Professor Tam David-West
I have over the years noticed with great embarrassment as a Nigerian a serious historical inaccuracy which our mass media continue to carry on the question of voluntary military handover of government to civilian government.
In short, our eminent compatriot, General Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd) is constantly and consistently referred to as the “First African military leader to voluntarily handover government to a democratically elected civilian government.”
One of the latest of such embarrassing error or inaccuracy was by Jide Ajani, Deputy Political Editor of the Vanguard.
He stated as follows in his report captioned, “Obasanjo – for President: Ultimatum for a four-star general” (Vanguard: 6 November, 1998; page 9): “General Matthew Okikiolakin Aremu Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, and the first African leader to voluntarily hand over the reigns of governance (sic) to a democratically elected civilian government…”
This is far from the truth. General Obasanjo (rtd) was not the first to do so. He was in fact the third African military leader to do so.
The first was General Akwasi Afrifa of Ghana, who in 1969 voluntarily handed over government to the democratically elected Dr. Kofi Abrefa Busia of the Progress Party, after the military overthrow of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah on 24 February, 1966.
This was good ten years before General Obasanjo handed over government to Alhaji Shehu Shagari on 1 October, 1979.
To further buttress my correction I quote from Barbara E Okeke’s book, 4 June: A Revolution Betrayed, page 12: “Ghana’s first military government kept its promise to return the country to civilian rule in 1969.”
And going further back to the records: On 13 January, 1972 Col. Ignatius Kutu Acheampong overthrew Dr. Busia, for being autocratic, repressive, intolerant of opposition (a crime he himself articulated against Nkrumah). He was also accused of being clay-footed on “moral revolution” and mismanagement of the economy.
Acheampong himself was later overthrown on 5 July 1978 in a palace coup by General Fred Akuffo. He was charged of corruption, graft, abuse of office – his famous “green-pen” signed all sorts of contracts to friends, cronies and family; diversion of public funds to inflated personal Swiss bank accounts; economic mismanagement – he printed huge bank notes and threw the banks into disarray. However, ignored young (junior) rank officers’ (and the public) called to probe the six-year government of Acheampong.
He even “unfroze” the assets of Acheampong’s aides. The Akuffo’s Supreme Military Council (SMC) resisted all pressures to probe Acheampong’s government, and thereby raised suspicion. It was suggested that the complacency of the SMC was because most senior officers (including Akuffo) were also guilty of the same/similar crimes against the state.
On 15 May, 1979 General Akuffo arrested Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings (a populist officer) along with some other Air Force officers for plotting coup against him. They were accordingly tried and imprisoned.
However, on 4 June, 1979 some dissident officers of lower ranks of the Army and Air Force led by Captain Baokye Djan overthrew Akuffo. They also shot their way to the prison and effected the release of Rawlings. This was popularly known as the “June 4 Revolution.” Rawlings was unanimously appointed Head of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and expressly charged to execute the “Moral Revolution.”
A Peoples’ Revolutionary Court was set up to try corrupt officers. It sat in camera. Eight senior officers including Acheampong, Akuffo and Afrifa were found guilty of “offences against the state”, by “using their position to amass wealth while in office and or recklessly dissipating state funds to the detriment of the nation.”
Rawlings summed up the state of the nation: “It has been forcefully brought home to all our people that while they were starving because food prices were too high, while they risked death on falling sick because drugs were in short supply while they were paying exorbitant rents and while they were dejected and despondent because of the intolerable heights to which inflation in the country had generally risen, there were others in the society who were dipping their hands freely into the nations coffers so that they and their families could live in the opulence of conspicuous consumption.” Also similarly denounced were “instant millionaires”.
It should be mentioned that in General Afrifa’s house three gold-plated beds were discovered; also drugs worth 10,000 cedis were also found – yet the hospitals have no drugs for the masses. Yet, he was the Head of the National Liberation Council which assumed power after Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown on 24 February, 1966. He was a leading officer in the coup.
It is intriguing to mention that when a powerful minister of Nkrumah, Krobo Edusi, imported a gold-plated bed (costing £3,000) in the 1950’s Nkrumah’s government confisticated the bed, disposed of it and lodged the amount in Ghana’s coffers. But Afrifa (and his colleagues) who overthrew Nkrumah said they were “Messiah”.
