The Battle of The Nigerian Generals
By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, I once wrote an article about the Nigerian Mafia on this very page. Yes, Nigeria is a Mafia nation and there are a few Mafia families in play. Some are peopled by civilians, whilst some are a group of military men comprising retired soldiers. There is also a mixture of civilians and soldiers like the Kaduna Mafia comprising Northern elites from both the civilian populace and the military. Apart from the Generals’ Mafia which includes General Olusegun Obasanjo, all of these Mafia families usually consist of men of Northern extraction. There were only two visible Mafia families in the South, namely the Awolowo and Zikist Mafia. However, the latter’s influence diminished long before the Owelle Of Onitsha, Chief Nnamdi Azikwe, who was the arrowhead, passed away, whilst the former has had its glory days dulled by the fractious disagreements which broke out between the acolytes of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, The Odole of Ife, after he exchanged mortality for immortality. This got exacerbated and became open internecine warfare after the revered sage’s wife, the Yeyeoba of Ile-Ife, Chief Hannah Idowu Dideolu Awolowo, who had kept the shop together with adroit wiles and guile, died just over 3 years ago. However, the Tinubu Mafia has grown in competition with the Awolowo Mafia in recent times, but even the influence of their effervescent overlord, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Asiwaju of Lagos, may be facing challenges at the moment from rebels within and outside. These coming elections may well be a true test of how efficacious the influence and control of this great and astute politician remains.
It is interesting that while the influence of the Italian Mafia seems to have waned over the years, that of the Nigerian Mafia, particularly the Generals’ Mafia appears to have skyrocketed in recent years. There are warlords now spread across our country. And the godfathers and their godchildren litter the landscape of Nigeria. Since the return to civilian rule in 1999, Nigeria has remained under the firm grip of the military class, no matter what the civilians may say or think. It is therefore the Generals’ Mafia that remains in the ascendancy for now. Former Army General Olusegun Obasanjo, incidentally, the Balogun of Owu – a traditional warrior chief – came back from retirement as a former military Head of State and governed majestically for eight wonderful years. When he left, Umaru, the brother of a former Army General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua replaced him, largely on the basis of his relationship to the deceased brother, who was a firm favourite of General Obasanjo, who singlehandedly handpicked him and foisted him on a pliant nation despite his well-documented health challenges. He died in office and his Vice President, Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan also head-hunted by Obasanjo, took over to complete their first term. Thereafter, Jonathan was endorsed by Obasanjo, leading the Generals’ Mafia for his own first term. Unfortunately, things fell apart, when the falcon no longer hearkened to the falconer, and mere anarchy reigned upon the land. Meanwhile, all this while, Major General Muhammadu Buhari never stopped contesting serially, from 2003 to 2011 by which time he was expected to give up on his dream and ambition. He never did.
Buhari returned to contest for the Presidency a record fourth time in 2015 and won resoundingly with the support of the almighty Generals’ Mafia. But since then, he has not been able to hold the centre together and he has fallen out of grace, and out of favour from the super Generals. Some may want to argue otherwise but the proof is easy. He could not win on previous occasions until the powers that be joined him.
Who are these super Generals, the last men standing, you may want to ask? Let me oblige you, even if you know some or, indeed, all of them already. A few of them are quite visible while others are not, either deliberately or otherwise. The Nigerian Mafia in their totality are predominantly under the control of a few Generals who are members of a very select, privileged and exclusive club of high achievers in the Nigerian military and the Nigerian state. Let me start with the first and the reason he is probably the most powerful and influential.
