Indeed the story of how General Abdulsalami Alhaji Abubakar (GCFR), who is 70 today, became Nigeria’s military head of state on June 9, 1998 was the stuff of best-selling thrillers.
The journey to that momentous day for the man begun in 1962 – that is, discounting the day he was born on June 13, 1942 – when he finished from Government College, then Provincial Secondary School, Bida, one of the oldest secondary schools in Northern Nigeria, if not in the entire country.
That year he and twenty one others graduated after their admission into the school in 1957 (secondary schools then ran for six years). About nine of them were dragooned into the army by then junior minister of defence (Army), the late Alhaji Tako Galadima Bida.
Two of them – Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida and the subject of this tribute – rose to become the country’s military heads of state, ending their military careers as four-star generals. One – Garba Duba – retired as a three-star general, i.e. Lieutenant General. Four – Muhammad Gado Nasko, Sani Sami, Mamman Magoro and late Mamman Vatsa – left as two-star generals i.e. Major-Generals. One – Sani Bello, presently President of Bida Old Boys Association (BOSA) – retired as Colonel and military governor of Kano State. Another –Muhammed Ndakotsu Dokotigi, a promising military engineer, died in service in the early seventies as a Lt. Colonel in a road accident along Kaduna-Zaria highway.
Chances then are the Class of ’62 of Government College, Bida, holds the record as the class which has produced the single biggest number of senior officers of the army. All the officers served their country well during the country’s civil war between 1967 and 1970, two of them, Babangida and Bello, sustaining life-threatening wounds they have had to live with since. All of them also held political offices as governors, ministers, etc.
All, that was, except General Abubakar and Dokotigi who died in mid-career. From the day the general became an officer in 1966 until he became head of state on June 9, 1998, he never held any political office. Instead, he held virtually every command post in the army from platoon level till he became its commander-in-chief. Thus, he was, without question, your quintessential professional soldier.
The circumstance of his elevation to head of state, was, as I said, the stuff of best-selling thrillers. At that time he was CDS, officially number three in the country’s military hierarchy but for all practical purposes, the number two because Lt-General Oladipo Diya, the Chief of General Staff and the official number two, had fallen from grace to grass, having been tried and convicted for an attempted coup against his boss, General Sani Abacha.
Abubakar had been CDS since 1995. For some seemingly inexplicable reason some elements in Abacha’s kitchen cabinet began to question his loyalty to Abacha, especially after the man’s undeclared but apparent agenda of swapping his khaki with mufti as the country’s leader gathered steam. By early 1998 Abubakar had concluded that he had fallen out of favour with Abacha enough for him to quit before he got an unceremonious shove.
Accordingly he packed his bag and baggage out of his official quarters at the then Fort Ibrahim Babangida (now Niger Barracks) and confided in a few of his friends of his decision to leave. One of them, Gidado Idris, then Secretary to Abacha’s government, advised him to tarry a while. He would, he said, intercede with Abacha to heal any rift there was between the two.
Alhaji Gidado’s intercession apparently proved futile; Abacha, it seemed, had decided his CDS must go on June 9, 1998. Abacha, as we all know, died the day before in somewhat mysterious circumstances.
The details of what transpired on June 8 is so well documented, they need not detain us here. Suffice it to say Abacha’s much dreaded Chief Security Officer, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, took charge, and with former Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Commassie, and Alhaji Gidado, the SGF – the first two he invited to the Villa upon realising that his boss had died – made sure that Abacha was replaced without rancour.
The choices of head of state before the top military brass that had fully assembled in the Villa by noon of June 9 were three: Lt-General Jerry Husseini, the most senior military officer, minister of the Federal Capital Territory and by common consent, Abacha’s closest confidant; Lt-General Ishaya Bamaiyi, the most powerful service chief by virtue of being the army chief; and Lt-General Abubakar, number three in the military hierarchy as CDS. The second in command, Lt-General Diya, then cooling his heels in prison for a coup attempt, was obviously not in contention.
