Fifty years ago this week—on the fifteenth of January, 1966, to be precise— some mid-ranking officers rebelled against the military high command as well as the civilian authorities. Nigeria would never be the same again. Although the mutiny was swiftly put down, the damage had already been done. Shocked and demoralized by the extremely bloody nature of the uprising, the rump of the civilian administration quickly capitulated and handed over power to the military authorities that had quelled the rebellion.
On this transfer of power, there has been much controversy. Like all things Nigerian, the “truth” depends on which side you belong and through what prism one views the development. Suffice it to say that given the decapitation of civil order and the emergent power configuration, it could not have been otherwise. The political class was simply too demoralized, too disunited and too disoriented to weather the storm.
Fifty years on, it is a measure of the total dominance of the Nigerian political landscape by the military and the centrality of official arms to the fortunes of Nigeria that well into the Fourth Republic, two of the four presidents the country has had are retired generals and former military rulers. Military personnel have ruled Nigeria for the longest spell, 1966-1979 and 1983 till 1999— that is discounting the hybrid holding device of Ernest Shonekan which lasted for three months while the military reassembled its scrambled wits.
In the light of this, does it still make sense to regard military rule as an aberration or as an organic and integral part of a phase of national development and the evolution of the post-colonial state in African nations willed into existence by colonial force of arms? Could this be a case of their colonial fathers haven eaten sour grapes, their children’s teeth being set at the edge?
Nigeria was conjured into existence by imperialist fiat and the military will of an intrepid and enterprising colonial adventurer, Fredrick Lugard, who had already seen stirring action in East Africa and Hong Kong at the behest of her Imperial Majesty. Only few African nations so fashioned into existence have so far managed to survive the threat or actuality of military take over.
Given their structural misalignment at birth and the chaotic ethnic mix, the centrality of arms and the harshly centralizing imperative of all empires have been the dominant strand in the narrative of modern African nations. The empire manifesto is crisp and clear: It is better to have injustice than to have disorder. Let the new nations congeal and cohere around a master-nationality that has the organizing discipline and the military valour to whip the others into line and let them get on with it.
This is the way and will of empire and the greatest agglomeration of humanity that civilization has thrown up, not some wishy-washy sentiments about political self-determination and economic determinism: Greek, Roman, Islamic-Sunni, Ottoman Turks and latterly Russia, England, French and American. Disorderly and disorganized people are forcibly incorporated and harshly suppressed. As far this worldview is concerned, the threat to human evolution is not racial or ethnic injustice but disorder and chaos.
In the event and given the turbulent ethnic, religious, cultural and regional configuration of Nigeria, something was bound to give eventually. Before the attempted putsch of January, 15, 1966, there were already murmurs and rumours of an impending collision of altars. In 1962, the opposition Action Group was accused of plotting to take over the federal administration by force of arms. Its leadership was promptly impounded and incarcerated.
During the brief constitutional crisis of 1964 following a badly rigged federal election, it was rumoured that a group of military officers had approached Zik to canvas for a military solution to the constitutional impasse. The federally engineered take- over of the western region during the infamous “weti e” uprising would be viewed by many as a prelude and precursor to a constitutional coup and a forcible suppression of the entire region. As the old west erupted in flames, rumours of an impending preemptive putsch by the federal authorities or a strike by dissident officers filled the airwaves.
When the real thing finally arrived in the dead of the night fifty years ago, it was to shed much blood without shedding any light on the crippling ailment. Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, the de facto leader of the coup who announced the take over from the regional capital of Kaduna, was a charismatic and ascetic officer with considerable following but without any talent or appetite for political or ideological mobilization.
Not for him, a clear-headed analysis of Nigeria’s problems and national contradictions beyond a coup day hectoring and fierce denunciations. Not for him, a studious and painstaking attention to details; a rigorous strategic plan of action such as we had seen with Nasser’s Free Officers Movement and the youthful conspirators of Colonel Moammar Ghaddafi or the radical Dergue of Major Haile Mariame Mengistu.
If the troubled but disjointed and incoherent manuscript that survived Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, the putative leader of the mutiny, was anything to go by, it was clear that rather than coming to redeem Nigeria, the plotters were motivated by pure anger and incandescent rage against the system and the need for a bloody settling of accounts. It was a typical Nigerian mess and a very bloodthirsty one at that.
The attempted coup was doomed and its fate sealed by the blatantly selective pattern of killing, the lopsided nature of the casualties and its sloppy disdain for the nation’s ethnic sensitivities. A return match appeared inevitable and it came in July 1966 in the guise of an even more savage reprisal coup. Nigeria had lost its political innocence forever. By July the following year, the nation was already roiling in a civil war which was to cost at least a million casualties and a still unresolved tension among the nation’s major ethnic nationalities.
