Between Nigeria’s retired generals and the rest of us
If the Afro beat exponent Fela had still been alive he probably would have composed a rebuttal to his hit song “Zombie” by now. Because the growing tribe of retired generals have since the days of “soja no be person” become Nigeria’s most constant recurring political factor but the country’s most prominent cabal. The ways of our soldiers have no doubt since the days of Fela changed. Unlike their rowdy past similar to the day Kalakuta Republic was overthrown, Nigeria’s soldiers now relate with ‘bloody civilians’ with utmost comportment, mechanical precision and disciplined adaptability.
That is why the face-off between Generals Obasanjo and Buhari can be likened to the continuation of war by other means on a political battle field. The Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (1800-1891) categorized his officer corps into four which he described in his own words as – “The Smart & Lazy: I make them my commanders because they make the right thing happen by finding the easiest way to accomplish the mission. The Smart & Energetic: I make them my general staff officers because they make intelligent plans that can make the right things happen. The Dumb & Lazy: They carry out menial tasks easily and follow orders without causing much harm. The Dumb & Energetic: They are dangerous and must be eliminated. They mean trouble and cause the wrong things to happen”.
That is perhaps why a one-time army chief General Victor Malu during his open disagreement with General Obasanjo declared – “there are generals and there are generals but we know ourselves”. There is however another issue that von Moltke overlooked in his template – ethnicity and religion. Of course during his time Nigeria was just a British colonial outpost. However, over the years depending on which part of the country the person you are interacting with comes from there is a litany of woes concerning premature retirements, by-passed promotions and unfair postings of military officers over the years that dominates private conversations, “teburin mai shayi” (tea sellers table) talk, motor park banter and beer parlor arguments. But beyond all that ‘Nigerian factor’ the country’s military remains our most nationalistic and integrated institution weaving such an interesting tapestry delicately sown with the interconnecting threads of our diversity.
That is why it is ironic for former president Obasanjo to accuse Mr. President of nepotism while being a chief beneficiary of such primordial sentiments in the past that even marked the takeoff of his public service trajectory. General Godwin Alabi-Isama claims in his civil war memoirs “The Head of State had thought it would be politically insensitive and bad for the war effort to remove Col. Adekunle and replace him with a non-Yoruba officer. General Gowon wanted to avoid the accusation of discrimination, so he asked Akinrinade and I to think of somebody who could play that role. It was at that stage Akinrinade suggested someone he thought was his friend, Col. Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo”.
Later as Head of State in 1976 Obasanjo would nominate Col. Muhammadu Buhari for the position of Chief of Staff, Supreme HQ who would be turned down by General TY Danjuma then army chief. What role did von Moltke’s classification play in the foregoing? Obasanjo would claim his elevation was by “divine will” and Danjuma was said to have rejected Buhari because of his “inflexibility for political office”. As with the Prussians, Nigerian soldiers could drill “relentlessly until they could perform elaborate maneuvers as precisely as a machine”. They were also prolific coup planners who elevated that art into a mathematical affair.
Nigeria’s retired generals are also very conscious of their privileged status and would expectedly want to protect it – by any means necessary. They have their differences and disagreements many of which are bitter but they have managed to develop “Auftragstaktik”, the German word for ‘mission oriented command system’. That accounts for their hegemony, cohesiveness and hierarchy to defend their common interests. For a category of individuals who were trained in their youthfulness to dominate any given environment their entire thought process is dominated by the ‘helicopter pilot’s view’ of even controlling events before they occur.
General Ibrahim Babangida’s official biographer Chidi Amuta notes that “Until December 12, 1991 when the capital of the Federal Republic formally moved to Abuja, Dodan Barracks in Lagos continued to function as the seat of power from 1967 when Gowon became Head of State. On a single occasion namely the Second Republic (1979-83) when civil democracy was introduced the place was called State House, Ribadu Road. In the four years Alhaji Shehu Shagari was to reside and work at Ribadu Road, those in charge of his security (mainly soldiers) pointed to the presence of many high rise buildings surrounding the State House on Marina as excuses for not allowing the new civilian president to move away from Dodan Barracks! What was perhaps unknown to the civilian leadership was that by acquiescing to that logic, they had facilitated the next coup. Not only were the movements of the new civilian leadership closely monitored, their telephone conversations and other electronic based communications were routinely under military surveillance”.
On 31st December 1983 Buhari would become the chief beneficiary of the ouster of Shagari without being part of the coup’s operational arrow heads thereby mutating Nigeria’s politically ambitious officer corps into predominantly 2 groups. Those officers that were adept at the deception and psychological mind games that go with coup plotting and those that are peripheral to the operational risks in executing coups but immensely benefit more nevertheless. Obasanjo and Babangida belong to the former while Gowon and Buhari belong to latter.
That is the crux of the matter in Obasanjo’s recent 13 pages of advisory to Buhari. And by allowing the EFCC to drag retired service chiefs including the 4-star Alex Badeh openly to court Buhari had unwittingly threatened a group interest for political expediency. Mr. President not only violated the code of military chivalry by making a spectacle of brother officers in an arena of “bloody civilians” but committed class suicide. Offending the collective vanity of the group it made his former colleagues inadvertently insecure. And by not exploring plea bargain or some form of negotiated settlement out of the public domain Buhari had with reckless abandon voted against his own constituency for demagogic appeal. Who knows how far he will go if he secures a second term when does not have any political I.O.U. to settle?
Obasanjo ever the supreme opportunist blended his personal grudges with the group think of ‘espirit de corps’, recognizing the spirit of the times identified the prevailing political winds by plotting a civilian equivalent of a coup. As the Chinese would say – “Setting the house ablaze to save it from the plague”. How should Buhari react to Obasanjo’s recent revolt? By using the Babangida template that is how. Which according to Dr. Amuta is “When General Obasanjo was vying for the post of UN Secretary-General, some of (Babangida’s) aides were livid. When this issue came up at the weekly staff meeting, Babangida stood his grounds that he (Obasanjo) was his former boss and friend. He recalled that Obasanjo saved him from the envy of his colleagues who were not quite pleased with his appointment into the Supreme Military Council during the Murtala administration. Obasanjo had insisted then that Babangida was every inch qualified for the position on account of his outstanding career records. He had not quite forgotten that good turn in spite of Obasanjo’s open attacks of his SAP policy”. Pragmatism.
Yahaya-Joe wrote this piece from Wusasa, Zaria.