The 1966 Perspective On Obasanjo




On his way to attend the funeral ceremony of the mother of Pastor Tunde Bakare in Abeokuta penultimate Friday, President Olusegun Obasanjo escaped a potential air disaster. Running late for the wake keep evening service, he had chartered a chopper in order to reduce the journey duration from a minimum of one hour by road to 15 minutes by chopper. Mid way into the flight, the chopper developed a mechanical problem, bad enough for the pilot to do a U-turn and head back to the departure point in Lagos. The not too immediate background to this incident was his outcry to the effect that the government of President Muhammadu Buhari was intent on hounding him out of circulation through the instrumentality of a criminal frame up.

Following from his lead protagonist role in the struggle against the reelection of President Buhari, there has been an overt and covert display of malice by the Buhari camp towards Obasanjo. Regardless, it seems improbable that such animus had escalated to a stage where he would be subjected to the extreme counterpart of the Abacha treatment he suffered years ago. This improbable scenario notwithstanding, his elimination would have been too politically convenient for his political adversaries and suspicion would inevitably fall on Buhari and instantly provoke a backlash of serious political upheaval. In the circumstance, congratulations are in order for the potential victim, Buhari, Tunde Bakare and Nigeria at large.

I have, of recent, found myself in the familiar role of an interlocutor for the former President and the camp of the advocates for constitutional restructuring of the polity to which I belong. He sat me down and inquire of me what I honestly believe is the way forward for Nigeria. I decided the best way to make my case was to nudge him to reach a semblance of analytical conclusion on the indispensability of the restructuring proposal to the political survival of Nigeria.

How does he rate the sense of national unity and mutual tolerance among Nigerians in the first republic spanning 1960 to 1966 in comparison with what presently obtains? As I anticipated (given the regional based federalism of the independence constitution) he immediately countered that within that period, Nigeria comprised of three countries in one-in other words, Nigeria was far more divided. I told him the evidence does not bear out that anecdote. First, the relatively rancor free fast paced socio economic development of the era could only have been a by-product of a nation relatively at peace with itself and with the constitutional status quo. Were the contrary to be the case, it would have been mindless of the Western region, for instance, to be indifferent to its minimal representation in the Nigerian military. The constitutional arrangement predisposed Nigerians towards self-sustenance rather than subversive altercation over the division of the unearned booty localized in one part of Nigeria.

Second, the lopsidedness and the federal character blind composition of the perpetrators of the January 15 1966 argued against the interpretation of the coup as deriving from a background of national disunity. Paying little or no heed to the ethnic composition of the coup leaders is an indication of a subconscious that took it for granted that they were acting in the interest of Nigerians across the board. To believe otherwise would require us to assume that the conspirators were uncommonly stupid and dumb. How do you intend committing a crime and then willfully provide all the evidence needed to corroborate the crime? All those who knew Major Kaduna Chukwuma Nzeogwu were absolutely convinced his arrowhead role in the coup permitted of no other explanation than the assumption of Nigerian nationalism. And the immediate perception of the coup by all parts Nigeria was not from the lenses of a disunited nation. It took a dangerous drift and sequence of omissions and commissions for the North to arrive at a definitive imputation of Igbo regional conspiracy and complicity.

Third the prevailing pseudo unitary political configuration of Nigeria was not a response to any perceived lack of national unity allegedly fomented by the practice of the independence constitution. It is a specific product of the 1966 coups in which the group that militarily prevailed, namely the makers of the July 1966 counter coup proceeded to impose its will and vision as the political orthodoxy of Nigeria. It is rooted in the definition (of the political subjugation of Nigeria to Northern political supremacy) that was explicitly dictated by the triumphant mutinous group of Northern officers and soldiers in 1966. Subsequently, the outcome of the civil war ratified this newly inaugurated orthodoxy as the definition of national unity.

This is the dangerously flawed foundation on which contemporary Nigeria is founded and has culminated into a syndrome that spawned our sundry political vicissitudes especially the exacerbation of the malady (national disunity) it was ostensibly meant to assuage. It is a syndrome that has produced many casualties but has equally clarified how this hazardous political passage might be successfully navigated by would be military career survivors (of non-Northern origins). For such career survivors the paramount lesson to imbibe was the requisite total alignment with the explicitly defined ideology of Northern supremacy. Any contrary contemplation was untenable and extremely perilous if not suicidal. Instructive illumination will be found in the familiar story of Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe. In a complete negation of the cardinal military ethic of rigid discipline, a rank and file soldier pointedly refused the directive of the most senior Nigerian military officer (Ogundipe) and gave the condition for compliance as the approval of a fellow Northerner who so happened to be a far junior officer (to Ogundipe)-the then Captain Joe Garba.

This was the dawn of the received wisdom that there was no room for autonomous course of action by any military officer outside of the cast of those who originate from the North. Thus was foisted, in earnest, the hostage and captive mentality that would govern the conduct of Nigerian military officers (of non-Northern origins). The sweetener on this bitter pill was the marketing of the patron\client subordinate relationship as nothing less noble than the calling to keep ‘Nigeria one’. This veneer of national unity served to provide officers like Obasanjo with the cold comfort of being able to rationalize their accommodation to the political status quo as a call to higher duty.

The first of those instances that would put to test how best he understood the accommodation was Obasanjo’s encounter with Wole Soyinka in 1967. As rear commander of the Nigerian army in Ibadan, he flatly refused collaboration with Soyinka and Brigadier Victor Banjo in a proposed Yoruba conspiracy that would see him look the other way while the Banjo-led Biafran forces advance (uncontested) through Yoruba hinterland to give battle to General Yakubu Gowon in Lagos. Given the configuration of the Nigerian army at the time and fenced round by Northern troops it is a moot point whether the discretion he exercised in that defining moment was not the better part of valor. By the same token, there can be little doubt that attitudes like this would sooner endear him and build up his political capital with the Northern establishment.

In tandem, providence equally worked to boost this career trajectory by positioning him to be the one to receive the Biafran surrender in 1970. Such credentials had become sufficiently cumulative by 1976 when according to General Yakubu Danjuma, he imposed Obasanjo as military head of state (against the political norm of filling the vacancy created by the assassination of General Murtala Mohammed with another officer from the North).

Nine years later, the 1967 encounter reechoed in the face off he had with General Olufemi Olutoye-which similarly bordered on the political intricacies of managing the tension between the perceived obligations of his Yoruba ethnic identity and the reality of being answerable to the Northern regional stranglehold on Nigerian politics. Against the specific background of his imposition by the North (as military head of state) and the paranoia laden aftermath of the Dimka coup, the question again devolves on what latitude he had, to conduct himself differently from the way he did. The story was that Olutoye sought audience with him to discuss the relentless institutional bastardization of the Nigerian military (in which junior officers were catapulted to become politically elevated superiors to their senior colleagues)- especially as it affected Yoruba military officers. Beckoning on his Fulani deputy, Shehu Yar ‘Adua, to bear witness to Olutoye’s mission was little more than the acknowledgement of their vulnerability in a game in which neither him nor Olutoye or any officer of their regional pedigree was an equal player. You either ship in or ship out.