Updated: February 28, 2021
By Richard Akinnola
If you are are a lazy person who doesn’t want to improve on his/her knowledge, this series may be too long for you read. But you need this perspective from one of the heroes of June 12, Col. Abubakar Dangiwa Umar, a June 12 fundamentalist and an IBB acolyte who resigned his commission in the army because he disagreed with his boss over the annulment of the election. Enjoy it.
THE DESCENT INTO THE ABYSS
For the records, my pro‑democracy activism started well before the June 12 crisis. When towards the end of 1992, I came to the painful realization that Gen. Babangida was being ill‑advised to once again postpone the transition to civil rule, I decided, in consultation with some of my colleagues, to advise him to save Nigeria from an unnecessary political crisis. The letter part- reproduced below was part of the efforts at getting him to fulfill his promise of handing other power to an elected government. In that letter which was written October 1992, I had said inter alia: “Mr. President, it truly pains me any time 1 read in the newspapers and magazines speculations on your sincerity in handing over in January 1993 as the Transition Programme provides. I am pained because of the implied questioning of your integrity….. I beg you to resist any temptation from any quarters whatsoever to become another Mobutu or Eyadema. You have bidden official farewell to both the OAU and ECOWAS and I can tell you that I was personally proud of that action… I stand to share, no matter how infinitesimally in any encomiums that history may pour on you. I equally stand condemned if history judges you otherwise… About all my suggestions, in the name of Allah, I beg you, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, to leave this stage while the ovation is loudest.”
I spoke to most of IBB’s close associates to help dissuade him from any further delays. Gen. Sani Abacha was one such people. The general assured me that he would do everything possible to prevail on IBB to complete the transition by the end of 1992. He told me how worried he was that the military was fast losing credibility on account of the glaring insincerity in the implementation of the Transition Programme. He appealed to me to try and assist in sensitizing officers, particularly of the armoured corps, to realize that not all of us were in support of the delays in the programme. He confessed that he was already in touch with other officers who were equally concerned.
With hindsight, I may be accused of naivety but one needed the gift of clairvoyance to correctly appreciate Gen. Abacha’s dubious designs. The general’s leadership limitations were all too glaring and who would have thought that he could harbour the desire to take over political control of the country at its most turbulent period? The nation was united in its opposition to any further delay in the military’s handover to a democratically elected government and the international community had taken a firm stand against military regimes. How then could a general of Abacha’s calibre hope to command the loyalty of Nigerians and gain the support of the international community, especially since he was such a key player in the IBB regime?
I convinced myself that we could use Abacha to achieve our aim. I brought in more officers, including those that would only grudgingly pay compliments to the general as their military duty. Col. Sambo Dasuki was one of such officers who kept asking me whether I was sure that Abacha was truly the nationalist I wanted to convince him he was. I pleaded with him to come along. The group enlarged so fast. We decided to meet weekly to review the situation. Gen. Abacha served as a kind of Trojan horse in government. He reported back on his many dialogues with IBB and some officers who he claimed were against a transfer of power under the prevailing political crisis and our low economic state. He kept painting a hopeless situation in which IBB had become impervious and incorrigible, a hostage of a clique.
It was not difficult for most members of the group to believe him because the Transition Programme, which had originally been meant to terminate in 1990, continued to suffer further setbacks. The primaries of the political parties were cancelled on the pretext that they were plagued by malpractices. Reforms that saw the adoption of the Option A4 formula were carried out. All these added to their skepticism.
I decided to meet IBB directly to find out the true situation. I came out with a different picture. He assured me that for real, he would keep faith with the handover. Any changes to the transition programme were only necessary measures that would guarantee the survivability of democracy. I gave him further indications of his constituency’s growing distrust and restiveness, such that no one could guarantee the support of the entire military in the event of civil uprising, which was imminent.
