It happened again! This was not the first time that normal life was interrupted through abrupt radio announcements by intruders who force their way into studios and grab the microphone from frightened official announcers: "Fellow countrymen and women, I Major (Colonel or Brigadier) so and so, on behalf of the Nigerian Armed Forces, bla, bla, bla"!
It first started on Saturday, January 15, 1966, when Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzegwu, after he and his accomplices had murdered our civilian and military leaders, announced the forceful take over of power, from the democratically elected government, for what later turned out to be spurious reasons. Similarly, subsequent coup-leaders, Ironsi, Gowon, Joe Garba, Murtala Mohammed, and Bukar Dimka, variously interrupted the status quo and each, after having overthrown his own military superiors, started to proffer reasons and/or excuses for snatching political power from his victims. In almost each case, the gullible Nigerian public accepted the reasons announced and sometimes even cheered the new comers only to turn round sooner than later to start complaining and ardently praying for another change of government. This was our Nigeria of turbulence and instability; a country blessed with great resources and potentialities yet marred by what looks like a spell of ethnic rivalries and highly politicized and ambitious Armed Forces.
Since January 1966, most of the senior members of the Nigeria Armed forces have been more concerned and more heavily engaged in the business of coup-planning, and/or running governments than in the task of protecting the territorial integrity of the country. Even the civil war in which they fought so gallantly to keep Nigeria one was itself the direct result of the infighting between power seeking coup and counter-coup leaders. The cost to Nigeria is incalculable, considering among others the number of valuable lives lost and the talents and skills wasted in the process of incessant changes in the command structure within the military as well as among the civilians.
Nevertheless, the decision of the Murtala/Obasanjo regime to voluntarily handover power to civilians was in itself wise, honourable and magnanimous. It would have been a more lasting credit to the Nigerian military if by so doing they resolved never to return to what in fact was not their legitimate role. But it is naive to imagine that anyone had any control over the ambitious members of the armed forces, especially those among them who had already tasted power as rulers. Thus from the time of the military handover to civilians in October 1979 to the present, there always have been some over-ambitious military men lurking around somewhere planning a possible take over of government.
Our security service, during the period of my tenure, did a wonderful job of employing quite efficient methods, through their intelligence, to track down conspiracies against my administration in their very early stages before they were hatched. It was only during the latter part of my first term and the beginning of the second term that the military intelligence became suspect. It was a rather delicate situation since there was yet no visible evidence of any signs of disloyalty on the part of the military intelligence. All we had to do was to keep a close watch and be on our guard until some clear indication appeared, otherwise we feared, precipitate action might rock the boat in the process. Worse still, there appeared to be a cleavage within the army hierarchy itself when some senior officers started quarreling among themselves for positions. Some of this senior officers were known to be in the league with some influential politicians from within and outside the administration. Consequently, these power-hungry officers and messy politicians quickly factionalized the army into groups of loyalists and suspects. Some of my opponents, notably Waziri Ibrahim, engaged themselves in the dangerous pasttime of what one may call coup baiting. Surprisingly, Chief Awolowo did not in any way have any connection with the military during this time, although some of his supporters could not be absolved. I have on several occasions had the rather unpleasant duty of personally warning all concerned individually to steer clear of the dangerous game.
As was to be expected, everyone approached on the subject emphatically denied the charge, but pointed fingers at others. It was a rather tricky situation, which did place me in a kind of dilemma. However, the single exception to the rule was Alhaji Umaru Dikko, the Minister of Transport, who had openly confessed to me about his involvement in barrack politics. This arose from a complaint I received in 1983 from some military brass who alleged that Umaru Dikko had been spying at them in their houses and was keeping surveillance on their movements. When I confronted Umaru on the allegation, he did not deny the charges but argued that he was doing so in the national interest and according to him, in order to safeguard my own personal security, his own and that of my immediate lieutenants whose lives, he believed, were being threatened by coup-plotters. I quickly dismissed his assertions as unfounded and told him, in no uncertain terms, to stop meddling in what was strictly outside his own competence. He dutifully but grudgingly obeyed.
