Why There Was No Military Coup in Nigeria

I personally do not know why there were no successful coups during the Olusegun Obasanjo administration. And I am not inclined to think something happened or didn’t happen that should have happened but failed to happen. The importance of this essay lies in the fact that in spite of the arrogance, fraudulence and recklessness of the Obasanjo government, there was not a successful military coup even though since its early years of its post-independence period Nigeria has been a coup-prone country, and these coups come at the slightest provocation.

Since there is no empirical evidence on which to rest this discourse, it may be tempting to consider it an anthology of suppositions, rumors, and beer parlor ponderings. May be they are. What if they are not? Either way, please keep an open mind. At any given time –especially when discussing Nigeria — an open mind is needed in order to understand the state, its institutions, its structures, the personalities, and other complexities that have helped shape events. To say Nigeria is a nation of false promises, broken dreams and a deferred future, is saying it mildly. Nigeria defies all categorization and expectations. What should not have happen happened, and what should have happened did not happen i.e. military coup d’etat, and the personal survival of President Obasanjo. But why?

Military coup d’état, as Harvey Kebschull has noted, is a speedily executed extralegal takeover of government by a conspiratorial group, usually consisting of military officers who use force or the threat of force to remove the government and assume power for itself. There are several explanations for the occurrence of coups. For instance, Morris Janowitz offered the corporatist interpretation; and Samuel Huntington proffered the structuralist analysis. Samuel Finer on the other hand meshed the corporatist and structuralist views with an attempt to making sense of why they happen.

Generally though, coups happen largely because of a calculated convergence, or the unwitting confluence of predatory politics, poor economic conditions, and ethnic rivalry, and insidious external interference, cultural malaise along with uncontrollable rivalry within the military establishment and other personal factors. Therefore, except in very few cases, it is difficult to pinpoint why coups happen. In some cases, coups just happen as in when boredom bred coup in Sierra Leone. Beginning in Egypt (1952), and later in Togo (1963), much of Africa was a stormy ocean of coups, counter coups, attempted coups and rumored coups. The last of these coups was in Mauritania, in August 2005.

At that time, the Obasanjo regime, through its spokesperson, Mr. Femi Fani-Kayode, asserted that “As far as we are concerned, the days of tolerating military governance in our sub-region or anywhere are long gone…We believe in democracy and we insist on democracy.” The Nigerian government spoke and acted as though coups were alien to it even though for much of its anarchical past, coups were part of its national culture. And so the absence of military coup during the 1999-2007 period have led scholars and observers of the Nigerian political landscape to wonder, albeit mostly in private discussions, why there was not a successful military coup during the Obasanjo tenure — considering that all the ingredients that makes for military coups was in ample supply.

To be sure, there were rumored coups. But the real question is “Why was there not a successful military coup in Nigeria between 1999 and 2007?” In pursuit of this question, I contacted people whom I thought should know, men and women in an out of government and with tentacles reaching far and wide. Some posited that coups became difficult to execute because of the several asphyxiating exercises carried out by General Theophilus Danjuma, the former Nigerian Minister of Defense, at the behest of President Olusegun Obasanjo. Using Danjuma as a shield, Obasanjo was said to have dug deep and wide into the military and security establishment, rooting out those his government suspected of having coupist inclination, or those too political in their thinking and orientation. To achieve this objective there was large-scale retirement exercises.

Second, there was always a constant “reorganization” exercise going on within the military and security establishment, all done under the guise of professionalizing the military. One of the desired effects of the reorganization and professionalizing exercises was that coup-bent officers were deprived of the opportunity to implement their thinking.

Third, the rank and file of the military and security services was swimming with moles that were/are looking for any sign of disobedience and waywardness. Fourth, because foreign powers like the United States, Britain, France and Germany had vested interest in the windfalls of the Niger Delta, and because of the new reality of security and terrorism in the world, these countries took it upon themselves to “help” President Obasanjo by providing security and actionable information.

Fifth, much of Africa and the developing world were beginning to tire of coups and counter-coups. It seemed reasonable to therefore conclude that even those with coups in their blood were becoming weary and wary of such acts. The world, they realized, was opening up and embracing democracy (no matter how shoddy the process, and uncertain the gains). And not a few have also argued that the post-Abacha military did not have the knack for military adventures or misadventures. These officers, the argument goes, were either truly professionals, or were too busy trying to make a living, trying to survive. Today’s military, another wing of the argument goes, was not what it once was: it lacked prestige and power and military superstars.

Moreover, it was also alleged that President Obasanjo did to some members of the serving and retired military and security forces what he did to the intelligentsia: buying and bribing those with fixed price, and or making life difficult and misery for all those who defied his will. There are no more leftists, fire-brand professors, socialists, gadflies and their likes left in Nigerian institutions of higher learning. President Obasasanjo simply punctured their lungs, or chopped off their heads. After a while, the argument goes, the military, like the intelligentsia, was just too scared, too tired to fight and too unfocused to mount strong and meaningful opposition to his regime. Drained and broken, the intelligentsia caved, and so did the military and security establishment.

Along with the aforementioned reasons, there was also the whisper — whispers with strong currents — that was making the rounds in the summer of 2006. The suspicion was that the boldest opposition to the Obasanjo regime was crushed with one fell swoop when a military craft carrying several high-ranking officers crashed. Proponents of this coup-theory have a three-part question to their suspicion: “What were 15 senior army officers doing in an 18-seater Dornier 228 Air Force transport plane…Who boarded and who refused to board…where were they going and what was on the stated and unstated agenda?” Lives were lost; six hundred years of combined military experience perished.

It is difficult to tell whether the coup years are a thing of the past. Or if the coup-bug is still lingering. In the eight years of his presidency, Obasanjo was noted for his strong-armed tactics, he was noted for his shady deals, and for squandering the nation’s goodwill and resources. He made a mess of a country that should have been on the road to recovery and prosperity. How ironic that his tactics may have helped to stabilize a nation in need of stability and steady governance. How ironic too that he may after all be known as the man who made coups and countercoups unpopular. We await history.

Written by
Sabella Ogbobode Abidde
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