Day Babangida edged out Buhari in palace coup

…all the intrigues, subterfuge

August 26 and 27, 1985, were public holidays to mark the Muslim festival of Eid-El-Kabir. Major-General Ibrahim Babangida returned from watching a military exercise in Gumel August 24. A week earlier, he received birthday cards from his wife and close friends. He was 44 August 17. He does not usually celebrate his birthday. But that year, it was a special occasion for him. He held family prayers to thank Allah for all He had done for him and ask His blessings for what he was about to do in ten days’ time.
Since his pilgrimage to Mecca, Babangida has always taken his religious obligations much more seriously. He regards all Muslim festivals as solemn occasions. He usually spends his Eid-El-Kabir with his family in his hometown, Minna. He flew into Minna in a light aircraft August 26. Lt-Col David Mark, military governor of Niger State, met him on arrival. They drove to Babangida’s country home set on a small hill where his relations and friends waited to receive him. His only surviving sister, Hajia Hannatu Gambo, was also there. She usually prepares his sallah meal as part of the family tradition. It is the only occasion her famous brother eats her food. She always looks forward to it. She collected her sallah gifts and left, promising to bring in the food early the next day.
Babangida was relaxed, joking with his friends and relations. None of them knew how truly worried the army boss was that night. He maintained his calm, as he does whenever a storm of agitation rages in his
mind. Tea was served late in the evening after which his visitors left. Now alone, the storm threatened to burst. Sleep had deserted him. He tried to read but the words on the pages were a blur. He could not make them out. The question kept popping up in his mind: What if something goes wrong? For want of a better thing to do to calm himself, Babangida drove out alone in his private car. He had nowhere to go in particular. He drove aimlessly around the town. He later visited two of his close civilian friends. He returned home. The loudest sound in the house was of his heart pounding in his mouth. He jumped out of his seat when the phone rang. It was Mark. He called to tell him he was in touch with Lagos and that there was nothing to worry about. Everything was working according to plan.
The plan was what worried Babangida. And the plan was a coup to topple the Buhari administration. Mark, a signals officer, was part of that plan. As soon as Babangida flew into Minna, Mark set up a communication facility to monitor what was going on in Lagos so he could keep Babangida informed of developments. A coup is a dangerous adventure in the military. Few people appreciated that better than Babangida who had taken part in three successful coups including the revenge coup of July 29, 1966, which brought Gowon to power.
Anything can go wrong, even at the last minute. Before he left Lagos that afternoon, he went through the details of the plan once more with the inner core he likes to refer to as ‘my co-conspirators. Everything seemed all right. The plot had not leaked. He went over the speech with the man chosen to make the announcement on the network service of FRCN, Brigadier Joshua Nimyel Dogonyaro. Satisfied, Babangida left the rest severely in the hands of Allah.
Babangida is an early riser. But on August 27, 1985, the telephone woke him up. Mark was on the line. He spoke only two sentences.
Mark: Congratulations, Sir. It is all Over.
“I, Brigadier Joshua Nimyel Dogonyaro…”
Major-General Gado Nasko was in his country home, Nasko, near Kotangora. He had just finished his morning prayers when Dogonyaro came through on the radio. Oh God, he sighed. A coup? He wondered
who was behind it. He reached for his phone. It was dead. He used a military radio to get in touch with the commander of the artillery unit in Kotangora. The officer, who did not quite know what was going on, assured him that they stood by him and would take instructions from him on what to do. Nasko prayed to Allah, asking Him “not to allow me to make a bad choice (in the event of a power tussle). Miraculously,” the general recalls, “Babangida came into my mind.”
Some assurance from the Almighty Himself Nasko had always hoped and prayed that the problems between Buhari and Babangida would not come to this. Just before he left for home on the sallah holiday, Akilu told Nasko, according to the latter, that it “had become inevitable to remove Buhari before more havoc was done.” He tried to dissuade the colonel from that course. He advised that if Buhari was no longer acceptable to the military, then the Supreme Military Council should remove him. Akilu argued that if they dared to do that, Buhari would kill all of them in the council chambers.” In any case, he had come merely to inform Nasko, he said. They were going ahead with their plan whether Nasko supported them or not, Akilu said. Dogonyaro’s dawn broadcast confirmed their determination to go ahead went ahead.
