The News (Lagos)

12 April 1999

Nigeria: Obasanjo In Danger !

Lagos — Fears for his personal safety and the sustenance of the democratic project spur Obasanjo's foreign tours, TheNews can confirm. ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE reports.

He returned triumphant. When Olusegun Obasanjo landed in Lagos last week, he had two reasons to be happy. His foreign tour had gone very well. He met world leaders, many of whom were supportive.

In Washington, London and Paris, Obasanjo was treated not merely as Nigeria's president-elect. His reception was very presidential; it would have been easy to assume that he is already in power.

That prospect too seemed nearer after the Court of Appeal dismissed Chief Olu Falae's challenge to the election results. The cake, in fact, seemed fully iced when it further emerged that Chief Falae would not after all lodge an appeal at the Supreme Court. Yet for all the appearances, Obasanjo's trips abroad were not organised wholly as a pre-inauguration tour or an attempt to buy back Nigeria's global goodwill, rubbished by that much- despised despot called Sani Abacha.

Obasanjo and his advisers have explained that the president-elect decided to use the time between his election and installation productively by networking with his friends abroad. That way, he may not need to undertake any extensive tour during his first year in office. But there is another reason for the foreign tour, The News can authoritatively confirm.

Obasanjo's friends, local and international, were understandably apprehensive about prospects for mischief by civilian and military elements opposed to any semblance of democratisation in Nigeria. The omens were frightening.

The elections had been fiercely fought and there were whispers in intelligence circles that something could go wrong before 29 May; that something indeed has been programmed to go wrong before the handover date; and that the president-elect may be a sitting target for mischief- makers intent on making Nigeria's second attempt in democratisation, within six years, a still-born affair. American friends of the president-elect, who picked these signals early were believed to have first recommended to him an itinerant approach to his savouring of his election victory. In simple terms, he was advised to be very mobile pending some stabilisation of the political atmosphere. Even in designing this safety measure, care was taken to ensure that no appearance of panic was projected.

But there is no mistaking the sense that they felt that Obasanjo is not fully safe. This desire to conceal panic explains the refusal to package Obasanjo's trips as one extended joy ride across global capitals. Rather, he returns home at intervals, staying briefly, sometimes for just two or three nights, before hopping to the road.

In other words, every recent homecoming by Obasanjo is only an annunciation that he is on his way somewhere. Though Obasanjo he only returned home last Tuesday, he was by the weekend heading eastwards, to India, China and Japan. The feeling is that the less time he spends in Nigeria, the safer he is, at least for now.

The Americans are said to be very concerned that Obasanjo be safely installed in office. They have had a soft-spot for him since 1976 when he assumed office following the death of the fiery Gen. Murtala Muhammed. Obasanjo has been a recipient of generous adulation and funding from American sources.

His African Leadership Forum benefits from enthusiastic American support. Obasanjo himself is a founding member of the board of the African-American Institute based in Washington, D.C. He remained on that board throughout the years of his unjust incarceration by Abacha. The only strain in this cosy relationship occurred when the Americans failed to back Obasanjo's bid to become secretary-general of the United Nations. For geopolitical and strategic reasons, the Americans preferred Boutrous Boutrous- Ghali, the Coptic Egyptian they later forced out after only one term in office. Feelers from the Obasanjo camp indicate that conscious of the likely threats to his person and government, Obasanjo has constructed a strong international support network.

Although he is keeping sealed lips on the details of his talks with world leaders, Obasanjo, investigations indicate, has secured some pacts. These deal not only with immediate threats; they are also constructed around the idea of reinforcing the prospects for democracy in Nigeria. They may be timely.

Although there is now little doubt that the military will quit by 29 May, anxieties remain that in institutional terms, it would not be a collective disengagement. Despite the fact that the military has steered itself into a position of disrepute, not all elements within it recognise that military governments have become anachronistic.

Ambition lurks across the ranks. So does fear of accounting for their many wrongdoings. That is the disturbing fact for the Obasanjo camp.

They see that the civil society is prepared to support and defend democracy. But the military remains largely unreconstructed, arrogant even.

The evidence is there, even at the top. By last week, the military was negotiating amnesty provisions with Obasanjo. As exclusively reported by The News in its 12 April 1999 edition, the soldiers are determined to insert self-serving amnesty provisions into the 1999 Constitution they are currently hoarding. Sources told this magazine that General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the head of the junta, is himself involved in the amnesty talks.

