Is the Muhammadu Buhari of 1984 the same person with the incumbent president Nigeria has today? Is he likely to change his thinking, perception, approach and style of governance as a civilian president? Did his thoughts and thinking about how to fix and govern Nigeria change from 1984 to date? Is history likely to repeat itself (ousting Buhari) if he insists in doing it his own way even if that is what the nation and its citizens desire? Read the mind of Buhari in January 1984, few months after coming into power as a military head of state, in this mind boggling interview he granted to the defunct “Africa Now Magazine”.
Nigeria’s new Head of State, in the first interview he has granted to any international magazine since coming to power, gives our Bureau Editor, Lindsay Barrett, the why the military thought it was necessary to supplant the civilian government and explains some of the Supreme Military Council’s immediate intentions.
Nigeria’s new Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Major General Muhammadu Buhari, is a soft-spoken and deceptively gentle Fulani from Daura, in Kaduna State. He was born in 1942. He has a reputation for strictness and discipline and is generally believed to be a classically apolitical army officer. This is not true. As a young major at the battlefront he commanded the Awka Sector in 1968-9 during the Nigerian civil war. He was an avid reader of serious military histories and had a special interest in Black Nationalist movements.
It is generally believed that Buhari – along with Shehu Yar’Adua, former No 2 under General Obasanjo; Major-General Ibrahim Babangida, former senior staff officer at army HQ; Joseph Garba, former Foreign Minister etc – was one of the main movers behind the 1975 coup that ousted Yakubu Gowon and installed the regime of Murtala Mohammed. When Murtala Muhammed was assassinated in 1976 Buhari was a State Governor in Maiduguri. Paradoxically, it is also rumoured that he was one of the key figures in the operations that foiled this coup.
Other key figures in these operations have surfaced in his new government, including Maj.-Gen. Babangida and General Mamman Jiya Vatsa; Colonel Danjuma Dyeris, who handled the Enugu resistance and saved the seat of the then governor; and Col. Atom Kpera (a governor in the new regime) who is now Staff College Commandant.
In spite of the search by the international press for “brains behind the coup,” General Buhari was certainly a prime mover behind this latest entry of the military into the political life of Nigeria. He is a shy and somewhat retiring man. He neither drinks nor smokes. He is, as well, an extremely determined leader who stands rigidly on principle.
During his tenure under General Obasanjo as Commissioner for Petroleum, he opted to leave this prestigious and influential position to attend a war-college course in the US. In spite of the blandishments of political office he made a firm commitment to return to the army after the end of the military era in politics. It seems clear now that this decision was only taken in the larger context of his vision of the army as the nation’s watchdog. Excerpts:
I would like to know just at what time during the last four years the senior army officers who have carried out this coup began to feel that things were going wrong and whether there were any particular incidents which gave rise to this feeling?
I think that this question should not be answered now, at least not fully. We might leave it to various people when they have left the army and write books about their experiences after they retire to their farms or wherever.
In the army, when you say “we,” it is mutinous. When you put a political question to an army officer he should answer individually what he feels. However, we definitely felt things were going wrong from the early behavior of the legislators. As I said, I am putting my personal feeling, I don’t know about the others, but the first thing I observed was that throughout the last months of 1979 to 1980 they just spent time quarreling about how much they should pay themselves: fringe benefits, accommodation etc. After that they rushed out of the country all over the world to spend what money was available. I thought it was very disgusting. Right from the initial take-off we didn’t find any commitment to the country but to themselves.
Were there any attempts officially or unofficially on the part of the military to warn the President that this kind of behavior on the part of the lawmakers could lead, if not to a coup, at least to a breakdown of trust?
I think the papers shouted enough about this. I think the media is the thermometer of society and it is very well read and reflected upon. The behaviour of the lawmakers left a lot of room for improvement. I think there is no need for any institution, especially the military, to abrogate to itself the right to advise an elected government.
In that case, General, what made this particular time seem right for military intervention?
I think I have mentioned the reasons quite clearly in my first broadcast. However, if you want me to, I will elaborate on this: we felt that things were not going to improve. We are down-and-out economically and people were not prepared to change their style of life. I’II give you an example. If there is, say, a million naira for a project under a Ministry or a parastatal, be assured that at least 40% of that money was being used to bribe officials etc and I don’t think this country can afford this. Resources meant for the public must be used for the public. We felt that the country can no longer take it.
