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On 31 December 1983, Sani Abacha, then an unknown Brigadier in the Nigerian Army, went on radio to announce the overthrow of the elected civilian administration of President Shehu Shaga
ri, claiming that the military had done so “in the discharge of our national role as promoters and protectors of our national interest” because of “the great economic predicament and uncertainty, which an inept and corrupt leadership has imposed on our beloved nation.”
The following day, Nigerians learnt that the new military regime was to be led by Muhammadu Buhari, a wiry Major-General with a reputation for asceticism, serving as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Third Division of the Nigerian Army in Jos. Commissioned into the Nigerian Army in January 1963 following training at the Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot, England, Buhari was not just the senior-most among the officers involved in the Coup, he was also the most experienced. His contemporary and would-be nemesis, Ibrahim Babangida, who emerged as the Chief of Army Staff, was commissioned eight months later, in September, 1963.
Buhari served out his tour of duty in the Nigerian Civil War in the Third Marine Commando Division (3MCDO) under the command of Olusegun Obasanjo. Alani Akinrinade was Obasanjo’s second-in-command in the last twelve months of the war after Head of State, Yakubu Gowon tapped Obasanjo to replace Benjamin Adekunle as the GOC 3MCDO in 1968.
Five years after the Civil War, on the 9th anniversary of Gowon’s regime, Buhari was one of the officers who engineered his removal in a palace coup in July 1975. At the time, he headed the Transport Corps in the Nigerian Army. This was not exactly the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) of the Army but it gave a clue as to his duty schedule.
Following the coup, Buhari emerged as Military Governor of the North-Eastern State, with Maiduguri as his duty station. He was also a member of the Supreme Military Council (SMC). After the assassination of then Head of State, Murtala Mohammed, in February 1976, Olusegun Obasanjo moved up to become the Head of State and the position of second-in-command in the regime fell vacant. Buhari was one of the two candidates considered for the job.
On the recommendation of Theophilus Danjuma, a three-Star General and then the Army Chief of Staff, the job went to Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Buhari’s friend and fellow Daura native, whose political skills were considered more suitable for the demands of the position.
, Shehu’s dad, was Chairman of the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) and later Minister for Lagos Affairs after Independence. Shehu may have learnt in his political family, life and leadership skills that the ascetic Buhari lacked. In the re-shuffle that followed, Buhari emerged as Petroleum Minister. His last successor in the position of Military Governor in Maiduguri before the military handed over power to President Shagari in October 1979 was one Tunde Idiagbon, a Lieutenant-Colonel.
When he became military Head of State at the beginning of 1984, Buhari appointed Tunde Idiagbon as his second-in-command. Forceful and unsmiling, Idiagbon so became the public face of the era that it came to be called the
. He remains unique as the only Nigerian military ruler who did not promote himself to a four-star General.
As a government, the Buhari-Idiagbon regime knew what it stood against but could not say what it stood for. It arrived with indiscipline as a single-issue diagnosis for the Nigerian condition but was unprepared to question or understand the causes of this symptom. Its prescription was a War against Indiscipline (WAI). Everything radiated from this core. As part of WAI, the regime through the Miscellaneous Offences Decree (No. 20) of 1984, made drug trafficking punishable by death, backdating the sentence by eight months.
When they were arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking at the end of 1983, Bartholomew Owoh, Bernard Ogedengbe, and Lawal Ojuolape, were 26, 29, and 30 years old, respectively. They were subsequently arraigned for felonies but Buhari
triable by a tribunal chaired by a High Court Judge, the only civilian in a panel including four soldiers. In less than five minutes,
, Buhari had all three men executed by firing squad, their remains poured into a hole at the Atan Cemetery in Lagos.
The gratuitous savagery of the executions framed the regime in public imagination. When, four and a half months later, on 27 August, 1985, Joshua Dogonyaro, a Brigadier from the pioneer intake of the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA),
of “stubborn and ill-advised unilateral actions” whose tendency was to meet advice with resistance or to view it “as a challenge to authority or disloyalty”, no one shed a tear for him.
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