By Sunny Awhefeada
J. P. Clark in one of his poems “Seasons of Omens” poetizes Nigeria’s first military coup which occurred on 15th January 1966. Deploying metaphors to adumbrate the tense political situation that led to that tragic episode in Nigerian history, Clark uses the tropes of parallelism and refrain to underscore the poem’s thematic preoccupation in the line, “Then came the five hunters” as well as the clincher “Then the five hunters struck”.
Observers of Nigerian history do not need the literary critic’s exposition to understand that the “five hunters” refer to the five majors, the military officers, who led the January putsch that ruptured the nation’s first republic. Although, Clark’s historicization is manifestly Nigerian, the fate and ordeal that birthed the poem was synonymous with the historical catastrophe that plagued all of Africa for decades. Africans always welcomed soldiers whenever a coup overthrowing civilian rulers was announced, but the tragic verdict at the end of the day is that coups and military rule cumulatively destroyed Africa. Military rule in Africa has never been better than civil rule. There is now an established dictum in Africa that the worst of civil rule was better than the best of military rule.
The “hunters” torpedoed many regimes in Africa beginning with Colonel Gamel Nasser who initiated Africa’s first coup in Egypt in 1952. Nasser did not immediately become head of state. He installed another senior officer, General Mohammed Naguib as military head of state. A few years later, Nasser, accusing Naguib of inefficiency, shoved him aside and mounted the saddle. The 1950s were years of nationalist ferment for Africa and the colonial masters held sway despite the continent wide agitation for independence. The coup bug wasted no time in biting Africa once the continent entered its post-independence phase beginning from 1960. Togo was the first to experience a military in 1963. Electoral disagreements fuelled discontent in Nigeria in 1964 and then Lt. Col. Emeka Ojukwu fancied the thought of staging a coup, but he lacked support. Nevertheless, Nigeria’s day of the jackal came in January 1966. Ghana followed a month later and the coup contagion spread all over Africa. One coup begat another and civil wars followed. By the end of the first post-independence decade many African countries had fallen under military rule. The 1970s saw to the militarization of governance in Africa to the extent that khaki dominated the meetings of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The reasons for coups are legion: corruption, electoral crisis, economic mismanagement, nepotism and a plethora of other reasons which catch the plotters’ fancy. Africa remains the continent plagued by the highest number of coups recording 214 with 108 successful.
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My generation grew up to hear of African military strongmen and we celebrated them in innocence. We fancied them as interventionists who came to the scene to set things right. Unfortunately, they made things worse. What happened to Africa in the hands of her soldiers is akin to what happens on Nigerian roads. Our roads, ever so bad and chaotic, often experience traffic logjams that could stretch for kilometers and hours, and these days for days! As motorists agonize in the tortuous gridlock, some gun wielding soldiers would descend from siren blaring vehicles and forcefully clear the road for their oga to zoom past. Some hapless and stranded motorists would seize the opportunity to race after the military vehicles. A mad rush would follow and all would praise the soldiers for clearing the way, albeit momentarily because in a few minutes the logjam would be worse than what it was before their intervention. It didn’t occur to the uncritical mass hailing the soldiers that they not only did it for their selfish oga, but the effect was too temporary to make any different. They also forget that the same soldiers they hailed as “messiahs” are the worst violators of traffic rule in Nigeria. So there exists a symbolic relationship between military intervention in governance and vehicular traffic.
Military rule devastated Africa and right now it is not the way to go. Among the legacies of military rule are civil wars, unbridled corruption, more bloody coups, impoverishment, underdevelopment, arrest, detention, summary execution and other devastating consequences. Our institutions should be allowed to evolve through civil society activism and the opening up of the civic space. If the military advanced Africa’s fortune, the continent would have made more progress and the morass of today wouldn’t be here with us. Africa’s most brutal rulers, Africa’s most corrupt rulers were all soldiers. They were strongmen at home, but pawns to the Western world. By the 1990s, and with the intimations of a new world order to be birthed in the year 2000, many African military strongmen saw the need to “democratize” in the African way. Many of them dumped the soldier’s khaki for the civilian agbada and became old wine in new kegs. Some of them were to hand over power to their sons. What followed was not democracy, but the demilitarization of African governance at the turn of the present century. Our country Nigeria returned to civil rule in 1999 just in time for the curtains to fall on the last century.
Two decades into the present century and when many thought that Africa had said farewell to coups, it seems that the “hunters” are here again! Nasser’s ghost turned genie is hunting Africa again. Seven African countries, six of them Francophone, are now under military rule and the populace welcomed them. From Gabon to Guinea, the people welcomed the intruding soldiers and saw them as heroes and liberators the way they saw them in the 1960s. The irony of the present situation is that those in the generation welcoming the soldiers today were either not born during the years of military rule or were too young to fully understand the tragedy of soldiers in power. The delegitimation of history in our schools has robbed this generation of a sense of the past. So they romanticize the soldiers as saviours. If only they know of Idi-Amin, Doe, Mobutu, Eyadema, Bokassa, Babangida, Abacha, and others they would not be hankering for coup makers.
While deploring coups in Africa, the politicians seem not to have learnt lessons from the past. They have forgotten that they are the first victims of military coups. The world is still laughing at the video of deposed Gabonese president, Omar Bongo, begging the people to “make noise” so that he can be reinstated. The world is still viewing many videos of thieving and reckless officials of deposed governments crying and begging for mercy. These coups are occurring based on the same reason they occurred six decades ago. Massive corruption, deepening poverty, electoral malpractice, insecurity and other problems that have been the bane of Africa’s development since the 1960s are the same reason coups are experiencing resurgence. Like Clark, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah, Nurrudin Farah and other African writers, wrote works which explore the African predicament. Scholars and students of politics, sociology, economics and philosophy have also dissected the African condition. Men and women of God have also prayed. Sadly, our leaders, especially the politicians, have paid no heed. Right now Africa is a bad case in the intensive care unit. That is why the soldiers are returning. But this should not be encouraged. The politicians should know that good governance is the only antidote against coups. Africa has not democratized. We have only just begun the journey to democracy and now it seems another season of omen is here. Are the “hunters” turning us back to the 1960s?