Anti-graft war and 1985 post-coup perspective

Last Tuesday, President Muhammadu Buhari once again voiced his opinion on why he believed he was deposed in the 1985 military coup that brought Ibrahim Babangida to power. It is not clear why the president continues to reiterate the view that his deposition was mainly because corruption fought back against his anti-corruption war, or why he has refused to banish the memory of that period. But it is at least clear that the events of that year have not left him nor ameliorated his animosities. The inauguration of the N24bn corporate headquarters of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) provided the president a fresh opportunity to recall his ouster in 1985 and the lessons he drew from the obviously unsavoury experience that has left a permanent scar both on his mind and his attitude to leadership and politics.

In his remarks, the president reminded Nigerians that his conclusions about the 1985 coup were indisputable. It was clear to him, he said, that he was deposed because he fought corruption, and corruption fought back. “This government promised to fight corruption, but corruption will continue to fight back,” he said of his presidency with a hint of plaintive resignation. “During my first attempt to fight corruption (December 1983-August 1985), corruption fought back successfully. I was removed as the head of state, detained for three years, and people who we recovered stolen money from were given back their money and I remained in detention up until my mother had to die to save me from detention.”

Perhaps age has tempered his tendency to name names. But back in 2012, he had pointedly revealed the identities of those who he claimed were corrupt and who fought back until he was overthrown in the coup of 1985. He named Generals Babangida and Aliyu Gusau. He could not at the time swear that Gen Babangida was corrupt, he admitted, nor that he (IBB) was the target of a purge initiated by his government, but he insisted that Gen Gusau, whose appointment into certain key positions he had opposed, was to be retired for a number of reasons, including alleged corruption. In the said interview some six years ago, he confirmed that he presented the proposal to retire Gen Gusau before the Army Council, a proposal he concluded led to a rallying of forces against his leadership of the country.

During the inauguration of the EFCC Headquarters, President Buhari stuck to his earlier conviction that he was deposed because he fought corruption, and corruption fought back. He confirmed to his audience that based on that experience, he knew enough to suggest that in his current battle to undo the forces of corruption in Nigeria, corruption would fight back, and is indeed fighting back. He offered no indisputable proof, not in 1985, and not now. In his own account of the circumstances surrounding the attempt to retire him, Gen Gusau however asserted that despite his active and significant role in the overthrow of the elected government of President Shehu Shagari, the number one beneficiary of the coup, the then Gen Buhari, treated him shabbily, denying him significant postings.

In an interview published about two months ago in the Daily Sun, Mustapha Jokolo, a former aide-de-camp to President Buhari when he was military head of state, gave a totally different account of the circumstances surrounding the 1985 coup. According to him, the new Buhari military government was unfair to those who financed and participated in the coup, and was even more irritatingly inaccessible. Hear Alhaji Jokolo who was at the time a major: “They (the coup plotters) knew it was easier to have access to Babangida. And it showed so. When we took over, none of the coup plotters was given political appointment. The only two people who were given appointments were David Mark who was posted to Niger State as Governor, who I believe was influenced by Babangida because it was his home state, and Ahmed Abdullahi in whose house we were doing a lot of things, that was made a minister. He was made Minister of Communications. Apart from those two, all other coup plotters, none of them was given political appointments. And that set the stage for the coup of 1985. What happened was that when we came to Dodan Barracks with Buhari, he was holding meeting with some senior military officers, and all the coup plotters were outside, and they came to meet me in the office of the ADC. Shagaya, Akilu, Sabo Aliyu, Zaki, Tanko Ayuba, all of them who were in Lagos at that time. They told me ‘Mustapha what the bloody hell is going on? Why are we outside and these people are inside, not holding meeting with us? We have just finished this coup and honestly we are going to stage another one now. They said that to me. They are alive.’ “

Speaking more directly about the allegations of corruption made against Gen Gusau, Alhaji Jokolo averred further: “Aliyu Gusau too, in spite of the fact that there is no love lost between me (Jokolo) and Aliyu Gusau, he helped us because he financed the coup. Okay, like the import license (controversy), which was sold to one German through Mai Daribe, the money was used to facilitate the coup. It is not even that one that is important. What was important was that Aliyu Gusau, as Director of Military Intelligence, was the one who protected us from the Nigerian Security Organisation (NSO) led at that time by Umaru Shinkafi. We would have all been arrested. He had good connection with Shinkafi, and any time some of the coup plotters got drunk, they spoke rubbish and threatened people. The NSO agents were picking up reports and were sending them. So that was what Aliyu Gusau did. In any case what brought the problem was that Buhari was not comfortable with Aliyu Gusau. I asked Buhari why we didn’t make Aliyu Gusau the Director General of NSO. He said he would not give two security positions to Babangida’s people. One, Haliru Akilu, and not Hallilu Akilu as you people have been writing; it is Haliru Akilu. He was the one appointed Director, Military Intelligence. So Buhari was not comfortable giving the NSO office to Aliyu Gusau who also was Babangida’s boy because he had some…I don’t know what went wrong with two of them but there were some misgivings between the two of them, Babangida and Buhari.”

The account of the 1985 coup will always be contested. So, too, will the content and direction of President Buhari’s anti-corruption war, not to talk of some of the people that have become the war’s victims. Rather than dwell on the pains and punishment inflicted upon him after his ouster, it should have been a sufficient exculpation for the president that he finally won the 2015 presidential election, and by May next year will have presided over the affairs of Nigeria for four years. Every other experience, including those that followed his ouster, ought properly to serve as lessons for him, especially for his leadership style. But he has dwelt too long on the pains of the past, and in the process has either deliberately twisted historical accounts by depressing some facts and promoting others, or the passage of time has reshaped and coloured his memory of what transpired in those feverish months when he rewarded those outside the coup circle and alienated those who propelled him into office.

The president suggested at the inauguration of the EFCC headquarters last Tuesday that corruption was fighting back, and that he expected it. But Nigeria would be best served had he demonstrated, much more than the resolve he prides himself in, that he is capable of the introspection required to reshape and fine-tune the anti-corruption war. It is suspected that he does not fully understand the issues involved in the war beyond arresting and prosecuting some of the corrupt officials the government can find. Nor is it clear that his government possesses the intellectual depth to conceive and emplace philosophical underpinnings to the war. There is no policy that will not produce its supporters and enemies. What is important is to first understand the factors that promote the corruption cancer, such as the country’s fragile and untenable political and economic structures, and then design appropriate remedies.

The fact on the ground, regardless of the recovery of stolen funds adumbrated by the EFCC boss, Ibrahim Magu, is that no structured war against corruption is really going on. There are undoubtedly campaigns, and naming and shaming. But in terms of substance, no war can really be fought until the roots of the problem are identified and tackled. The government has up till today continued to preoccupy itself with combating the symptoms of the disease; that is why the war has become difficult, even tedious. And that is why, in addition, it is unlikely that the Buhari presidency will have a profound impact on the crisis. Worse, the presidency’s stubborn refusal to fully understand the ramifications of the problem and brilliantly conceive a structured and philosophical response to the crisis will continue to doom the campaign to nothing more than ephemeral propaganda propelled, as it is becoming increasingly obvious, by doubtful and perhaps private and prejudiced motives.

Fighting corruption is a noble and laudable task. It is time the Buhari presidency understood how to prosecute the war if it is to achieve the kind of result it boyishly continues to dream about.

The Nation

News Reporter

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