Indeed, the amnesty provisions the soldiers wish to rig into the constitution are said to be reminiscent of those General Augusto Pinochet, Chile's former dictator, inserted before he quit power. Essentially such provisions will prohibit any attempts to punish misdeeds by soldiers and their collaborators, whether such be murder or stealing. Those to benefit from this tribute to impunity are members of the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC), senior civilian officials, military administrators and former military rulers, Generals Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida.

The families of departed looters like Abacha will also be covered as will others lucky enough to have committed their crimes under military protection. When the deal is completed, Obasanjo may be unable to launch the anti-corruption drive he has told the world to expect. His arduor for a Truth Commission may also cool.

Behind the scenes, the military is arranging to quit power without losing it. The military pays the lip service, but they are not heartily reconciled to democracy. Obasanjo is feeling the pressure already. He has been compelled twice recently to assure the military that they have nothing to fear.

He has explicitly promised that there will be no witch-hunt. But the soldiers are angling for more solid guarantees. At a recent gathering of senior military brasshats, chaired by Air-Marshal Al- Amin Daggash, Chief of Defence Staff, the ambience was a riot of epaulettes, glittering medals and swagger sticks.

It was at the National War College, Abuja. In spite of the picturesque parade of these mementoes and memorabilia of war and intrigues, the topic of the day, "Re-orientation of the Armed Forces and the Police Towards Democracy," was to knock into the officers' heads, the idea of their own irrelevance as far as governance is concerned in the next political dispensation. Yet, a topic that came, almost off-the-cuff, after the event, banished its very essence into insignificance. As Daggash stepped out of the venue of the talk, a journalist approached him, wanting to know from him whether it was true and desirable for service chiefs to stay behind when Abubakar leaves on 29 May.

Would it not be a threat to the Obasanjo regime? The question hit Daggash like a stilletto, as he scratched his brow in deep thought. Not a man given to diplomatese or the double-speak of the likes of Vice- Admiral Mike Akhigbe, the Chief of General Staff, Daggash decided to shoot straight. And when he did, it was the most controversial statement he would utter, ever since he pressed his nose to the recruitment officer's window three decades ago.

His reply has proved to be more than a fly piss in the wind; it has generated concentric ripples of controversies which hinge on the survival or otherwise of the next republic. Daggash made it clear that armed forces service chiefs would not retire with Abubakar. He reasoned that the only two political appointees are the Head of State and Vice-Admiral Akhigbe who, as a matter, of course, would leave on the date set for the disengagement of the present military regime. It was a corroboration of Abubakar's position when he spoke to a team of local and international media representatives after his accreditation for the presidential election.

That was on 27 February. He said that the fate of the service chiefs would one way or the other, be at the whim of the civilian government. "I don't think I am part of politics. I am a soldier," Abubakar maintained as he wished to "go home and rest." These two statements imply that Daggash, Lt-Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi, the Chief of Army Staff; Vice-Admiral Jubril Ayinla, Chief of Naval Staff and Air- Marshal Nsikak Eduok, Chief of Air Staff, will stay put when Abubakar leaves. By extension, the general officers commanding (GOCs) the major divisions and the military officers that occupy very sensitive positions could stay on. Daggash, defending the future consolidation of his own position, maintained:

"The Head of State and the Chief of General Staff are political appointees. The service chiefs are part of the military set up. They are not politicians. They are not holding political appointments. So, they will remain there. And, once the new government comes, the new president, if he wants to retain them, he retains them. If he wants to change them, he changes them. This is the order."

He, however, put in a caveat, that between now and the day the present government quits, some people might leave voluntarily on their own or by retirement. "We have been retiring people as they get due.

But whoever is left behind is up to the next government. If they feel they can retain that number of officers, fine. If not, they will tell the Chief of Defence Staff to restructure and cut it down to the way they want." That military service chiefs and those manning key positions should stay when Abubakar leaves does not seem to agree with Abubakar's own disposition when he came to power. His security consciousness started after Abacha, Nigeria's immediate past brutal despot, caved in to the punch of death on 8 June 1998. Abubakar proved to be a deft chess player; he started off by juggling his pawns, the knights and the rooks in the armed forces.

First, he announced a change of guards last July. Daggash, who took over from Abubakar as the Chief of Defence Staff was the former commandant of the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna. Rear-Admiral Ayinla was appointed Chief of Naval Staff, a position which became vacant when Akhigbe assumed the post of Chief of General Staff. Bamaiyi retained the position of chief of army staff, which he has been holding since the Abacha years.

