The author, a retired general of the Nigerian Army, was president of Nigeria from 1976 until 1979, when he handed over power to the winner of a national election, the only Nigerian military leader to have done so. Arrested and imprisoned by General Sani Abacha in 1995, he was recently released from prison following General Abacha’s death this June.
For over four and a half years—from November 17, 1993, to June 8, 1998—Nigeria, which had been under military rule since the end of 1983, was reduced to a police state: a big prison with gallows, where intimidation, assassination, and deprivation were the instruments of misgovernance of the state by General Sani Abacha, a sadistic, apparently mentally deranged, corrupt, incompetent, arrogant, and ruthless military dictator. The question on almost everybody’s lips was:Why? What went wrong in a country of well over one hundred million people which used to take pride in its large educated and cultured population?
The answer lies in the gradual but steady erosion of moral and ethical standards that took place during the earlier military administration of General Ibrahim Babangida, who carried out a military coup at the end of 1984 and ruled between 1985 and 1993. It was at this time that, facing the gun, civilian political leaders acquiesced and abandoned their responsibility.
Some adopted the attitude of “sit down and look on.” Others joined in the pillaging of the country by seeking patronage, recognition, and easy money from the ruling military cabal. As a result, the economy was shattered during the 1980s. Whether you were a politician, a businessman, an intellectual, or a retired military man, the seemingly easy avenue for personal economic gain was to accept a job from the military or to seek favor from or support by the military. Some academics abandoned their lecture rooms or research laboratories where they could only make a pittance; they accepted the cozy, cushy embrace of a corrupt, deceitful, and unscrupulous military administration.
Previously independent and respected intellectuals became mouthpieces and apologists for the military; they made excuses for General Babangida and his fellow military leaders, and helped them deceive and confuse the people. Respected social critics accepted money from the government and became compromised. To take an independent stand became an exception and an extremely risky one. Many outspoken critics of the government were assassinated. Dele Giwa, the founding editor of the weekly Newswatch, was killed by a letter bomb in 1986.
The Nigerian military men, who once could claim to be officers and gentlemen, became men of double-talk, unkept promises, and devious actions and behavior inimical to public order and proper military conduct. But what was most deplorable was that with the pillaging of the society and the destruction of moral and ethical standards, those who might have been expected to try to sustain such standards—the by-now bought-up, co-opted, and corrupted members of civil society:politicians, intellectuals, journalists, business people—made excuses. They became defenders of a military administration …