The former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, has revealed how he manged to curb rampant military coups in Nigeria: he retired the usual suspects from the armed forces with immediate effect when he came to power in 1999. Since then the country has not witnessed a coup or attempted coup.
Before 1999, the longest period of civilian rule Nigeria had experienced was for just six years – from independence in 1960 to the first military coup in the country in 1966.
In the newly published Making Africa Work: A handbook for economic success*, General Obasanjo, one of the book’s four authors, writes: “The military’s intervention in Nigerian politics in January 1966 went on like musical chairs for 33 years, fouling the political air, causing instability and uncertainty, causing destruction of lives and properties, resulting in a civil war and leaving the country divided internally and isolated externally.”
Gen Obasanjo was himself a military ruler, having taken over the helm in February 1976 following the assassination of Gen Murtala Muhammed. He handed over power to a democratically elected government in 1979, but in 1983 the military intervened again in Nigerian politics. The soldiers were to stay in power for another 16 years, until the sudden death in June 1998 of Gen Sani Abacha whose successor, Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar, then called elections in February 1999.
Gen Obasanjo, who by then had become a fully-fledged politician, contested the presidency for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which he won. He explains: “On assuming office as president [in May 1999], I decided to put an end to these incessant coups. I asked the military to submit the list of all officers who had either participated in coups in the past or benefited in the dividends of coups by being appointed to political office as governors or ministers.
“Not knowing what the list was meant for, the military faithfully compiled and submitted it to me as the commander-in-chief and chairman of council of each of the arms of service,” Gen Obasanjo writes in the book, which was launched during last month’s 6th Tana Forum on Peace and Security in Africa in Bahir Dar in Ethiopia.
He adds: “Ninety-three offices in all were given six hours’ notice of retirement on a Friday, and ordered not to spend the Friday night in uniform or in barracks to prevent adverse reaction. The following Monday, the service councils met to ratify the retirement of all the officers. From my vantage position and background as a battle-tested and war-victorious general, I knew that an officer out of uniform and barracks is like a fish out of water, and their power and influence would be greatly diminished.”
Gen Obasanjo goes on: “The retirement of 93 officers all in one day was salutary. It meant that taking part in a coup or benefiting from one could catch up with you, no matter how long it would take, and for as long as you are alive.” He writes that the retirement of the officers did not stop them from entering public life, as some went into politics and became state governors, members of the legislature and government ministers.
Gen Obasanjo says “the idea was not to punish them for life but to exclude then from positions in the military” so they would not get involved in coups. “The fact that since 1999 there has not been a coup or an attempted coup in Nigeria speaks of the effectiveness of the measures taken to put an end to the destabilising influence of coups on the political life and dispensation of Nigeria,” Gen Obasanjo writes.
He notes, however: “It has neither been easy nor perfect, but there are improvements and evidence of learning among the political class. For those countries with similar experiences to Nigeria’s, there is a need to find an effective and relatively painless way of curbing the incidence of coups and corruption by the military.”
*Making Africa Work: A Handbook for Economic Success, by Greg Mills, Olusegun Obasanjo, Jeffrey Herbst and Dickie Davis (Tafelberg, Cape Town, 2017).