I noticed that in your address to the new governors you said that they should not be addressed as “Their Excellencies.” Why is this?
I think society has become disgusted with some of these petty officials. While it doesn’t reduce the power of the governor, it irritates some people and it is a waste of time. It doesn’t help efficiency or anything else, so we drop it.
You also told the governors to realize that their postings to the states were military postings. In what ways do military postings differ from any other kind?
I don’t want anybody to have the slightest idea that he is going to stay in his state or whatever for an indefinite time nor for any given time. As soon as the Supreme Military Council, SMC, is convinced that he is not performing, he will be redeployed. So we don’t want anybody to feel absolutely secure in that position. They are there to serve as in any military posting and they can be redeployed at any time.
General Buhari, are there any particular directives from the Federal Military Government, that is from the SMC, as to how retired politicians in the various states are to be received and handled?
Yes, there is a General instruction. We believe, indeed we know, that those who did the worst damage were those who held their portfolios from 1979 to 1983. But the newcomers also have some responsibility. What we do is to give instructions to the police and other law enforcement agencies to document all politicians that held political office, to collect their passports and then ask them to report at the discretion of the police until the documents we are studying clear them. If they received no kickbacks nor were implicated in any other shady practices, we shall return their documents to them and they can go about their normal business.
We are told that the coup was meant to be totally bloodless. But we all know that in any military confrontation this is difficult to achieve. Exactly why did the coup leaders think that they could carry this off? Could you tell us just how your colleague Brigadier Bako died?
Definitely our aim was that there would be no bloodshed. We did not want to make a martyr out of anybody. It is very disappointing that a lot of them escaped, because the intention was not to kill anybody, but we are going to confront them with documented evidence of the atrocities they have committed against society. Then we intend to allow them a very fair trial. We are very disappointed that they have gone away and we hope they will have the courage to come back. We trust that those countries that harbor them will encourage them to come back so that they can face a very fair trial. They will be safe here. I repeat: We don’t want to make a martyr of anybody.
And on the question of your colleague Brigadier Bako . . .?
An inquiry has been set up and we are awaiting the findings. I would not like to talk about that before they deliver their findings.
Most coups are assumed to be largely army affairs; this one is no exception but the swiftness with which the service chiefs stepped down and the way in which their successors were quickly appointed seemed to suggest that there was a quick degree of co-operation among the three arms of the forces. What is the true picture?
Right from the first announcement, I think it was made clear that it was an armed forces affair; it was not the army alone, nor was it only the navy or the air force alone that carried it out. It was the armed forces that had to agree that the country had to be saved, otherwise we would all go down the drain.
The economic situation in the country precipitated your intervention, but at the same time you have said that your government does not pretend to have all the answers or solutions to the problems you have inherited. Could you say just how you intend to select those who will aid you in finding solutions and just what criteria you will use to assess the feasibility of their proposals?
We have to have members from both the military and civilian sectors in the Federal Executive Council which has to reflect the country as a whole. We can’t form it from one part of the country or from one service. We have stipulated certain priorities for those whom we want to invite, especially the civilians, and have already written and informed them about these. We have let them know that, if they wish to come and help us on our terms, then they have to be cleared first by the police to determine whether they have any criminal record. Then they have to be cleared by the Supreme Military Council. We don’t want to rush into anything; we don’t want to regret picking anybody.
In the Ministries themselves I don’t think we are short of manpower. There are competent civil servants, senior and junior, and there are a number of reports by consultants and civil servants which we have to go over. We have to reduce our budget by May at the latest and produce our own budget and so on. We know what we want to do and we are inviting people to come and help us do it.
You said that you will have to reduce the budget and produce a new one by May. Between now and then it is absolutely necessary that the masses of the people must go on living, which means there has to be some cash-flow. What contingency has your government established to ensure that this is possible, that there is some financial continuity?
You can’t treat government like an electric light: you can’t switch it on and off at will. No matter what kind of government there was before, you have to go along with some of its fiscal measures until you formulate your own. You just have to do that.
