Last week, Nigeria as a nation celebrated the post-humous honour granted to Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola and the recognition that was given to the 1993 elections. However, much of this joy seemed restricted to certain age demographics. Specifically, only the people who had lived during his own run for the presidency seemed to suggest there was a widespread lack of context and historical knowledge especially when our former military leaders are discussed. Remarks made by President Muhammadu Buhari a few months ago praising now dead dictator General Sani Abacha and the lack of outrage that followed seemed to suggest that, we knew as little about how legacy as a nation than anyone could have predicted.
This inspired our Weekly Essay at YNaija this week. We have asked all our writers to research on and write about our past military leaders, the often less discussed aspects of their time in leadership and the legacy of their decision making. We hope it enlightens you as much as it did us. Here is the second article in this three-part essay.
GENERAL MURTALA MOHAMMED
‘If you live by the gun, you die by the gun’. That was the story of General Murtala Mohammed on his way to work in the Ikoyi area of Lagos when he was gunned down and his Mercedes Benz riddled with bullets in a failed counter-coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Buka Suka Dimka on February 13, 1976.
Murtala Mohammed was the fourth Head of State of Nigeria from July 30, 1975 – February 13, 1976, after taking over from General Yakubu Gowon. He joined the Nigerian Army at a young age and attended the prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, often an honour only given to the most enterprising of young officers. Murtala rose quickly in the army and as a Lieutenant Colonel masterminded the so-called ‘July Rematch’ the Northern region’s counter-coup against the then General Aguiyi Ironsi government. A coup that involved majorly all the Northern military rulers Nigeria has had, including Muhammudu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, all young officers at the time.
General Yakubu Gowon took over after Aguiyi Ironsi and his government had been terminated, and not long after Nigeria was in a civil war. It was during this war that Murtala committed his most heinous crimes, crimes that have frankly not being emphasised enough in our history, crimes that will make us question why he should be honoured as a past hero? He committed war crimes that question why the busiest international airport in Nigeria should be named after him and why the ₦20 should have his face.
During the Civil War Murtala was the General Officer Commanding Nigeria’s Army 2nd division. After Biafra troops invaded the Midwest region of Benin and Delta, the Nigerian troops pushed back led by Murtala. When they entered Asaba the federal troops started ransacking homes and killing civilians claiming they were Biafran sympathisers. The Asaba leaders tried to pacify the situation by gathering the community together to show support for ‘One Nigeria’. Accounts claim hundreds of men, women and children partook in the match but the soldiers opened fire on the unarmed citizens. It is estimated that about 700 civilians were massacred as a result of what is today referred to as “The Asaba Massacre”.
Although there are no strong reports linking Murtala with giving the direct order to kill the civilians in Asaba he was the GOC of that division and should bear the responsibility for the massacre and surely he was very aware of the killings, the rapes and war crimes that took place under his command.
This is no justification for the killing of Murtala in 1976 by Dimka, however, he was not as saintly as many Nigerians have been made to believe and it’s high time we got rid of our false heroes by recognising and accepting the crimes committed in the past for us to truly move forward as a nation.
GENERAL OLUSEGUN OBASANJO
On the assumption of power in July 1975 through a bloodless coup, Nigeria’s fourth Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed, appointed General Olusegun Obasanjo as the Chief of Staff supreme headquarters. When Murtala Mohammed was assassinated in a failed coup, there was a power vacuum and there was no ratified succession channels. It fell to the Supreme Military Council to choose a new leader for the country and in a unanimous decision they chose and ratified Obasanjo’s appointment as the New Head of the Federal Military Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria.
Obasanjo in a broadcast to the nation through the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Lagos announced that he would be implementing the programmes and policies earlier listed by the late Head of State.
He went further to fish out the coup plotters, had a military board try them and consequently, about 38 of them led by Lt. Col. Dimka were killed by firing squad including a staff of the NBC and about 15 others sentenced for several jail terms including life imprisonment.