Prior to this incident, a senior army officer who had just returned from a course abroad came to lodge a complaint to me when his posting suddenly changed from the Lagos Garrison, Ikeja Cantonment, to another Command because of what he believed to be political interference in the matter of military postings. He heard rumours, he added, that the change in his posting was prompted by alleged misgiving about his loyalty to the administration. If this were so, he suggested that he would rather resign from the service and go home. Actually, I did not know anything at all about his posting and re-posting, and I told him so. I also assured him of my absolute confidence in him and tried to disabuse his mind about nursing any grievances based upon unfounded rumours and wild allegations. We parted with a warm handshake and renewed friendship.
Soon afterwards, I enquired about this issue with the Chief of Army Staff who confessed to me that he had effected the change of posting, of the particular officer, at the instance of Umaru Dikko who thought that would be risky to allow such an officer to be so close to the seat of power when he was strongly being suspected of wanting power for himself. I warned the Chief of Army Staff to desist from doing things behind my back and I asserted that matters such as this ought not to have escaped my early attention. He however confirmed the loyalty of the officer concerned, but advised that the new posting should remain as arranged for administrative convenience. I agreed.
Ironically, it was this same officer who later became the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and allegedly ordered among other things, the abortive forceful repatriation of Umaru Dikko from the United Kingdom through abduction in a crate!
Throughout 1983, the aura of suspicions had prevailed among the members of the armed forces, and the government found it difficult to ascertain the loyalty of officers since rumours and mutual suspicions were rife. There were also allegations of involvement of some retired Army officers, including the former Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo, in a coup-baiting, but these could not be confirmed with any degree of accuracy, except that there were reported visits by some army officers to Otta Farm which was not unusual. However, some public statements by General Obasanjo severely criticising the administration seemed to point to at least a tacit incitement of the military against the government. I had for long wanted to invite General Obasanjo for discussion on the current situation, especially on the national economy about which he showed some concern, but I had observed that he did not like the idea of visiting the State House since he left it on October 1, 1979. For example, he never agreed to grace my usual luncheon at the State House, Marina, with members of the National Council of States (of which he was a member), after each sitting of that council. I therefore resorted to sending my emissaries to Otta Farm to convey my respects and bring back any advice he might wish to offer. I knew that Alhaji Shehu Musa, the Secretary of the Government, was his personal friend and he, among others, occasionally visited the General at my behest.
Yet for some strange reasons this soldier-statesman had developed some kind of deep malevolence for me, despite the very high regard and respect I have always had for him, as was demonstrated by the highest national honour I awarded him and which I still believe he richly deserved. I understand from someone close to him, however, that he had expected me to be constantly consulting him on all matters of government since he had an obsession of being a super-administrator, super-diplomat and of course a military genius. With all due deference, however, I believe that as a politician who had been in government for a much longer time than he, I would have very little to learn from a leader who had never in his life time had the privilege and the burden of even participating in a democratic government.
Running a democratic government is quite a different problem from running a military dictatorship. General Obasanjo would appear to have failed to appreciate this simple fact. As a matter of fact, I observed as early as September, 1979, that General Obasanjo had taken me for a novice who, according to his book; Not my Will, "was pushed into power by those who wanted to make use of him and was unfortunately too weak and somewhat ill-prepared for the trappings of political power to check the abuse of his power by those who made use of him". It is true that I "did not court power and wanted to be nothing more than a Senator" but I am proud to have been "pushed" by millions of Nigerian voters (with 25 per cent of the total votes cast in thirteen states) while General Obasanjo was pushed by only a band of military officers in the Supreme Military Council after the fall of Gen. Murtala Mohammed in February 1976 when he reluctantly accepted offer, even though he was definitely ill-prepared for "the trapping of political power". It is doubtful however, whether in fact he was strong enough, as he implied in his book, "to check the abuses of his power" by those who made him what he was. As for me, I was without doubt more than adequately prepared and equipped for the job and knew exactly the scope as well as the limitations of presidential powers in a democratic system.