Your government’s stated Africa-centred foreign policy might run contrary to the stated policies of some Western nations in Southern Africa. For example, what will be the Federal Government’s stand on the issue of withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola as that might affect the outcome of the struggle for Namibian independence?
On the Namibian issue, the rest of the world seemed to trust the “Contact Group” of five Western countries. There are vested interests as in anything else in international affairs. For us observers, before we were in government, we thought they could do better. I think the Third World seemed to have realized its weakness. We have had to trust the “Contact Group” to persuade South Africa to agree to what the United Nations has resolved. Of course, in the absence of that agreement, there is what we have now: continuous conflict.
On the question of Angola, I don’t think South Africa should arrogate to itself the decision as to which of its neighbours should associate with this or that country. In that case, independence would have no meaning. Mozambique is paying for it; all the frontline states are paying for it in one way or the other, for insisting on being independent. I don’t think South Africa has the right to tell Angola who should help her to establish her self-reliance.
So the Cubans should stay as long as the Angolans want them to stay. And the Cubans should go if the Angolans ask them to go. It is no business of South Africa to tell Angola what to do.
How the “watchdogs” took Over
Although the New Year coup took most Nigerians by surprise, the commander of the Brigade of Guards got wind of the plot and ordered his men to protect President Shagari. This, and a chain of last-minute hitches, led to what seems to have been the only bloodshed during the coup.
In the early hours of December 31, 1983 as Nigerians were preparing to welcome in the New Year, certain sections of the Nigerian army were quietly on the move effecting a change of government.
Alert Nigerians noticed on Saturday morning that both Lagos and Kaduna Radios were playing military music. A coup was immediately suspected. Soon after 6.30a.m the voice of Brigadier Sanni Abacha, Commander of the 9th Brigade based at Ikeja in Lagos, confirmed action on the national radio. “This is a Federal Military Government announcement,” the statement began. He went to explain that the armed forces of Nigeria had deposed President Shagari and suspended most sections of the 1979 Constitution, especially those concerning elective government. The soldiers were back in the driving seat.
The coup came as a complete surprise, more so because the military leaders had succeeded in giving the impression of complacent satisfaction during the last four years of civilian rule. Most politicians from various parties were convinced that senior officers in the armed forces had been kept in line by the civilian administration by the simple expedient of leaving their economic privileges and independence reasonably intact.
In fact, in a discussion with this correspondent 10 days before the coup, one of the President’s advisers had stated categorically that a coup was impossible either to carry out or even to contemplate at this time. When the coup did come, the first reaction of many political observers was that this was a lower-echelon mutiny, with Brigadier Abacha probably a captive senior officer being used to give legitimacy to the action.
Most other radio stations, especially those of Ibadan and Abeokuta where the armoured brigades are stationed, continued for some time to run scheduled programmes as if nothing at all had happened. By 9 a.m the coup had become common knowledge in Lagos and the first disbelief among ordinary citizens began to give way to wary comments.
In Ikeja, a suburb of Lagos, a group of taxi drivers started a rumour that the coup had been staged to put Chief Awolowo into power. Lagos is a UPN stronghold and Chief Awolowo as leader of this party had only recently predicted dire consequences for the nation as a result of NPN rule. This rumour, however, died as soon as news spread that Lateef Jakande, UPN governor of Lagos State, was among the people the army had picked up in the early hours of the morning.
Uncertainty gained ground, however, when a different voice, identified as that of Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon, Military Secretary for the Army, came on the air shortly after midday in Lagos and alerted listeners to stand by for an announcement by the new Head of State – without giving his name.
In the afternoon, Ibadan and Abeokuta radio stations mentioned the coup for the first time. At about the same time in Lagos, another voice came over the national radio. This sounded like that of Major-General Ibrahim Babangida, Director of Staff Duties and Plans in Defence Headquarters, and elaborated on the promised announcement by the Head of State. It also reiterated a dawn-to-dusk curfew.
But the most important aspect of these two announcements was the statement that all the armed services chiefs, their deputies and the Inspector General of Police had agreed to relinquish their posts. This announcement coincided with the first really serious troop movements in Lagos, especially in the areas of Ikeja, Obalende, Apapa, Ikoyi and Victoria Island, Lorry-loads of troops in battledress took positions at strategic points and reinforced the official guard at military residences. Earlier doubts about the coup vanished. Shops shut up fast. People began to rush back home from about 5 p.m. The checkpoint soldiers were extremely polite and have continued to be, at least in Lagos, even in the later hours of the night. This is a remarkable change from 1966, the year Nigeria had its first coup.
