From December 31, 1983 to August 27, 1985 when Major-General Muhammadu Buhari was the Head of State and Nigeria’s seventh Commander-in-Chief, was he “too rigid and uncompromising in his attitudes to issues of national significance” as alleged by Major-General Ibrahim Babangida when he overthrew the former in a bloodless coup? Was Buhari’s deputy, Major-General Tunde Idiagbon, “similarly inclined in that respect, failing to exhibit the appropriate disposition demanded by his position and arrogating to himself absolute knowledge of problems and solutions”? Today is the 35th anniversary of the coup. GABRIEL AKINADEWO writes on Buhari’s ‘innocent’ mistakes and 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 tour of army formations in the country.
Babangida was not asking for too much as those formations were under his office. The Chief of Army Staff also told the Commander-in-Chief the need to boost the morale of officers and upgrade the infrastructural facilities in the various divisions, brigades and barracks.
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 challenge was that Buhari was not the type of officer crazy about office and power. 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 he 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, together 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’ in June, 1934.
Following his arrest by Hitler himself at the resort of Bad Wiessee on June 30, Röhm was held at Stadelheim Prison in Munich.
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 locked the entire Ministry of Defence and detained 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 loyal officers were being strategically 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 transferred to the office of Director of Military Intelligence 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 Akilu, his friend it 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. About 9 pm (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, 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 the arrest of Buhari, 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 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 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).
Interestingly, eight years later, Babangida stepped aside from office.
Why Buhari must go, by Babangida
Text of General Ibrahim Babangida’s coup speech
on August 27, 1985
When in December 1983, the former military leadership, headed by Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, assumed the reins of government, its accession was heralded in the history of this country. With the nation at the mercy of political misdirection and on the brink of economic collapse, a new sense of hope was created in the minds of every Nigerian.
Since January 1984, however, we have witnessed a systematic denigration of that hope. It was stated then that mismanagement of political leadership and a general deterioration in the standard of living, which had subjected the common man to intolerable suffering, were the reasons for the intervention. Nigerians have since then been under a regime that continued with those trends. Events today indicate that most of the reasons which justified the military takeover of government from the civilians still persist.
The initial objectives were betrayed and fundamental changes do not appear on the horizon. Because the present state of uncertainty, suppression and stagnation resulted from the perpetration of a small group, the Nigerian Armed Forces could not as a part of that government be unfairly committed to take responsibility for failure. Our dedication to the cause of ensuring that our nation remains a united entity worthy of respect and capable of functioning as a viable and credible part of the international community dictated the need to arrest the situation.
Let me at this point attempt to make you understand the premise upon which it became necessary to change the leadership. The principles of discussions, consultation and co-operation which should have guided decision-making process of the Supreme Military Council and the Federal Executive Council were disregarded soon after the government settled down in 1984. Where some of us thought it appropriate to give a little more time, anticipating a conducive atmosphere that would develop, in which affairs of state could be attended to with greater sense of responsibility, it became increasingly clear that such expectations could not be fulfilled.
Regrettably, it turned out that Major-General Muhammadu Buhari was too rigid and uncompromising in his attitudes to issues of national significance. Efforts to make him understand that a diverse polity like Nigeria required recognition and appreciation of differences in both cultural and individual perceptions, only served to aggravate these attitudes.
Major-General Tunde Idiagbon was similarly inclined in that respect. As Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, he failed to exhibit the appropriate disposition demanded by his position. He arrogated to himself absolute knowledge of problems and solutions, and acted in accordance with what was convenient to him, using the machinery of government as his tool.
A combination of these characteristics in the two most important persons holding the nation’s vital offices became impossible to contend with. The situation was made worse by a number of other government functionaries and organisations, chief among which is the Nigerian Security Organisation (NSO). In fact, this body will be overhauled and re-organised.
And so it came to be that the same government, which received the tumultuous welcome, now became alienated from the people. To prevent a complete erosion of our given mandate therefore, we had to act so that hope may be rebuilt.
Let me now address your attention to the major issues that confront us, so that we may, as one people, chart a future direction for our dear country. We do not pretend to have all the answers to the questions which our present problems have put before our nation. We have come with the strongest determination to create an atmosphere in which positive efforts shall be given the necessary support for lasting solutions.
For matters of the moment which require immediate resolutions, we intend to pursue a determined programme of action. Major issues falling into this category have been identified and decisions taken on what should be done.
Firstly, the issue of political detainees or convicts of special military tribunals. The history of our nation had never recorded the degree of indiscipline and corruption as in the period between October 1979 and December 1983.