General Husseini reportedly showed some interest but Bamaiyi reportedly chose to respect military hierarchy and threw his weight behind the CDS. The rest, as they say, is history.
General Abubakar took charge with a one-item agenda; a quick, and hopefully, permanent exist of the military from politics. By then the soldiers had been in government for about 15 years after their second intervention in the country’s politics and they had proved themselves no better managers of the country than the civilians they had overthrown in 1983. One of his first announcements was that the military will remain in power for all of only eleven months, the shortest transition to civilian rule in the country.
The general’s greatest achievement was that, for the first time since the military first usurped our politics in 1966, a head of state honoured his word on handing over power to civilians without hesitation; on May 29, 1999, exactly eleven months to the day he came to power, he handed it over to an elected General Olusegun Obasanjo.
Before him General Yakubu Gowon had changed his mind in 1974 about handing back power to civilians in 1976. After Gowon there is evidence to show that General Olusegun Obasanjo, who had succeeded General Murtala Mohammed, assassinated in a coup attempt barely six months after he had overthrown Gowon, was not exactly keen to go by the 1979 date his regime had promised. However, hedged in by a three-some of Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’adua, his chief of staff, Lt-General T.Y. Danjuma, his army chief, and Inspector-General of Police M.D. Yusuf, all of whom were determined to return the military to the barracks after 13 years in politics since it overthrew the First Republic in 1966, the man had no choice but to leave on October 1, 1979.
Major-General Muhammadu Buhari who overthrew the Second Republic on December 31, 1983, was widely accused of having no transition program at all before he was in turn overthrown by his army chief, Babangida. Babangida, on his part, stood accused of bad faith in implementing his eight-year old transition program, the longest, bar Gowon’s, in the country’s history. Abacha, the next military ruler, was on the verge of successfully shedding his khaki for a mufti when he died.
If the General Abubakar kept his word about getting the military out of our politics, it was not because there were no attempts within and outside the institution to convince him that his transition program was too hasty. If nothing else, there were leading kinsmen of Obasanjo who tried to convince the general that if Obasanjo was the only Yoruba his government had in my as possibly the next civilian leader, they were prepared to support him to extend his stay until a more agreeable Yoruba was identified.
Abubakar not only eventually kept his word in spite of pressures not to, his first acts in office included freeing all those Abacha jailed for coup attempts in 1995 and 1997, and inviting all those in self-exile to return home unconditionally. It was also on record that even though the man got as bad a press as any military head of state – hardly a week passed when one newspaper or the other did not accuse him of looting the treasury, of grabbing oil wells for himself and his friends and of generally ruining the economy – not one reporter was ever harassed let alone jailed.
It was therefore one of those ironies of life that of all our military heads of state, he was the one that got dragged to a Chicago District Court in America in 2007 for abuse of human rights. Those who sued him were the late Chief Anthony Enahoro, Dr Arthur Nwankwo and Hafsat Abiola, for detention and exiling of opposition elements and even for the murder of Hajiya Kudirat Abiola, wife of Chief M.K.O. Abiola, the presumed winner of the !993 presidential elections annulled by the military. This was even though Kudirat had been killed long before Abubakar came to power.
If Abubakar’s word eventually and admirably proved to be his honour and if his human rights record was also respectable in spite of the fact that Chief Abiola died in detention mysteriously under his watch, the same thing could, alas, not be said of his personal integrity; since he left office 13 years ago this has been tainted by allegations that, like Abacha before him and Obasanjo after him, he had been implicated in the global Halliburton scandal. A couple of companies he is associated with have also been named, fairly or otherwise, in other financial scandals.
These, however, do not seem to have dimmed his standing as a much sought after broker of peace in international conflicts by the United Nations, the African Union and ECOWAS, thanks, no doubt to the fact that he was a man apparently destined by fate to get the military out of the politics of the most populous black and African nation for good.
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