The legendary English writer, poet and dramatist of all time, Williams Shakespeare, in his classical comedy, Twelfth Night,” said through Malvolio, “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
The emergence of Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) on March 28, 2015 as the president-elect not only changed the political equation of the country, it also offered a throwback view at the nation’s leadership history along the pathway of competence, preparedness and vision.
A sojourn down political memory lane shows that almost none of the leaders who had governed the Nigerian nation was really prepared for the challenges confronting the country.
The most prominent northern leader in pre-independence and post-independence eras was Sir Ahmadu Bello, a Knight of the British Empire, who lived between 1910 and 1966. Bello was the first Premier of Northern Nigeria – from 1954 – 1966.
In 1954, Bello became the first Premier of Northern Nigeria. In the 1959 independence elections, Bello led the Northern Peoples Congress to win a plurality of the parliamentary seats. His NPC forged an alliance with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s (National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons to form Nigeria’s first indigenous Federal Government, which led to independence from Britain. In forming the 1960 independence Federal Government of the Nigeria, Bello as president of the NPC, chose to remain Premier of Northern Nigeria and gave the position of Prime Minister of the federation to the deputy president of the NPC, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
Many analysts are of the opinion that power or greatness – to use Shakespeare’s word, was thrust on Balewa by Bello, who was also the Sardauna of Sokoto. The Sardauna was more concerned with the development of the northern region that he chose to offer Balewa to go to the central government.
Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Balewa, entered the government in 1952 as Minister of Works. He later served as Minister of Transport. He never aspired to be leader of Nigeria. In 1957, he was elected Chief Minister, forming a coalition government between the NPC and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, led by the late Owelle of Onitsha, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.
Along with many other leaders who included Ahmadu Bello, Balewa was overthrown and murdered in a military coup on January 15, 1966. The mystery surrounding his death still remains unsolved till date as his body was discovered by a roadside near Lagos six days after he was ousted from office. Balewa was buried in Bauchi. News of his assassination spurred violent riots throughout Northern Nigeria and ultimately led to the bloody counter-coup of July 1966.
Enter the bloody coup of Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. Nzeogwu, who was born in Kaduna by migrant Igbo parents in 1937, was a Nigerian military officer that led the first coup in the country.
According to history, Major Nzeogwu was an infantry and intelligence officer of the Nigerian Army. His Hausa colleagues in the Nigerian Army gave him the name “Kaduna” because of his love for the town. Nzeogwu was an ambitious young military officer and a Roman Catholic. In the early hours of January 15, 1966, Nzeogwu led a group of mostly northern officers on a supposedly military exercise and led them to attack the official residence of the Premier of the North, Ahmadu Bello, in a bloody coup that saw the murder of the Premiers of Northern and Western Nigeria. The Prime Minister, a federal minister, two regional premiers, and top Army officers from the Northern and Western regions of the nation were murdered. The premier of the Eastern region (where most of the plotters came from), the Igbo President of federation (Azikiwi) and the Igbo Army Chief were the only notable individuals spared. The coup failed, and he was later arrested in Lagos on January 18, 1966.
The leniency with which the new leader, General Aguiyi Ironsi (also an Igbo), handled the coup plotters led to the dissatisfaction of northern officers and subsequently resulted in a counter- coup on the 29th of July, 1966.
Nzeogwu was initially detained at the Kirikiri maximum security prison in Lagos before later being transferred to the East. He and other January 15 mutiny detainees were subsequently released from jail by Lt. Col. Emeka Ojukwu (also an Igbo) at the end of the first quarter of 1967, following demonstrations by Igbo students of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
On May 30, 1967, the nation of Biafra declared its independence from Nigeria. Nzeogwu was released from close observation and asked to go into battle on the side of the seceding Biafrans. Nzeogwu never wholeheartedly believe in Biafra as he was opposed to the secession of the eastern region from the Nigerian federation. On July 29, 1967, Nzeogwu – who had been promoted to the rank of a Biafran Lt. Colonel – was trapped in an ambush near Nsukka while conducting a night reconnaissance operation against federal troops of the 21st battalion under Captain Mohammed Inua Wushishi.
He was killed in action and his corpse was subsequently identified. After the defeat of Biafra and the end of the war, orders were given by the Head of the Nigerian government, Major General Yakubu Gowon, for him to be buried at the military cemetery in Kaduna with full military honours. Though many see Nzeogwu as a revolutionary, nothing suggested that he was prepared for the leadership of the country as his ascension to power was by happenstance.
The second Head of State of Nigeria, Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was born on March 3, 1924.
He seized power in the chaos that ensued from the first military coup in Nigeria and served as the Head of State of Nigeria from 16 January 1966 until he was killed on 29 July 1966 by a group of Northern army officers who revolted against his perceived tribalistic government. Ironsi, like Nzeogwu, never had a blueprint with which he wanted to rule the country.
General Yakubu “Jack” Gowon, who succeeded Aguiyi-Ironsi, was born on October 19, 1934. After the coup of January 1966, he was appointed Chief of Staff by Aguiyi-Ironsi. Northern officers staged a countercoup in July 1966, and Gowon emerged as the compromise head of the new government. During his rule, the Nigerian government successfully prevented Biafran secession during the 1967-70 Nigerian Civil War. Gowon, like other leaders before him, had power thrust on him by fate.
