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Nigeria’s Arrested Development A History of Accidental Presidents

Did Nigeria start out on the right path and derail along the way? Or did Nigeria always lack progressive leadership from the get-go?

At independence in 1960, Nigeria had a workforce that was among the best-educated in Sub-Saharan Africa and the country had just discovered substantial deposits of crude oil. With vast human and mineral resources at its disposal, the young federation appeared poised to become a model for African infrastructural development and social progress.

It would not be an overstatement to argue that, 60 years after gaining independence from Britain, Nigeria has largely struggled to realize its potential. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s 2019 Human Development Index report released shows Nigeria on the low human development range of the human development index scale, ranking 20th when measured against other African countries.

While many are of the opinion that Nigeria started out on the right path politically and somehow derailed, there is a divergent school of thought suggesting that Nigeria always lacked progressive leadership from the get-go. Renowned humanitarian and political commentator, Archbishop Matthew Kukah, has long argued that Nigeria’s arrested development could largely be put down to a lack of visionary leadership, owing to a succession of ‘accidental presidents’ unprepared for the task ahead of them. According to Archbishop Kukah:

The reasons are many but they are not unrelated to the accidental processes by which all our former heads of state and presidents have come to power. The average newcomer to the presidency of Nigeria comes totally unprepared, with no knowledge of the environment itself, no experience in public life, no knowledge of the bureaucracy or those who run the system, no knowledge of politics and power derived from some years of loyal pupilage.

This assertion requires a critical cross-examination of Nigerian political history, with emphasis on the circumstances leading to the emergence of each one of Nigeria’s heads of government in the first 30 years post-independence.

Uneasy Dies the Head That Wears the Crown

Before the collapse of the First Republic (October 1960 – January 1966), Nigeria operated under a Westminster parliamentary system of government, with the deputy leader of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, emerging as the first prime minister. Arguably, the leadership of the young nation should have fallen to the influential Sardauna of Sokoto Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, by virtue of the fact that he was the leader of the party with a dominant majority. Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, instead, chose to become the Premier of the Northern Region while he ceded power at the centre to his most trusted lieutenant. Balewa would later be assassinated in a bloody coup in January 1966, led by Majors Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna and Ademoyega. The young and idealistic junior army officers decried the decline of the nation’s international reputation under the leadership of the civilian politicians in power, whom they described as ‘political profiteers, swindlers, tribalists and nepotists’. They intended to release elder statesman and Yoruba leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo (who was in prison under charges of sedition at the time) and install him as President.

By several strokes of fortune, the general officer commanding of the Nigerian Army, Major-General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi, (who was himself earmarked for execution) emerged from the ensuing chaos to become head of state. He was the first of Nigeria’s many inadvertent military leaders. On the night Prime Minister Balewa was killed, soldiers were also sent to eliminate Aguiyi-Ironsi at his residence, but he was out attending a party. He would narrowly avoid death on two other occasions while galvanizing his forces to quell the rebellion. He retained a reputation as a professional soldier with no interest whatsoever in politics. After the failed coup, the surviving Council of Ministers handed over administration of the country to the armed forces and a military government was formed with Aguiyi-Ironsi as its supreme commander.

Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi inherited a very unstable and volatile polity, one full of mistrust and suspicion owing to the bloody nature of the coup. His failure to deal decisively with the coup plotters gave credence to the earlier suspicions of an ‘Igbo coup’. His political naivety also led him to entrust the majority of his personal guard into the hands of northern soldiers, who were still aggrieved that the coup plotters had yet to stand trial for the assassination of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, Northern Premier Ahmadu Bello and a host of other military top brass from the North.

This lack of accountability for the coup plotters would eventually prove to be Aguiyi-Ironsi’s undoing. In July 1966, the time bomb exploded as groups of disgruntled soldiers went on a rampage for revenge, rounding up and killing their Igbo colleagues. The unrest spread outside the barracks and degenerated into a full-blown pogrom, as civilians of south-eastern origin were targeted and killed. The Supreme Commander was himself arrested by soldiers in his own entourage and led into the forest where he was tortured and eventually murdered.

In the aftermath of Aguiyi-Ironsi’s death, the nation—for the second time in the span of a few months—experienced a dangerous leadership vacuum. Unlike the tactical revolution of January 1966, the July 1966 countercoup was not initially intended to be one; it started out as mutiny and snowballed into a coup. The masterminds of the uprising were initially undecided as to who would assume the responsibility of leading the now deeply fractured Nigerian state. Eventually, the lot fell to a young Sandhurst-trained officer, known to some of his comrades as Jack.

