Nigeria and Mali at 60: Reflections on Lust for Power

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Seemingly caught between a rock and a hard place, citizens should not by default cast the military in the mould of de facto alternative government, writes Soyombo Opeyemi…

On this occasion of the diamond Independence anniversary, there is the need to review the sharp vicissitudes of Nigeria with a view to building a better and prosperous country.
Amnesia is a fatal disease in any human concourse. It appears quite easy to forget that it was martial rule that led to the Nigerian Civil War, which cost the nation about three million lives and socio-economic dislocation that remains with us till date. Army rule set Nigeria back 50 years in terms of development. Every coup-maker excoriated the previous government in order to gain legitimacy. No sooner had it settled down than it did worse than the regime it toppled. The military governments took the art of treasury looting to the highest point in Nigeria.

After stormy conferences in Ibadan (1950), London (1953) and Lagos (1954), the founding fathers of Nigeria agreed to live together under a federal arrangement. This led to an accelerated development in the three regions of the North, West and East. Nigeria had its golden years before the first coup. The military, with its centralized command structure, destroyed the federal structure, replacing it with a unitary system. The country is yet to recover from the strangulating unitary structure foisted on it through endless coups.

The military was not kind to itself either. One coup after the other, it destroyed the lives of many of its finest officers, retired senior and junior officers untimely and unceremoniously, shattered discipline, command structure and esprit de corps. Since a military government is patently illegal, it is always unstable, living in perpetual fear of coups from within its own ranks. Military interregnums brought Nigeria to its knees.
Therefore, it amounts to mental derangement for a people that suffered such cataclysm to perpetrate a situation that will orchestrate its recurrence. We must be wary of words, actions, speeches and write-ups that seem to suggest a loss of faith in the current democratic order.

Be it a good or bad civilian government, the era of military regime is over in Nigeria. The military is not the watchdog of the nation’s democracy and should not constitute itself as one. That role has been handed to the press by Section 22 of the Nigerian Constitution (as amended). The military is not an alternative government, being not a political party. There is only one alternative government; and that must be a political party. If one party in power is not doing well, then let another political party replace it at the next general elections.

Nigeria trains doctors and nurses to keep her citizens in good health. She trains teachers to educate her citizens. She trains soldiers to keep her citizens and territory secure from external aggression. The military cannot claim to be more important than teachers. Neither can doctors claim superiority over the police. The teachers are carrying out their lawful duties in the classrooms, the doctors and nurses are fulfilling their constitutional mandates in the hospitals, the farmers in the farms; so should members of the armed forces fulfil their lawful duties of defending the citizens and the country against external aggression. Let everyone and every institution fulfil their constitutional roles.

With the manifest failure of the Nzeogwu-led coup d’état, the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army should have pledged his allegiance to the Constitution and loyalty to the new government. Major Kaduna Nzeogwu and other coup plotters should have been arrested (and they were eventually arrested) and charged with treason and murder. These measures would have preserved our democracy and forestalled the mindless orgy of blood-letting of imponderable proportions in the barracks and the nooks and crannies of Nigeria for gruelling 48 months!

One must state in parenthesis that the Nzeogwu military putsch was not an Igbo coup. Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, it could be argued, was more of a Northerner than an Easterner or Mid-westerner. Those callow officers, including Major Adewale Ademoyega – who was among the leading mutinous soldiers that planned the coup – were merely hot-headed and prone to taking harebrained decisions. Nzeogwu himself was a doctrinaire Marxist who had been psychologically misled by a weird ideology. Although there was spontaneous embrace of his coup by the masses from North to South, Nzeogwu also would have been one of the worst dictators in history had his coup succeeded. However, the mismanagement of the coup by Ironsi accounted for the imputation of an ethnic agenda. At any rate, it is the finger that sins that the king cuts. You cannot hold an entire race responsible for the sin of a couple of its members. That is totally inadmissible. Consequently, the pogroms directed at the Easterners were unwarranted and completely reprehensible.

In sum, the absence of justice or abuse of power sounded the death knell for the First Republic.
Equally, the same abuse of power using the Federal Electoral Commission, misuse of security personnel, especially the police (and elements of the armed forces) and political control of the judiciary by the President, resulting in escalating social tension, led to the December, 1983 coup.

Military’s lust for power
However, in virtually all the cases, whether in Nigeria or Mali, no military officers seize power on behalf of the people. The military usually cashes in on the frustration of the public to stage a coup in order to satisfy the lust of its officers for power. Hence one military coup usually leads to another.
The situation is the same in Mali. The rigging of parliamentary elections, using the electoral body and the judiciary, the abuse of power and misuse of security agents against the people (protesters) constituted the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back.