Conversely, it is indeed the military rulers who were, in almost al cases, ill-prepared for the trappings of political power when they took over from civilians simply because the business of coup-planning and executive does not easily give much room for political programming. A military junta normally starts thinking of how to govern after their secret plans to take over power have been successfully executed; and even then they have to desperately look for assistance and counsel from civilians. At least that has been the Nigerian experience. But General Obasanjo had himself admitted that he was not even a member of the junta which took over power. Others grabbed the power and simply pushed him into it for reasons best known to them. In contrast, civilian chief executives can never be imposition on the voters by any group of persons however hard they may try, because voters are not fools.
Despite our political differences, I respect my opponents more than any military ruler for the simple reason that each one of them had respect for and indeed loyalty to the Nigerian Constitution and was guided in all his actions by the constitution and the programme of his party which he tried hard to sell to the electorate. In other words, he was working under a democratic system and was therefore answerable to the people. In contrast, the first action of any successful coup-maker was to suspend the constitution and thereafter replace the laws of the land with decrees and edicts. The politicians were consequently grounded and in the end everyone of them, including the members of the opposition, automatically became the loser.
Regrettably, it turned out after the 1983 elections that some of my opponents did not see things in that light. First, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, out of frustration, declared that democracy was dead in Nigeria and decided not to go to court this time. However, acts of arson and murder of his opponents became rampant in his former stronghold when his party was defeated at the polls. Then there was Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Owelle of Onitsha and presidential candidate of NPP who, after suffering defeat for the second time, decided not to weep this time. Instead, he shouted hoarse and promised fire and brimstone to his opponents. He swore and cursed when he and his henchman, Jim Nwobodo, were rejected at the polls in their own strongholds. The entire news media under the control of these leaders was directed towards running down my administration and recklessly pouring out venom and vitriol to every action of government on day to day basis to the extent of courting military intervention. Indeed, this was exactly the kind of situation that coup-planners eagerly waited for.
Rumours about probable military intervention were rampant and our security outfit became strained as professional rumour-mongers and crooks started to cash in on the situation. One instance of the series of coup-scares in this period is perhaps worthy of mention. In March 1982, I accepted an invitation from the Government of West Germany to pay an official visit to West Germany in reciprocation of an earlier visit by the German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to Nigeria. Only two days before my departure, an official delegation consisting of a Minister and a Chief of National Security arrived from Togo with a message from President Eyadema advising me very strongly to postpone my impending visit to Germany because he had received information from what he called reliable sources about a coup d'etat planned against my government during my absence from Nigeria. His informant was a German national who claimed that he personally had participated in drawing the plan for a military coup to be executed first in Nigeria, then in Togo and finally in Ivory Coast.
President Eyadema then proposed a meeting of the three Heads of State concerned to discuss the issue at a time and place to be determined later. He further suggested that I should meet the German informant as soon as possible for further elaboration and explanation and that if agreed he could send him along to me any time. I thanked the President for his concern and the kind advice offered, but regretted that I could not at that late stage postpone my visit to Germany as it would be extremely difficult for me to explain away the postponement. Accordingly, I asked the President to kindly arrange for the German informant to meet me in Germany during the period of my visit.
On arrival in Germany, I had a private discussion with the German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in which I asked for his assistance in tracing for me the credentials of the German informant and if possible the credibility of his assertions. The Chancellor obliged and passed over the name of the informant (which I gave to him) to an official who, within minutes, produced before us a complete profile of the subject obtained from a computer which revealed among other things that our informant was a German ex-serviceman, a mercenary and an international crook who had successfully duped a number of foreign Heads of States and Governments as well as some diplomats and businessmen. Consequently, I did not see the informant after all, but I asked my officials to see him and tell him off. I immediately reciprocated the friendly gesture of President Eyadema by sending to him one of my ministers who proceeded to Togo from Germany in order to brief him on our findings.