General Olusegun Obasanjo remains the most visible and voluble member of the Nigerian Mafia. His official date of birth reads May 5, 1937, but many feel he is older, considering the age of some of his friends and schoolmates. He schooled in Nigeria and continued his military education in England and India. Fearless and brutal, he became famous and was idolised for his fairy-tale exploits during the Nigerian civil war. Though different accounts have claimed that his role was exaggerated and overhyped, even his worst critics admit and agree that he is an extremely intelligent and brave soldier with a no-nonsense attitude who seldom takes prisoners. He shot into prominence when his boss, General Murtala Muhammed was killed in a military coup in 1976 and as second in command, he was catapulted to the number one position of Head of State against his will. He and his team of the Supreme Military Council performed great feats until they handed over power to a civilian government headed by President Shehu Shagari. The fact that he stuck to his terminal date despite the fact that he had reasons to elongate his tenure endeared him to the international community. He acquired avuncular status on the continent of Africa and was much sought after globally. His detribalised nature also helped to place him on a higher pedestal in Nigeria. The man he and Murtala Muhammed sacked from power, General Yakubu Gowon was in exile in England for a long period of time and when he returned his amiable, gentle and religious disposition meant that he was no longer really relevant in the polity and this placed Obasanjo in a prime position to assume the leadership of the Nigerian Generals’ Mafia. Gowon is only sometimes wheeled out when it is time to plead for patience and peace in the land, but the truth is that he is often just left alone to enjoy his retirement! Obasanjo’s stock rose even higher, and that is indeed the frightening reality of the stock of this colossal statesman, when he returned to power for 8 years in the latest civilian dispensation. His bid to perpetuate himself in power through an abortive third term agenda crashed spectacularly. However his power and headship of the Generals’ Mafia remains solid and incontrovertible.
Lt. General Mohammed Inuwa Wushishi (CFR GCON) remains a veritable member of the Nigerian Mafia. Born in 1940, he rose to prominence and the peak of his military career when he became Chief of Army Staff (COAS) from 1981 to 1983, in the Nigerian Second Republic, under the Shagari government. Wushishi joined the Army in 1961 and received his military training in Kaduna, Nigeria and later at Aldershot in the United Kingdom and finally at the United States War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He had a meritorious service till he rose to the rank of a Lt. General. He was well respected as a very disciplined officer. Now, guess who took over from him as COAS? General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB), popularly described as the “evil genius”, and “Maradona” for his deft political and Machiavellian moves when he was President.
Babangida was born in 1941. After enlisting in the military, he had his military training in Nigeria, India and the United Kingdom. A very brilliant and sociable man, he rose quickly and became a Major General within 20 years, from a Second Lieutenant in 1963 to a Major General in 1983 and a full General in 1987. Babangida participated in all the successful military coups from July 1966 and actually toppled Buhari unexpectedly in 1985. The story of how he successfully achieved a feat nobody thought possible at the time is the stuff of legends and myths and is a story to be told another time! Babangida was the opposite of Buhari. He made many friends but was accused by his critics of introducing favouritism and corruption to our body polity. However, his network of friends is second to none and this has contributed to the vantage position he continues to maintain in the Nigerian Generals Mafia. But for the grave error of annulling the best, freest and fairest election ever held in Nigeria, history might have been extremely kind and gracious to him because he assembled one of the brightest men and women to join him in government. As it is, he is forever remembered by this singular misadventure.
Lt. General Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma was born in December 1938. Notably, and unlike his senior colleagues in the Generals’ Mafia, he completed and passed his Higher School certificate examinations and was admitted to study History at what is now the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in 1959. A keen sportsman in his secondary school days and captain of the School Cricket team, Danjuma opted out of University education to join the Nigerian Army in 1960. The rest, as they say is history, for this quintessential gentleman soldier, who rose to the rank of Lieutenant-General and Chief of Army Staff before retiring in 1979. Since his retirement from the Nigerian Army, Danjuma has been an esteemed and respected member of the Generals’ Mafia. He is a consummate politician who was Minister of Defence during Obasanjo’s first term as civilian President, astute billionaire businessman with interests in shipping, oil and gas and telecommunications where he sits as Chairman atop a myriad of companies, and above all a major gracious and significantly benevolent philanthropist, unlike his peers. It is claimed that his lack of support for President Buhari’s re-election bid stems from the refusal to renew his oil mining licence and a hefty tax bill which his gigantic oil company, South Atlantic Petroleum Limited (SAPETRO), naturally disputes. A man of very few words in public, the spate of senseless killings of his people recently forced him to issue harsh words which instantly brought him on collision path with the Buhari Government.
