Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, June 13, 2016

The descendants of Biafra

History in Nigeria has not repeated itself, in part because the people in charge don't want it to. What happens when the old soldiers die off?

[Sorry for so many editorial inclusions in this one. I just couldn't resist adding some facts that the author and the reporter skipped over.]

How first coup still haunts Nigeria 50 years on
Although most of Nigeria's current population of about 170 million was not born when the country's first coup was staged 50 years ago, its legacy lingers on, writes Nigerian historian and author Max Siollun.

On 15 January 1966, a group of young, idealistic, UK-trained army majors overthrew Nigeria's democratic government in a violent military coup.

The coup leaders described it as a brief and temporary revolution to end corruption and ethnic rivalry. Instead, it made them worse…

A succession of increasingly repressive military governments ruled Nigeria for 29 of the next 33 years, until the restoration of democracy in 1999…

The officers who staged the [1966] coup were mostly Christian southerners from the Igbo ethnic group, and they assassinated several northerners…

Northerners interpreted the coup as an Igbo-led conspiracy to subjugate the north and impose Igbo domination.

Six months later, northern soldiers staged another even bloodier counter-coup against their Igbo colleagues…

[In 1976] a new constitution that gave the government ownership of all mineral resources.

This provision encouraged corruption and the do-or-die nature of Nigeria's elections, as winners now had control over the country's vast mineral wealth.

It is also the source of much bitterness in Nigeria's oil-producing areas, and a cause of the latent Niger Delta insurgency which rocked Nigeria for several years and severely disrupted its oil industry.

The January 1966 coup propelled a group of young military officers onto the national stage. Now wealthy septuagenarian grandfathers, they still wield enormous influence in Nigerian politics. [Textbooks often refer to them as the "big men" of Nigerian politics.]

General Obasanjo
Gen Obasanjo [later President Obasanjo] is one of these retired military kingmakers. His withdrawal of support for then-President Goodluck Jonathan was one factor in his presidential election defeat last year, and the victory of current President Muhammadu Buhari.

As a young officer, Mr Buhari was among the young northern officers who in July 1966 staged the counter-coup against the Igbo majors.

The influence of retired military officers is so pervasive that Mr Jonathan is the only president in Nigeria's history who had no personal or family involvement in the 1966 crisis and the ensuing civil war…

The army's politicised past means that Nigerians live with the (real or imagined) fear that a coup is a possible outcome of any political crisis.

Last year, Nigeria's then-national security adviser admitted that previous governments' wariness of the coup-prone army made them reluctant to upgrade its weaponry.

Years of strategic military under-investment recently came back to haunt Nigeria when soldiers facing Islamist militant group Boko Haram complained that they were under-equipped to fight the insurgents. ["Under-investment" was supplemented by politicians and military leaders taking money appropriated for weapons and adding it to their own fortunes rather than buying weapons.]

Yet, ironically, Nigeria partially owes its continued existence to the near obsessive desire to avoid a repeat of the 1966 bloodshed.

The young military firebrands have mellowed and talk their way out of crisis rather than blasting their way into it.

The elaborate power-sharing arrangements in Nigeria's constitution, and the unwritten rule requiring rotation of political power between the north and south are legacies of the mistrust engendered in 1966.

Nigeria has matured. So have its former coup leaders.

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