You are currently viewing This house has fallen (1), by Afolabi Akinbola
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Anselm and I met at Abak in the Christian year of 1980. He was then a clerk in the Treasury Cash Office, Abak while I was undergoing the mandatory youth service in the town which was then part of the defunct Cross-Rivers state. The town is now in Akwa-Ibom State just a few kilometers from the state capital of Uyo. We so much bonded even though he was a fanatical supporter of Calabar Rovers while I supported Stationery Stores. Club loyalties were far secondary in our relationship so much that he followed me to Oron on a visit to the derelict National Museum at Oron and I followed him to Edem-Obuk for the village’s Yam festival. What an eye-opener!

Now the Yam festival in any community had always been an occasion for the re-union of the natives amidst much merriment and jollification overshadowing the real import of communing with the ancestors and giving thanks to God for the abundant produce of the land; yams being the undisputed king of crops. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We passed the modest abode of Brigadier U.J. Esuene the governor of the state for nine years. The guy, along with nine of his colleagues who served under General Yakubu Gowon had their properties seized and demonized as irremediably corrupt. Alas, Nigerians aint seen anything. Along the potholed road and a few kilometers upfront was the thriving Akwa Steels, a behemoth employing hundreds, now in a permanent coma. And insolently situated along was the Mobil quarters, the off-limit abode of expatriates and their Nigerian collaborators tasked with the drilling of oil in the state at the Ibeno oilfields on the Atlantic just a few kilometers from Edem Obuk. On a later visit to the Mobil quarters out of curiosity, I met the corpers posted to Mobil who could care less about the fate of the ’natives’ being cynically and mercilessly exploited by Mobil and the Nigerian state. What could they do, the corpers wanted to know.

At Edem-Obuk itself the festival was in full swing. A lot of “long time no see” went along with copious consumption of palm wine and foreign gin. The masquerades held onlookers’ hostage with age-long displays of dexterity and awe-inspiring performances. As night fell on the first day, villagers could see twinkling electric lights from the Mobil enclave but none in the surrounding communities. No potable water. The foreign predators and their local collaborators saw that. I expressed my first unfavourable impressions to my chief host and he shrugged his shoulders in fatal resignation to the brutish existence of his people even though foreigners had taken over their lands and subjected them to this sort of nasty living. The village head who took a fancy to me said that this sort of thing would have been unthinkable in saner climes and he agreed with me that the discovery of oil has turned out to be a curse on his people.

On the second day, I paid a visit to Ibeno, the oil-producing community along the shores of the Atlantic. It put on the garments of a swinging town. Prostitutes came from far and wide to partake in the crumbs. The town even had a near-permanent disco session where all vices were permissible. Foreigners thronged the town for a piece of the action. Since I could not swim, I declined an invitation to take a speedboat to one of the subsisting Mobil facilities. A boat capsize would have been the end of me. In righteous indignation, I aligned with my fellow fire eaters that the discovery and visionless exploitation of oil would be the end of Nigeria when the exploited arose from their inexplicable slumber and demand for justice. With the cruel benefit of hindsight, this is all ‘gragra’. ‘Fantastic’ corruption fuelled no doubt by the rent mentality of oil will end the misery of this sad contraption.

Before and immediately after flag independence, stealing of public money had been discreet. Maybe it was because there was no humongous money to steal! Yet a member of the then unicameral parliament, Hon Nkaegbu, spoke despondently in the House that Nigeria made life desperate for Nigerians through unbridled theft of public funds. The then high priest of corruption, the minister of Finance, Festus Okotie-Eboh established a shoe factory from undoubtedly public funds in Sapele and taxed foreign importations of shoes nearly out of existence with nary a dissent from the populace. Police collected their ‘dues’ shamefacedly.

The public face of the January 1966 coup, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, described the ousted politicians as 10 percenters who made Nigeria big for nothing in the comity of nations. After the horrendous revenge coup of July 1966 and the descent into a 30-month civil war, corruption came into its own and metastasized. Unconfirmed reports of summary executions of the rank and file to collect their salaries were rife but there was no doubt that enormous profits from the collective misery of the nation were made by some military commanders.   

Oil had been discovered before the civil war and it played a role in the hostilities on both sides but it was after the war that the nation became awash with oil wealth and General Gowon was unable to prudently manage this windfall. For him, despite Awolowo’s prudent economic management during the war, money was no longer Nigeria’s problem but how to spend it! His governors became unmanageable potentates in their enclaves.

