By Bashorun J.K. Randle
HISTORY is always neutral. Whenever distortions creep in, it is historians who are to be blamed. Effortlessly, but most significantly history like an ever rolling mill has crept up on us. According to the clock and calendar, thirty-three years now separate us from the day when Major Abdulmuminu Aminu, Major John Madaki and Major Lawan Gwadabe the Nigerian Army [Infantry] swept into Dodan Barracks, Ikoyi, Lagos and arrested the Military Head of State and Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari. It was a dawn attack and the coup d’etat was swiftly accomplished. There was no resistance; hence there was no bloodshed. It brought to an end the Buhari / Idiagbon regime which had been in power since 31st December 1983 – a brief twenty months of stern military rule which by its own mantra was determined to rid Nigeria of corruption and indiscipline. The efficacy or otherwise of the security reports which should have alerted the Head of State that a coup d’etat by his own colleagues was imminent is a subject for another day.
For now, it would suffice to confine ourselves to the neutrality of history which has with complete detachment and neutrality recorded that Major-General Tunde Idiagbon who was Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters and the number two man / right hand man of Buhari was away to Mecca on pilgrimage allegedly on the invitation of the King of Saudi Arabia. It was a decoy disguised as a ruse which effectively fooled Idiagbon the strongman. He even took along his teenage son. He had been sold a dummy !! Unknown to the rest of the nation, Idiagbon would have (on his return from Mecca) announced the retirement of the Chief of Army Staff, Major-General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida [IBB] from the army. This was regardless of the pivotal role Major-General Babangida had played in the 1983 coup d’etat that toppled the civilian government of President Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Rather than take over the mantle of leadership himself, Babaginda had ceded it to Major-General Buhari who was then in far away Jos, in Plateau State as General Officer Commanding [GOC] of the Second Division of the Army. Major-General Tunde Idiagbon was the Secretary of the Army Council.
Initially, the rulership had been anchored on the troika of Buhari, Idiagbon and Babangida. Then the cracks began to show as both Buhari and Idiagbon were of the same stern and spartan disposition while Babangida’s orientation and body language were in sharp contrast (to the duo of Buhari and Idiagbon). It was of little consequence that all three of them were Northerners and Moslems. Increasingly, Babangida was according to his own subsequent version of events sidelined and isolated. The Supreme Military Council consisting of the military hierarchy and intelligence / security officers was split down the line (as well as various factions headed by Major-General Mamam Vasta and Major-General Magoro). There was also the unresolved nuanced dilemma over whether the Head of State was the “Supreme Commander” (Emperor) or “Commander-In-Chief” (first among equals).
It is also on record that following the 1983 coup d’etat, two memorable declarations were given wide publicity by BBC Overseas Service:
(i) “These are our boys” – General Olusegun Obasanjo (former Military Head of State 1976-1979).
(ii) “If only we had known that the Nigerian economy was in such a shambles (and the treasury was empty) we would not have bothered to take over the government”
– Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (Military Head of State of Nigeria).
Somehow till today, the bond between General Buhari and General Obasanjo remains solid. Ironically, the bond between General Babangida and General Obasanjo is just as robust (and enduring). As for the Buhari / Babangida nexus, that is a different and complex equation. Right in the vortex of the quadratic equation is Lt-General T.Y. Danjuma (Rtd) and his undulating relationship with General Obasanjo, (late) Major-General Shehu Yar’Adua and General Babangida.
For now it is sufficient to record that within a few months of the Buhari / Idiagbon government, the cracks began to show particularly as Idiagbon who had no direct control of the troops became increasingly domineering and overbearing – at the expense of Babangida, the Chief of Army Staff. From being a full member of the troika, Major-General Babangida was somehow degraded to a junior partner in the government he had installed. A whole chapter should be devoted to the dummy sold to Lt-General Mohammed Inuwa Wushishi (Chief of Staff 1981 to 1983) who like Babangida is from Niger State and may have been led to believe that he would be invited to become the Head of State.
Anyway, what brought matters to a head was the retirement of Brigadier Aliyu Gusau by Buhari / Idiagbon regardless of the protestation of Babangida. According to the grapevine the allegation against Gusau had something to do with import licence. Brigadier Gusau pleaded innocence but he was nevertheless served with a letter of retirement by the new secretary to the Army Council, Brigadier Ele Peters.
Major-General Babangida, Chief of Army Staff did not need any one to prompt him that the writing was on the wall. If the junta of Buhari and Idiagbon could retire his trusted ally and bosom pal Brigadier Aliyu Gusau, he [IBB] was next in the firing line. He went for the pre-emptive strike. It was a masterstroke but the timing was awkward. The coup d’etat was on the eve of sacred Sallah but the security agencies were generally relaxed. Besides, Major-General Idiagbon who would have launched a counter coup was away in Mecca. Here is the thrust of Babangida’s maiden address according to BBC History series:
Most of all, the August coup appears to mark the decisive rejection of authoritarianism in Nigeria. This was forcefully signaled in President Babangida’s maiden address to the nation, an extraordinary statement for a military ruler. In it, Babangida recognized that even a military government “needs the consent of the people” to govern effectively. Promising to uphold human rights, he announced an immediate review of the status of political detainees. Most significant, he announced the repeal of Decree Number 4 and vowed, “We do not intend to lead a country where individuals are under the fear of expressing themselves.” Words are easily offered to an angry nation; the test will be in the way President Babangida governs. But having figured so centrally in the last four coups, he is acutely aware that Nigerian leaders ultimately cannot escape accountability for their actions. His initial actions indicate that—whether through real commitment to liberal government or simply shrewd political instinct—Nigeria’s new president means to govern liberally.