The fourth Head of State of Nigeria, General Murtala Ramat Muhammed, was born on November 8, 1938. He came into power on July 30, 1975 when General Gowon was overthrown while at an Organisation of African Unity summit in Kampala, Uganda. Brigadiers Obasanjo (later Lt. General) and Theophilus Danjuma (later Lt. General) were appointed as Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters and Chief of Army Staff, respectively. In the coup d’état that brought him to power, Muhammed introduced the phrases “Fellow Nigerians” and “with immediate effect” into the national lexicon. In a short time, Muhammed’s policies won him broad popular support and his decisiveness elevated him to the status of a folk hero. Seen as a radical military officer, some of Muhammed’s policies were viewed as rash.
Brigadier Olusegun Matthew Aremu Okikiolu Obasanjo was born on Mrach 5, 1938. Although Obasanjo did not participate in the military coup of 29 July 1975, led by Murtala Muhammed, he supported it and was named Murtala’s deputy in the new government. On 13 February, 1976, coup plotters, led by Colonel Buka Suka Dimka, marked him, Murtala and other senior military officers for assassination. Muhammed Murtala was killed during the attempted coup, but Obasanjo escaped death. The low profile security policy adopted by Muhammed had allowed the plotters easy access to their targets. The coup was foiled because the plotters missed Obasanjo, who was the Chief of Staff, and Danjuma, Chief of Army Staff and de facto number three man in the country. The plotters failed to monopolise communications, although they were able to take over the radio station to announce the coup attempt. Obasanjo and Danjuma established a chain of command and re-established security in Lagos, thereby regaining control. Obasanjo was appointed as Head of State by the Supreme Military Council. Keeping the chain of command established by Muhammed, Obasanjo pledged to continue the programme for the restoration of civilian government in 1979 and to carry forward the reform programme to improve the quality of public service.
Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari was born on February 25, 1925. He emerged as the President of Nigeria’s Second Republic (1979-1983) after the handover of power by Obasanjo’s military government.
He worked as a teacher for a brief period before entering politics in 1954 upon his election to the federal House of Representatives. Shagari, like some of his predecessors in power, did not set out to govern the country. His ascendency came as a result of the northern oligarchy’s determination to maintain power.
Major General Muhammadu Buhari was one of the leaders of the military coup of December 1983 that overthrew the democratically elected government of President Shagari. At the time of the coup plot, Buhari was the General Officer Commanding Third Armoured Division of Jos. With the successful execution of the coup, Brigadier General Tunde Idiagbon was appointed Chief of General Staff (the de facto No. 2 man in the administration). Buhari justified the military’s seizure of power by castigating the civilian government as hopelessly corrupt and promptly suspended Nigeria’s 1979 Constitution.
General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida overthrew the Buhari administration in a coup on August 27, 1985. His administration threw the nation into turmoil as he annulled the victory of Chief MKO Abiola, who won the June 12, 1993 presidential election. His era was seen as the high point of corruption in the country’s history.
Business mogul, Chief MKO, could be said to be prepared for the presidency, which he had had eyed since the Second Republic when he joined the ruling National Party of Nigeria. A philanthropist par excellence, Abiola went round the country campaigning and soliciting for support from the major power blocs. This resulted in his resounding victory which cut across tribe and religion. He was denied his victory by his friend, Babangida, who annulled his election.
Ernest Adegunle Oladeinde Shonekan was born on May 9, 1936 in Lagos. He is a British-trained lawyer, industrialist and politician. He was appointed as the Head of the Interim National Government by General Ibrahim Babangida on 26 August 1993. Babangida resigned under pressure to cede control to a democratic government. Shonekan’s transitional administration only lasted three months as a palace coup led by General Sani Abacha forcefully dismantled the remaining democratic institutions and brought the government back under military control on 17 November 1993.
Nigeria’s 10th Head of State, Sani Abacha, was born on September 20, 1943. He served as the country’s military ruler from 1993 to 1998. Abacha’s administration, like that of Babangida, witnessed state sponsored killings and human right abuses. He clamped the winner of the June 12 presidential election, Abiola, into jail. Abiola later died in jail.
General Abdulsalami Abubakar was born June 13, 1942. He led Nigeria from June 9 till May 29, 1999. Abubakar’s regime gave Nigeria her current constitution on May 5, 1999. The constitution provided the country for multiparty elections and Abubakar transferred power to Obasanjo on May 29, 1999 after the latter won the country’s presidential election.
Obasanjo, who was incarcerated by Abacha, was on death list before Abacha died in mysterious circumstances. Obasanjo was freed after the death of Abacha and he was propped up by the powers that be to run for the presidency. A reluctant Obasanjo had wanted to back to his farm in Ota, Ogun State.
The country’s power oligarch sought for a replacement for Obasanjo, whose tenure came to an end in 2007, and they found one in Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua was born on August 16, 1951 and he emerged as the country’s 13th leader on May 29, 2007. The head of the oligarch, Obasanjo, literally produced Yar’Adua, whose elder brother, Shehu Yar’Adua, was his military colleague. After serving as Katsina State governor between 1999 and 2007, Yar’Adua had desired to retire until the lot fell on him to lead the country.
He had no blueprint for the country’s challenges.
Goodluck Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan was born on November 20, 1957. Power was thrust upon him when Yar’Adua died in 2010. He never aspired to be governor when as deputy governor, his principal, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, was impeached and he took over.
The incoming president, Buhari, has contested for the presidency three times consecutively. He is seen as an honest and disciplined leader, who is passionate about the country’s development. Members of the opposition have, however, said that Buhari would not achieve much in his quest to transform Nigeria because of the calibre of people surrounding him.
The next four years shall show whether or not Buhari will succeed.
This article originally appeared in the Punch Newspaper