Coups and Rumours
There has been no military coup in Nigeria for over 16 years. That is the longest period of time in Nigeria’s history without a military coup (they used to occur every few years). But some troubling noises have been heard lately.
Firstly, Africa Confidential (a respected publication in London which usually has its finger on the pulse with issues affecting Nigeria) published an editorial claiming that some military officers are unhappy with several events in the Nigerian polity and are considering staging a coup. It claimed that uncertainty over President Yar’Adua’s health, the Niger Delta crisis, and the Mutallab Christmas day terror plot is causing disaffection in the military. It suggested the possibility of a limited coup with civilian-military collaboration. The publication named three Generals who are unhappy with the current situation.
At first I dismissed it as rumour mongering with no foundation. However, something fishy is going on. Every coup in Nigeria’s history has always been preceded by rumours and press speculation that a coup was imminent. Two weeks ago, the Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan reminded the military that the government will not neglect its welfare. The Governor of Benue State Gabriel Suswam recently urged the army to ignore those calling for a military coup. He did so shortly after speaking to the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the army’s 82 Division, Major-General M.D. Isah. Suswam’s caution was very pertinent as he described Benue State as the “home” of the military, with the highest number of ex-servicemen in the country. He made sure to commend the military on their accomplishments. His words were probably a calculated attempt to lend a brotherly and authoritative voice to “talk down” adventurous officers that might be tempted to try something dramatic. Benue State is regarded as the Tiv State and the Tivs as is well known, are very well represented in the army’s fighting units. Suswam’s words might be an attempt to speak to Benue State soldiers, and direct them to resist a coup attempt as they are very influential in the army.
A few days ago both the Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Paul Dike, and the Chief of Army Staff Lt-General Abdulrahman Bello Dambazau, warned soldiers to keep out of politics. This came on the heels of a report that the military had restricted troop movements outside duty posts. Dambazau recently conducted a tour of army formations. While this might be regarded as routine, deeper meaning is being read into it. It will be recalled that Major-General Babangida (as he then was) conducted a tour of army formations prior to his coup in 1985. That is not to impute any ill intent to Dambazau. Dambazau’s tour (as well as taking care of routine matters) was probably an attempt to tour and speak to unit commanders and remind them to be vigilant and remain loyal to the government. Any coup in Nigeria today would not be supported by Dambazau, the Chief of Defence Staff Paul Dike or by most senior officers. Much of the military upper are extremely well educated and intelligent men with no proclivities towards coup plotting. Dambazau (a PhD holder in Criminology) is a former member of the military police, and the Chief of Defence Intelligence Major-General Babagana Monguno is himself an erudite polyglot too. So if the army’s senior officers would not stage a coup, why all the rumours? What is going on?
Is Somebody out There “Coup Baiting”?
It is not the senior officers we should be worried about. While the senior officers can largely be relied on to remain apolitical, they might be concerned about radical junior ranks who might not be so patient. We have seen the game called “coup baiting” before in Nigerian politics. Disaffected politicians and opponents of the government often try to get even by inciting military officers to stage a coup to depose the government. Right now the sitting government has many opponents and opportunists who want to exploit President Yar’Adua’s absence to create a power vacuum. The pre-emptive cautionary statements of the Vice-President, and senior officers must be contextualised on this basis. They will be aware that Machiavellian elements may be trying to whisper dangerous words into the ears of impressionable soldiers.
However, while we cannot be complacent, there are reasons for optimism. Firstly the army of today is a lot more professional and apolitical than it was 10 or 20 years ago. For all his faults, a successful legacy of President Obasanjo is that he weeded out the coup addicts and politicised officers from the Nigerian army. This group had been responsible for most of the previous coups. The political dynamic in Nigeria today is very different to that in the 1980s and 1990s. Secondly Nigeria was so coup prone back then that it would have been inconceivable for the President to contemplate leaving the country for two months. Lastly, the Nigerian public is utterly sick and tired of military coups and military governments. Decades of military misrule convinced most Nigerians to accept their imperfect democracy rather than go back to authoritarian rule by soldiers.