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Federal commissioners stole at will. There was the celebrated case of Tarka who had to resign after public outrage. Tarka became a senator in the Second Republic. Gowon defended Gomwalk unconvincingly in the dying days of his regime before the latter faced a firing squad for his role in the Dimka coup. Diette-Spiff gave his father a sinecure post in his Rivers state prompting the cerebral columnist Gbolabo Ogunsanwo to write that “Papa has got a brand-new job”. The list was endless and dispiriting. The port of Lagos was choked with a cement armada and unscrupulous foreigners and Nigerians were cashing in on this unprecedented phenomenon. It was crystal clear that Yakubu Gowon had lost the plot and a national implosion was imminent.

It was this atmosphere of disequilibrium that enabled Gowon’s ouster. A “born again” Murtala Muhammed mounted the saddle and Nigerians breathed a sigh of relief. Notwithstanding his horrible records and the corruption baggage he carried, Nigerians had no option. Before assassins ended his life, he had vowed to go to court and contest Obarogie Ohonbamu’s claim of his moral reliability to lead an anti-corruption crusade. Nevertheless, his gale of retirements and confiscations endeared him to his countrymen. His successor was looking over his back until he handed power to civilians in a disputed election that did not augur well for the Second Republic. The prognosis of the fate of the republic was proved right by the immoral and amoral behavior of the politicians who seemed to have learned absolutely nothing from the past.

After a controversial presidential victory at the polls, the politicians were intent on gaining lost time when the soldiers ruled the roost for thirteen years. They shared positions and proceeded to loot the national till with reckless and irresponsible abandon. It became a fad to set fire to the accounts departments of looted edifices. The commonplace things of life became “essential commodities” under the supervision of a minister. Awolowo warned with undeniable statistics of a looming iceberg that the nation was heedlessly heading for. When it was time to ‘share the meat’, the president whose initial ambition was to be a senator was advised to go ‘upstairs’. An iconic picture of those days was the president’s visit to the burning NITEL office before jetting out to India for an inconsequential visit. They had the oil money to lubricate their gorging frenzy.

You do not need to have your ears glued to the ground to sense a Jerry Rawlings and the senior ranks of the army moved in less than five years into the life of the administration to stave off a mid-level or junior-level backlash to put an end to the shenanigans. Preventing a bloodbath that will most likely consume the military top brass is no recipe for a national malady. The new men had their dark agenda which the politicians made very easy. They provided the rope with which they were hanged. And no tears were shed for them.

In a celebrated interview in ‘The News’ magazine, Babangida said that the elevation of Buhari was a collective decision of the 31st of December coup makers. Subsequent events proved the ambitious fellows right when unforced errors of the new regime began to unfold and the politically ambitious elements in the Supreme Military Council bid their time to oust the politically naïve but parochial fellow out. But they failed to reckon with the Principal Staff Officer 1 to the late Murtala Muhammed in the person of Tunde Idiagbon.

 The Buhari government assumed power on the first day of 1984 amidst an unprecedented outpouring of relief and jubilation from the civil populace. The naïve shouts of “Happy New Year” rented the air despite the inauspicious beginnings of the regime. The officer detailed to arrest Shehu Shagari, Colonel Bako was conveniently done to death by ‘friendly fire’. The leading men who led the looting spree escaped arrest having got wind of an impending coup by fleeing. Existing political actors of the ancient regime were incarcerated and hauled before military tribunals who were busy handing out long terms of imprisonment. Shehu Shagari, who presided over the unprecedented looting of the mercifully short-lived civilian dispensation and was awarded the unflattering degree of MBA, Management by Abdication, was sequestered in a private guest house while his deputy, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, and other political actors were clamped in various prisons all over the country. The inmates of Kirikiri, Nigeria’s dreaded prison in Lagos, welcomed the men of yesterday with derision and sarcastic comments.

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 The political undertones and selective treatment of politicians in jail was no happenstance. They were given jumbo jail terms by a military tribunal chaired by Major General Paul Omu. Three UPN governors were said to have confessed to augmenting party coffers to the tune of 2.8 million Naira. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the defunct party leader riposted emphatically that the governors had not even been interrogated talk less of a confession. At the end of the day, the claim of the chief of staff Supreme Headquarters proved patently untrue. Number 33 Park Lane, the private residence of Chief Awolowo, was raided and documents taken away: among them the deliberations of the Supreme Military Council — a frightening discovery that enraged the junta to no end. Chief Ebenezer Babatope a mere director of organization of the UPN, was not allowed to attend the funeral of his father. In its righteous indignation, the junta set about alienating the discredited politicians and by extension the whole nation.

Decrees 2 and 4 were promulgated. The former empowered the Inspector General of Police and the Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters to incarcerate individuals without trial for an initial period of six months renewable at the discretion of their tormentors. The latter decree stipulated an indefinite jail term for any item deemed a rumour published by the press—thus bringing to life an Orwellian unambiguous threat by Buhari to ‘tamper’ with the press. Two journalists of The Guardian, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson, were victims of this caveman legislation even though their reportage of diplomatic postings was 90% accurate.