This phenomenon is connected with the enormous power and influence he wields in the army. To observers, this may be very dangerous for the fourth republic as he is perceived as the arrow-head of the hawks in this regime, especially as he is constantly accused as being one of the senior military officers that collaborated with the expired military tyrant, Sani Abacha, to humiliate Obasanjo and his former deputy, Shehu Yar'Adua, in 1995. Abubakar also tinkered with command positions when Major-Gen. Victor Malu was redeployed from 2 Mechanised Division, Ibadan. Malu headed the military tribunal that sentenced General Oladipo Diya and others.

Major-Gen. Felix Mujakperuo succeeded Malu in Ibadan as GOC. Mujakperuo was moved from the 82 Division, Enugu, which is now under the command of Major-Gen. Oladayo Popoola.

Last month, Mujakpero was further moved to ECOMOG in Sierra Leone. Abubakar made it appear as if it is the natural proclivity of a new military leader, to engage in such command permutations. But the undercurrents were not lost on military theoreticians who are of the view that he was trying to put men who were loyal to him in very strategic positions. But as Abubakar's axe swirled again, many military heads were severed, while some were left impotent in their new postings.

All these he spread over months in order not to look too definite for interpretations. The Head of State recalled Brig-Gen. Abdul One Mohammed, chief of staff of Nigeria's contingent to the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in Liberia and put him in charge of the Nigerian Army Corps of Artillery and School (NACAS), Kontagora.

He catapulted Brig-Gen. George Kpamber, the immediate past principal officer to Abacha, to the far flung land of Liberia to keep him busy.

All these were in July 1998. Abubakar went further to appoint Maj-Gen. Ekpo Archibong as Chief of Logistics (Army) to succeed Popoola who became GOC of the 82 Division.

Before taking over, Archibong was the Army's chief of administration at the Defence Headquarters, a position that was immediately occupied by Maj.-Gen. Meshack Odaro, formerly of the Nigerian Army Signals School, Apapa, Lagos. In August, the same year, Abubakar's bayonet whirled again among military administrators left by Abacha.

Fifteen of them were appointed anew, 19 old ones moved to new states while only two, Col. Mohammed Marwa of Lagos, and Tanko Zubairu of Imo states, retained their positions. The two most notorious among them were grabbed by the scruff of their necks and thrown back into the barracks.

Col. Ahmed Usman, the controversial military administrator of Oyo State was an Abacha die-hard who referred to Chief Bola Ige and other opponents of Abacha who were arrested in their bedrooms as "prisoners of war." He was reported to have said that if the military should be confined to the barracks, soldiers would still scale the walls.

Group-Capt. Baba Adamu Iyam of Edo State was another. On 17 September 1998, Abubakar swore in six new members of the PRC including Major-Gen. Rufus Kupolati, Commandant, Task Force on Armed Forces/Police Petroleum Trust Fund Others are Major-Gen. Suleiman Said, Major-Gen. Idris Garuba, Chief of Operations, Army Headquarters; Commodore Emmanuel Acholonu, Director of Planning at Naval Headquarters, Group-Captain Ikechukwu Nnamani, and Major-Gen. Y. Nom, Chief of Training, Operations and Plans at the Defence Headquarters. Among his ministers, Abubakar appointed some senior military personnel. Major-Gen.

Patrick Aziza who chaired the military tribunal that jailed Obasanjo and Lawan Gwadabe in 1995 is in charge of commerce and tourism. Others are Air Vice-Marshal Canice Umenwaliri, Major-Gen.

Sam Momah, Rear- Admiral FBI Porbeni and Major-Gen. Garba Ali Mohammed who superintends over communications, science and technology, transport and works/housing ministries, respectively. Apart from the retirement of Major-Gen.

Unimna and Gen. Jeremiah Timbut Useni, former minister of the Federal Capital Territory, the tempest swept on the security arm of the military, carting off Gen. Sabo Mohammed, the immediate supremo of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, Lt.-Col Frank Omenka, director of its security group and Kolawole Olu, former commanding officer and general staff officer of the Defence Intelligence. Alhaji Ismaila Gwarzo, the former national security adviser and Major Hamza Al-Mustapha were removed from their powerful thrones. What baffles political watchers, however, is why Abubakar, who cleared the scene for his own stability, would leave a dangerous patrimony for the next civilian regime, by way of some officers, that civil society fears may not be friendly to its democratic aspirations. In any case, there are individuals who do not see any danger in leaving the service chiefs behind.

One of them is Uche Onyeagba, the coordinator of the New Dimension Group (NDG), which propounded the synergistic political option that gets fulfillment in an Obasanjo (a retired) general who will rule with pure civilians. Onyeagba told The News: "If you say the service chiefs should leave, there is no other person you would put there that is not at the level of a political military structure. The moment you attend the War College, you are at the interface between the decision- making capacity to go to war and not to go to war.