The regime of coup-scare also extended to the disinformation device, which some foreign governments deliberately fabricate with the intent to cleverly influence our foreign policy to their advantage. One such instance may be worthy of mention. The Head of State of an African country defied protocol by choosing to send our own ambassador accredited to his country to deliver a personal message to me instead of sending his own ambassador in Nigeria or a special envoy. The ambassador was told to bye-pass the Ministry of External Affairs and deliver this secret message directly to me, which he did. The message contained some documents purported to have been stolen from the Libyan Embassy in Lagos by some foreign intelligence agents. The documents appeared authentic as they were written in Arabic on the Embassy's letter headings with the Libyan crest imprinted on them and with signatures. Some were decoded Messages received through the telex. There was an English translation already provided by the sender, which revealed some correspondence on the subject of a planned coup against my government to be sponsored by Libya. It contained names of Nigerian military and civilian collaborators and other details including a schedule of my own movements. The sender advised me very strongly to be on my guard and promised to keep me posted whenever his own informants (which curiously enough were the government of another country outside Africa) were able to fish out more information on the matter. In consultation with our own intelligence unit, I discovered that the documents submitted to me were indeed fake and the information contained in it were not credible at all.
Besides, it was rather strange that the original source of this information chose to pass it to someone else outside Nigeria instead of passing it directly. The motive was clear, that is, to soil the good relationships then developing between Nigeria and Libya, especially after Colonel Ghaddafi's successful state visit to Nigeria, in 1983, and to make the sender appear as the best friend of Nigeria. This clever device in international politics is popularly known as disinformation. There were many such incidents during my tenure of office, especially during the second term, but thanks to the vigilance and efficiency of our national security service, each case was carefully analysed and exposed. It was not; however, to be assumed that all the stories and reports received about suspected coup-plots were unreliable or untrue. There were certainly some which were found to have elements of truth and these were promptly investigated and subsequently suppressed or nipped in the bud. One such example may be worthy of mention.
In one of his usual address at the parade ground in Ikeja Cantonment, the then Commander of the Brigade of Guards advised the troops under his command to beware of conspirators and coup-plotters. He instructed them to report immediately to authorities anyone who approached them on the subject of coup. Failure to report such overtures from any quarters, he warned, would, when found, attract the same punishment as that of the plotters themselves. Upon this, a soldier walked into the office of the commander immediately after the parade and informed him that some time ago, some of his colleagues approached him and took him to see one Alhaji Bukar Mandara at his house in Idi-Araba, Lagos, to discuss the possibility of participation in a coup but he refused to have anything to do with it, and he was reporting in obedience to the advice of his commander. Bukar Mandara was for many years the contractor supplying food to the Brigade Guards, Lagos, and he became aggrieved when he lost his contract in 1979 after the civilians took over. He used his acquaintances in the Brigade to organize a coup to topple my government. Investigations based on this report confirmed the coup-plot and the suspects including Bukar Mandara were arraigned before the court.
The last attempt at coup-plotting came just after the close of the Mandara case. A Lieutenant-Colonel was detected while he was moving into Army locations in the country, and allegedly soliciting for the support of selected army officers in a bid to change the government by force. The colonel was accordingly arrested and interrogated by the military authorities. However, the National Security Organization had reason to suspect that the military intelligence were dragging their feet in the investigation and pressed for a more serious handling of the case. I therefore directed the National Security Organization (NSO) to take over the investigation and report back with dispatch. The NSO thereon took custody of the suspect and started their investigations in earnest. It was while they were doing this that the coup plotters struck!
The Coup D'etat
In November 1983, I visited Jos to attend the passing out ceremonies of National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) at Kuru. As usual, I was met by the civilian Governor, Solomon Lar at the airport. While travelling with him in the same car to Jos, he told me that he had a very serious matter which he wanted to discuss with me before my return to Lagos. On arrival at the Government Guest House, the Governor told me in confidence that he had received some serious security information from his wife who was a sister-in-law to a senior Military Officer. The Governor's sister-in-law was worried about her husband's coming home very late in the night which had not been his habit in the past. When she pressed him over the issue, the officer revealed to her that they were planning a coup d'etat that was why he had to return home late every night, but warned her not to mention this to anyone. Nevertheless the wife thought it necessary to advise her sister to warn her husband, the Governor, to take care because of the impending danger. Chief Solomon Lar told me that he had wanted to raise the matter for discussion at the meeting of the State's Security Committee of which the General Officer Commanding (GOC), General Buhari, was a member, but thought that he had better consult me first. Upon this, I advised him to mention it to the GOC and ask whether he could carefully investigate the matter. The Governor agreed on condition that I should indicate to General Buhari before I departed that he (Solomon) had something to discuss. This I did after the departure ceremonies at the Jos Airport.
