|Ironsi (middle), Major Hassan Usman Katsina (first left), Fajuyi, Lt. Col Odumegwu Ojukwu and Lt. Col David Ejoor|
Military intervention in Nigeria’s politics as well as the overthrow of federalism and enthronement of unitary system of governance not only arrested Nigeria’s progress, that traumatic experience 50 years ago continues to haunt the nation’s life and threatens her future growth. Therefore, even after 17 years of unbroken civilian rule, Nigeria is yet to find its feet as a federation as vestiges of militarism still hold the country to ransome.
This being the 50th anniversary of military assault on Nigeria’s political soul, now is the time to look at the road the country has travelled and return it to the path of progress through a proper and sound federal structure.
Nigeria obtained independence on October 1, 1960, republican status on October 1, 1963 and thrived on the principle of federalism. Regionalism took root and prospered with four federating units developing in accordance with their endowments. They were not polluted then by the advent of oil and gas resources as they depended on deposits in their domains. But trouble began on January 15, 1966 when a group of young army officers led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu struck and killed so many political leaders of the regions but failed to take over state power. And then Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an officer of eastern extraction, took over from the putschists. General Aguiyi-Ironsi who emerged head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces then began, in military style , the demolition of the federal structure when he promulgated Decree No.34 of 1966, which enthroned a unitary system of government to be administered from the centre, then, Lagos.
The January 15, 1966 then gave birth to a more devastating counter-coup on July 29, staged by aggrieved officers of northern origin who killed General Aguiyi-Ironsi and his host, then Governor of Western Region, Lt. Col Adekunle Fajuyi in Ibadan, where he, Ironsi had gone to attend a traditional rulers’ meeting on the crisis of the new military government. That coup brought Lt. Col Yakubu Gowon to power, who partly did away with the unification decree and quickly created 12 states out of the four regions but all controlled still from the centre.
This is the origin of Nigeria’s crisis of federalism. Five decades on, Nigerians are still battling with the devastating effects of that adventure. Justice, equity and prosperity have been sacrificed on the altar of untarism or a false federalism. Today, the nation is still deafened by the clamour for the real thing.
It is, therefore, intriguing that this year, on the anniversary of the death of regional autonomy and true federalism, a retired military officer who had also served as military head of state, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd), is the democratically elected leader of Nigeria. And it should be hardly not surprising that he remains opposed to even any discussion of the spectre of federalism annulled 50 years ago by his colleagues in uniform. So, for those who hold that Nigeria has been dealt a bad hand by the military, Buhari’s disposition to federalism today is evidence that not only is the same military temperament still in power, there may be no respite in the offing.
What a disaster the Nigeria’s military’s adventure into politics was and remains for Nigeria can also be seen in the game of the successive officers who seized political power at whim, using false, ego-driven and sometimes unpatriotic considerations. The other day, President Buhari, who was military Head of State recalled that his successor, General Ibrahim Babangida, toppled him because there was ongoing investigation with a view to sacking, another officer Aliyu Gusau who was Babangida’s friend for alleged corruption. Babangida has denied this, but the world now knows that Nigeria, the largest black nation on earth was nothing more than a toy in the hands of military officers in that era.
Military politicians in power from January 15, 1966 until 1999 destroyed Nigeria’s economy, ruined the currency, desecrated the civil service which was the best on the continent then and killed education, which was one of the world’s best. They ruined a culture of honesty and institutionalised corruption that has become public enemy number one today. What is more, they even destroyed their own institution, the military, which at some point became one of the most operationally inefficient and corrupt on the continent.
It is now very important for Nigerians to remember that the most significant assignment for President Muhammadu Buhari and the ruling party that brought him to power is to recover those lost years by strengthening democracy and by restoring federalism.
That is the only path to redemption for Nigeria. It is the only way to peace, progress, unity and prosperity.