More than a century after amalgamation, almost sixty years after independence and fifty years after the first coup, Nigeria is still battling with the founding demons of a multi-ethnic nation and centrifugal forces still threatening to tear it apart. If anything, the current agitations for a separatist Biafran state forty six years after the end of a costly civil war, no matter the real motive, is a troubling reminder of our failure at elite consensus and national integration. So is the fact that we have a government headed by a retired general battling to fix the nation and instill institutional sanity after a virtual systemic collapse.
It is indeed a reflection of the enormity of the crisis and a measure of our failure as a functioning nation that half a century after Nzeogwu famously denounced ten-percenters, Nigeria is currently battling 100-percenters who have taken the national exchequer to the cleaners. Perhaps for the first time in its history, the country is statutorily broke to the bargain.
In the light of all this, it is tempting to see the past fifty years and military intervention as a sheer waste of everybody’s time and a depressing epoch in a nation’s history. But this verdict does grievous injury to the long term perspective of history or what the French call la longue duree, a situation in which hopeless contradictions take time to work themselves out in the ceaseless march of history.
It is an engrossing historical irony but by keeping Nigerian one at all costs, the army has actually fulfilled its historical destiny which is in tandem with the founding colonial imaginary and a seeming justification of the centrality of arms in the fortunes of a turbulent conglomeration. But fifty years later as the nation is still held in the vice grip of a unitarist and harshly centralizing system, what lessons can we take from the turbulent past that can serve us as a guide and pathfinder to the immediate future?
For starters, while we are still busy killing and maiming each other, the empire model from which the colonial nation derives its organizing principles and dominant ruling motif has reached the utter limits of its political and historical possibilities in human evolution. The epoch of the nation as empire is fast receding into historical antiquity. In the last five hundred years or so, certain nations have acted as virtual empires, just as African colonial nations served as internally colonizing sub-empires in the context of multiple nationalities.
While it lasted, the modern empire paradigm did some good by forcibly incorporating disparate and different people and nationalities under the rubric of global capitalism. This was the iron law of globalization in the epoch of the capitalist restructuring of the international order beginning with the internationalization of the phenomenon of slavery and the subsequent economic enslavement of the Third World.
The collapse of actually existing socialist nations and the transformation of the global pecking order from a spatial category to a seemingly random and arbitrary congeries of leading nations are the mere working out of the finer details of the new logic of human development. With the unraveling of the Second World, there is no middle ground again. The Third World has invaded the First World while the First World has discovered new habitats in the old Third World.
Such has been the stupendous success of this finessing of the capitalist means and modes of production, the explosion of human developmental possibilities and capacity building and the sheer scale of new avenues of turning knowledge into wealth that the modern state has been forced to loosen its grip on the modern society. Nowadays, different sections of the same nation may look like totally different mini-nations virtually decoupled in texture and tempo.
This is the collective genius of a people at work, unlike statist imposed monolithic development which slams arbitrary “national” projects on constituting units without bothering about the internal configuration of the components. Without losing its proactive potency, the modern state has become a benign overseer.-
It is the rise of the multi-sectoral nation with the US, Canada, Australia, China/Hong Kong, UAE/Dubai as glittering exemplars. Except in Great Britain and Spain where ancestral feuds and old ethnic fault lines subsist, no one ever talks of the forcible split of these nations. The talk is of harnessing the individual strengths, energies and genius of the different components for the greater good of the nation.
With the passing of the nation as empire model and the forcible incorporation of the entire human civilization within the ambit of modern capitalism, it is no longer fashionable or even economically desirable to keep different nationalities together by force of arms. What works better is the appeal to human rationality and the superior economic argument stressing the advantage of hanging together.
Unfortunately without having consolidated the nation-state paradigm, most African nations are beginning to look like Rip van Winkles in the comity of modern nations with only industrial bloodshed and perpetual strife to show for their pains. The modern template is already there and it points at an increasing devolution of power and responsibility from the stifling and suffocating centre. There is no point in reinventing the wheel.
Let us restate this conundrum is baldly as possible. Those who created Nigeria the way it is have since moved on to higher glory. It is left to Nigerians to recreate their country the way it ought to be and for the maximum emancipation of the Black race. With the virtual abolition of time and space, with the advent of the virtual global trading of the internet revolution, there is no further need for huge mass markets and retailing outlets of Africa in their national actuality and raw physicality.
Africa’s most populous nation is in the fortuitous position to take the lead. While we must applaud the current heroic efforts in dealing with looters and instilling institutional sanity in the system, it will all amount to little if President Buhari does not take another look at the structural configuration of the nation with a view to liberating the diverse strengths, energies and genius of the people.
We commiserate with all those who have lost their loved one at the shrine of the nation in the last fifty years. But if we do not do the needful and urgently too, the historic wager is that we may spend the next fifty years still killing and maiming each other with nobody caring a hoot except western societies that will be bothered by the impact of the Biblical hordes of refugees trying to reach salvation in the new Noah’s Ark of humanity.