Back to the Future – The Military in Civilian Rule

The symbolism of the principal actors at the official handover of power to President Obasanjo on 29 May 1999 spoke volumes. It was nearly 20 years since Obasanjo retired from the military on 1 October 1979. On that day in 1979, his retirement coincided with the handover to his civilian successor, Alhaji Shehu Shagari. To mark the occasion, the Nigerian military put up a colourful parade, complete with the vestiges of its colonial antecedents, handed down from the West African Frontier Force (WAFF). In command of that parade that “pulled out” the retiring Commander-in-Chief from uniformed service was a 37-year old Lieutenant-Colonel called Abdulsalami Abubakar. When General Abacha died suddenly as Nigeria’s military ruler in June 1998, creating a leadership vacuum in the country, Abubakar, by then an army general and Chief of Defence Staff, was elevated by his peers in the ruling military high command to replace Abacha as Head of State. Also present at the parade ground on the day (at a discreet distance) was Abdullahi Mohammed, a self-effacing general whom Obasanjo tapped after the assassination of Murtala Muhammed in 1976 to head the newly created secret police, called the Nigerian Security Organisation (NSO). With a long career forged in military intelligence and as one of the quiet masterminds of the coup that ultimately propelled Obasanjo’s career to the presidency, General Muhammed was tailor-made for his new role.

With little room to manoeuvre after decades of destructive dithering by three military rulers in the previous fifteen years, General Abubakar had no option but to conclude a short and swift programme of transition to civil rule. Desiring also to stabilise a country with multi-faceted security problems inflicted by the ruinous reigns of Generals Babangida and Abacha, Abubakar approached his former boss, General Obasanjo, whom he had sprung from prison, to nominate for him a National Security Adviser (NSA). At Obasanjo’s suggestion,2 Abubakar recalled General Abdullahi Mohammed and appointed him NSA.

On 29 May, this trinity of men, whom history had yoked together in the pageantry of military rule twenty years before, were re-united in yet another transition to what was supposed to be another civilian dispensation. The occasion had a whiff of back to the future about it. This time, President Obasanjo, who as a retiring Head of State, had been ceremoniously “pulled out” into retirement by Lieutenant-Colonel Abdulsalami Abubakar had been manoeuvered back into power by a military regime headed by the same, now retiring, General Abubakar. Behind Abubakar, characteristically present but hardly advertised, stood his NSA, Abdullahi Mohammed, the tireless army general who had worked with Obasanjo. Such was the neatness of the circular baton-passing that Nigeria’s praetorian establishment had engineered for themselves, that the unmistakable sense of dèjá vu was glossed over.

Although elected civilian president, Obasanjo recognised that he had been installed as the head of a military dispensation. His first act was to appoint Abdullahi Mohammed as his chief of staff. He deliberately chose “to have a chief of staff with military background as part of the gradual transition from military to democracy to still give the military the sense and feeling of access to the seat of government at the highest level.” This was an admission that the transition to democracy had yet to happen. For the role of NSA, a position created to coordinate the dysfunctional and potentially malevolent security apparatus of the state inherited from Abacha’s dictatorship, Obasanjo turned to yet another familiar face, retired army chief, Aliyu Mohammed Gusau. At the defence ministry, he appointed another old soldier, General Theophilus Danjuma. For Police Affairs, he resurrected yet another retired two-star general, David Jemibewon, and appointed a retired army colonel, Kayode Are, to head the State Security Service (SSS). The administration was firmly in the control of the generals. For all intents and purposes, it was a military junta and it was deliberately designed that way.

It was easy to see from the pattern of his early appointments that Obasanjo’s resurrection to the highest office in the land had a distinctly military look about it. With the most powerful positions in the administration occupied by senior generals, the military had clearly succeeded in securing electoral consent for a deliberate plan to keep power. It remained to find out what Obasanjo would do with the power that had been transferred to him. It did not take long to find out.

Exclusive excerpt from Too Good to Die by Ayisha Osori and Chidi Odinkalu.

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