General Abdulsalami Abubakar was born in 1942. Like Babangida, he hails from Minna in Niger State. He completed his secondary education and went on to study at Kaduna Technical College from where he enlisted into the Nigerian Air force in October 1963. He undertook military training in the then Western Germany, but on his return to Nigeria in 1966, he was seconded to the Nigerian Army. He rose to the rank of General in the Nigerian Army and was Chief of Defence Staff for over five years during the regime of General Sani Abacha. He was entrusted with the mantle of leadership of the military junta upon the death of Abacha in June 1998 and became the country’s Head of State. Like Obasanjo, he set up a time-table for an early return to civilian rule and remarkably kept his word by organising elections and surrendering power in less than one year. He handed over to his leader and senior Don in the Generals’ Mafia, Olusegun Obasanjo, thereby continuing the trend of the Generals’ Mafia dictating the political leadership succession in the country. He is an international statesman who is acclaimed for returning the country to democratic rule in the shortest period of time. His reputation is however blighted by the death in his detention of Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, The Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland, the man who won the June 12 Presidential election, an election victory that has now been validated by President Buhari.
Lt. General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau completes the list of senior members of the Generals’ Mafia. This quiet, unassuming and self-effacing gentleman soldier was born in 1943. He has on diverse occasions been Director of Military Intelligence, Director of Defence Intelligence Agency, Director-General of NSO and Coordinator on National Security. He was National Security Adviser under Babangida, Obasanjo and Jonathan in that order becoming the only man to have held this position under three different Heads of State. He was briefly Chief of Army Staff, under the Interim National Government led by Chief Ernest Shonekan, thus following in the illustrious footsteps of some of his fellow dons in the Generals’ Mafia. He was also Minister of Defence in the Government of President Goodluck Jonathan. He is nicknamed the ‘Spook’ because of his secretive nature and his long stint in the intelligence service. He is reputed to have a dossier on all the major actors in the Nigerian military and political scene and is much respected and feared. He deliberately avoids public occasions and avoids controversy. It is fabled that the troika of Babangida, Abacha and Gusau had a pact that all three would become Heads of State and whilst Babangida and Abacha succeeded, Gusau failed in his ambition despite spirited attempts. Indeed, it was Abacha who retired Gusau from the Army when he took over the reins of power from Shonekan in 1993. Nonetheless, Gusau remains a veritable and trusted member of the Generals’ Mafia.
By virtue of his previous positions, President Buhari is also a member of the hallowed club of dons in the Generals’ Mafia. However, until 2015 when he contested elections for the Presidency yet again, he appeared to be an outcast in the Club who was merely tolerated. However, the gang opted to back him in 2015, but for whatever reasons, personal, altruistic or national they appear to have withdrawn that support. It remains to be seen whether lightning will strike twice on the same spot and the Generals’ Mafia which outflanked and outfoxed Buhari in 1985 will succeed in truncating his regime once more.
Or will it be the case that Buhari has the element of power and surprise and will to outmanoeuvre his fellow Dons this last time.
The elections of 2019 may likely herald and signal the sound of the ‘The Last Post” for this super elite club of Generals. The Presidential election is expected to be remote-controlled by these men and their civilian allies, meaning Buhari has a tough battle in his hands. It is not clear how many of these Generals he has on his side but he seems to have lost most of them which is likely to make the election tougher than necessary. Obasanjo and Babangida have not hidden their disdain. They have spoken publicly against the re-election of Buhari who may be taciturn but is also known to be a deadly fighter. According to insiders in APC, Buhari no longer needs them because he totally controls the apparatus of power and coercion. The palpable fear is for the Generals not to plunge Nigeria into an orgy of violence and for Buhari to execute a free and peaceful election. Many pundits believe Buhari may not hand over power with the kind of equanimity Jonathan displayed. Worrisome.
The President’s supporters believe the Generals have outlived their relevance. Theoretically, this sounds easy but the old foxes must never be underrated. There are interesting days ahead… God save Nigeria.