Nigerian politics is all about power play by military men

Jonathan GoodluckThe “To Let” sign is very soon going up on the gates of Nigeria’s seat of power — Aso Rock in Abuja. And as was to be expected, this is already causing a scramble by would-be tenants.

By far the most interesting are a trio of ex-generals who will be taking on the putative frontrunner, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

Of the ex-generals, Nigeria’s media and commentariat have quickly picked on Gen Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, 69, from Minna in Niger state, as the one who is most likely to threaten Jonathan’s continued tenancy.  

He was the country’s military ruler from 1985 to 1993 — the second longest tenure in Nigeria’s history — and the first military man to unashamedly use the title of president. 

He also happened to be the first official tenant of Aso Rock when it was first occupied in 1991, during his presidency. 

Then there is Gen Muhammadu Buhari, 68, from Katsina state, and a former military overlord himself. It was Buhari who overthrew the civilian administration of Shehu Shagari in 1983 before he in turn was kicked out by Babangida in 1985.  

The third ex-general keen to move into Aso Rock is Aliyu Gusau, 67, from Zamfara state. He may be less visible than the other two, but he has been a long-serving kingpin of successive Nigerian regimes, both civilian and military, as intelligence chief. 

Plotting against Shagari 

The most obvious thing these ex-generals have in common is that they are Muslims who come from what Nigerians generically call the North. But more importantly, they have been intimately tied in the past with Nigeria’s multiple coups, at least from the time the plotting against Shagari started. 

The common narrative in the South and especially amongst Jonathan’s core supporters is that the North is determined to marshal all its forces (and not necessarily in the benign sense of using its vote) to deny the incumbent, or any other Southern candidate for that matter, continued tenancy at Aso Rock. 

It is true that one of the compelling arguments circulating in the North is that Jonathan is a wrongful claimant to the throne since, according to an unwritten memorandum of understanding within the ruling Peoples’ Democractic Party (PDP), a Northern candidate was supposed to have completed the full tenure of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua which was cut off prematurely by the illness that led to his death in may this year. 

That is the argument being quietly pushed by supporters of Gen Babangida and Gen Gusau, as well as by a slew of Northern civilians like Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president, all of whom are fighting for the PDP’s coveted nomination. 

Gen Buhari is the exception, as he is running on the ticket of a different party, the Congress for Progressive Change.

In the South, the roster of three powerful ex-generals who symbolise the North’s history of military hegemony over Nigeria has raised the spectre of a creeping coup d’etat clothed in civilian-cum-democratic garb.

North’s leverage

Yet at the same time, it also says a lot about how political power in the North has evolved over the years, given that by far the most formidable candidates the region is throwing up against the civilian Jonathan are ex-military men.

This can’t be by accident. The North’s long-standing leverage on power has largely been determined by its coup-making soldiers, who dominate the Nigerian military.

Ever since Sir Tafawa Balewa and Sir Ahmadu Bello were assassinated in the January 1966 coup — the first in Nigeria — the North has not produced a civilian politician capable of commanding its support.

There have been, to be sure, outstanding Northern civilian politicians like Aminu Kano and even Shagari, but none has carried the towering stature in his region the way, for instance, Obafemi Awolowo did in the Yoruba states or Nnamdi Azikiwe in the Igbo ones.

This has created a situation where the frontmen for Northern political interests in the post-1999 civilian dispensation have invariably been wealthy ex-military men.

Even when the North agreed to “cede” power to the South when that dispensation began, the “civilian” most acceptable to them was the ex-general and former military ruler, Olusegun Obasanjo.

Supporting Obasanjo was also a smart way of creating a precedent that an ex-military ruler was not necessarily disqualified from seeking office as a civilian president.

This time round, the notion of a monolithic North united to lock out Southern candidates has been undermined by the spectacle of scores of Northern presidential aspirants whose achievement will only be to splinter the huge Northern vote — and comfortably secure Jonathan a fresh tenancy at Aso Rock.

The notion of a united North is as misleading as the assumption that Gen Babangida, Gen Buhari and Gen Gusau share any coherent “Northern agenda.”

Indeed, the longstanding personal rivalries and animosities between them could still outweigh everything else.

It is an open secret in Nigeria that Buhari has never forgiven Babangida for leading the 1985 coup against him. At the time, Babaginda held the sensitive position of Army Chief of Staff. Likewise, Gusau participated in that coup and cannot possibly be in the good books of Buhari.

And though Gusau worked productively with Babangida for many years, the relationship turned into one of bitter rivalry reportedly on account of Babangida breaking a secret promise to transfer military power to Gusau when coup-making was the norm in Nigeria.

Some Nigerian pundits even believe Gusau is in the race for no other reason than to spoil his archrival’s chances of getting the PDP nomination.

The nomination will be preceded by US-style primaries, and it is during this time that the pent-up animosities between the Northern frontmen are most likely to emerge.

By Sae-Brown and Gitau Warigi

The East African Magazine