But let no one be deceived. Military officers do not grab power on behalf of the masses. When Lt. Moussa Traore seized power by force of arms from the civilian President Modibo Keita in 1968, the Malian citizens welcomed the ‘saviour’ from the barracks! Traore had cashed in on the economic hardship of the masses. But what did the Malians get in return for their embrace of the unelected ‘saviour’? Brutal dictatorship that lasted for 22 (twenty-two) years until another military putsch swept Traore from power!

Consequently, my snorts of contempt could be heard on the streets of Bamako when on the 18th day of August, 2020, news filtered to the world that many Malian civilians had welcomed the military putsch against the embattled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who had failed to succumb to the month-long massive street protests calling for his resignation. Coups after coups, the African populations have failed to learn from history!
“Well, the Army took over and they continued to blunder. They continued to do what they were trained to do: that is, to destroy: to kill; and to loot,” submitted Chief Mbazulike Amechi, Minister of Aviation in the First Republic. Have we not been here before? Have Malians not been there before? Nigerians, in their millions, from North to South, welcomed virtually all military coups. But what did we get at the end of each and every coup d’état?

Collapse of economy
A former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Alfa Belgore, once lamented how military rule stifled Nigerian development. He recalled the many development agreements with the German government in critical sectors of the country’s economy in the early 60s, which had to be abandoned because of army rule. The strong economic foundation laid by our founding founders began a gradual plunge from the period of military take-over in January 15, 1966, notwithstanding the oil money that came later, which was largely mismanaged. Martial rule signalled the premature death or decimation of hundreds of flourishing industries, many of them multi-nationals. Even those established during the heyday of the army rule did not survive the depredations of the subsequent military governments, as one coup succeeded another. The then flourishing private/ mission schools were taken over by force, progressively decayed and destroyed. Today, the carcasses of these schools are being returned to their original owners! The public corporations too collapsed under the mismanagement of military regimes – Nigerian Railway, Nigeria Airways, Nigerian National Shipping Line, etc., etc. Indeed, things became so bad for the country that national aircraft and ships were seized in foreign countries on account of unpaid debts!

No government could match the military regimes in the art of corruption. Indeed, it can be argued that the civil governments accused of corruption by coup-makers could actually pass for saints. The military reportedly introduced security vote into governance, which has now become a slush fund for some of those holding the levers of power. Indeed, the civilian public officers who currently indulge in corruption could be said to have learnt the art of brazen larceny from the military regimes. General Abacha alone is credited to have looted about $5 billion (five billion dollars)! That is N1.8 trillion at the exchange rate of N360 to one dollar!

Desk generals
When on the 13th day of September, the media was awash with the report that the alliance of opposition politicians and civil society groups (the M5-RFP) who had led the masses to stage enormous street demonstrations, had rejected a transition charter of the Colonel Assimi Goita-led National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), accusing the military junta/ coupists of an attempt to “grab and confiscate power”, noting that the military document “did not reflect the views and decisions of the Malian people,” I simply sniggered!

Even when you dine with the devil with a long spoon, the cutlery will still be grabbed from you and confiscated! Col. Goita! Officers of his ilk are merely band of opportunists, who love to fish in troubled waters in order to satisfy their lust for political power. But for the decision of ECOWAS to shutter its borders and demand a civilian transition leadership, Col. Assimi Goita planned to remain in power for three years, during which he most likely would have settled down to transmute from military to a civilian dictator! Despite the Tuesday, 15th day of September, 2020 deadline given by the regional bloc for the military leaders to immediately hand over power to a civilian government, the dissident soldiers dithered.

ECOWAS and Malians should be vigilant. Goita may still overthrow the newly-inaugurated Transitional President, Bah Ndaw, in order to satisfy the coupists’ lust for power. No military officers seize power on behalf of the masses!
In order to preserve constitutional rule in the region, ECOWAS leaders should have rejected any arrangement that would include the mutinous soldiers under the self-styled banner of National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP). No military officers impound power in order to save or serve the masses. They do so to sit behind desks in Government Houses in order to enjoy the perks of political office.

Here in Nigeria, and during the coup years, we saw generals emerge not by fighting wars, not by any acts of derring-do in warfronts but by sitting behind desks in Government Houses! The civil populace bore the brunt. Many unarmed civilians were regularly mauled, tortured and imprisoned in a show of force by the desk generals. In one instance, Ola Rotimi, the renowned playwright and author of The Gods Are Not To Blame, was ordered to put his both hands on a car and horsewhipped like a schoolboy by one of the ubiquitous soldiers set to define their times!
Besides, no soldiers would risk committing treason and then hand over the ‘fruits of their labour’ to any other group! MKO Abiola waited in vain for the Abacha junta to fulfil its own part of the ‘bargain’ by handing over power to him! No military officers hijack power on behalf of the masses!

