By Olusegun Adeniyi
The United States National Intelligence Council once provoked outrage in Nigeria when it published a May 2005 controversial report, ‘Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa’s Future’. Under the sub-heading ‘Downside Risks’, the report stated that “while currently Nigeria’s leaders are locked in a bad marriage that all dislike but dare not leave, there are possibilities that could disrupt the precarious equilibrium in Abuja. The most important would be a junior officer coup that could destabilize the country to the extent that open warfare breaks out in many places in a sustained manner.”
Quite naturally, many Nigerians were aghast by the US report coming just six years after the exit of the military. In his response at the time, then President Olusegun Obasanjo dismissed most of the assumptions that informed the conclusion. But he also noted most poignantly: “It is important for us to know that we are being rated low, not because of what is happening to us from outside but because of what we do to, for and by ourselves internally…” Whatever he may have meant, my reading of Obasanjo’s response is that whether as individuals or as a nation, we are the architects of our own fortunes or misfortunes.
It is within that context that I want to situate what is fast becoming an open invitation for military takeover of power on the continent, following recent palace coups in both Niger Republic and Gabon. In a trending video titled ‘Togo should be next’, a young Togolese x-rayed political developments in his country—where Faure Gnassingbe who succeeded his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema in 2005 is now also plotting for his son to succeed him—and concluded with a question on the seriousness of both ECOWAS and the African Union. He extended his analysis to Equatorial Guinea, where President Teodore Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (who first came to power through a military coup in 1979 before winning a succession of sham elections) “has appointed his son as vice president, heir apparent and successor”, Cote D’Voire where President Alassane Ouattara has manipulated both the legislature and judiciary to give himself an extraconstitutional third term and Cameroon where the 90-year-old Paul Biya remains in power after 41 years despite being marooned mostly in Geneva, Switzerland. When you add Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni who has been in power since 1986, Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, also in his fifth decade in power, Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki who has been president since independence in 1993 and others, you get a picture of a continent where power holders are not accountable to the people.
Of course, the situation in Nigeria is different from the scenario painted by the Togolese because we hold periodic elections in our country. No president has been able to stay beyond two terms of eight years—though not for lack of trying. We have also had an incumbent president defeated in an election. However, disappointment with the outcome of the 2023 general election has apparently led some of our young people to also engage in coup-baiting. It is a dangerous gambit. Most of us may not have witnessed the coup and countercoup that upended the First Republic and shattered the peace and prosperity of Nigeria, but we were around during the military era preceding the Second Republic in 1979 and the period after, between December 1983 and May 1999. The experience of those years is enough for us to say ‘Never Again’ to any suggestion of military rule in our country. That we can even talk about military coup is one of the dividends of democracy. Under the military, any journalist who wrote a column with my chosen headline would not sleep in his house that day, assuming he survives to tell the story.
I am aware that the only government most Nigerians (given our demographics) have experienced is the current civilian dispensation that is now 24 years old. But it is important to understand that things are not going to get better should there be a coup in Nigeria. Things are likely to get worse, on all counts. Under a military regime, the first thing to be suspended is the Constitution and the rights and liberties it confers on citizens. Suppression of the media will be automatic, and the courts will lose the limited powers they have to adjudicate over those freedoms. Military rule is about impunity and those who can abuse their authority to deny fellow citizens their fundamental rights would have no qualms appropriating to themselves what belongs to the public. With decrees and edicts, crimes and punishment can be invented at will to deal with ‘subversive elements’—just about anybody who disagrees with them. Retroactive laws, including to kill citizens (as it happened to Bartholomew Owoh, Lawal Ojuolape and Bernard Ogedengbe) and torture could become routine again. On the economic front, things will likely spiral out of control because of international pressure and sanctions that would follow, as we saw in the nineties.
General Abdulsalami Abubakar was the last military leader in Nigeria, only stepping in after the death of General Sani Abacha to restore civil rule within ten months as promised. So, effectively, the last military regime in Nigeria, in the real sense of it, was that of the late Abacha. Interested readers can download free copies of my book, ‘The Last 100 Days of Abacha’ from my web portal, olusegunadeniyi.com, for glimpses of what transpired when the resources and institutions of state were pressed into the service of one man and his political aspiration.
At that dark period in our history, Nigeria was rendered a pariah state, with the economy in tatters. But it was in Abacha’s attempt to foist himself on us as another African ‘life president’ that we were confronted with unprecedented brutality. As I wrote on the 20th anniversary of his death in 2018, so bizarre was the transition programme of 1997/98 that all five registered political parties, (dubbed ‘five fingers of a leprous hand’ by the late Chief Bola Ige) adopted Abacha as their sole presidential candidate. In a memorable interview he granted CNN at the period, Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka said: “If I had written this scenario in a play, I would have been ridiculed.”
Given what we went through under Abacha, I doubt there is any Nigerian of my generation (regardless of ethnicity or religion) who would ever wish for military rule in our country. It was a period when journalists, civil society activists and the few principled politicians in the country were targeted for arrest or outright killing. A professional colleague, Bagauda Kaltho was bombed to death in Kaduna. Mrs Kudirat Abiola, Mr Alfred Rewane, Dr Shola Omatsola and many others were assassinated in Lagos. Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua (rtd) was jailed alongside Obasanjo and others for plotting a phantom coup and the former was injected with a deadly virus to ensure he would only leave Abakaliki Prison in a bodybag. Mr Ken Saro Wiwa and others were hanged despite pleas by the late Nelson Mandela and the Commonwealth. Kunle Ajibade, Chris Anyanwu, and others were jailed for being ‘accessories after the fact of coup’. The list of atrocities to remember is long.