The flagrant corruption and graft of the guilty top officers further inflamed the lower rank officers. They were not to be appeased until these corrupt officers were executed.
The AFRC succumbed to these pressures, and so on 16 June 1979 all the eight officers (including the three Heads of State/Government: Acheampong, Akuffo and Afrifa) were executed by firing squad.
Rawlings’ AFRC conducted elections on 18 June, 1979. Dr. Hilla Limann of the Peoples National Party polled majority of the popular votes. However, he was short of the required over 50% of the votes cast.
A second election was, therefore, held on 9 July, 1979. Dr. Limann had a clear victory this time around. He polled some 67% of the votes. He was therefore declared the winner. Less than two million Ghanaians went to the polls. Voters apathy.
And so, on 24 September, 1979 (October 1979 was originally selected) the Head of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, handed over government to President Dr. Hilla Limann. This was the second military handover of government to democratically elected civilian government in Africa.
The one of General Obasanjo to President Shehu Shagari, on 1 October, 1979, was therefore clearly the third of such handovers in Africa and not the first as erroneously regularly and consistently carried by the Nigerian media.
It is unfortunate that we have allowed this national embarrassment to go on for so long. I had expected professional scholars of politics or history to have corrected the error.
Perhaps, one is constrained to also acknowledge the ring of universality in the promptings for the Rawlings June 4 Moral Revolution of 1979, and so don’t care to know for whom the bell tolls. Moral Lessons. Apocalyptic?
When President Dr. Limann performed below the standards and expectations of the “June 4 Moral Revolution,” he too was ousted by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings in 1982.
It should be highlighted that contrary to the image one had of Rawlings, as a blood-thirsty officer, because of the execution of the “Ghana Eight” in 1979, from subsequent “research”, the records amply show that in fact, he was opposed to the executions. For instance, on page 47-48 of Barbara Okeke’s 4 June: A Revolution Betrayed, under “Rawlings opposed the executions”: “…as Chairman of the AFRC, it was clear that he was not in favour of the execution. On 7 July, a BBC camera crew filmed a meeting of council at which the fate of the senior officers was being discussed. Rawlings recommended penal labour on farms and public humiliation as punishment.”
Furthermore, on page 76; “Throughout the period of the AFRC rule, Rawlings was the moderating influence on the more radiant elements within the armed forces and society at large.”
The “Obasanjo Error”, because nobody has cared to correct it––and disappointingly, not even from the General himself––it necessarily becomes, indeed, a national embarrassment.
It is my expectation that this “national service” (and contribution to intellectuality) should be seen in the spirit with which I have voluntarily made it. Anything short of this would be intellectually fraudulent.
Perhaps, I should mention that this is not the first time I have taken upon myself to correct printed historical errors about Nigeria; even though a virologist.
For instance, in his book, Politics, J. R. Thackrah (1987) on Page 238 stated as follows: “Shagari proved to be corrupt and lethargic in the field of economic development and he was overthrown in 1983 to be replaced by yet another military leader, Martella Mohammed” sic)”
I wrote to the author through Heinemann Books Nigeria Limited. The book was published by Heinemann London. I pointed out the errors. First, that it was anachronistic to state that General Murtala Mohammed “replaced” President Shehu Shagari. It was General Buhari who “replaced” Shagari.
Secondly, it is not “Martella Mohammed, but “Murtala Mohammed”.
Thirdly, Shagari was not “proved to be corrupt”. However, his government definitely was known widely by Nigerians to be corrupt. Indeed, A Craig Copetas, said that much in his most fascinating and riveting book Metal Men: Marc Rich and the 10-Billion-Dollar Scam (1985); page 119: “The Shagari regime personified corruption in the Third World.
Dr.Thackrah was most gracious when he wrote to commend me; and also promised to correct the errors I pointed out in his subsequent edition.
Like the correction of the “Obasanjo Error”, the main object of this contribution, I considered the correction of the “Thackrah Error”, also a national service; and indeed a service (or contribution) to intellectuality.