The germane question
The corollary question would then be: how should state and non state actors respond when the political class becomes irresponsible and pushes their country towards the precipice? The symptoms of a country on the brink are corruption, bribery, tribalism, nepotism, impunity, religious bigotry, manipulation of the electoral management body and the judiciary, misuse of the security operatives, especially the police and the armed forces, unlimited access to the public till by state actors, especially elected politicians. The list is by no means exhaustive. But the most dangerous causes of instability in Africa are the manipulation of the electoral body and the misuse of the security agents, especially the police, elements of the armed forces and the judiciary.

One easily recalls that the judiciary (the Constitutional Council) was one of the major institutions abused by the ex-President Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire to push his country into a needless civil war. It is regrettable that President Alassane Quattara (78) of Cote d’Ivoire and President Alpha Conde of Guinea (82) have now pushed their countries on the brink of avoidable wars by misusing the electoral body, the judiciary and the security agents, especially the police and the armed forces!

Buhari’s cautionary note
In this connection, we are full of effusive praises for President Muhammadu Buhari for practically confronting these unconscionable leaders at the 57th Ordinary Session of the ECOWAS Heads of State and Government in Niamey, Niger Republic, on 7th September, 2020. Buhari deserves all the garlands for this unprecedented display of pointed frankness to his brother leaders of Ivory Coast and Guinea.

It behoves the other ECOWAS leaders to avoid the unsavoury situation of having to lock the stable door after the horse has bolted. They must follow in the footsteps of Buhari to ensure Presidents of Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea do not spark off a conflagration in their respective countries through their morbid desire to cling on to power.
There is already a combustible political situation in these countries. They must save the region from further political crisis.

Delimiting the powers of the president
This author believes that statecraft should not be left to chance or at the mercy of good men. Even the good men today may become bad men tomorrow! Our governance institutions should so strong as to be able to check or withstand any good or bad leader. One of the best ways to achieve this in Africa is to limit the powers of the head of state, especially with regards to appointment. The head of government should be stripped of the power to appoint the chairman and members of the electoral management body and the head of the police. Such powers should reside in a democratic committee of the institution of judiciary. But the head of state may remove such officers upon two-thirds votes of members of the upper chamber of the legislature on the grounds of gross misconduct. This is without prejudice to the need to devolve powers to the constituent states, provinces or regions, especially in the large and multi-ethnic societies in Africa.

President Buhari was recently censured for his comments that the APC-led federal government could have used the army, the police and other security agents to overrun the opposition at the 2019 general elections but chose not to do so. But Mr Buhari only stated the obvious. He knew how some previous leaders had deployed elements of the military and the police to rig elections on behalf of the party in power. Rather than criticisms, the message to draw from the President’s comments should have been on how to build a military institution and security architecture that cannot be abused by any head of state.

Therefore, it is the responsibility of the National Assembly to enact laws that make it an impeachable offence for any President or Commander-in-Chief to issue an unconstitutional order to the armed forces and a crime for the military high command to execute such an order.
Any order to the members of the armed forces and security operatives, especially the police to aid and abet rigging of elections or to turn your guns against unarmed civilians, are patently criminal and unconstitutional. Such crimes are not covered by statute of limitations. “I’m only obeying or executing orders from above,” is no longer an acceptable alibi, for those familiar with proceedings at the International Criminal Court!

Ending judicial corruption
Whereas the executive has considerable influence over the judiciary in Mali, the Nigerian judiciary, constitutionally, enjoys considerable independence. The undoing of the judiciary in our clime, substantially, has its roots in election petitions. It is thus a matter of regret that some state institutions now employ (threats of) investigation of judges as a tool of blackmail and intimidation of the said priests in the temple of justice. How did we sink so low in this country? Why has lust for power and money brought our country to a sorry pass?! While we call on the National Judicial Council, with the active support of the Nigeria Bar Association, to sanitize the sacred institution of the judiciary, emphasis should be on how to end manipulation and rigging of electoral process, which opens the floodgate of election petitions.

Limiting access to public fund
Above all is the need to smash the cut-throat contest for political office by removing unrestrained access of public officials to public resources, which they eventually deploy to undermine all state institutions. Such resources are equally deployed on the electoral field in order to ensure the highest number of votes goes to the highest bidder. If not checked and extirpated from our political system, vote-buying, a dangerous trend which became entrenched in recent years, will ensure that even freedom becomes a commodity that can be bought by the highest political bidder!

