In the early hours of Saturday, December 31, 1983, Brigadier Sani Abacha, then a one-star General in the Nigerian Army, accompanied by armed soldiers, stormed the studios of the FRCN, Ikoyi, Lagos. A few minutes later, martial music erupted from the radio station. “You are all living witness to the grave economic predicament and uncertainty, which an inept and corrupt leadership has imposed on our beloved nation for the past four years,” Abacha said in his coup announcement. “Our economy has been hopelessly mismanaged. We have become a debtor and a beggar nation.”
Abacha’s vituperation of the Sheu Shagari-led civilian administration wasn’t unique. Since independence in 1960, Nigeria had witnessed several coup operations, some successful, others not so much. And the reasons for the action – national revolution and a return to a fabled El-dorado – was always almost the same.
After Abacha’s announcement, the nation was yanked through hours of uncertainty. Who was behind the coup? And who was going to take over? The announcement had come from Lagos, but it was still unclear if the coup had been successful in other states. Yet, there was silence. The Shagari administration wasn’t fighting back and it appeared the soldiers were working in unison. As the hours dragged on, the verdict became clearer: the Second Republic had become history.
Some 20 hours after Abacha’s voice had travelled through the airwaves, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, the GOC of the Third Infantry Division of the Nigerian Army, grabbed the microphone and assumed office as Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces. He said the military “dutifully intervened to save the nation from imminent collapse” and laid out the four sins of the toppled civilian administration: mismanagement of the economy, election malpractice, corruption and indiscipline. “This generation of Nigerians, and indeed, future generations, have no other country than Nigeria,” Buhari said. “We shall remain here and salvage it together.”
Four days after he became Head of State, Buhari, together with his deputy, Tunde Idiagbon, showed up at a World Press Conference in Lagos. The pair wore the black beret, a piece of clothing popularised by the late Chinese leader, Mao Tse-Tung and Cuban autocrat, Fidel Castro. While they fielded questions from reporters, the pair took copious notes. “There was something radical and yet friendly about them,” journalist, Dan Agbese, wrote.
At the press conference, Buhari read a 16-minute statement, in which he reiterated his earlier charges of economic mismanagement and corruption against the civilians. Then he anchored his leadership on three premises: there would be no timetable for a return to democracy; government would devote huge resources to the pursuit and recovery of stolen public funds; and all those suspected of corrupt enrichment by the government would be declared guilty and detained, until their innocence could be proven. There is “no guarantee that if you release someone with a case to answer, he will not run away,” Buhari said.
The public loved the Buhari coup. Nigerians, perhaps with the exception of the elites, regarded him as a sanitiser, the one who had come to fumigate and vacuum the stench of the nation’s public life and character.
Buhari’s main tool was violent intimidation. Through the National Security Organisation (NSO), he scanned the nook and cranny of the country and detained hundreds of Nigerians and foreigners. Most of them never found out what their offences were. In six months, the regime issued 22 decrees, including the infamous decree 4, which essentially broke the beak of the local eagle press. He also executed convicted hard drug peddlers.
However, whenever he got the chance, he was always quick to note that his approach was the quickest way to get the nation back on its feet. He had no faith in the judiciary (“the richer you are the more likely you are to get justice”) or the press, which he accused of sloppiness. “Nigeria is being used by highly influential people, rich people in the society who are prepared to destroy both their society and other people’s society to make money,” Buhari told the Voice of America in May 1985. “We definitely felt . . . we must not allow Nigeria to be used for destroying others and for that we decided to permanently keep those involved out of the society and we have no regret for it.”
But had he been moving too fast? Buhari lasted only 20 months as Head of State, before he, too, was replaced by another coup. Nevertheless, the masses, especially in northern Nigeria, never forgot him; they had identified a lone-ranger who was willing to go head-to-head with the country’s entrenched systems and shake things up. ✚
Jude is a Staff Writer at the Question Marker