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The 1985 coup


The August 1985 coup in Nigeria was regarded as a palace coup, a smooth changing of the guards. I have no idea if anyone died in the operation but the event itself has refused to die, thanks to President Muhammadu Buhari. The victim of that coup, Buhari, has reminded us from time to time that he was unfairly removed as the head of state and kept in detention for three years by the Ibrahim Babangida boys. Let us roll back the tape a little bit. On December 31, 1983 as Nigerians were at various prayer venues asking God to make 1984 a better year than 1983, they had no idea that Buhari and his co-conspirators were on the verge of removing a legitimately elected civilian government headed by President Shehu Shagari.

Many Nigerians may have been amazed at the scale of rigging in the October 1983 Presidential elections but may not have expected a return of the military to the presidential podium after 13 years of brutal military dictatorship. Nigerians woke up on January 1 not knowing whether to say to each other a Happy New year or a Happy New government since they were uncertain what was in the belly of the coup. One year and eight months later, Buhari was overthrown by the same Babangida Boys who put him on the throne. Babangida now took over the presidential chair and kept Buhari in detention for about three years. Apparently, Buhari has not been able to bring himself to forgive or forget since then.

At the recent commissioning of the EFCC corporate headquarters in Abuja, Mr. Buhari said: “During my first attempt to fight corruption (December 1983 – August 1985) corruption fought back successfully. I was removed as the head of state, detained for three years and people who we recovered stolen money from were given back their money and I remained in detention up until my mother had to die to save me from detention.”


It is obvious that even though he has ascended the throne as an elected President the bitterness is still there. In an interview with the Interview Magazine a few years ago, he had raised the issue. He said that General Aliyu Gusau, one of the coup plotters that brought him to power was to be retired for a number of reasons including alleged corruption. He said that he presented the proposal for Gusau’s retirement to the Army Council and some forces rallied against his government and Gusau was saved. Gusau has said in his own response that despite his active and significant part in the coup that overthrew Shagari, Buhari treated him shabbily and offered him no significant position.

Gusau’s view has been corroborated by retired Major Mustapha Jokolo who was Buhari’s ADC when he was head of state. In an interview with the Daily Sun some months ago, Jokolo said that only two of the coup plotters were given political appointments: David Mark as Governor of Niger State and Ahmed Abdullahi as Minister of Communication. Jokolo said that the failure to give some of the other men who put their lives on the line for the success of the coup any political appointment had definitely set the stage for Bahuri’s overthrow. He said: “When we came to Dodan Barracks with Buhari he was holding a meeting with senior military officers and all the coup plotters were outside. They came to meet me in the ADC’s office – Shagaya, Akilu, Sabo Aliyu, Zaki, Tanko Ayuba. They told me, Mustapha, what the bloody hell is going on? Why are we outside and these people are inside? Why is he not holding a meeting with us? We have just finished this coup and honestly we are going to stage another one now. They said that to me. They are alive”.

Jokolo also confirmed that Gusau played a very important part in the coup by raising money for the venture and by protecting the coup plotters from the Nigerian Security Organization headed by Alhaji Umaru Shinkafi. Jokolo said that when some of the coup plotters got drunk they would speak rubbish and threaten people. The NSO agents were filing these reports but Gusau protected them from the NSO. Jokolo said he asked Buhari why he did not make Gusau the Director General of NSO. His reply was that he did not want to give two security appointments to IBB’s people. He had already made Haliru Akilu, an IBB boy, the Director of Military Intelligence. Jokolo says there were definitely some misgivings between IBB and Buhari.