Lt. Colonel Yakubu ‘Jack’ Gowon was charming, intelligent and well-spoken. He was also popular among the rank and file of the army. Though not among the original plotters of the countercoup (he was attending a training course in the UK and only returned 2 days before the coup) and despite the existence of several higher ranking army officers, Gowon emerged as the head of state, making him Africa’s youngest national leader at the age of 31. It is possible that the bloody conflict that ensued after Gowon’s rise to power might have been avoided if a more experienced hand had been at the helm of affairs.

Following the targeted killing of the south-easterners and Igbo people, in particular, the Igbos fled home and south-east Nigeria threatened secession. To ease tensions, General Ankrah of Ghana hosted peace talks in Aburi, Ghana, between delegations from south-east Nigeria led by its charismatic military governor, Lt. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu and the Federal Military Government.

After the failure of the Gowon administration to implement many of the policies agreed to during the peace talks, eastern Nigeria declared itself an independent nation in May 1967. The Aburi accords fell through because Gowon and his delegation agreed to terms so steep that they could not possibly implement them while retaining the support of the coup plotters who brought them to power. The nation went into civil war in July 1967 and ended hostilities in January 1970, reunited in nationhood on technical terms, but more tribally and ethnically fractured than ever before.

After falling out of favour with the cabal of coup plotters who put him in power, Major General Gowon was toppled in July 1975 in a bloodless coup executed while Gowon attended a summit of African leaders at Kampala, Uganda. He was succeeded by the firebrand General Murtala Mohammed, who was nominated to be Head of State by the group of middle-ranking army officers who masterminded Gowon’s overthrow. Like his predecessors, Murtala was ill-prepared for the vagaries that came with leading Africa’s most populous and culturally diverse nation. The question of the legacy he left behind during his brief stint in office remains a subject of contention among Nigerians.

To many, Murtala was a reformer who attempted to re-instil public confidence in the federal government of Nigeria. He publicly declared his assets and launched a probe of government officials in his predecessors regime—subsequently dismissing all those found guilty of financial mismanagement from the military. To curtail corruption and reduce government spending, he dismissed more than 10,000 civil servants without benefits at a go. To many others, some of his policies were ill-conceived and did more harm than good. His mass dismissal of thousands of civil servants without due process dealt a critical blow to the development of Nigeria’s civil service bureaucracy, as the civil service lost decades of valuable experience and manpower in one fell swoop.

Murtala Mohammed was assassinated in the failed February 1976 coup attempt led by Lt. Colonel Sukar Buka Dimka. His bullet-ridden Mercedes Benz, which remains on display in the National Museum in Onikan, is a symbolic reminder of the bloodlust and hunger for power that characterized military interventions in Nigerian politics.

The Reluctant Generals and the Second Republic

After General Murtala Mohammed’s assassination and the subsequent apprehension of his assailants, the leading candidates to replace him were the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Lt. General Olusegun Obasanjo and the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Theophilus Danjuma. As a matter of military seniority, Obasanjo was expected to succeed Murtala. He is said to have been so resistant to the appointment that he offered to retire in order to enable Lt. General Danjuma—who was instrumental in resisting the Dimka coup—become head of state.

On reluctantly accepting his appointment to the nation’s top office, Obasanjo, overcome by emotion, burst into tears. He had good reason to be troubled. Four of the preceding heads of government had been unceremoniously removed from office; three brutally murdered in the process. Lt. General Obasanjo was, perhaps, the first Nigerian leader to truly appreciate the gravity and risk of the task that was bestowed upon him. Obasanjo kept his promise to hand over to a democratically elected civilian government within 4 years, and in October 1979, Shehu Ahmed Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) was sworn into office.

