The military’s intervention in Nigerian politics in January 1966 went on like musical chairs for 33 years, fouling the political air, causing instability and uncertainty, causing destruction of lives and properties, resulting in a civil war and leaving the country divided internally and isolated externally.

This peaked when General Sani Abacha ruthlessly and recklessly pursued his programme of self-succession and life-presidency.

Nigeria was impoverished economically, politically, intellectually and culturally. It became a pariah state. Nigerians deserted in droves and sought refuge all over the world. Nigeria was left prostrate. Those who raised their voices were either assassinated or put in jail, myself and my second-in-command as military head of state, Shehu Yar’ Adua, included. We were arrested for a phantom coup and sentenced to long imprisonment.

If it wasn’t for international intervention, we would have been killed. All the same, Chief MKO Abiola, who was considered the winner of the aborted election of 12 June 1993, died in jail.

The sudden death of Abiola was providential, opening the gates of prisons and political reform, reversing the exodus out of Nigeria. General Abubakar Abdulsalami, who succeeded Abacha, lost no time in releasing political prisoners and created a conducive atmosphere for Nigerian exiles to return home. He also opened the way for another attempt at democratic dispensation. It was in this new democratic experiment that I was persuaded to contest for the presidency of Nigeria.

I joined one of the three political parties, the People’s Democratic Party. Since the advent of the military in the political life of Nigeria, there had been debate on how to put an end to the recurrence and persistence of coup d’etat. Coups had become more and more destructive and destabilising. No matter the excuses, they had a major negative impact on democracy, governance and unity of the country. Nigeria needed to put an end to its perpetual coups.

The often prescribed solution of specifically putting a ban on coups in the constitution was not the answer. A coup is treason punishable by death only if it fails, and yet it puts the plotter in the State House if it succeeds. It was a destructive and destabilising practice, wasteful for the military itself, and undermining in terms of discipline, good order and military conduct.

A junior officer takes a gun and looks at his political boss and senior officers through its sights, bumps them off and puts himself in the State House. He instantly becomes superior to all political elected governors; some went into parliament; others got appointed as ministers or ambassadors. The idea was not to punish them for life but to exclude them from positions in the military where they could be coup planners, coup plotters, coups executors or coup beneficiaries. And once an officer has tasted the trappings of a political life, of living in a government house, with free food and so on, he would easily look for excuses to want more if he is in a position to make it happen.

The fact that since 1999 there has not been a coup or an attempted coup in Nigeria speaks of the effectiveness of the measures taken to put an end to the destabilising influence of coups on the political life and dispensation of Nigeria. Before 1999, and since independence, the longest that a democratic dispensation had lasted was six years – from 1960 to 1966.

It has neither been easy nor perfect, but there are improvements and evidence of learning among the political class. Any bad signs and misconduct would have to be carefully monitored. For those countries with similar experiences to Nigeria’s, there is a need to find an effective and relatively painless way of curbing the indidence of coups and corruption by the military.


This is an extract from “Making Africa Work: A handbook for Economic Success” by Greg Mills, Olusegun Obasanjo, Jeffrey Herbst and Dickie Davis, published by the Cape Town- based Tafelberg Publishers.