Before President Tinubu Forgets the ‘Footnotes’ of History


If the humiliated and dumped out-of-service officers followed Tinubu’s electioneering, their thoughts and feelings might have vacillated between angst, deja vu and denouement, Bayo Akinloye reports

Heaving a sigh, not of relief but of near-resignation, they cast their minds back to a distant past that weighs heavily on them. They were meant to be soldiers of the future; they imagined a future reign not under the jackboot but the presumptuous freedom that democracy offers. In that future, democratic glimpse, their destinies were entwined.

Immediately after the June 12 presidential election, with MKO Abiola presumed the winner of the historic poll, their hope would soon be dashed, left forlorn and somewhat renewed amid recent fears such a hope would soon be forgotten.

In another instalment of conversations with THISDAY, they expressed their angst and anticipation. They explained their full trust in President Bola Tinubu’s sense of justice and reparation as they hailed his devotion to magnanimity and national sacrifice. The seemingly forgotten military officers yet wonder if their labour and sacrifices for their fatherland will not be rewarded in their lifetime.

The military officers aired their fear of being annotated and imprinted as a footnote to history. That already happened to some of them, the group of ex-soldiers told THISDAY.

Ex-Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Muhammadu Buhari forgot them, the phantom coup plotters stated. Between those two former generals and latter-day democratic rulers were former Presidents Goodluck Jonathan and Umar Yar’Adua. The heels of their hope, the ex-military men said, trudged slowly.

With Tinubu in the saddle, they are convinced it is now or never.

Viewing the future from the past

It was in 1993 when Nigerian civilians dared to hope under the jackboot of a military dictatorship. In the army, not a few were considered sympathetic to a potential return to democratic rule. But the line between hope and hopelessness, many concluded in hindsight, was thin ice. Those who dared, their hopes were dashed: a new regime of dictatorship took over, and amid uncertainty and insecurity, there were accusations of coups and “phantom coup plotters.”

Several civilian and military personalities were thrown into gaol. For a few, like Obasanjo, it was a blessing in disguise as he rose to power on the wings of his anguish in the hands of the last despot, General Sani Abacha.

Obasanjo ruled for eight years, instituted the Oputa panel but “ignored the travails and injustice of those of us, so-called phantom coup plotters, to languish in anonymity in despair, hoping to get justice,” said a former military officer incarcerated during the terror-filled days of Abacha. His files and many others gathered dust in the federal government’s archives for years. Many of the so-called phantom coup plotters felt their comrade Obasanjo dealt them perhaps the hardest blow by overlooking the Oputa panel report. His successors, Yar’Adua and Jonathan, would do the same. Later, an ex-general, Buhari, took over the reins of power as a democrat.

The humiliated military officers felt he was their ilk and would be more sympathetic to their delusion, demoralisation and lengthened humiliation. Years passed. Then, a glint of hope shone: Buhari declared the Hope ‘93 hero MKO Abiola a national protagonist and made June 12 a nationwide public holiday. Then, the files of the so-called coup plotters were said to have inched closer to his desk, almost, said sources close to the insufferable military men. Amid Buhari’s eight years, the files that would bring reprieve moved too slowly, and it was said the then-president did not get to sign them off, giving life to all the Oputa recommendations.

Painful past, painstaking present

The military men accused of coups they repeatedly claimed they knew nothing about and probably never existed other than in the mind of the late despot gasped for breath. Forlorn, they feared for the worse. Faint of heart, they dread to dream again. Decades of grit, gripping mental and physical pains, and the gruelling reality that they have laboured in vain for their fatherland appear a certain conclusion. The feeling, they said, gnawed their heaving hearts as they held on to the justice, in principle, that eluded them.

Some of the suspected phantom coupists left brutalised during the 1990s dictatorship included Musa Shehu Yar’Adua, Olusegun Obasanjo, Colonels Lawan Gwadabe, Olusegun Oloruntoba, Gabriel Ajayi, Emmanuel Ndubueze, Rowland Emokpae, Bello Fadile, Lt-Colonels Martin Igwe, Sam Oyewole, Happy Bulus, Major Akinloye Akinyemi and Lt. Kayode Olowomoran. In the torture chambers of the maximum ruler that held sway at the time, there was “the mass arrest of the Nigerians earlier mentioned, and when it became clear to the military junta that their coup plot allegation could not be substantiated, the suspects were tortured, debased and dehumanised in its most ruthless ramifications” to extract “incriminating statements from them.”

In most cases, suspects were “soaked in muddy water dead in the night, blindfolded, handcuffed, shackled and left naked in the open air for hours.” This was followed by taking the suspects through various torture modules. At a particular torture chamber, suspects had their upper limbs chained to their lower limbs symmetrically. After that, suspects were suspended in a manner “characteristic of a fowl prepared for roasting.” Suspects were kept in this position for “close to one hour, and by the time they were left off the hooks, their wrists, armpits and ankles had been terribly battered.”