While this government recognises the bitterness created by the irresponsible excesses of the politicians, we consider it unfortunate that methods of such nature as to cause more bitterness were applied to deal with past misdeeds. We must never allow ourselves to lose our sense of natural justice. The innocent cannot suffer the crimes of the guilty. The guilty should be punished only as a lesson for the future. In line with this government’s intention to uphold fundamental human rights, the issue of detainees will be looked into with despatch.
As we do not intend to lead a country where individuals are under the fear of expressing themselves, the Public Officers Protection Against False Accusation Decree 4 of 1984 is hereby repealed. And finally, those who have been in detention under this decree are hereby unconditionally released. The responsibility of the media to disseminate information shall be exercised without undue hindrance. In that process, those responsible are expected to be forthright and to have the nation’s interest as their primary consideration.
The issue of decrees has generated a lot of controversies. It is the intention of this government to review all other decrees.
The last 20 months have not witnessed any significant changes in the national economy. Contrary to expectations, we have so far been subjected to a steady deterioration in the general standard of living; and intolerable suffering by the ordinary Nigerians have risen higher, scarcity of commodities has increased, hospitals still remain mere consulting clinics, while educational institutions are on the brink of decay. Unemployment has stretched to critical dimensions.
Due to the stalemate, which arose in negotiation with the International Monetary Fund, the former government embarked on a series of counter-trade agreements. Under the counter-trade agreements, Nigerians were forced to buy goods and commodities at higher prices than obtained in the international market. The government intends to review the whole issue of counter-trade.
A lot has been said and heard about our position with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Although we formally applied to the fund in April 1983, no progress has as yet been made in the negotiation and a stalemate has existed for the last two years.
We shall break the deadlock that frustrated the negotiations with a view to evaluating more objectively both the negative and positive implications of reaching a mutual agreement with the Fund. At all times in the course of discussions, our representatives will be guided by the feelings and aspirations of the Nigerian people.
It is the view of this government that austerity without structural adjustment is not the solution to our economic predicament. The present situation whereby 44 per cent of our revenue earning is utilised to service debts is not realistic. To protect the danger this poses to the poor and the needy in our society, steps will be taken to ensure comprehensive strategy of economic reforms.
The crux of our economic problems has been identified to centre around four fundamental issues:
1. A decrease of our domestic production, while our population continues to increase.
2. Dependence on import for both consumer goods and raw materials for our industries.
3. A grossly unequal gap between the rich and the poor.
4. The large role played by the public sector in economic activity with hardly any concrete results to justify such a role.
These are the problems we must confront.
ON FOREIGN POLICY:
Nigeria’s foreign policy in the last 20 months has been characterised by inconsistency and incoherence. It has lacked the clarity to make us know where we stood on matters of international concern to enable other countries relate to us with seriousness. Our role as Africa’s spokesman has diminished because we have been unable to maintain the respect of African countries.
The ousted military government conducted our external relations by a policy of retaliatory reactions. Nigeria became a country that has reacted to given situations, rather than taking the initiative as it should and always been done. More so, vengeful considerations must not be the basis of our diplomacy. African problems and their solutions should constitute the premise of our foreign policy.
The realisation of the Organisation of African Unity of the Lagos Plan of Action for self-sufficiency and constructive co-operation in Africa shall be our primary pursuit.
The Economic Community of West African States must be reborn with the view to achieving the objective of regional integration. The problems of drought-stricken areas of Africa will be given more attention and sympathy, and our best efforts will be made to assist in their rehabilitation within the limits of our resources. Our membership of the United Nations Organisation will be made more practical and meaningful. The call for a new International Economic Order which lost its momentum in the face of the debt crisis will be made once again.
Nigeria hereby makes a renewed request to the Non-Aligned Movement to regroup and reinvigorate its determination to restructure the global economic system, while we appeal to the industrialized nations to positively consider the debt plight of the developing countries and assist in dealing with the dangers that face us. We shall remain members of the various multilateral institutions and inter-governmental organisations which we belong to and do what must be done to enhance the membership and participation within them.
Fellow Nigerians, this country has had since independence a history mixed with turbulence and fortune. We have witnessed our rise to greatness, followed with a decline to the state of a bewildered nation. Our human potentials have been neglected, our natural resources put to waste. A phenomenon of constant insecurity and overbearing uncertainty has become characteristic of our national existence.
My colleagues and I are determined to change the course of history. This government is determined to unite this country. We shall not allow anything to obstruct us. We recognise that a government, be it civilian or military, needs the consent of the people to govern if it is to reach its objective. We do not intend to rule by force. At the same time, we should not be expected to submit to unreasonable demands. Fundamental rights and civil liberties will be respected, but their exercise must not degenerate into irrational expression nor border on subversion.