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Nigerians watched in horror the public execution of three young countrymen—Bartholomew Owoh, Lawal Ojuolape, and Bernard Ogedegbe for drug-related offences via a retroactive decree. The nation’s musical ambassador and icon, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was jailed for travelling abroad with his own money even though 53 cash-laden suitcases passed through Nigeria’s premier airport during an opaque currency change exercise. Dr. Emmanuel Esan, then health commissioner, clamped down on striking medical doctors and threatened to eject resident doctors from their quarters over an industrial dispute. The Lagos state chairman of the doctors’ association, Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti, was detained for the temerity of the association he was leading.

 Amidst all these unforced errors and own goals, Nigerians were being whipped into the line via a ‘War Against Indiscipline’ (WAI) as if they were responsible for the ills plaguing the nation. They were sanctimoniously harangued to ‘salvage’ the nation while they were relentlessly savaging her mindlessly. A promo on the NTA had an about to‘check out’ compatriot, Enebeli Elebuwa, with the moniker ‘Andrew’ being restrained at the airport to join hands in ‘salvaging the nation. His grouse? ‘No water, no light, anything and everything just like that’. Enebele died recently in India while seeking medical succor for an ailment his country could not provide for more than 30 years after futile salvaging of a nation on the verge of irredeemable ruin.

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The junta had no political plans for the future. With all political parties banned, civil society’s very thought of politics was deemed as an anathema by the junta. While the activities of the so-called political class when they were ruling the roost were despicable in the extreme, the very notion of national thought control in any form could just not hold in any form. It is simply not workable to turn the whole nation into a massive jail and decree compliance by fiat. To be ‘apolitical’ in a marketplace of violently competing tendencies is suicidal. The politically astute and cynical with guns and tanks were patiently watching the missteps of the regime with the patience of the vulture. But they did not have all the time in the world to effect the ouster of those with messianic complex and warped logic about how to go about ‘salvaging’ the nation.

Major General Buhari talked after his ouster about the fifth columnists in his government. In a celebrated interview with ‘The News’ magazine, he denied any knowledge of the raid on Awolowo’s residence. But it is only fair to ask if such a weighty and politically damaging step could have been taken without the say-so of those high in the military hierarchy. The Supreme Military Council was riven with factions. The politically ambitious in the council saw the regime’s ultra-nationalism as totally misplaced and were given ample room to ‘subvert’ the regime’s policies no matter how well-intentioned. After all, the man who led the palace coup against Buhari said that Buhari was named as the head of state via a consensus and was merely a primus inter pares. Military mores and traditions be damned. It is instructive to note that this same character did not brook any dissension among his peers when he mounted the saddle. He reminded all and sundry that he was not only in government but also in power. According to him, the bloodthirsty Shaka the Zulu was his role model.

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An ironical historical conjunction saw Obasanjo join his regime with the short-lived and momentous Murtala Muhammed: hence the Murtala/Obasanjo regime. Inexorable, history will forever link Buhari with his deputy, Tunde Idiagbon. Their compatriots described them as the unsmiling duo. The duo was right: what was there to smile about in the Nigerian situation? Perceptive Nigerians saw Idiagbon as the no-nonsense power behind Buhari who could not assuage the insatiable egos of his military superiors in the supreme military council. As Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters, he was second in command politically. A veritable delicate balancing act that the late Brigadier Musa Y’ardua handled well when he occupied the position under Obasanjo partly due to his rank before his elevation via double promotion after the assassination of Murtala Muhammed. Idiagbon was unable to perform this Houdini act due to circumstances beyond his ken.

The forces against the regime were formidable. It was vulnerable within its primary constituency—the military. It had alienated hapless civilians due to its draconian measures and political naivety. In under stable fury and indignation at the recklessness of the political class and its own lack of a roadmap and a clear plan to return the country to civilian rule in the foreseeable future, it laid itself open to putsch within its already divided ranks—the only cohesive and capable organization to unseat it. The inevitable end came on 27th August, 1985 when Majors Umar Kangiwa, Abdulmumuni Aminu and Lawan Gwadabe marched into Dodan barracks and arrested the Head of State. The second in the regime who could pose an obstacle was away in Saudi Arabia for the lesser hajj. And it spoke volumes of the courage of the second in command that he resisted the entreaties of his hosts in Saudi Arabia that he unflinchingly came back home to an uncertain fate in the hands of the new men in power.

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To be continued

Mr. Afolabi Akinbola sent this piece from Ibadan via akinbolaafolabi152@gmail.com.

                                                                          

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