To become president of Nigeria, or its dictator or supreme commander, or any such fancy title, it seems all one has to do is to not want to become any of these things. In most cases, anyway. If you don’t believe me, just look at the list of all those who have ruled this country.
It started way back in 1959 when the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) won the elections to set up Nigeria’s Independence government. The Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, as the leader of the NPC, devolved his mandate to be prime minister to his deputy, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, preferring instead to retain his position as the Premier of the Northern Region. Ironically, when the coup happened in January 1966, neither Balewa nor Bello were spared, unfortunately.
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That paved the way for General Thomas Ironsi and his crocodile-head swagger stick to stroll onto the stage. Ironsi was not trained to head a country, but an army. Escaping the coup plotter’s attempt on his life, if his accounts are to be believed and flipping the coin on the five majors, he gathered the surviving politicians and demanded they handed over the government to him. He then assumed the grand, if somewhat ludicrous, title of “Supreme Commander.”
Weird thing was that six months later, when Ironsi himself was overthrown, kidnapped and assassinated, he was replaced by another officer who didn’t aspire to head the government. The July incident wasn’t even supposed to be a coup, it was, as all the officers involved, including General TY Danjuma, have said, a “revenge” for the January coup and assassinations.
The plan was to avenge the killing of northern officers in the January coup, break up the country and exit North. Over the course of the day, however, plans changed and the revenge brigade was confronted with the option of having to save a country they did not want just hours before.
This job fell on the lap of Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon, at 31, unmarried, unprepared for the responsibility that the brutal killings of his superiors and the mutiny of his peers have entrusted to him.
How did that fare? Well, among other things, within a year of his ascension and mostly through no fault of his, Nigeria suffered what John de St. Jorre described as “The Brothers’ War.” (which also happens to be the title of his brilliant book on the Nigeria-Biafra war).
Gowon survived the civil war, survived nine years in office in one go, longer than anyone else in the history of the country. It would take Obasanjo a stint as head of state and two terms as president to surpass that record.
One person who would have succeeded Ironsi on July 29 was Murtala Mohammed, the Kano-born hothead who led the mutiny that night. When he was prevailed upon not to break up the country, he was for a short period considered the “Supreme Commander” before it was thought prudent to appoint Gowon whose position as the most senior surviving northern officer who conveniently happens to be Christian, non-Hausa, non-Fulani, made him an ideal choice to hold together a country fracturing on regional lines.
Gen. Mohammed will have his chance in 1975 when some soldiers overthrew Gowon and “invited” him to head the government. It didn’t last long because seven months after, he was shot dead in Lagos and quickly was branded one of the most upright leaders Nigeria ever had. It might have been true, it might also have been a product of his short time in power and the halo death cast on the departed.
On that Friday morning of February 13, 1976, when General Olusegun Obasanjo woke up, he did so contented in his role as the Number 2 man in the country. A position he seemed satisfied to hold until 1979 when the administration he served promised to run its course. He went to bed that night as the new head honcho.
For one, after escaping an attempt on his life that day, Obasanjo during the council meeting after Murtala’s assassination announced his intentions to resign. He was prevailed upon and became yet another reluctant driver of the Nigerian vehicle.
And then, there was Shagari. The gentleman politician, a former teacher and former minister. The understanding was that in 1979, he was content to run for the Senate until he was convinced to run for president against Awolowo and Azikiwe, two men who have wanted to be president all their lives. Shagari won. As for the two others, none of them ever got the plum job.
General Muhammadu Buhari would have us believe that he was content manning his post in rocky Jos as the GOC of 3 Div when some officers staged a coup and “invited” him to be Head of State in 1983.
So would IBB, who, as head of the army and a serial coup plotter, said he was minding his business when some of his boys overthrew his friend, Buhari, in 1985 and “invited” him to lead the country. Of course, considering his antecedent one would argue that he had wanted to be “President” all along.
The same certainly cannot be said of his replacement. Poor Ernest Shonekan was neither soldier nor politician. The lawyer was plucked right from the corporate world to head the government at the expense of business mogul MKO Abiola, who had always nursed presidential ambitions, bankrolled Shagari’s NPN in the hopes of eventually replacing Shagari in ‘87, and then bankrolling IBB’s overthrow of Buhari in the hopes of replacing the general called Maradona. Abiola even won popular votes in 1993 but IBB, or forces beyond his control, as he would have us believe, shut down that transition and brought in Shonekan to douse the fire they had started.
But in the power game, Shonekan was a paperweight and lasted only three months before the whiny voice of General Sani Abacha, the unofficial official voice of coup broadcast in Nigeria, came on air to announce that the Interim National Government, the National Assembly, the two political parties and anything reeking of democracy were “hereby dissolved.” Talk about extreme cancel culture before cancel culture became a thing.
Not many people even knew what General Abdulsalam Abubakar looked like before he came to power following Abacha’s sudden death in 1998. As a matter of fact, Gen. Abubakar had quietly, unremarkably, climbed the ranks in the army until he was the next most senior officer behind Abacha. He was reportedly about to be retired the following week before Abacha upped and died.
Nine months later, Obasanjo 2.0 happened. The man had no designs to be president but some people thought the Mandela story, from prisoner to president, was too good to be left to the South Africans so Nigeria had to cook up her own version. They dusted up Obasanjo and ushered him to power. He loved his two terms so much, he tried to arm-twist the country into a third term. He would learn then that even in Nigeria, bribes can’t buy you everything.
So, he looked for a replacement and settled on Umaru Yar’adua, who was finishing his second term as governor in Katsina and was planning on returning to his university teaching position.
Yar’adua’s death paved way for Goodluck Jonathan, a man who never actually ran for any elections on his own and who even when Yar’adua was bedridden was reluctant to seize power.
The person who actually wanted power, craved it, chased it relentlessly for years was Buhari. Again. He got it again in 2015 and as Nigerians would say, “How market?”
So perhaps all those jostling for 2023 need to look at all these and calm down a bit. Perhaps Nigeria will happen to them as it has to our leaders past.