Resignation from office
On the 28th of August, 2020, the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, announced his resignation from office on health grounds. No leader is compelled to die in office. Resignation from office is an inalienable right; it’s part of democratic tenets. African leaders should imbibe the culture of resigning from office, especially when their continued leadership is no longer tenable.

Scuppering treason from within
Soldiers, we all know, obey orders. They are not exactly protected from disobeying patently treasonable orders such as an order to protect an officer announcing a coup on a radio station, to take over a Government House of a state or the seat of the Federal Government. Since no society can be completely free of deviants, there is need for a law to protect the rank and file or junior officers for disobeying treasonable orders and a law empowering them to arrest any superior officer who issues treasonable orders, to wit, to take over a media station for the purpose of announcing a coup, to take over a Government House of a state and the seat of the Federal Government for the purpose of governance. The National Assembly should, therefore, enact a ‘Treason(able) Orders Disobedience Protection Law’.

Military training for all
A nation should prepare for war in time of peace. Consequently, the Legislature and the Executive should kick-start the process of compulsory military training for citizens in line with Section 220 of the Nigerian Constitution.

Removal of statute of limitations
According to Section 43 of the Criminal Code Act, “A person cannot be tried for treason, or for any of the felonies defined in the three last preceding sections, unless the prosecution is commenced within two years after the offence is committed.”
Due to the severity of the crime of treason, it is proposed that the National Assembly should delete Section 43 from the Criminal Code. Treason and treasonable felonies against elected government should not enjoy any statute of limitations.

A ray of hope
There is a ray of hope. The current crop of officers appears set to play their allotted constitutional role in the socio-economic development of Nigeria. They will subordinate themselves to constituted civil authorities. They will remain the pride of the nation. The military high command must enforce with stubborn rigidity international best practices in military-civil relations. One cannot imagine a French soldier beat up, gun-butt or horsewhip an unarmed citizen on the streets of Paris or a British soldier ordering a U.K citizen to do a frog jump on the streets of London, as we observe here in Nigeria! I often wonder what statutes confer such powers on our soldiers! Neither can a US soldier engage in a bayonet or gun battle with a US police officer! Such vestiges of coup years must disappear altogether from Nigeria.

The security agents must be richly rewarded. Members of the police, the armed forces and other security agencies who sacrifice their all to keep citizens safe and secure deserve the best from the Nigerian system.
The nation must reward members of the armed forces handsomely. Our soldiers must be well paid. We must cater for their children. Modern and sophisticated training programmes constantly should be organized for the military. The death of a US soldier is a blow to the entire nation, so also must be the death of any Nigerian soldier. Our soldiers must be the pride of the country, a formidable threat to any external force!

Back to the golden years
Having restated the need for every institution, including the military, to keep to its constitutional mandate, it is important to stress that the socio-economic and political situation affects all citizens of the country. We all go to the same market.
Parliamentary system of government remains the best option for Nigeria. It is cheap to run in comparison with the American presidential model. The National Assembly will do the citizens a world of good by returning the nation to parliamentary democracy. It is highly cost effective as cabinet members are chosen from the legislature. Besides, public supply (finances) will come into constant scrutiny by the constitutional opposition. There will be only one general election as against several in the presidential system. Above all, it discourages the winners-take-it-all syndrome, a distinguishing feature of the presidential system, completely unsuitable for Africans.

Parliamentary Nigeria in 2023
Finally, I earnestly urge President Muhammadu Buhari, Senate President Ahmed Lawan and Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila to return the country to parliamentary democracy, effective May 29, 2023. Every election will then be fought at the constituency level. The federal Prime Minister or the Premier at the state level will be primus inter pares, being only first among his equals.

As earlier indicated, a democratic committee of the institution of judiciary should appoint the chairman and members of the electoral commission and the head of the police. But the head of state may remove such officers upon two-thirds votes of members of the upper chamber of the legislature on grounds of gross misconduct. The same should hold in every state save for the fact that the two-thirds vote should be secured in the unicameral legislature.
These are among the best gifts this nation deserves on this occasion of 60th Independence anniversary.

Nigerians should not despair. Malians should not sink into despondency. Although it is totally undesirable, sometimes it gets worse before it gets better – the story of police-SARS being a good example. Congratulations Nigeria! Congratulations Mali. Happy diamond celebrations!
· Soyombo, author of Buhari v. Yar’Adua (2008), media practitioner and public affairs analyst, sent this contribution from Abeokuta via densityshow@yahoo.com (08060177135)