Under military rule, staging protests is an invitation to bullets, just as shutting campuses of institutions of higher learning and proscribing media houses were mere routine. At a period when many journalists and human rights activists ended up in detention or on exile, some of us were lucky. I once shared my own experience of verbal abuse, bullying and threats from Colonel Frank Omenka in the name of interrogation that lasted five days at the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) dungeon in Apapa, Lagos. While politicians contend with opponents, soldiers see only enemies. So, those who wish for a military coup in Nigeria must understand that it is no solution to what ails us. That, however, is not to say I endorse the irresponsibility in the public space that pushes many into such a morbid wish. That also explains why I will recommend to those who hold the levers of power at all levels in our country the book, ‘How Democracies Die’ by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.
According to the authors, while there is a general tendency to believe that a democracy is imperilled only by military adventurers, it is now the elected leaders who most often subvert the very process that brought them to power. These are men who have no qualms “rewriting the rules of politics to permanently disadvantage their rivals”, the authors wrote before adding, “The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s enemies use the very institutions of democracy—gradually, subtly, and even legally—to kill it.”
Those who have ears…
Pastor Gandhi, The Kabiyesi
Governor Seyi Makinde on Saturday announced the approval of Prince Afolabi Ghandi Olaoye as the new Soun of Ogbomosoland. Spanning five local governments, Ogbomosho is the second largest city (after Ibadan) in Oyo State. While the selection of Pastor Gandhi (as many of us from the old ‘Apapa Parish’ of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, know and address him) has come with excitement given his pedigree as a successful businessman, leader, and mentor, it has also raised several questions about faith and culture. I have heard many people ask whether a Pastor can be a monarch because of the notion that the traditional institution is tied to ‘occult practices.’
I dealt with this issue a few years ago during the crisis in Warri Kingdom arising from the tension between Pentecostal Christianity and tradition. I referenced Richard Niebuhr’s highly revealing book, ‘Christ and Culture’, to demonstrate how Christians have attempted to deal with the challenge of their faith against the background of old beliefs and customs. Niebuhr identifies five approaches which he listed as: Christ against Culture; The Christ of Culture; Christ above Culture; Christ and Culture in Paradox and Christ the Transformer of Culture.
Unfortunately, as I have also argued in the past, the Pentecostalism that has been embraced in Nigeria today fits into the paradigm of ‘Christ against Culture’, a notion which rejects all the traditional African mores as archaic, backward, and evil. The presupposition is that those traditions belong to some sinister gods that need to be dropped for us to prosper materially and spiritually. While expressions of faith differ from one denomination to another, the preponderance of opinion among pastors is that our traditional heritages (sometimes including priceless artifacts, dating back to centuries) are hindrances to our faith as believers hence we must do away with them.
There is nothing to support this extreme and warped, even if dominant, position. Aside from the fact that culture itself is not static, the 89-year-old Awujale of Ijebuland, Oba Sikiru Adetona, spoke to this issue in his 2010 memoir. As a young bachelor in the United Kingdom 64 years ago, the Awujale (who is easily the most respected monarch in Yorubaland today) was brought home to assume the throne of his forefathers. In a rather cynical manner, the monarch made several revelations in, ‘AWUJALE: The autobiography of Oba S. K. Adetona Ogbagba II’ which suggest that most of the rites associated with the traditional institutions and coronations are myths. Even though I highlighted some bits in a previous column six years ago, they are worth recalling: “…As part of the coronation process, the Odis (aafin attendants) embarked on the various rituals that would lead to my installation as the Awujale of Ijebuland. Personally, I can say here that there is nothing about these rituals that could not be made public. In fact, many of the Odis performing the rituals were themselves novices to the rituals and were actually trying out their roles for the first time. It must be remembered that my predecessor, Gbelegbuwa ascended the throne in 1933 and my ceremony was conducted 27 years afterwards. Many of the Odis were at sea as to what was to be done. So, for many of them, it was all experimental and mostly guesswork. All the secrecy that they maintained about the rituals was, therefore, as I saw it, simply a ploy to extort money from the public, just as their fathers did before them. They deliberately made the rituals look very mysterious.”
The Awujale was not done: “…at the Owa Stream, the Elese of Ilese carried me on his back across the stream as custom had it that my feet must not touch the water. After this, according to tradition, the Elese must never come to Ijebu-Ode again to visit me for the rest of his life. Also, at Odo Esa, I passed an Iroko tree which, again by tradition, I was told I must never see again. Indeed, I was forbidden to ever pass that very road again or, according to tradition, I would die. I did not believe any of this of course and I have since travelled that road and passed the Iroko tree on several occasions! Also, at Ijebu-Imusin, there was again another tree which I passed and which I was never to set my eyes on again, yet I have also seen this one many times. So much for all these unnecessary taboos!”
All factors considered, I see no reason why any person who professes either Christianity or Islam cannot be a traditional ruler no matter how committed such a person is to his faith. Meanwhile, it is instructive that one of the first persons to congratulate Pastor Gandhi is the Grand Chief Imam of Ogbomosoland, Tellat Yunus Olushina Ayilara II, who called on all sons and daughters to “join hands with our Soun-Elect Prince Afolabi Olaoye in building a peaceful, harmonious and prosperous Ogbomosoland.” He ended his statement with a prayer: “May Almighty Allah bestow upon him, knowledge and wisdom, grant him long life and good health, bless his reign and increase Ogbomosoland in abundance.”
I join the Soun-elect and my dear Pastor Gandhi, in saying Amen to that prayer. K’ade pe l’ori, ki bata pe l’ese!
• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com