‘Change’ is the current watchword on every Nigerians lips. Yet if there has been one regular appearance in the country’s modern political history, it is of military interference in politics. Hope Ogbologugo considers one of such lesser-known coups carried out at the onset of the 90s and the questions surrounding the man who became its poster child.
Chants of “Chanji Dole! Chanji Dole!” were one of many lobbies for change to rent the air on the streets of some Northern Nigerian states during the recently concluded election. In other parts of the country, citizens of diverse situations and backgrounds backed this campaign for change – a message which the recently instated Buhari administration spilled across bill boards, blasted on the radio, pushed on social media and splashed on television screens.
Literally translated, the people’s chant of ‘chanji dole’ means ‘change by force.’ In a democratic Nigeria, the only constitutional change of government comes through the ballot boxes. Yet with the tension-flamed general disposition of the polity, there were fears of the possible use of actual force to secure the desired outcome.
This is reminiscent of a different time, a different ‘dispensation’ as we like to call it, but driven by the same imperative to challenge the status quo. 25 years ago, on the 22nd of April 1990, Nigerians woke up to the sound of martial music on their radios and the voice of Major Gideon Orkar announcing a forceful takeover of the government of General Ibrahim Babangida in what would become dubbed ‘the bloodiest coup’ attempt in the history of Nigeria.
In Orkar’s coup broadcast, he enumerated three major reasons for the change including:
“To stop Babangida’s desire to cunningly, install himself as Nigeria’s life president and by so doing, retard the progress of this country for life…; …the need to stop intrigues, domination and internal colonisation of the Nigerian state by the so-called chosen few…; and…the need to lay a strong egalitarian foundation for the real democratic take off of the Nigerian state or States as the circumstances may dictate.”
Such autocratic benevolence, however strategic or sincere, was nothing new. For a sapling state with six hostile takeovers at the end of its third post-independent decade, Nigeria’s political future was already on shaky ground. Orkar’s assumed role of protector and gatekeeper of Nigerian people and their democracy was therefore the standard rhetoric of every coup plotter since 1960. General Babangida, who replaced Buhari in an inter-military coup in 1985, was initially received with welcomed relief at home and in the West in light of the hard handedness of Buhari and his own personal charisma. Unlike his predecessor however, Orkar’s counter-coup was not widely accepted by the Nigerian public who feared the precipitation of another civil war and had little faith in a military rebellion against a regime that was still very much in power.
Orkar made a temporary decision to excise five Northern states from the Federal Republic of Nigeria pending when some conditions he put forward were met – one of which was “to install the rightful heir to the Sultanate, Alhaji Maccido, who is the people’s choice.” The then president, Ibrahim Babangida had appointed Ibrahim Dasuki as Sultan of Sokoto after the death of the Sultan, Siddiq Abubakar, forgoing Alhaji Maccido, the son of Sidduq Abubakar, who was perceived by other Northern elites as the rightful successor. This caused large scale unrest in Northern Nigeria. The excised states included, Sokoto, Borno, Katsina, Kano and Bauchi. In effect, he announced the temporal splitting of the country, a decision that instantly alienated up to half the army and destroyed chances of his success.
But the question remains to be asked: what makes a man take up arms against his own state? Who was 38-year-old Major Gideon Orkar? A Tiv man happily married with five children, Orkar was well-positioned for a bright career in service. Little more is known of the man beneath the uniform due to the staunch code of silence upheld by his family, understandably protective of his memory. This in part has led to the popular misconception that Orkar was the mastermind of what was later referred to as ‘the Niger Delta Coup’. According to the historian Max Siollun, in reality, Orkar was an ethnic outlier and late recruit brought in to secure the participation of armoured troops. Seemingly willing to fight and die for his convictions, his sense of idealism may best be captured in these words from his coup broadcast:
“We wish to emphasize that this is not just another coup but a well-conceived, planned and executed revolution for the marginalised, oppressed and enslaved peoples of the Middle Belt and the South with a view to freeing ourselves and children yet unborn from eternal slavery and colonisation by a clique of this country.”
Were these words just another attempt to misguide Nigerian citizens as to their underlying intentions? Or was Orkar simply front-of-house for a more seasoned set of players? Whatever the case, this notion of unfair treatment meted out from the Northern States was to be the motivation in his decision to excise the five states, albeit temporarily. Had the suspension been properly enacted, it would have led to an untidy and tension-prone upheaval. In Lagos, soldiers from exised states were detained while their indigenes were required to repatriate within a week. A respective exodus applied to people from the Middle Belt and Niger Delta settled in the five northern states. Both groups would be allowed to return to their prior residences in the Republic only once the mutineers’ conditions were met.
