The word "coup" is no longer merely small talk in Africa’s most populous country. After over two months without a president, compounded by a political stalemate, a religious crisis between Muslims and Christians in the city of Jos 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 is 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” within the services. For a country 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 dozen failed ones have left the country worse off. And, all this comes roughly eight months before Nigeria celebrates its fiftieth anniversary of independence from the United Kingdom.
In the desperate and embarrassing condition in which Nigeria has found itself in the months 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 U.S. government’s brusque remonstrances to Nigerian security officials after the Christmas Day attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bomb a Northwest plane over Detroit might have been different had Yar’Adua been on his seat. It’s also fair to say that the power vacuum might have affected the handling of the religious crisis in Jos and encouraged militants in the Niger Delta to start attacking oil pipelines again.
So, it’s not surprising that people have asked: if politicians are determined to prolong the logjam, why not let the military end it with alacrity and then return to the barracks?
But that is a familiar road to disaster.
We have seen enough of military rule to know that the army’s involvement in politics can only worsen the insecurity and misery of the majority of civilians. Indeed, a number of the demons the country is confronting today—the most intractable of which is corruption—were bequeathed by the military: it damaged the civil service and fostered a culture of fear and greed. In the 1980s, for example, it created an import licensing scheme, a closed racket that made millionaires of military cronies and privileged elites within its own ranks.
In many Nigerian cities today, retired military officers own the choicest properties, many of them acquired illegally. Under the military, the violation of property rights was the norm. In the spectacular case of the famous Afro-beat musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo (later civilian president) ordered soldiers to burn down Fela’s house on trumped up charges. The soldiers raped his singers and tossed his 78-year-old mother out of the window of the first-floor of the building.
But free speech was the military’s enemy number one. 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 by a parcel bomb delivered at his breakfast table during Babangida’s regime in 1986, newspaper offices were shut frequently and often without warning. By the time Abacha seized power in 1993, 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 not-so-secret assassination squad that silenced those whom he could not blackmail, buy off, or run out of town.
To be fair, the vast majority of soldiers in Nigeria are patriots and professionals. Yet they are just as threatened as the rest of the civilian population whenever a tiny group in the military seizes power. Nigerians don’t want to travel that road again.
It’s not that they are under the illusion that their politicians are saints or messiahs. But the opportunism and clannishness of politicians in the First Republic and their incompetence and greed in the Second were on a mind-boggling scale.
The current crisis of governance has unnerved the electorate: some have argued that not much has changed since the bad old days—that the lack of a clear constitutional solution for the transfer of power from the ailing Yar’Adua to his deputy is precisely the cause the widespread suspense and grief.
But Nigeria is not an exception, it only proves the rule: politicians everywhere will behave in nearly the same way if the institutions of governance are too weak to hold them to account.
And yes, Nigeria’s institutions are weak, but democracy still has profound benefits: people are still able to say what they like about Yar’Adua, his impotent deputy, or his ridiculous ministers without worrying about going to jail. They can criticise the legislators and judges, and cry that governmental incompetence is killing the country.
This is hardly possible under a military government. And that is perhaps the most important difference between the worst form of civilian rule and the most benevolent military dictatorship.
Abacha received the qualified endorsement of pro-democracy groups when he promised, after seizing power, that he would rule for only six months. He would stabilize the country, he said, then hand over the reins 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 of the virtues of military rule in Africa—that it’s possible for the army to wipe out a generation of corrupt politicians and their abettors, and move on to build a secure future on the bloody foundation. But that was then—in the Cold War era—when bullies could easily court favor with either superpower.
Times are different now. The modern day Jerry Rawlings and his lesser cousins (whether in Madagascar, Honduras, or Guinea) will hardly be able to quickly rebuild the productive capacity to lift their countries—international norms and human rights concerns turn these nations into pariah states where Western governments and business recoil from working with scoundrels or leaders with blood on their hands.
In any case, a military coup should not be viewed as the only option for a transition of power in Nigeria.
Indeed, there are other examples to look to: South Africa, during the party crisis that ousted former President Thabo Mbeki; and Zambia, after the unexpected death of former President Levy Mwanawasa. Change—even difficult change—without blood-letting and within a constitutional framework, is possible.
The challenge is for Nigerian civil society, professional groups, and other movements to persist in working toward an orderly transfer of power. The first step is to remove the veil from the so-called cabal that has resisted the transfer of power from Yar’Adua to the deputy president. In the regard, a strong and independent Nigerian press is critical. Thankfully, it seems they will not have to walk this road alone: former heads of state, chief justices, and elder statesmen have joined the call for the transfer of power, and the cabal is increasingly isolated. Its days are numbered.But whether this transfer of power proceeds within democratic, constitutional parameters or is left to the military is still open to question.
So, as the crisis reaches a simmer, I urge Nigerians to recall the words of the Lagos lawyer and human rights activist Femi Falana, “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.”
Azu Ishiekwene, a member of the editorial board of World Policy Journal, has been an investigative reporter, a features writer, a member of the editorial board, and the editor of Punch Titles, Nigeria’s highest selling newspapers. He is currently the executive publications director of Punch and writes a weekly Tuesday column. He is the author of Nuhu Ribadu, a book on Nigeria’s stalled anti-corruption war.>