“The one thing more painful than learning from experience is not learning from experience.” – Archibald Macleish
The demolition and damage that we have been inflicting to the body of the nation Nigeria during the last 60 years may take over 100 years to mend and rebuild. The corruption that was noticed and talked about openly soon after independence was the main reason for the military intervention of 1966. At least, that was what we were told by the coup plotters. That intervention, which was popularly received in most parts of the country, was a harbinger to a counter-coup, a civil war, and many more coups that left the country in the throes of military dictatorship.
Leaving out the First Republic, the Nigerian nation had been midwifed from General Aguiyi Ironsi to Generals Yakubu Gowon, Murtala Muhammed, Olusegun Obasanjo, Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha, and, finally (so we thought), Abdulsalami Abubakar. Interspersed among these military Heads of State were Presidents Shehu Shagari, Ernest Shonekan, Musa Yar’ Adua, and Goodluck Jonathan who, though were civilian Presidents, were in all practical purposes political custodians of the military junta that placed them in power. In other words, they were surrogate Presidents of the immediate past military junta that continued to manipulate them. In these musical chairs of military rulers were the second iterations of this time Retired Generals Obasanjo and Buhari in civilian garments masquerading as civilian Presidents with dictatorial tendencies and no real change from their past iniquities.
For some of us, these unreformed military dictators that came back as civilian Presidents ostensibly to correct the wrongs of their puppet/agent civilian Presidents that they nurtured were only there to serve personal and sectorial interests and agenda. Again and again, it was war against corruption, as it were when they had their uniforms on, that they have come to fight, win or lose. Most Nigerians will agree with me that the military and the civilian Presidents they selected and handed over power to have been unable to take the nation to that enviable and equitable position that we promised our children and grandchildren, even after dividing the nation into 36 pieces. The creation of these so-called states, most of them contributing little or nothing to the national coffers and as such not economically viable entities, has made Nigeria ungovernable and the fight against corruption impossible. The soldiers must have known that it is exceedingly difficult to fight any war from many fronts. So, subscribing to this doctrine as they all did must have been in response to a grand design of deceit and sectoral domination.
I recall that during the early days of the military there were a few individuals and organisations in opposition to any form of dictatorship. The trade union movements that balanced the employee/employer relationship brought about collective bargaining system, dismantled the exploitation of the labour force and played major roles instilling the dignity of labour in our economy. But their challenge was not to last very long because they became compromised so soon in this cycle of dictatorships, turning their new powers of economic blackmail and numerical clout to assist the military in their crusade to intimidate the polity. Thus was ushered in what we call, ‘if you can’t beat them, you join them syndrome’.
Somehow, because we have forever dwelt on divine-inspired hope, we clung to yet another bastion of resistance, the professional bodies epitomised by the likes of the Nigerian Bar Association, Nigerian Medical Association, and the student unions. They all doggedly fought hard to engage dictatorship at different times to some intellectual discourse that exposed the inadequacy, lack of direction and governance in the system. Most of these institutions, leaders and bodies, thankfully, refused to be compromised. Some migrated out into exile, some were detained, and some died mysteriously. Then there was NADECO, a formidable coalition of progressive political forces in the country that came out boldly to challenge dictatorship again and again. Their members met the same fate as those of the professional bodies and non-aligned dissidents. But the military was patient and tenacious in their war of intimidation. Now and again, some of the resistance would crack or get blackmailed into compromised positions. These were then taken over as converts and rewarded with a few juicy appointments and contracts.
Suddenly, there was a bit of fresh air that came from the upper clouds and permeated all over Nigeria when Moshood Abiola came into politics. He understood the military playbook very well, having associated with them for so many years as their friend and benefactor in business dealings. Initially most of them saw him as a joke because of his carefully crafted jolly good fellow personality, who married wives from almost every part of the country. Unknown to them and most of us, all those were part of his political strategy. He followed up with the building of schools, churches, mosques, hospitals, and farms around the country. His foundation was giving scholarships to needy students from any part of the country. With purposeful strides, therefore, he permeated into every part of our society by sowing seeds of goodwill, philanthropy, and empathy for the underprivileged. At the time the military leaders and the political class of that time found out the reach he had all over the nation and beyond, he had captured almost 60 per cent of the voting population. In essence, Moshood Abiola redrew the political map and changed the political structure of the country with his goodwill constituency.
Most of us who supported Abiola never suspected that his was a suicide mission and neither did he. This was naiveté on our part and his, blinded by the overwhelming support and endorsement he received from Muslims, Christians, the young and the old that saw him as the chosen one. Since the demise of MKO, no Nigerian has returned or ventured into that kind of political adventure again. And we are the worse for it, being punished because we may never again be able to find another MKO. The military cabal, ever listening to their grand master plan, forced him out, and ensured his permanent exit eventually.
The death of Abiola’s politics and his extinction galvanised, as never before, a more sustained version of opposition to the military administrations that were suffocating the nation state. The progressives became vocal in their clamour for a sovereign national conference that would decide the composition, structure, and future of a federated union of Nigeria. Rather than yield to the demands of the people, the military that succeeded the turmoil that followed the exits of Abiola and General Sani Abacha’s Administration, once again strong-armed Nigerians to convene a Constitutional Conference that foisted an unworkable constitution on the polity. This was no accident, but rather a carefully designed strategy that ensured the continued participation of the military in the governance of the Country. Hence the presence of retired military officers as Governors, Ministers, Chiefs of Staff, State and National Assembly men, Senators, and Presidents of the Republic in present day Nigeria. It must be clear to all that we are not in any way divorced from an institution that has presided over the monumental collapse of the Nigerian State over a period of fifty-five years.
Once again I have gone back into history because there are crops of leaders today and those aspiring to lead tomorrow that have forgotten all the obstacles thrown into the paths that got us to where we are today. If we truly know where we need to be in future, we must abandon these same paths to tread new ones. The last thing we want to see is history repeating itself. Experience has always been the best teacher but somehow we seem incapable of learning from experience. Can we commit to being reformed students this time around, please?