The true repercussions of this excision never materialised as the coup plot failed within 24 hours. It has been speculated that the success of the coup plot may have triggered a second civil war, and there have been counter speculations that its consummation would have saved Nigeria and her citizens from the degree of decay and rot evident in the Babangida-led system. As the former Inspector General Police, M.D. Yusufu would put it by the end of the 1990s:
“Babangida was even worse than Abacha. Babangida went all out to corrupt society. Abacha intimidated people with fear. With him gone now, you can recover. But the corruption remains, and it is very corrosive to society.”
Whether unfulfilled foresight or misguided altruism, it would be unwise to present the current political culture as Orkar’s vindication. It is however curious to note that the five states which were excised in his coup broadcast hold fundamentalist views distinct from the political and social culture of the Nigerian collective, and in the particular case of Borno, hosts the epicentre of terrorism in Nigeria. This suggests a radicalism of the North and deepening socio-political disconnect with other parts of the country. It is arguable that this “deepening socio-political disconnect” is a result of the significant disparity in literacy and education, between the North and the southern parts of Nigeria.
Perhaps the more poignant emblem of Orkar’s legacy is Dodan Barracks. The seat of military power at the time of the coup, the barracks once stood for notions of pride, unrivalled strength and the authority of the armed forces. Now a relic of its former glory, since the move of the seat of power to Abuja in 1991 shortly after the failed coup, its surrounding Obalende neighbourhood has fared poorly with infrastructural negligence and the dwindling of social amenities such as electricity and water supply have proven fertile grounds for insecurity and environmental hazards. That said, the decrepitude of infrastructure applies to most of the country. A corollary of this move from Lagos is the rapid development and expansion of Abuja (FCT), as the entire apparatus of the Federal Government of Nigeria was transferred to a purpose built city.
The coup plotters were forced to surrender hours after the plan was set in motion as they were routed in Lagos by loyalists and regional commanders failed to follow any of their orders. On Friday, July 27, 1990, a total of 42 conspirators including Major Gideon Orkar, were executed by firing squad according to the military tradition that makes treason punishable by death. Though trumped by the 1966 coup’s death toll of over 200 people, it remains the largest execution of coup plotters in the country’s history, breaking the record of the 1976 coup led by Lt. Col Bukar Dimka in which 32 people were executed.
The coup brought to the fore of the nation’s consciousness the fault lines in our socio-political make-up. A general and a pastor, terror and peace, North and South, now govern the country. An Oba recently threatened to drown members of the Igbo community who refused to vote for his anointed candidate. Have these fault lines receded or gone deeper?
The jury is out.
Akinloye, B (2015, March 29) ‘Dodan Barracks: Once upon a seat of power’ Punch, 29 March, 2015 [Online] Available at: http://www.punchng.com/politics/dodan-barracks-once-upon-a-seat-of-power/ (Accessed: 27 April, 2015)
Famoroti, F. (2013) ‘April 22 coup: The trial, conviction of Orkar, co-plotters’, National Mirror, 22 April 2013 [Online] Available at: http://nationalmirroronline.net/new/april-22-coup-the-trial-conviction-of-orkar-co-plotters/ (Accessed: 28 April 2015)
Gandy, M. (2005) ‘Learning From Lagos’. New Left Review. Vol. 33. Pg 37-52.
Siollun, M (2009) ‘Why the Orkar Coup Failed, and How Col UK Bello was Killed’ [Blog Post, 18 May, 2015] Available at: https://maxsiollun.wordpress.com/2009/05/18/why-the-orkar-coup-failed-and-how-col-uk-bello-was-killed/ (Accessed: 27 April, 2015)
Siollun, M. (2013) Soldiers of Fortune: Nigerian Politics from Buhari to Babangida, 1983-1993 Abuja: Cassava Republic Press.
Orkar coup was huge success – Tolofari 9 November, 2014. Available at: http://dailyindependentnig.com/2014/11/orkar-coup-huge-success-tolofari/ (Accessed: 27 April, 2015).
About the Contributor
Hope Ogbologugo is a fellow of the Carrington Youth Fellowship Initiative, a program that seeks to develop a select group of young Nigerians into ethical and impactful leaders by connecting them with mentorship, networking, training and funding opportunities over the course of an intensive fellowship year.