Today is the 31th anniversary of the coup which ousted Major-General Muhammadu Buhari and brought General Ibrahim Babangida to power. GABRIEL AKINADEWO writes on the mistakes of Buhari and the survival strategies of his successor.
After one of the meetings of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) in early July 1985, the then Chief of Army Staff, Major-General Ibrahim Babangida, told the Head of State, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, that it would be necessary for him to embark on a tour of army formations in the country.
Babangida was not asking for too much as those formations were under his office. Babangida also told the Commander-in-Chief the need to boost the morale of officers and upgrade infrastructural facilities in the various divisions, brigades and barracks.
After a few minutes, the request was granted by Buhari. When Babangida left, Buhari thought about what some officers told him a few weeks earlier of an impending putsch. Although the details were vague, he was told that Babangida was part of the plot to remove him from office. But the problem was that Buhari was not the type of officer who was ‘crazy’ about office. Again, before he made any move, Buhari would demand for a cast-iron evidence. So, when Babangida came, telling him the need to make the army boys happy, he dismissed the earlier thought.
What he did not know was that Babangida was only using the tour as a decoy to perfect the final strategy for the plot which after its success on August 27, 1985 was hailed as a ‘palace coup.’
It was no accident of history that Babangida became head of state 10 days after his 44th birthday.
To observers, he had, for years, planned to become the most powerful Nigerian. He was only waiting for the right time and when the chance came, he grabbed it immediately.
During the December 31, 1983 coup which ousted Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Buhari was the General Officer Commanding (GOC), 3rd Armoured Division, Jos.
Babangida was the Director, Army Staff Duties and Plans.
Although Babangida was older, Buhari was senior in hierarchy and he commanded troops.
So, it was generally agreed that Buhari should lead the new regime but the moment Babangida was made the Chief of Army Staff, he put machinery in motion which paid off 20 months later.
Three factors contributed to the success of the coup. The first was that the then Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Major-General Mamman Vatsa, did not really push Buhari enough to move against Babangida.
Vatsa was closer to Babangida than Buhari because they were course and soul mates. And most of the officers used for the August 27 coup, especially the General Officer Commanding (GOC), 2nd Mechanised Division, Ibadan, Major-General Sani Abacha, were also close to Vatsa.
Vatsa knew that the plot was thick and he tried to warn Buhari but Buhari’s attitude weakened him.
When Vatsa also told the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Major-General Tunde Idiagbon, of the plot, Idiagbon merely replied: ‘Let them try’.
When the Babangida group knew about this, the rumour came out that Vatsa was ambitious to become the Chief of Army Staff and that was why he wanted to discredit Babangida.
With that, Vatsa ‘soft-pedalled’ and that gave Babangida the advantage he needed.
Also, since Buhari became the Head of State, he did not promote himself till he was removed. A disciplinarian, he believed that the rot left by the civilian administration must be cleared first. He thought first about the country before himself.
Believing that Babangida was loyal to him, he left the army completely under his care.
That was why he was easily overwhelmed.
When any report came to him, his belief was that the evidence must be strong before any move was made. That was why it took months for him to retire Lt.Col Mohammed Aliyu Gusau because he was waiting for evidence indicting him in the import licence scam, an evidence which was eventually supplied by the Nigerian Security Organisation (NSO) led by Alhaji Rabiu Rafindadi.
With the retirement of Gusau, Babangida, his closest ally, felt threatened and moved swiftly to actualise the plot against Buhari.
In other climes, half of the evidence gathered was enough to nail Babangida.
In Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Hitler was told about the impending move against him by General Ernst Rohm. Röhm was Hitler’s long-time, right-hand man. They were arrested and imprisoned, with others, after the Beer Hall Putsch fiasco in 1923.
Rohm also worked for the emergence of Hitler in 1933 as the Fuhrer. But the moment Hitler learnt that Rohm was plotting against him, he decided, alongside Heinrich Himmler and Herman Goring, that Rohm must be sacrificed.
Rohm was executed without trial during the purge of the SA – the so-called ‘Night of the Long Knives.’ which started in June, 1934.
Following his arrest by Hitler himself at the resort of Bad Wiessee on June 30, Röhm was held briefly at Stadelheim Prison in Munich.
There, on July 2, he was visited by SS-Brigadeführer Theodor Eicke (then the Kommandant of Dachau) and SS-Sturmbannführer Michael Lippert.
Lippert, on Hitler’s order, shot Röhm at point-blank range after he refused to commit suicide with a pistol given to him.
Also in Ethiopia, the plot against General Mariam Mengistu failed because he moved fast.
Mengistu, who was in East Germany, returned to crush the rebellion.
He ordered the Presidential Guard, supported by militia units, to surround the Ministry of Defence, isolating the key plotters.
He detained the entire Ministry of Defence as well as the Commanders of the four Ethiopian Armies; grounded the Ethiopian Air Force and summarily executed hundreds of officers.