You study politics and the decision factors that allow you to be members of the aggregate society." Anybody who says the positions of the service chiefs are not political is, according to Onyeagba, right and wrong. The positions are political to the extent that they can be appointed and terminated by the head of state.

"If you look at the essence, rather than the logic, I will say the service chiefs, in the interest of continuity should stay. This is because, at the point when they exist, there are many policy questions that will be asked.

How do you do this, how do you do that? By the time George Bush was leaving, he left behind Collin Powell, as the chairman, joint chiefs of staff of the United States." To Femi Falana, a Lagos-based radical lawyer and pro-democracy activist, these explanations simply fail to wash. Falana maintained that what Abubakar and Daggash said was another way of "stating that the military may be withdrawing physically from power but they will be around to retain power." In other words, Falana argued that military rule is to continue in another form, "a mere change of dress." He said that Daggash's reasoning must be rejected as an insult, because all the military positions in question are political since they are not based on merit.

"Otherwise, you cannot be having army officers becoming generals when they have never fought any war." Falana added that when an army officer goes beyond the level of a major, all promotions become political. He said that he knew those that are qualified in Nigeria to attain ranks in the military who are denied because of political considerations. He stretched his argument to the decree-waxing function of the PRC.

"Anybody who says the membership of the PRC is not political should be advised to tell that to the marines. The PRC performs the role of the national assembly of the country by enacting laws for us, by determining policies for the country." The radical lawyer saw some deja vu in the development, as General Ibrahim Babangida, a past military president, "left the ruthless dictator, Abacha, behind, to topple the Shonekan government." Falana added that as soon as Chief Ernest Shonekan could not carry on, Abacha had to come on board. True, this much was revealed by Professor Omo Omoruyi, a professor of political science and former director-general of the Centre for Democratic Studies (CDS), in an interview published last year. Omoruyi revealed that Babangida and Abacha had a pact; "both of them have been engaged in this coup thing all their lives.

So, technically when they came in on 25 August 1986, it was clear that the armed forces was zoned to Abacha. Babangida was for politics, economic matters and any other thing.

Throughout the period, Abacha never showed interest in political matters, I can assure you of that. Because he knew that the thing will end in one form or the other and he would come in." This was confirmed by Babangida himself when Omoruyi went to give him his (IBB's) valedictory speech in Abuja on 23 August 1993.

Babangida told him point blank that though the service chiefs would go with him, Abacha would not. After Babangida stepped aside, Abacha moved against his boys, Major-Gens. Joshua Dongoyaro, David Mark and others before sweeping off Shonekan himself. The rest is history. And so, as Falana predicted to this magazine, "it is clear to everybody who is going to rule this country after Obasanjo! That clique has been eliminating their opponents in the military, through phantom coups, premature retirements and the rest of them."

The most- feared of the service chiefs is the Zuru, Kebbi State-born Bamaiyi. He is seen by many officers as an ambitious man who could do anything to get what he needs. Though he came into his present position with the influence of General Oladipo Diya, (to the detriment of Major-Gen. Chris Garuba), Bamaiyi did not waste time to put his mentor in trouble in the 1997 coup frame-up. Fortunately, Diya lived to tell the story. Bamaiyi was once ordered to stop his proposed "Operation Eagle" exercise in Kontagora by Abacha.

That was based on security reports that it might be a decoy for an assault on the despot. He flouted the order. If he could do that to his military commander-in-chief, analysts ask, "what should we expect of his relationship with Obasanjo?" His lack of enthusiasm for a democracy run by civilians was demonstrated at a meeting, held immediately after the demise of Abacha. He reportedly suggested the year 2,000 as the appropriate exit date. A senior military officer told this magazine that, leaving Bamaiyi behind would "pose a serious threat to the fourth republic." He puts in a proviso that if Obasanjo throws him overboard, Bamaiyi's influence may be brought to bear on who succeeds him. Bamaiyi's ambition started manifesting in 1995.

He was actively mentioned as a major actor in the phantom coup charge against Obasanjo, Gwadabe and others. He was said to have actively collaborated with Col. Omenka, Major Al-Mustapha and others, to rope in his enemies in the army. Then, he was the commanding officer of the 1995 coup trial by the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA).

Gwadabe reportedly cautioned Col. Bello Fadile of the need to be wary of Lagos officers because they would report to Bamaiyi. He allegedly engineered the "confessions," in order to be in the good book of Abacha. Almost all the recently-released coup plotters indicted Bamaiyi. Omenka, said that from his investigations, Bamaiyi was planning his own coup, different from Diya's in 1997.

