One of the major reasons for the backwardness of the Nigerian state after so many years of independence is her ability to avoid addressing the past, thereby dooming herself to the commendation of never learning from past events. I understand that most of our history is macabre. But continuous avoidance is only setting us on a road of regression.
Most of the undemocratic governments in Nigeria were welcomed with open arms by the Nigerian people at the advent of their reign. The January 15 Ifeajuna-Nzeogwu incursion was happily received in its early days because it restored order in the western part of the country and destroyed the “political profiteers… men in high and low places that seek bribes… those who keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs…”
The January 15 Coup failed, as Aguyi Ironsi, the GOC of the Nigerian Army was able to mobilize the brigade of guards against Ifeajuna and his men. After this he made the members of the Balewa government hand over power to him, making himself in effect the Head of state – a position he would hold for 194 days.
Some months later, after the political landscapes had shifted due to ethno-regional sentiments, Ironsi was killed in the July 29 counter-coup. These events led to one of the darkest times in Nigerian history.
After the Nigerian civil war, Gowon was usurped from power by Murtala Muhammed. Muhammed was supported by large swathes of the Nigerian people and is still remembered today as a Nigerian hero – his portrait adorns the 20 Naira note. Very Ironic, since he was known to have been the mastermind of the July counter-coup that led to the murder of hundreds of Igbo army officers and was said to have committed atrocious acts during the civil war.
When Shagari’s government was toppled, and Buhari came to power, Nigerians once again were very happy because the new military government promised to free them from the corrupt shackles of the past administration. In his declaration speech on the January 1, 1984 Buhari among other things he this to say about the Shagari government “…The change became necessary in order to put an end to the serious economic predicament and the crisis of confidence now afflicting our nation… Fellow Nigerians, finally, we have dutifully intervened to save this nation from imminent collapse. We therefore expect all Nigerians, including those who participated directly or indirectly in bringing the nation to this present predicament, to cooperate with us. This generation of Nigerians, and indeed future generations, have no country other than Nigeria. We shall remain here and salvage it together.”
We see how that turned out. Buhari, even though some claim his intentions were good, used barrack-like methods of discipline on the Nigerian people. He arrested and convicted politicians and senior government officials – giving them sentences as long as 100 years, and incarcerating them in the harshest of conditions. He made soldiers abuse the Nigerian people all in the name of making them observe communal hygiene and social decorum.
Once again the same Nigerian people that had clamoured for the leadership of the austere anti-graft military leader were tired of him and wanted him changed. It was in this atmosphere and combined with a plethora of other internal nuances within the structures of the military that Babangida ousted Buhari. In his 1985 speech Babangida had this to say about his predecessor’s government – the man he help put in power: “Regrettably it turned out that Major General Buhari was too rigid and uncompromising in his attitude to issues of national significance. Efforts to make him understand that a diverse polity like Nigeria required recognition and appreciation of differences in both cultural and individual perceptions, only served to aggravate these attitudes. Major General Tunde Idiagbon (Buhari’s vice) was similarly inclined in that respect… A combination of these characteristics in the two most important persons holding the nation’s offices became impossible to contend with…”
After it became clear that Babangida had no intention of making good on his promises – 8 years later – the Nigerian people began to revolt against his government; and coupled with the Abiola saga, he was forced to leave office, leaving a caretaker government behind.
It was at this time that Babangida’s minster of defence, friend and partner for a long time, General Sanni Abacha, decided to usurp the interim government in a palace coup. In his November 17, 1993 speech he had this to say among other things “…Nigeria is the only country we have. We must, therefore, solve our problems ourselves. We must lay a very solid foundation for the growth of democracy. We should avoid any adhoc or temporary solutions. The problems must be addressed firmly, objectively, decisively and with all sincerity of purpose… This government is a child of necessity with a strong determination to restore peace and stability to our country and on these foundations, enthrone a lasting and true democracy…”
Among all this, one is able to observe an existing pattern. First the people welcome the new government – even though that government is undemocratic – they give that government legitimacy by acquiescing to its ascent. They believe that their saviours have come to deliver them from the corrupt bowels of the previous government. To the people it does not matter what they had to do to get there. Then down the road, they realize that they have given legitimacy to a worse monster. Then they begin to protest the downfall or and revolt against the government they gave assent to. Another monster comes along, offers them sugar-coated nonsense, which they swallow and welcome again; repeating the same process over again.
An alleged speech prepared by the coup plotters of the failed 1997 coup, contained the same ridiculous “i-am-here-to-save-you-from-the-previous-bad-government” message. A part of the alleged speech goes thus: “Abacha has gone astray. Virtually nothing concrete has been achieved. Rather, our people are still in abject poverty. Electricity is unstable, water supply inadequate, hospitals are still without drugs and where they are available the cost is unaffordable. Education is in disarray… General Abacha’s greed for wealth and power is becoming more and more insatiable thus making hum blind and nonchalant to this unacceptable condition.”
According to Matthew Kukah, a member of the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (HRVIC): “Had this coup succeeded, Nigerians would have trooped out in celebration with the sad belief that a new set of redeemers has arrived; the circle of deceit woud have been re-enacted all over again”
Still many Nigerians chose to forget. This only gives credence to the words of Richard von Weizsacker, a former German president: “whoever closes his eyes to the past becomes blind to the present. Whoever does not wish to remember inhumanity becomes susceptible to the dangers of a new infection”.