General Buhari was so perturbed by what the Governor told him that he immediately contacted Umaru Shinkafi, the Director General of the National Security Organization (NSO), and requested that they meet at Kaduna as quickly as possible. Shinkafi informed me and I agreed that he should go and meet General Buhari accordingly. On his return, Shinkafi reported that Buhari has threatened to resign his commission because it appeared to him that the Commander-in-Chief had regarded him as a suspect. Shinkafi however explained to Buhari that if he was regarded as a suspect, the President could not have asked the Governor to mention the matter to him. He stressed that in his opinion it was because the President trusted Buhari that he asked him to investigate. It was there upon assumed that the matter has come to a happy end. We did not know it was indeed a beginning of the end.
The last two weeks of the year have always been the busiest weeks for me as President and for all my aides, when we were deeply engaged in putting the finishing touches to the in-coming year's budget. In order to have a quiet time for preparations of my budget speech, I preferred to spend the last week of the year at Abuja where I combined Christmas holidays with serious work and meditation.
I left Lagos for Abuja on Friday, December 23, 1983, together with a few of my aides and members of my family, but we left the children behind because they were attending extra-mural classes. I returned to Lagos on Tuesday, December 27, and attended the last cabinet meeting of the year on Wednesday 28th and delivered my budget speech to the National Assembly on Thursday December 29, 1983.
After attending the Friday prayers at the Obalende Juma'at Mosque on Friday afternoon (December 30, 1983), I proceeded to the Council Chamber near my office to record the New Year's Message to be broadcast to the nation on Sunday, January 1, 1984. That message was never delivered because before the dawn of the New Year there was a rebellion by a section of the Nigerian Armed Forces. How did it happen and why?
As the year 1983 drew to a close, many people were in holiday mood and some had already left their duty posts for their homes or to other places and outside the country. I left the State House on that Friday afternoon December 30, 1983, by helicopter for the airport on my way to Abuja to join my family and to study some official documents before returning to Lagos after the New Year Day holiday. I was seen off at the airport by the Vice-President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, the Secretary to the Government, Alhaji Shehu Musa, the Inspector General of Police and a few of my ministers. Before boarding the aeroplane, I called Shehu Musa and asked him to travel to Otta the following morning in order to see General Obasanjo and find but why he has been making embarrassing public statements against the administration. I urged him to explore the possibility of my meeting the General as soon as I returned to Lagos. Only a few days before, I had the opportunity of discussing a number of current national issues with General Yakubu Gowon who had paid me a visit at the State House, Ribadu Road.
My plane took off at 4.00 p.m. on Friday, December 30, 1983, and less than an hour we were circling round Abuja. The pilot complained of poor visibility which had made it difficult for him to land. He therefore asked for permission to proceed to Kaduna or, on the alternative return to Lagos. I insisted that he should try to land, which he eventually did.
I was met at the airport by the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Alhaji Haliru Dantoro, and a few dignitaries including the Emir of Suleja. The officer commanding Abuja Garrison and the Commissioner of Police were also present. We drove to Aguda House and on the road from the airport I saw a senior military officer, Colonel Tunde Ogbeha, moving in the opposite direction in a Peugeot 504 station-waggon. He was presumably rushing to catch the Nigeria Airways passenger plane which we left at the airport just about to take off for Kaduna. At the Aguda House, I spent some few minutes with my family and after my evening prayers, I came to the dining room for dinner with Dr. Dalhatu Tafida, my personal physician, and Major Ali Geidam, the ADC.
While we were at the dining table one of the security officers, Ali Shittu, called the ADC aside and they had a few minutes discussion. When he returned to the table he waited until I finished my dinner after which he whispered to me that the army captain in charge of the guards in the State House had a piece of serious information which he wanted to impart to me urgently. Thereupon I moved into the office in the house and invited the army captain, Captain A. Anyogo, to speak in the presence of the ADC and the NSO officer Ali Shittu.
