Why military coup is not an option

THE PUNCH Newspaper- Azu

It is no longer small talk in Africa’s most populous country. After over two months without a president, compounded by a political stalemate, a religious crisis that claimed over 200 lives and now the threat by militants to resume attacks on oil installations in the Niger Delta, a growing number of Nigerians are asking openly if military intervention will not be necessary to get the country back on track. The subject is hugging newspaper headlines and the military top brass has even admitted that it is aware of “tensions” in the services. For a country at 49, that marked its first civilian-to-civilian handover only three years ago, the open talk of a military coup is a serious matter, especially since each of the six successful coups in the past, and the half a dozen failed ones, have left the country worse off.

In the desperate and embarrassing condition in which Nigeria has found itself in the last 71 days since President Umaru Yar’Adua was evacuated for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, it is easy to find excuses to justify desperate political remedies. Some have argued, for instance, that the US government’s handling of the Christmas Day attempt by Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab to bomb a Northwest plane over Detroit might have been different if Yar’Adua had been on his seat. The power vacuum might also have affected the handling of the religious crisis in Jos and the threat of the militants in the Niger Delta to start attacking oil pipelines again. If politicians are determined to prolong the logjam, why not let the military end it with alacrity and then return to the barracks?

That is a familiar road to disaster. We have seen enough of military rule to know that its involvement in politics can only worsen the insecurity and misery of the majority. A number of the demons the country is confronting today, the most intractable of which is corruption, were handed down by the military. The military damaged the civil service and fostered a culture of fear and greed. In the 1980s, it created an import licensing scheme that raised millionaires amongst its cronies and a privileged few within its own ranks.

It left a legacy where the choicest properties in many cities today are owned by retired military officers who violated property rights with impunity. In the spectacular case of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti on General Olusegun Obasanjo’s watch, not only was the Afro-beat musician’s property burned down on trumped-up charges, soldiers raped Fela’s singers and tossed his 78-year-old mother out of the window of the first floor of the building.

Free speech was the military’s number one enemy. In the early 1980s under Generals Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon, journalists were jailed for publishing accurate accounts of what happened in government. The law was such that the truer the report, the graver the penalty for publication.

If Buhari and Idiagbon despised free speech, their successors – Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha – set new records in the violation of press freedom and human rights. After the murder of leading journalist Dele Giwa through a parcel bomb delivered at his breakfast table during Babangida’s regime in 1986, newspaper houses were shut frequently. By the time Abacha seized power later, he had not only learned enough from Babangida to become Commander-in-Chief, he had been hardened into a tormentor-in-chief. He established a deadly killer squad that silenced those whom he could not blackmail, buy off or run out of town.

I must say that the vast majority of soldiers are patriots who are happy to do their professional jobs. They are just as done for as the rest of the civilian population whenever a tiny group in the military seizes power. We don’t want to travel that road again. Not that Nigerians think that politicians are saints or messiahs. The opportunism and clannishness of politicians in the First Republic and their incompetence and greed in the Second were on a mind-boggling scale. Some might even argue that not much has changed, else, how can a simple transfer of power to a deputy president cause so much suspense and grief?

Politicians everywhere will behave in nearly the same way if the institutions are too weak to hold them to account. Our institutions are weak, but we’re still able to say what we like about Yar’Adua, his impotent deputy or his ridiculous ministers without worrying about going to jail. We can criticise our legislators and judges and tell the President that his government’s incompetence is killing us. We could never do that under a military government as freely as we do now. That, I think, is perhaps the most important difference between the worst form of civilian rule and the most benevolent military dictatorship.

We must be careful what we ask for. Babangida came to power smelling of roses. But nine years after, a legacy of massive corruption, an economy in tatters, and an endless transition, he left the country in turmoil and on the brink. Abacha even received the qualified endorsement of the pro-democracy groups when he promised that he would rule for only six months to stabilise the country and hand over to the winner of the June 12, 1993 election, M.K.O Abiola. But he did nothing of the sort. Instead, his reign of terror would rank as one of the darkest episodes in the country’s history.

People often point to Ghana as proof that the military can wipe out a generation of corrupt politicians and their abettors and move on to build a secure future on the bloody foundation. That was then – in the Cold War era – when bullies could easily find a hiding place. The modern day Jerry Rawlings and his lesser cousins, whether in Mauritius, Honduras, or Guinea, will hardly be able to quickly rebuild the productive capacity to lift his country because there are few, if any, countries left that want to work with leaders with blood on their hands or those who are plain scoundrels.

In any case, we have seen from the examples of South Africa during the party crisis that ousted former President Thabo Mbeki, and in Zambia after the unexpected death of former President Levy Mwanawasa, that change – even difficult change – without blood-letting and within a constitutional framework, is possible.

The challenge is for the civil society, professional groups, and other movements to persist in working an orderly transfer of power. Civil society and the press must remove the veil from the so-called cabal that has resisted the transfer and name them one by one. With former heads of state, chief justices and elder statesmen joining the call for the transfer of power last week, the cabal is increasingly isolated and its days are numbered. As the civil society meets again on Thursday in Lagos this week, I find the words of Lagos lawyer and human rights activist, Femi Falana, on point: “We have to mount a sustained pressure to force these people to follow the constitution. Military rule will be bad for everybody. We have not cleared the mess they left behind, including the collapse of our institutions and the culture of corruption.”

The military top brass must not only acknowledge the “tensions” in its circles, it must fish out those spreading the tension and put them in their place.


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