Nasko reached Lt-Col Adetunji Olurin, commander, 1 Brigade of the Nigerian Army, Minna, on phone and asked the colonel if Babangida was safe. Afirmative. He asked if he could talk to Babangida. Olurin said he would get in touch with him and let Nasko know. Olurin kept his promise. He called Nasko and assured him Babangida was all right and was preparing to leave for Lagos. Babangida promised to send an aircraft later to pick up Nasko because, according to the latter, he did not want the two of us to be in Lagos at the same time.
Hajiya Hannatu Gambo rose up early to prepare the sallah meal for her brother. At about 11 am, the food was ready. Her husband’s driver took her to the general’s house. She noticed from the gate that the house was unusually quiet. She expected to see the usual crowd but only a few beggars were outside the gate. She went into the house. It was empty. She found the steward and asked where the general was. He told her he had been taken to Lagos about an hour earlier. The steward could not tell her who took him to Lagos and why. She had prepared to return to Lagos with him. And now this. She wondered what was going on. She had no one to turn to immediately for an answer to the big question: what has happened to my only brother?
Had her worst fears about her brother come true? “I was very apprehensive,” she recalls. Twenty-two years ago when she learnt that her brother had joined the army, she wept because she said she knew “the army is a risky job.” She wept silently as she returned to her house.
Lt-Col Haliru Akilu, director of Military Intelligence, co-ordinated the coup plot in Lagos. Like everyone else involved in it, he too had a sleepless night. He was up all night, co-ordinating the activities of the various groups. By early morning of August 27, he knew it was all over for the Buhari administration. He received field reports confirming that everything went according to plan and that the coup was a success. It was a bloodless coup; just as they had planned.
Akilu chartered a six-seater aircraft and despatched lieutenant colonels Tony Ukpo and Tanko Ayuba to Minna to accompany Babangida to Lagos. It was generally but wrongly believed that the aircraft belong to Babangida’s good friend, Chief Moshood Abiola.
In the aircraft taking him to Lagos, Babangida took out his prayer beads. He still could not steady his nerves. He felt grateful to God that there were no reports of casualities during the operation. What was more, it had succeeded, ending all his fears and anxieties. It had been weeks of preparations and uncertainties; weeks during which he developed cold feet because of the risks involved in toppling a military administration. The last night was the worst for him. He was worried about the “boys” who were carrying out the operation. If anything went Wrong, they would go the way of all abortive coup plotters. They Would be tried, convicted and executed by firing squad. He too would go down. He would not forgive himself. Now, thank God, it was all over.
An unmarked car awaited Babangida in the presidential Wing of the local airport. The entire airport complex was desolate because all flights had been suspended. Lt Col John Shagaya, commanding officer, 9 Brigade, Ikeja, received Babangida on arrival at the airport and drove with him through the deserted streets of Lagos to Bonny Camp. There, Babangida met Major General Sani Abacha, Brigadier Dogonyaro, Akilu and his other “co-conspirators.” There were 23 of them from the rank of captain to major general and equivalent in the Nigerian Navy and the Nigerian Air Force. Most of them, according to Babangida, were “young generation officers.” Some of them were his former students in the NDA; some worked with him and others were close friends he had cultivated during and after the civil war. They were the “boys” who executed the plan.
Even as he continued to receive congratulatory messages from those around him, Babangida knew there were tasks ahead of him, not least that of explaining his mission in government to a nation that had grown cynical about ‘saviours’ in uniform. He began a series of consultations with officers around him. His new administration began to take some shape.
While Babangida and his men huddled in their operational headquarters in Bonny Camp, Nigerians were kept wondering what was happenning. They stayed indoors, glued to their radio sets. The absence of a
counter announcement meant the coup had succeeded and the 20-month administration of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari had ended. Dogonyaro’s was the only voice of the new man. Save for his dawn broadcast relayed every 15 minutes or so, nothing else was heard from anyone else. Dogonyaro, director of the Armoured Corps, told the nation that he and his colleagues in the armed forces decided to shove aside Buhari in order to “restore hope in the minds of Nigerians and renew (their) aspirations
for a better future.”