It was not until seven minutes after midnight on January 1 that Nigerians first saw and heard their new Head of State, Maj-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, GOC the Third Armoured Division based in Jos.
Our inquiries show that the coup could have taken place on Thursday December 30, budget day, in the later hours because all the plans had been laid. There were, however, last minute hitches, not un-connected with the desire to convince all senior officers who had been alerted that this was a top-line coup, one supported by and in fact organized with the active participation of the service chiefs.
On Friday 31 when these vital links were being consolidated, President Shagari un-expectedly left Lagos for Abuja the new Federal capital which is still being built. This, it appears, was the beginning of the most tragic aspect of the coup, the death of Brigadier Ibrahim Bako.
The coup leaders had decided right from the outset that this would be a bloodless operation. A certain colonel (whose name we know but have agreed not to publish) had undertaken to arrange the capitulation without resistance of the Abuja detachment of the Brigade of Guards. However, on arrival in Abuja on Friday afternoon, the colonel discovered that the detachment commander had himself travelled to Lagos. He returned immediately to Lagos to try to carry out his assignment, only to find there that, once again, the officer had moved and was expected back in Abuja. He began his journey once more.
By this time, however, the alert Commander of the Brigade of Guards, Brigadier Bello Kaliel, had got wind of something and following the natural inclinations of his duty, he had radioed instructions to his Abuja detachment to resist any attempt by unauthorized officers to get near the President.
At the time that this operation was taking place, Brigadier Bako who had been the Brigade Commander in Sokoto State during the elections and whose Divisional headquarters was Kaduna, was ordered to move to Abuja with an armed detachment to effect the peaceful surrender of the President and his guards. The success of this operation was predicated upon the agreed capitulation of the detachment commander whose co-operation had been assured by the unnamed colonel but who had not yet been informed.
In the meantime the captain of the guards, who had been alerted by his brigade commander from Lagos had deployed his forces in two formations; one to form a last resort do-or-die personal guard for the President and a smaller unit to ambush the approaching arrest party.
At this point Brigadier Bako’s detachment had already arrived in Abuja. It was the early hours of Saturday morning that he decided to lead the arrest party personally, it must be remembered that, apart from the continued press description of the late officer as the son of Alhaji Shagari’s friend, he had personally been thanked for the way in which his brigade had kept the peace during the elections in Sokoto State, the President’s home base. This must have played a large part in the decision to have him effect the arrest.
On arriving in Abuja it is said that the Brigadier established his strike force in strategic positions and then went with a small arrest party to change into mufti in order to allay suspicions of the home guard when he approached the President. However, the alert from Lagos had been timely and this group were surrounded by the ambush party under a captain of the President’s guards as soon as they emerged from where they had gone to change their uniforms. They were arrested and loaded into Land Rovers to be taken to the detachment camp for interrogation. On the way there it appears that Brigadier Bako and his men tried to effect an escape when they knew that they were near to where they had concealed their strike force. In the struggle, the lead land rover capsized, killing the driver, and the waiting armed force of the arrest party, realizing that something was wrong, opened fire on the guard column. At some point in this exchange Brigadier Bako was
The skirmish that followed, in which it is rumoured there were more deaths (but which up to the moment of writing has not been confirmed by the army authorities who say they are waiting for a full report of the inquiry set up after the incident) gave a warning to the President’s household that something serious was afoot. He was therefore spirited out of the Presidential Lodge by his guards.
Eventually his surrender was effected from a village somewhere near Nasarawa in Kaduna State where he had remained in hiding for more than 24 hours but where the major army formations from the Third Armoured Division in Jos and the First Mechanised Division in Kaduna appear to have been able to pinpoint his whereabouts.
We have, in fact, heard that once the President found temporary sanctuary he personally assessed the situation and decided to send word of his willingness to surrender, provided a safe conduct could be guaranteed for those aides that were with him. Although this is yet to be confirmed there is no doubt that it was some time on Sunday January 1 that the arrest was effected.