It was when the ground wanted to give way under him that he juggled his cards underneath, and turned the table against Diya and others. At the Jos venue of the opening trial of the December 1997 coup, Diya revealed that Bamaiyi was the planner and the mastermind of the intended putsch. When Diya granted The News an interview at his Potiskum prison cell, he said that Bamaiyi has three faces, one to himself, one to me and the other to Abacha." In a ThisDay interview, though, Bamaiyi said that he had no regrets as he acted on the security interest of the country as a "loyal officer." The public relations gambit was supplemented by a group called the "concerned patriots" (chaired by one Benjamin Dikki) which praised Bamaiyi as a gallant officer who, single-handedly, aborted Orkar's coup in 1990. Ayinla, on the other hand, is seen by military watchers as capable of constituting minimum threat.

He is said to be a committed officer with regard to welfare matters. He was reported as saying that he might, later in life, retire into private broadcasting. Of limited threat too is Eduok who, many perceive as not too desperate.

The argument goes on that if he were that desperate for power he would have retired when he was appointed and dropped as chief of air staff (for Air Vice-s Marshal Femi John Femi). He was later re-appointed to the office. An odd man out to these two officers is Maj-Gen. Patrick Aziza. He acquired his bad public image when he chaired the military tribunal that tried Obasanjo, Gwadabe, Fadile and others in 1995.

Before then, he was a military administrator in Kebbi State and GOC, 2 Mechanised Division, Ibadan. Aziza has every reason to be scared to his pants in the event of an Obasanjo presidency, given the pre-determined nature of the 1995 coup trial.

As a matter of fact, during the opening session when journalists were invited to the Lagos Garrison Command venue, Aziza was nervous; his voice shook as he read his speech! The role of the minister in the Diya coup is also notorious. Chief Yomi Tokoya, one of the coup suspects said that Diya implied in one of his statements to him that Bamaiyi, with four others (Aziza, Air Vice-Marshal Idi Musa, Maj-Gen. Bashir Magashi and Sabo) were behind the set up. In his ministry of commerce and tourism, Aziza has not been popular for initiating new policies.

He also did not do much when he was in charge of the communications ministry. His only contribution to the latter was the directive that relatives of dead subscribers of Nigerian Telecommunications PLC, owing N2.5 billion in Ikeja territory would "be held liable." Then there is Daggash, who became Chief of Defence Staff after Abacha's death.

He is the one that has given the most detailed explanation for why the service chiefs and other top notchers in the military would not leave. One school of thought believes that Daggash is staying behind because he is ambitious to become the commander-in-chief. The speculation is that Obasanjo would only be the president of this country, while Daggash would be the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

This is to make sure that the military is protected from proper scrutiny in the new dispensation. The source added that this might be enshrined in the constitution which will be released on the eve of handover. It will, therefore, be too late to amend. Then, there are the GOCs. Major-Gen. Abdullahi Sarki Mukhtar is in charge of the 1 Division, Kaduna. He came into the political scene in 1987 as the governor of Katsina State and was later transferred to Kaduna. Muktar was appointed GOC in Kaduna after the death of Abacha.

He is also believed to be an influential member of the PRC that stood behind Abubakar when he wanted to free the coup suspects. Mukhtar is regarded as honest.

Although he has mixed with the hardliners, he refused to partake in framing officers for the 1995 phantom coup. Popoola, GOC of 82 Division, was a former governor of the old Oyo State when Babangida was in power. He is considered an accomplished military loyalist, who, because of this, survived the pro-NADECO officers' purge in the army. The GOC of the 3 Armoured Division is Gen. Archibong.

Though he plays his cards behind the scene, he belongs to the class of ardent loyalists to the power mongers within the Army. And therefore, it is feared that he is unlikely to oppose any military return to power. In any case, the only GOC that is considered apolitical is Maj-Gen. Peter Gyang Sha, recently redeployed from the 3 Armoured Division, Jos. Sha took over from Mujakpero as the GOC, Ibadan.

Sha was reported to have saved the lives of Diya and the 1997 convicted coupists through his refusal to release them to their would-be killers. They were under his custody in Jos. Leaving all these people behind, therefore, as Chief Mike Ozekhome, a constitutional lawyer told The News "is a booby trap set for Obasanjo and a bad omen for the coming administration." But if the right things are done, according to observers, this could be an avoidable catastrophe.

Additional reports by Adetokunbo Fakeye, Idowu Akinrosoye, Elesho Richard, Bamidele Adebayo, Horace Ekpe, Abimbola Ogunnaike and Ayodele Ojo.

Publication Date: April 19, 1999

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