The story of that coup obviously is like the story of the seven blind men and the elephant. Each of the blind men describes the elephant his own way depending on which part of the elephant he touched. Contrary to Mr. Buhari’s story the history of that coup cannot be written purely, wholly and solely from an anti-corruption point of view. There is evidence from some of the coup plotters that they felt aggrieved that they were not amply rewarded or rewarded at all for putting their lives on the line. There seemed to be some element of “monkey dey work, baboon dey chop”. Even these issues raised by Jokolo may not fully account for the counter coup of August 1985. Every coup has both remote and immediate causes. Outside the immediate circle of the coup plotters the Buhari government had various issues to contend with. His appointment of Col Tunde Idiagbon, a northerner and a Moslem like himself as his deputy did not go down well with non-northerners and non-Moslems considering the multi-ethnic, multi-religious nature of Nigeria. That skewed appointment haunted him for the entire duration of his tenure like an inscrutable mystery.

Also, his anti-press, anti-truth law named Decree 4 did not earn him plaudits from the press or the public. When Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor of The Guardian were jailed for one year under that obnoxious decree there was a national uproar. A number of media and human rights institutions planned a hero’s welcome for the two men on the expected day of their release from prison. To take the wind out of the sails of these planned events the government released them a few days earlier. No one was ever tried again under that unpopular decree.

A number of analysts were happy that Buhari’s government was able to instill some discipline into the public psyche through his War Against Indiscipline (WAI). Many people were also happy that he was pursuing some of the alleged thieves in the country. But his human rights record was awful. He threw many people in detention for months without trail. He enacted and backdated a decree by which three young men were killed for cocaine offences that did not exist as a death penalty offence when they were arrested. The public was aghast and nobody was ever killed again under that law. That, again, says something about the barbaric nature of those laws.

Besides, Buhari appeared unable to read the mood of the public. After 13 years of tyrannical military rule with little to show for it the public was not interested in having another long regime of men in big boots. Throughout the period of his stay Buhari never put forward a programme of transfer of power to civilians. Even if Shagari’s government won the 1983 election fraudulently the public that had been yearning for civil rule would have definitely preferred to be given the chance to vote that government out with their ballot papers. By the gift of hindsight it is obvious that our democracy would have been deepened by bow if Shagari was not overthrown and military rule imposed on the country for 16 horrendous years.

Buhari’s regular song on his anti-corruption exploits is good for a country that has been enmeshed in systemic and endemic corruption since independence. His reputation as a reasonably honest man and his non-ostentatious life style are good tools for the anti-corruption campaign but they are clearly not enough. Let us admit for starters that corruption is very difficult to fight because it is perpetrated largely in secret. Secondly, the corrupt can, if they are able, always fight back since they are very powerful. But the campaign can receive a shot in the arm if it is fought holistically, fairly, evenly, with no exceptions made for friends or cronies or associates. Such exceptions provide opponents of the campaign with live ammunition. They also constitute the chink in the campaign’s armour. Even though I admit that the campaign is waged in a discriminatory manner I still support it based on the fact that it is better fought even incompetently than not being fought at all.


From what Jokolo has said about Buhari who was his boss three issues have arisen.
(a) Buhari feels comfortable working in his small, narrow circle
(b) He is stiff necked and
(c) He pays little attention to the issue of alienation of those who placed the ladder for him to climb.His narrow world view makes it possible for him to make controversial appointments without bothering about the consequences. His inflexibility allows him to justify his wrong decisions even if they tend to hurt him.

Perhaps his most fatal flaw is the issue of alienation of those who should not be alienated but who should be on the table with him. The 1985 coup issue is an example. A few months ago, the Comptroller General of Customs who was the Chairman of the Buhari Support Group, Col. Hamid Ali, complained about the marginalisation of those who sweated for Buhari’s success in 2015 but are now nowhere near the dining table. Buhari must have been putting his ears to the ground and hearing the loud grumblings of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu’s loyalists.

They are miffed that Buhari has not embraced warmly the South West astute political arranger without whom he might not have been in Aso Villa today. But it is clear that Buhari is now making some awkward attempts to coddle Tinubu. Tinubu’s followers believe this new love affair is now instigated by the aerial bombardments unleashed on Buhari by Dr. Olusegun Obasanjo, Chief Ayo Adebanjo and some other leaders of Afenifere recently. They think that Buhari’s effort is too little too late. But in politics nothing is truly permanent.

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