had served as Obasanjo’s deputy from 1976 to 1979. Obasanjo anointed the younger Yar’Adua his successor and virtually railroaded him into Aso Rock through an election so farcically fraudulent that the latter apologetically committed himself to electoral reform.
The military god complex problematises Nigeria’s diversity as an unstable soup that can only be held together by force of arms, rather than as an opportunity for nation-building. In fact, Nigeria’s relative complexity and exceptionalism have acted as a safeguard against the adoption of the sort of despotic life presidencies that have been the vogue elsewhere in Africa.
In a sense, Goodluck Jonathan is the only truly civilian president that Nigeria has had in the Fourth Republic being that he did not emerge from any of the political tendencies and patronage networks established by the country’s soldier-politicians. Some of the debilities that ensured that he was a one-term president emanated from this “deficit”. Five military heads of state have tried to run for president as civilians – Yakubu Gowon in 1992, Sani Abacha in 1998, Ibrahim Babangida in 2007 and 2011, Obasanjo and Muhammadu Buhari. Only the latter two have been successful. In short, of all the living former military heads of state, only one – Abdulsalam Abubakar – has not sought the presidency. Not yet, anyway.
Apart from former military heads of state, other military officers have also sought the presidency among them – Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, Ike Nwachukwu, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Ebitu Ukiwe and Micheal Akhigbe. David Mark and Jonah Jang, both alumni of the Babangida regime and currently serving senators, are seeking the presidency in 2019. Another retired army general, Jeremiah Useni, is running for governor of Plateau State. The longevity of military men in Nigerian politics bears scrutiny. A major aspect of the military god complex is the belief that having worn khaki and a dexterity with firearms qualifies veterans to rule Nigeria. Wole Soyinka once referred to do this as the divine right of the gun. There is a belief that Nigeria is too complex and riotous for a genteel thoroughbred civilian and can only be ruled by a military man.
Not only do such ideas infantilise the public and leave them groping in the dark for messiahs, it has primed the populace for the abusive rule of charlatans. Nothing has eroded Nigerian dignity and self-worth like the claim that the Nigerian persona is too primal and unruly to be governed by anything other than an iron fist and a whip. Apologists of martial authoritarianism refer to this as “discipline”. In reality, it has legitimised an approach that is less governance than brute pacification. This idea has also warped Nigerian expectations of leaders, to the extent that empathy and intellection are derided as weaknesses and the most celebrated figures in our politics are often either functional sociopaths or full-blown psychopaths. It signifies the triumph of brawn over brains in statecraft.
The military god complex problematises Nigeria’s diversity as an unstable soup that can only be held together by force of arms, rather than as an opportunity for nation-building. In fact, Nigeria’s relative complexity and exceptionalism have acted as a safeguard against the adoption of the sort of despotic life presidencies that have been the vogue elsewhere in Africa. Nigeria has two sit-tight dictators on her borders in Chad’s Idriss Deby, an army general who seized power in 1990 and transmuted into a civilian maximum ruler and Cameroon’s Paul Biya, 85, who has been in power since 1982. Had the Third Term Agenda succeeded, Nigeria would have relapsed into political stagnancy and tyranny, or very likely, civil war.
The military god complex is a metaphor for a broad spectrum of sociopolitical pathologies – the pervasive influence of military elites in business, politics and traditional institutions; the lack of accountability that characterises governance, the dysfunctionality of political parties, the privatisation of violence and the attendant rise of insecurity and the masculinisation of power that frames a politics that throws up paternalists and infantilises the public with lustful visions of strongmen in khaki bearing swagger sticks, an appropriately phallic symbol in what is an unmistakably patriarchal environment.
A sign of the pervasive impact of the military god complex is the fact that political contests since the 1990s have been, in a sense, a continuation of rivalries originating from the barracks or the battlefield between rival factions of soldier-politicians. As head of state presiding over an interminable and ultimately fraudulent transition to civil rule programme, Babangida put paid to the elder Yar’Adua’s presidential ambitions when he summarily disqualified him and other politicians from seeking office in 1992. In 2007, Obasanjo ensured that Babangida’s presidential bid was dead on arrival. In three elections between 2003 and 2011, Obasanjo frustrated Buhari’s aspirations, both personally and through proxies.