Several have waited for 28 years with hope raised; hope dashed, shattered, flickered and now —hope renewed, convinced of getting justice. Convicted of crimes they repeatedly deny committing, the so-called phantom coup plotters of 1995 and 1997 have yet to get the justice they insist they deserve. Arrested and tortured by the late Gen. Sani Abacha regime, the soldiers, in various interviews in 2017, recalled the horrors and indignities they had endured, the shame, deprivations, and disillusionment of giving their all to their country but getting almost nothing in return. Not that they did not try to hope, they said. They vowed they did. They pointed to the Oputa panel that exonerated them and the recommended compensations that came with it. That reprieve remained a mirage for more than a decade.

When asked in 2017 in an interview about Obasanjo’s failure to implement the recommendations of the Oputa panel that the ex-president set up, one of the soldiers convicted in 1995, Col Jibrin Isa, said, “You know when you are in power, you look at things differently. Perhaps my thinking is that since he was in power at that time (between 1999 and 2007), if he (had) had implemented the recommendations, people might have made a noise about it, which is natural. Maybe he was waiting for an appropriate time after he had left office. But since he had left office as the president, I believe he should have taken more interest in the plight of people with whom he suffered unjustly in the hands of the Abacha junta. He should have pushed the case further; what is remaining is the implementation of the recommendations.”

He added that the matter went to the industrial court, which ruled that “all the recommendations of the Oputa panel should be granted.”

Since 2017, the so-called phantom coup plotters have renewed their struggle to get justice in the full sense. Death and incapacitations have visited some of them. With time dulling the collective memories of many, the soldiers remain adamant.

Many believed Buhari would grant the phantom coup victims a reprieve. That did not come despite several reports that Buhari was keen to recompense them. At that time, those close to the erstwhile attorney general of the federation, Abubakar Malami, said the paperwork would soon be completed. At the expiration of eight years of Buhari’s reign, nothing moved in the eyes of the victims, and the long wait for justice must continue, they sighed.

Renewed hope

If the humiliated and dumped out-of-service officers followed Tinubu’s electioneering, their thoughts and feelings might have vacillated between angst, deja vu and denouement.

“This is it,” said one of the coup plotters who did not want his name mentioned, expressing the views of many of his comrades that if anybody would come to their aid at all in the worst of situations, it must be incumbent President Bola Tinubu. But they hesitated, not for lack of trust, but because time and pain have unsettled their once steady gait. They limp amid the uncertainty and failure of the past.

“We trust Asiwaju. We cannot stop to hope. That’s the only badge of honour we carry,” one of them stressed.

Dusting up Oputa panel recommendation

They hope Tinubu will consider their plight and grant them the long-awaited reprieve. They point in the direction of the clear-cut facts and resolutions contained in the Oputa panel. They are convinced that justice delayed, which has left some of them deceased and others disconsolate, should not be justice denied.

Feeling left in the lurch, some of the victims stated that the Council of State approved the compensation for the victims of the phantom coup allegations, first in 2009 and later in 2011. They described their experiences in the hands of the Abacha hordes as “unjust, inhuman, satanic and callous acts of impunity against the said victims of rights violations and oppression cannot be wished away at all because it is alive in the recorded annals” of Nigeria and “in international libraries.”

In their enduring race for justice, the remaining so-called phantom coupists hinge their hope on the incumbent president, Tinubu and Vice-President Kashim Shettima, “to right the wrongs of the past, heal past wounds and wipe off sorrows and bewilderment from the life of the said victims of rights violations and abuses,” it is time the federal government should “deal with the horrible and psychological debilitating debrief our national callousness during General Sani Aba cha’s years of darkness, callousness, treachery and oppression.”

Something close to the Lord’s prayer

For their labour not to be in vain, the victims of the Abacha dictatorship are seeking “prompt action” that the incumbent president should endorse the reliefs and compensation recommended by the Oputa panel, its white paper (Council of State Memo June 23, 2009, Council of State Memo March 13, 2013, and Nigeria Official Gazzete NO 33, VOL. 86, dated May 26 1999, in favour of the military and civilian victims to alleviate their 22 years of trauma and psychological stress).

Among other things, they seek promotion to their appropriate higher ranks in line with their coursemates in the Armed Forces. They stated that they were high-flyers before their lofty careers were truncated. Added to that by the panel’s recommendation is a letter of apology for wrongful detention, torture, deprivation, and ruthless rights violations and comprehensive rehabilitation of all military and civilian victims caught in the web of the phantom coup. There are other recommendations by the Oputa panel. The ex-servicemen eagerly await the full implementation of the recommendations.

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