He told me that about two hours ago, one Colonel Tunde Ogbeha arrived at the Aguda House and asked the army captain whether he was aware of plans for a military operation scheduled for mid-night at the State House Abuja. The captain replied in the negative and asked Colonel Ogbeha to see his commanding officer. The colonel said he had searched for the commanding officer everywhere in Abuja but could not locate him and the matter was urgent. So he was directing Captain Anyogo to make sure that at 12 mid-night the president was arrested and locked up pending the arrival of superior officers from Kaduna.
The Captain had however made it quite clear to the colonel that he would take orders only from his commanding officer and not from a colonel from Lagos. Thereupon Colonel Ogbeha promised to search for the commanding officer and bring him along to the State House. Since then neither the Colonel nor the commanding officer appeared; so Captain Anyogo felt duty-bound to report the matter to me. I thanked the captain and asked him to take immediate precautionary measures if he was still loyal to the government, otherwise he could do whatever he liked. The captain assured me of his loyalty and promised to do everything within his power to protect me.
About half an hour later the commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Eboma arrived and after the company commander, Captain Anyogo, had briefed him, he came to me and pledged his loyalty and assured me that they were ready and in a position to contain the situation. I thanked him and urged him to contact his superior officer at Minna and let me know the position. Accordingly, he went to the Operations Room at Garki to make radio contacts. He immediately mobilized the troops under his command and placed them on the alert. He ordered that road blocks should be placed on all roads leading to Aguda House and within a short time the entire house was blockaded by loyal troops under Captain Anyogo's command.
Meantime, I asked the security boys in the State House to contact their headquarters in Lagos, and the ADC to try and reach Colonel Mohammed Kaliel, the commander of the Brigade of Guards, Lagos, while I tried to telephone the Vice President Alex Ekwueme to find out what was actually going on there. It took some time before any of our efforts to communicate Lagos were successful. There was no reply in the Vice President's house, but the ADC managed to speak to Colonel Kaliel at last.
It so happened that Colonel Kaliel was actually on leave and he returned to Lagos from abroad only the day before and had not yet resumed duty. Nevertheless, he tried his best to mobilize and assured my ADC over the telephone that there should be no cause for alarm and the situation was under control. Unfortunately, Col. Kaliel was not aware that his second-in-command, who was still acting for him, was among the conspirators, including some very senior officers in the Armed Forces. Colonel Kaliel was subsequently arrested and locked up by the conspirators but we in Abuja were not at all aware of these developments in Lagos. The NSO on the other hand did make the required repeated contacts with their headquarters in Lagos, but, in their secretive manner they would not reveal to us the true position of things but kept on asking me to bear with them while they tried to unravel what they called conflicting reports. I did not want my family to panic so I just told them to bear with me, as I had to spend most of the night in the office over some urgent state matters.
This did not come to them as a surprise because it was the rule rather than the exception since we came to live in the State House. Accordingly, they went to sleep around 11.00 PM, not knowing at all what was happening. I remained in my sitting room in company of Dr. Dalhatu Tafida, my personal physician while the ADC and the security officers were going up and down within the premises of the State House to monitor what was happening within and without the house and reporting back to me from time to time. We waited up to about 2.00 am, and re-assuringly, there were yet no signs of any troop movements or fighting anywhere in the country, including Lagos. The ADC and Captain Anyogo kept on urging me to go to bed, that they were capable of containing the situation and there was no cause for alarm. I then asked Dr. Tafida to go to bed and at about 2.30am, I went to my bedroom upstairs but not to sleep. I said my prayers and waited. Everything was so quiet in and around the house and one would not even believe there were soldiers around.
While waiting I pondered over the situation and started to wonder whether in fact there was a coup in the offing or could it be that it was just a hoax? Here I was with a potentially dangerous situation in my hands, with hardly any clue emerging and without anyone competent near enough to consult. Attempts to reach the outside proved futile except for occasional radio contacts with NSO headquarters in Lagos which had so far not been helpful enough. My mind began to wander around as to whom to contact, whom to trust and who could be regarded as an accomplice in the purported attempt .