He painted an unflattering picture of the ousted administration. He accused it of a multitude of sins to convince Nigerians that the armed forces had, as usual, done the right thing in the interest of the nation. He claimed that “a select few members” of the Buhari administration had ignored the “concept of collective leadership” and “arrogated to themselves the right to make the decisions for the larger half of the ruling the goodwill of Nigerians who welcomed it “with unprecedented enthusiasm.” He and his colleagues, he told “fellow Nigerians,” could no longer remain passive and watch a small group of individuals misuse power to the detriment of our national aspirations and interest,” and so they decided to act to arrest the “present state of uncertainty and stagnation.”
An apprehensive nation was told to wait for further announcenments. At 2 p.m., more than eight hours after Dogonyaro’s broadcast began, the NTA showed Babangida, surrounded by Shagaya and others, getting into his official car in Bonny Camp. He merely waved to and smiled at reporters keeping vigil in the new seat of power. He said nothing. No one told the reporters anything. Was he the new man of the moment?
It took another one hour and fifteen minutes before anything else of significance happened. The day being a public holiday, the NTA was transmitting earlier than its daily schedule. At 3.15 p.m., Abacha appeared on television. He was the announcer of the Buhari coup. Had the kingmaker become the new king? Nigerians held their breath for an answer. Apparently not.
Abacha said he “once more found it necessary to address the nation on very crucial national issues.” He too, like Dogonyaro, accused the Buhari administration of betraying the hope of Nigerians because “most of the economic and social ills that plagued this nation during the civil administration” had not disappeared nearly two years after the military take over. He berated the regime for its incompetence in dealing with the economic and other problems facing the country. He said the Buhari administration “lacked the capacity and (the) capability of leading this nation out of its economic and social preaicalncnt, thus making the change of leadership necessary.
The armed forces, Abacha said, decided to do its national duty by choosing a new man who would do a better job of pulling the nation out of the rut in which it was stuck. The man chosen was Major-General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, the Chief of Army Staff. He would take on the title of president, the first military ruler in Nigeria to do so. No applause. The nation looked on rather quizzically.
The military men were clearly enjoying the drama of the moment, no matter that they were playing to a largely cynical, if apprehensive, audience. The script was written and directed by Babangida himself. He had worked out a sure, deliberate step every inch of the way. For nearly 15hours after Dogonyaro’s broadcast, Babangida was seen publicly twice but not heard. He allowed the nation and reporters to have a glimpse of him more than one hour before and after Abacha formally named him leader of the new military team in government.
At 4.17 p.m., Babangida was seen on television again. He was all smiles but otherwise silent. The television showed a man in control and yet a team player. He was seen conferring in Bonny Camp with a group of senior officers. They included Dogonyaro, Shagaya, Ayuba and Madaki. He wore the equivalent of an officer’s business suit – a long sleeve khaki shirt with the lower end of the trousers tucked into his boots. Businesslike, yet casual. He cut the picture of the friendly neighbour, a smiling, friendly man ready to wrap his arms around you. He wanted to be seen as an officer and a gentleman. It was the picture Nigerians responded to as soon as the smoke of the take-over cleared up. It was too early to realise then but the evidence was unmistakable that Babangida wanted to be seen as a different man who wanted to be a different military leader. The sorcerer’s apprentice had come of age.
In Minna, Hajiya Hannatu was virtually reduced to your everyday picture of a confused, helpless woman. No one could tell her why her brother was taken to Lagos. But she suspected he might be in trouble with the government. Someone burst into her house at about 6 p.m. to give her husband the news: Babangida had been named president or Nigeria. Her husband rushed in to tell her. She took in the news slowly, wondering if someone was playing a cruel joke on her. Then a few others came with the same news. She smiled, wiped her tears. “I thank the almighty God,” she said.
At 9 p.m., Babangida made his grand entry on the nation’s political stage. He was 44 years old. Few men could have had a better birthday gift. Four months of intense planning had borne the desired fruit. The nation had waited for his maiden broadcast on radio and television for some 15 hours. Babangida won a reading competition in the primary school. His Voice is a cross between the shrill and the loud, this side of feminine. He employed that gift on television that night. His performance was memorable less for what he said than how he said it. He was always rapid reader. He went through his speech as if he was in a hurry to get it over and done with so he could devote his attention to more urgent tasks at hand.
Being an extract from Biography of former Military President of Nigeria, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida

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