The Commander of the 2nd Army, General Demissie Bultu, was beheaded.
So, the procrastination of Buhari led to the success of the coup against him.
The third success factor was that Babangida planted key loyalists in strategic units of the military, a move Buhari was not aware of.
As Head of State, Buhari’s isolation from the military was given a high priority by the Babangida group.
It began almost as soon as he came to power in 1984. While he was fixated on purely political and national issues with religious fervour, he did not notice that specific officers were being quietly placed in specific operational positions to lay in wait like ‘sleepers’ until they would be called upon to strike by the very service chiefs he had placed his trust in to run the armed forces on his behalf.
Lt. Col. Halilu Akilu, a Grade 1 Staff Officer in the Directorate, was smuggled into the office of Director of Military Intelligence (DMI) while Lt. Col. M.C. Alli went to Britain and the United States for an official engagement.
Alli deputised for Col. Aliyu Mohammed who had left for a course at the Royal College of Defence Studies after assisting to overthrow Shagari.
Akilu was Babangida’s ‘main-man’ in the intelligence community, a counterweight to Alhaji Muhammadu Lawal Rafindadi, Buhari’s loyal head of the NSO.
In the actual execution of the coup, Babangida also played a smart one. He chose the celebration of the Eid-el-Kabir, when he knew security would be relaxed and alertness not at the peak, to strike.
On August 26, Muslims headed for mosques for morning prayers on Sallah day at the Ikeja Cantonment, but there were strong indications that a change of government was imminent.
Buhari, the Commander, Brigade of Guards, Lt. Col. Sabo Aliyu and Buhari’s Aide-de-Camp (ADC), Major Mustapha Haruna Jokolo, tried to find out details to no avail.
Idiagbon had already travelled to Mecca, together with Vatsa and a few others.
Aliyu was reported to have asked his friend, Akilu, if it was true ‘some boys’ were planning to overthrow Buhari but Akilu told him there was ‘nothing to fear.’
Determined to know what was about to happen, Aliyu and Jokolo left the State House to find out happenings in the barracks. They were driving round Ikoyi, Victoria Island and Ikeja, seeking information and checking on the status of units, unaware that they were being monitored by Akilu’s men.
When it was about 9 pm and because the time for the actualisation of the operation was close, the order was given for their arrest at the Ikeja Cantonment gate.
Buhari tried to reach Abacha in Ibadan to no avail. He also told one of his aides to get in touch with Babangida in Minna.
All the efforts were fruitless.
It was then he realised that he had been outsmarted because Major-General Domkat Bali, the Chairman, Joint Chiefs, had no Army to command to counter the impending putsch.
At the designated and pre-arranged time, units in Lagos sped toward their objectives.
Officers and soldiers of 123rd battalion, 245 Recce battalion, 201 Armoured HQ battalion, the 6th battalion at Bonny Camp and the 93rd battalion at Ojo Cantonment were mobilised.
To prevent anti-riot policemen (MOPOL) from being used, even if it was going to be a fruitless exercise, the Lagos State Police Command headquarters at Ikeja was cordoned off.
Lt. Col John Shagaya, the commandant of the 9th Mechanised Brigade, Lt. Col. John Madaki, commanding officer, 123 Guards Battalion, Ikeja and Major Kefas Happy Bulus, acting commanding officer, 245 Recce Battalion, Ikeja played active role in this. Armoured Vehicles and storm troopers were detailed to move to the Radio House in Ikoyi and State House, Dodan Barracks.
Babangida gave the task of arresting Buhari to officers he trusted. When Majors Abubakar Umar Dangiwa, Lawan Gwadabe, Abdulmumuni Aminu and Sambo Dasuki arrived the State House, Buhari was waiting for them.
He was later whisked away after he was given the chance to dress in his official uniform.
After Buhari’s arrest, it was clear that the coup had become a success story.
Then, Colonel Joshua Nimyel Dogonyaro, Director of Manning (“A” Branch) and concurrent Director of the Department of Armour at the Army Headquarters, announced that the Buhari regime had been deposed.
Hours later, about 1 pm, the more familiar voice of Abacha, who was to become the Chief of Army Staff, announced the appointment of Babangida as the new Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
Babangida immediately took the title of ‘President’.
The position of Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters was eliminated.
Navy Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, then Flag Officer Commanding, Western Naval Command, was appointed to the new position of Chief of General Staff (CGS) at the General Staff headquarters.
The first thing Babangida did was to remove the control of service chiefs and GOCs from any direct relationship to any other officer.
They reported directly to the new Commander-in-Chief. Obviously, he didn’t want what happened to Buhari to repeat itself in his regime.
He scrapped the NSO and detained Rafindadi for close to three years.
Gusau was recalled from retirement, promoted Brigadier, and became National Security Coordinator, later GOC of the 2nd Division and Chief of Army Administration.
Akilu was promoted Colonel, retained directorship of the Military Intelligence and became a member of the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC), a new body set up by Babangida to replace the SMC.