Obasanjo’s regime coincided with Nigeria’s oil boom and it was guided by a policy document known as the First, Second and Third National Development Plans respectively. He recorded a number of successes through its programmes; Operation Feed the Nation (OFN) which although failed in resuscitating the agricultural sector, Universal Primary Education (U.P.E.), the 1976 Local Government Reforms which introduced a modern approach to governance at the grassroots and enhance the development of the rural areas, hosting of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), the establishment of a Price Control Board to fix and control prices of essential goods and services in the midst of the oil boom, the inauguration of Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) in 1976, inauguration of a Constituent Assembly in 1977 in order to facilitate a clear course to democratic government in 1979 and the enactment of a new Constitution in 1978 (the 1979 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria).
While these programmes were largely commendable especially the transition-to-civil-rule programme, the Obasanjo regime left a terrible legacy of being oppressive to ethnic and political minorities and suppressive of human rights.
Compared to the previous military regimes, the Obasanjo era was not only characterised by double standards in a number of its programmes including the Price control board, it brought the full weight of military dictatorship upon Nigerians as it carried out arbitrary actions which consequently made life unbearable for the citizenry such as a 100% increase in the price of fuel in October 1978 that resulted in inflation, brutal use of force in clamping down actors opposed to its policies including students. An example being the case of a third year student of the University of Ibadan who was killed by stray bullets during a demonstration, while the case of foremost women rights activist and mother of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti who was thrown through a window from a storey building (her son’s house) by soldiers because of Fela’s opposition to certain policies of government is still fresh in the mind.
It is believed in some quarters that General Obasanjo’s decision to transition the country into a democracy was a carefully mapped out strategy used by Obasanjo to indemnify himself during the period in question. More so, the results of the 1979 Presidential elections won by the National Party of Nigeria (NPN’s) candidate, Alhaji Shehu Usman Shagari was said to have been manipulated in his favour because the candidate of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), Chief Obafemi Awolowo had stated his intention to probe the Obasanjo regime of corrupt practices on assumption of power.
GENERAL MUHAMMADU BUHARI
Muhammadu Buhari took over as Head of State in Nigeria from December 1983 to August 27, 1985. His coup brought the end to Nigeria’s Second Republic under Shehu Shagari. Tunde Idiagbon was appointed the Chief of General Staff and the no. 2 in the Military Government. Their justification for initiating a coup was that a flawed democracy was worse than no democracy at all. Buhari’s government focused on economic restructuring. He reduced import of certain goods, prohibited state borrowing, halted capital projects with no discernable objective and placed a temporary ban on recruitment of federal public sector workers.
Buhari’s foreign policy did not fare any better as he cut ties with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – after the IMF stated that the Naira had to be devalued. Buhari’s biggest foreign policy gaffe was with Umaru Dikko, a former Minister of Transportation under the Shagari regime. Before that, Buhari’s regime was known for detaining about 500 politicians, officials and businessmen for corruption. They were only released after sums of money were released or met certain conditions – a tactic the Buhari led civilian government seems to be deploying now.
Umaru Dikko was wanted in Nigeria and the Nigerian government sanctioned a former Mossad agent and some Nigerian operatives to kidnap and drug Dikko to ship him back to Nigeria in a plastic bag that was kept in a crate called “diplomatic garbage”. However, the plan was foiled by airport officers.
General Buhari’s biggest legacy as a military dictator, however, is his War Against Indiscipline. He instituted Draconian laws that punished citizens for real and imagined disobedience. Students over the age of 17 who were caught cheating in exams were sentenced to 21 years imprisonment, death penalties were meted out to criminals charged with counterfeiting of products. Civil servants who showed up late to work were humiliated by frog jumps, unruly Nigerians were forced to queue in the bus park and it was publicly sanctioned for soldiers to whip Nigerians for perceived indiscipline. There was, of course, the death penalty to arson. Buhari may have had good intentions but his approach and the consequences for crime were greatly exaggerated to the point of human rights abuse.
The Buhari government also violated human right laws by abducting critics of the government most notably Fela Kuti.
Buhari’s regime was overthrown in a coup by the Military Council led by Ibrahim Babangida, who detained him for 3 years in Benin City.