The War Against Indiscipline will continue, but this time, in the minds and conduct of Nigerians, and not by way of symbolism or money-spending campaigns.
This government, on its part, will ensure that the leadership exhibits proper example. Criticisms of actions and decisions taken by us will be given necessary attention and where necessary changes made in accordance with what is expected of us.
Let me reiterate what we said in 1984: This generation of Nigerians and indeed future generations have no other country but Nigeria. We must all stay and salvage it together. This time, it shall be pursued with deeper commitment and genuine sincerity.
There is a lot of work to be done by every single Nigerian. Let us all dedicate ourselves to the cause of building a strong, united and viable nation for the sake of our own lives and the benefits of posterity.
Finally, I wish to commend the members of the Armed Forces and the Nigeria Police for their mature conduct during the change.
I thank you all for your co-operation and understanding.
God bless Nigeria.
Dogonyaro: Nigeria is drifting
Text of a broadcast by Colonel Joshua Nimyel Dogonyaro, announcing the removal of Buhari
I, Brigadier Joshua Nimyel Dogonyaro, of the Nigerian
Army, hereby make the following declaration on behalf
of my colleagues and members of the Nigerian Armed
Forces. Fellow country men, the intervention of the
military at the end of 1983 was welcomed by the nation
with unprecedented enthusiasm.
Nigerians were unified in accepting the intervention
and looked forward hopefully to progressive changes
for the better. Almost two years later, it has become
clear that the fulfillment of expectations is not
forthcoming. Because this generation of Nigerians and
indeed future generations have no other country but
Nigeria, we could not stay passive and watch a small
group of individuals misuse power to the detriment of
our national aspirations and interest.
No nation can ever achieve meaningful strides in its
development where there is an absence of cohesion in
the hierarchy of government; where it has become clear
that positive action by the policy makers is hindered
because as a body it lacks a unity of purpose.
It is evident that the nation would be endangered with
the risk of continuous misdirection. We are presently
confronted with that danger.
In such a situation, if action can be taken to arrest
further damage, it should and must be taken. This is
precisely what we have done.
The Nigerian public has been made to believe that the
slow pace of action of the Federal Government headed
by Major-General Muhammadu Buhari was due to the
enormity of the problems left by the last civilian
Although it is true that a lot of problems were left
behind by the last civilian government, the real
reason, however, for the very slow pace of action is
due to lack of unanimity of purpose among the ruling
body; subsequently, the business of governance has
gradually been subjected to ill-motivated power play
considerations. The ruling body, the Supreme Military
Council, has, therefore, progressively been made
redundant by the actions of a select few members
charged with the day-to-day implementation of the
SMC’s policies and decision. The concept of
collective leadership has been substituted by stubborn
and ill-advised unilateral actions, thereby destroying
the principles upon which the government came to
power. Any effort made to advise the leadership, met
with stubborn resistance and was viewed as a challenge
to authority or disloyalty. Thus, the scene was being
set for systematic elimination of what, was termed
All the energies of the rulership were directed at
this imaginary opposition rather than to effective
leadership. The result of this misdirected effort is
now very evident in the country as a whole.
The government has started to drift. The economy does
not seem to be getting any better as we witness daily
increased inflation. The nation’s meager resources
are once again being wasted on unproductive ventures.
Government has distanced itself from the people and
the yearnings and aspirations of the people as
constantly reflected in the media have been ignored.
This is because a few people have arrogated to
themselves the right to make the decisions for the
larger part of the ruling body.
All these events have shown that the present
composition of our country’s leadership cannot,
therefore, justify its continued occupation of that
Furthermore, the initial objectives and programmes of
action which were meant to have been implemented since
the ascension to power of the Buhari Administration in
January 1984 have been betrayed and discarded.
The present state of uncertainty and stagnation cannot
be permitted to degenerate into suppression and
retrogression. We feel duty bound to use the
resources and means at our disposal to restore hope in
the minds of Nigerians and renew aspirations for a
We are no prophets of doom for our beloved country,
Nigeria. We, therefore, count on everyone’s
cooperation and assistance. I appeal to you, fellow
countrymen, particularly my colleagues in arms to
refrain from any act that will lead to unnecessary
violence and bloodshed among us. Rest assured that
our action is in the interest of the nation and the
In order to enable a new order to be introduced, the
following bodies are dissolved forthwith pending
further announcements: (a) The Supreme Military
Council (b) The Federal Executive Council (c) The
National Council of States.
All seaports and airports are closed, all borders
remain closed. Finally, a dusk to dawn curfew is
hereby imposed in Lagos and all state capitals until
further notice. All military commanders will ensure
effective maintenance of law and order. Further
announcements will be made in due course.
God bless Nigeria.