The death on May 13th, 2021 of General Joshua Dogonyaro is bound to mean many things to different persons. One thing it will remind nearly all of is the power clan around former military Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida aka IBB. He was a key player in that camp, one of its most rugged. The politics of how Abacha outmaneuvered him and the other ‘IBB boys’ in the cranky architecture of power left behind by the grandmaster (IBB) in the aftermath of the ‘stepping aside’ has yet to be told. Also not told is his Pauline conversion from a rugged military warrior to a pastor, the near opposite of the military profession.
Unlike the Abacha camp members who went to the Oputa Panel to let everything out as well as write books to spill the beans, members of the IBB camp have not been squealing. Aside from Major Debo Basorun, no other camp member has been a dissenter. That is to say they have kept their internal wrangling within the camp. Even the leading intellectuals who serviced power while the camp held sway have not written sleazy memoirs or any other revealing reflections. Even the splinter elements who joined in the Gideon Orkar coup got what appears to be a calculated, pre-emptive forgiveness from the grand master himself. I have forgiven them, he declared.
The only thing they have not been able to combat is ageing and death. IBB, the grand master, (not in any derogatory sense yet) is still very much alive even as he may not still be as kicking as years gone by. Age and the stress of power politics have caught up with him. The crowd of visitors to his palace have dwindled but it is unlikely anyone in recent Nigerian history will earn as many adjectives as him should anything happen to him today. Nobody prays for that for him.
General John Shagaya, one of the camp intellectuals, died much earlier in 2018. It was at the height of his involvement in reconciliation of the highly divided and quarrelling North of Nigeria. That earned him the standing of a moderate. He too had experienced a conversion, from a strictly military officer to a politician, becoming a Senator.
The most mysterious of them remains General David Mark who made it good in politics by becoming a Senator for 20 uninterrupted years, eight of them as Senate President. The debate about him remains the question of whether he empowered people in any systematic manner. He is reported to be fond of saying he influenced the appointment of ministers who empowered many. The problem is why this does not seem persuasive to his critics.
General Halilu Akilu is another survivalist in the camp of power. He is the face of the intelligence team of the camp. In a country such as Nigeria where intelligence is over mystified, an Akilu is bound to be a mystery guy. As if true to the profession, he doesn’t go about talking, grumbling or converting from the spook to some preacher or even a politician. A few years ago, the joke around him was the location of his house in Kano – as if serving as the panoptic cage from which to observe goings-on in Government House, Kano. Spooks love such mystification.
The list of the toughies of that camp in their heydays in power is endless. They were a spectacle in power, particularly in the practice of inclusivity. There is no ethnic group that one didn’t find in the camp – majority, minority and the ‘minorities of the minorities’. No religious groups – conventional and the unconventional – were excluded. It was what Prof Elaigwu, a leading Nigerian intellectual of civil-military relations would call a salad bowl. Although Elaigwu used the salad bowel metaphor for larger Nigeria, he could equally have meant it for the diversity of that camp.
As a collective, they remain a puzzle. What did they want power for? What did they think they were doing? Is it possible they did not know that most of the countries that are today the classic success stories in industrial transformation in the ‘third world’ achieved that through military rule or similar variant of dictatorship? Were they politically educated enough to know that? If they were not, why didn’t their intellectuals and ideologues tell them? Or, did they tell them but were ignored? Is it possible that Prof Jerry Gana’s trouble with IBB has anything to do with that?
Why Nigeria did not achieve anything from military dictatorship will continue to be a puzzle to political scientists in particular. General Babangida came to power sufficiently educated in ideological and organisational sense to have supervised transformation. With new insights into the role of agency in human affairs, he could have taken that option and there would have been no stopping him. Why did he not take that route?
He did not take that route because as Prof Elaigwu again once said, “the military came in as political physicians but ended up as political patients requiring even greater dosages of the medicinal prescription they had come in to serve to politicians.
And it is to Elaigwu we still turn for the most frank insight into the even bigger and more complicated outcome of the military intervention in Nigerian politics. It is all there in his latest book: Between the Ballot Box and the Barracks in Africa. No better gist of the problem can be found other than how Elaigwu put it in a 2016 interview with Intervention: “A military tiger on whose back we rode for many years had found it difficult to dismantle. Creating a new civil-military relations in which the military would go back to the barracks and play the role of a professional military is still an ongoing project in Nigeria. We are still going through that problem. That was one of the reasons why Jonathan could not even control the military. And one of the reasons why military institutions were used for corruption. And yet one of the reasons why the war against terrorism was messed up. So, in a lot of ways, the military has been useful, kept us together as a country but it has also created many new problems”.
The tragedy is worsened by the fact that neither John Shagaya nor Dogonyaro and certainly not IBB have written any penetrating accounts of their stewardship. In Nigeria, things that nearly everyone knows on the streets of Western capitals are held up as secrets. When the key actors die, vital details die with them, denying purposive national reconstruction the kind of details from which the most strategic nuances can be possible.