President Shagari had served in several ministerial positions in the federal government before running for President in 1979. He initially wanted to contest for a seat in the Senate and only ran for the presidency after succumbing to pressure from his party. President Shagari was widely regarded by his associates as humble, unassuming and principled. Despite his reputation as an upstanding statesman, the administration he led was fraught with widespread corruption, assailed by religious violence and plagued by economic downturn. Barely two months after his controversial re-election for a second term in 1983, the military intervened in Nigerian politics yet again, marking the end of Nigeria’s Second Republic (October 1979 – December 1983)

Complicity and Duplicity

Though Nigerians are reluctant to admit it, every successful military coup has taken place with the explicit or implicit approval of the people. Coup plotters would wait patiently in the shadows for the polity to be sufficiently disillusioned by the government of the day before swinging into action, unseating the ruling government while promising corrective measures. The nation had grown tired of the ostentatious corruption of Nigeria’s ruling political class, and the massively rigged elections of 1983 created the perfect excuse for yet another military takeover.

On the first day of January 1984, Major General Muhammadu Buhari benefited from a coup d’état he was not directly involved in and replaced President Shagari as Head of State. He was an iron-fisted disciplinarian who would build a reputation for an uncompromising stance against corruption and indiscipline. As usual, the coup was greeted with widespread jubilation amongst the people and the coup plotters were heralded as national heroes. The honeymoon was short-lived, however. After more than one year of further economic turmoil and a terrible record of human rights abuses and press suppression even by the usual standards of a military dictatorship, Buhari was overthrown in a ‘palace coup’ by the then-Chief of Army Staff Major-General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida.

The Rise of ‘Maradona’

Babangida seemed like the diametrical opposite of Buhari. Where Buhari was rigid, uncompromising and stoic, Babangida was charming, affable and winsome. He was considered a welcome relief from the harsh public policies of the Buhari regime. Ibrahim Babangida is perhaps the only Nigerian head of state who assumed office completely on his own terms. Nigerian historian, Max Siollun, notes this in his book, Soldiers of Fortune, where he writes that ‘Babangida was the first Nigerian ruler to come to power by design rather than by chance’.

Babangida had been involved in every successful coup attempt since July 1966 and had become adept at coup planning. He also played a major role in resisting and foiling the coup attempt of February 1976. While Babangida’s successes as a coup plotter did not necessarily guarantee his readiness to lead Nigeria, his experiences serving in successive military governing councils certainly rendered him more prepared to govern than all his military predecessors, who had little or no administrative experience when they seized power.

Widespread corruption in Nigeria did not begin with the Babangida regime. However, the government he led institutionalized and amplified corruption as a business culture in Nigeria in ways that deeply permeated Nigerian civil society unlike any previous era.

Babangida’s knack for deceiving onlookers and his penchant for cleverly concealing his plans by saying one thing and clandestinely doing another earned him the moniker ‘Maradona’ (after the Argentinian football legend famed for his clever dribbling skills). Like other military leaders before him, Babangida promised to return the country to civilian democratic rule after sufficiently sanitizing the polity. In 1989, Babangida lifted an earlier ban on political parties, but later rescinded this decision and created two political parties, which all political aspirants were required to join in order to run for office. From an initial date in 1992, Babangida postponed his handover 3 times till national elections finally held in June 1993. The elections, widely believed to have been won by philanthropist, businessman and flag bearer of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) Chief MKO Abiola, would be retroactively annulled.

The annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections plunged the country into an unprecedented political crisis. It would turn out to be Babangida’s final trick. He resigned in August 1993 amidst heavy local and international pressure and handed over to a hurriedly assembled Interim National Government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan.

The Conundrum of the Accidental President

The often-overlooked reason behind the lack of visionary leadership in Nigeria is not the absence of good intentions, but rather the lack of sufficient experience, preparation and circumspection. In its formative years, Nigeria was ruled by a succession of unprepared, sometimes reluctant leaders. To put this in context, of Nigeria’s first eight heads of government, three came to power as a direct result of their predecessor’s demise (JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi, Yakubu Gowon and Olusegun Obasanjo); two became national leaders only after bowing to external pressure to run for office (Tafawa Balewa and Shehu Shagari), and another two benefited from coups whose execution they did not originally plan (Murtala Mohammed and Muhammadu Buhari).

A strong case can be made for the argument that most of Nigeria’s leaders in the first three decades after independence were administratively inept, politically naive or simply lacked the intellectual rigour to lead a nation as ethnically complex as Nigeria.

This trend of ‘accidental access to leadership’ has persisted in Nigerian politics, as heads of state and presidents beyond Nigeria’s early leaders have continued to emerge under dubious circumstances.

It remains to be seen whether Nigeria can rise from the ashes of its faulty foundations to realize its promise and take its place among Africa’s most progressive nations

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