The central delusion of the military god complex is that soldiers are specially anointed to save the nation. In truth, and as the authors conclude, Nigerian democracy can only be unshackled from militarism by “ending the direct and indirect role of the military in determining political succession.”
The Toxic Legacy of the Military God Complex
The god complex of the praetorian class is also evident in how military dictators rewrite history. Thus, for example, the praetorian class emerged from the carnage of a civil war caused in the first place by the overwrought young soldiers with guns bizarrely claiming to be custodians of national unity. Obasanjo’s recollection of events in the civil war has been challenged and has drawn a searing rebuttal in Alabi-Isama’s book, The Tragedy of Victory. His interpretation of the Third Term saga as a plot happening around him of which he was only vaguely aware and stood to circumstantially benefit is thoroughly perforated by Odinkalu and Osori. Too Good to Die is above all else a summons to citizens to bear the necessary burden of remembrance for it has been all too easy for former dictators to reinvent themselves as avatars of democracy and for those who should be in political purgatory to anoint themselves as messiahs. Our national failure is as much a failure of memory as it of the imagination.
One of the best qualities of Too Good to Die is that Odinkalu and Osori are completely devoid of the ad hominem histrionics and shrill hysteria that often distorts and distracts Nigerian polemics. Their tone is appropriately deadpan, if occasionally sardonic; it is earnest and yet also clinical. If militarism is a cancer, then the authors have performed a biopsy with sterling dispassion. The writers, who are both lawyers, apply forensic rigour in painstakingly building their case and accumulating the evidence. Their conclusion is unimpeachable. Obasanjo’s heedless pursuit of a third term in office or a life presidency amplified the malign influence of tainted lucre and violence in our politics and left a legacy of “political and institutional destruction” that has left almost no area of public life unscathed.
The Third Term gambit re-enacted on a more complex scale the scorched earth tactics that Babangida deployed in the 1990s during his ultimately futile effort to stay in power. Perhaps, nothing dramatises the ascent of executive lawlessness as much as the spectacle of attorneys general providing legal rationales for executive disobedience of court orders and effectively acting as enablers of impunity. The trend began in the 1980s under military rule but reached new heights of infamy under Obasanjo’s presidency. In terms of destructively manipulating institutions and remorselessly abusing power in the service of personal vendettas, subverting civil society and using law enforcement agencies as instruments of blackmail and political warfare against political opponents, Obasanjo set unfortunate precedents which retain a toxic impact on Nigerian democracy.
The military god complex endures to this day. The indispensability syndrome is projected in partisan proclamations to the effect that “there is no vacancy” in Aso Rock or Government House and that there is “no credible alternative” to the incumbent. These and other such canards are meant to foreclose debate and shrink the democratic space. The current president publicly professes admiration for Abacha and has argued that “national security” should under certain circumstances take precedence over the rule of law. Astute students of Nigerian history will recognise the fraudulence of the national security vs. rule of law binary, and readily spot “national security” as a euphemism for regime security and discern in such statements a not-so-subtle case being made for the arbitrary abbreviation of civil liberties. Whereas military regimes customarily suspended the constitution upon seizing power, the paramilitary regimes of the Fourth Republic simply ignore it when it suits them. There is also the reliance on executive orders, which betrays a nostalgia for rule by decree.
The central delusion of the military god complex is that soldiers are specially anointed to save the nation. In truth, and as the authors conclude, Nigerian democracy can only be unshackled from militarism by “ending the direct and indirect role of the military in determining political succession.” If this book has any gap, it is that it is so focused on the military institution, that it insufficiently addresses the role of civilian elites in enabling the praetorian class. Military rule could not have lasted for so long without collaborators and enablers in civil society. Military gods did not lack for fawning prophets, fervent worshippers and sycophantic choirs of apologists. Then as now, dictators had no shortage of enablers. This infatuation with strongmen continues to threaten our democratic potential. Even so, Too Good to Die brilliantly sets the stage for more research into the persistent allure of strongmen in the Nigerian consciousness.
Odinkalu and Osori have delivered a tour de force. Too Good to Die is a brilliant and penetrating examination of the mindset of martial authoritarianism that still frustrates Nigerian democracy twenty years after the jackboots supposedly goose-stepped into the night. For anyone that wants to understand Nigeria’s political psychology, this book is highly recommended.
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, analyst and consultant.