I felt free to warn IBB of the possibility of a military coup if he decided on self‑succession as some of his senior officers were speculating. Being the commandant of the armoured corps and a truly loyal subordinate, I had no doubt that my observations had significant impact on the President and perhaps contributed to his decision to step aside as some convenient exit point. Having said this, I was under no illusion, that a coup against IBB would be an easy task, not with his sophisticated security network, which was reinvigorated after its embarrassing failure to detect Orkar’s attempted coup. I believe it is his sense of total control of the military that informed his often- quoted statement that he dominates his environment. Also he operated one of the most generous welfare programmes the military ever had. All the same, self‑succession was not on the cards, he assured me. I left him more confused. What I heard was in sharp contrast with Abacha’s conclusion. My attitude was to give IBB a chance but at the same time, keep in touch with the Abacha group.
The SDP and NRC primaries were held, with MKO Abiola and Bashir Tofa emerging as their respective presidential candidates. Although security reports scored them as worse than the previous party primaries in the manner of their fraudulent conduct, the government expressed satisfaction with then conduct. In fact, IBB endorsed the emergence of the two flag bearers when he opined that the nation could not hope for better presidential candidates. I did not share these sentiments but I was satisfied that the transition was making progress. In our subsequent meetings with Abacha, I drew attention to the positive development and urged him to sustain the momentum. He expressed pessimism. I will now fast forward to June 1993.
A few days to the 12 June presidential elections, Justice Bassey Ikpeme (now late) of the Federal High Court, Abuja, granted the Association for Better Nigeria (ABN) a previously unknown political pressure group, an injunction stopping NEC from going ahead with the conduct of the elections. I met the President and pleaded with him to set aside the court ruling on the strength of an existing law that ousted the powers of all courts to interfere with NEC’s conduct of elections and also because of its cataclysmic potential. He agreed and immediately summoned NEC chairman, Prof. Humphrey Nwosu and asked him to go ahead with preparations for the election.
Before I left Aso Rock, I met Brig. Gen. Akilu who told me that the President had just briefed him on my position which he supported. He added that the nation was fast losing faith and that we should support IBB to hand over and leave a good legacy like Gen. Obasanjo had done in 1979. I thanked him. On my way out, I met a group of officers, including Gen. Abacha, making their way to the President’s office. I was later told that their mission was to urge IBB to respect the court’s ruling, their reason being that neither Abiola nor Bashir Tofa was acceptable to the military. Furthermore, the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) had not started yielding the much expected dividends and civilians could not muster the political pluck to sustain it. I really didn’t know whether Abacha shared these views or was simply carrying the message of a group which he felt was politically influential in the scheme of things. Whatever the truth was, I became skeptical of Abacha’s sincerity.
The presidential elections were held on June 12 as scheduled. They were adjudged as the freest and fairest by both NEC and local and international observers. I phoned the President from Bauchi to congratulate him on the peaceful election. He sounded relieved. Results started trickling in and from all indications, MKO Abiola was leading by a wide margin and one could safely conclude, an unbridgeable margin.
But then, rumours started flying that NEC was after all, not satisfied with the conduct and was about to recommend total cancellation to the government. About one week later, I met Mr. President and confronted him with the rumours. He denied but added that NEC was still in the process of collating the results, which would be announced in due course. I went back to Bauchi , satisfied that all was well.
We had earlier discussed with Baba Gana Kingibe, who was Abiola’s running mate, against the wish of IBB according to him. He told me that the president expressed misgivings about a Moslem‑Moslem ticket but had to let go when Abiola assured him that he would have no problem with the Christian community. Baba Gana visited me on my return to Bauchi. He was agitated. He was as usual very blunt when he warned that they had information about government’s plan to annul the June 12 election results. He added that should that happen, Abiola would fight the annulment. I assured him that no such thing would happen. I told him that I was in touch with IBB who assured me that there was no truth in the wicked rumours.
He left, definitely feeling reassured. I got the impression that Baba Gana was more concerned about the dire consequences of an annulment to national stability than losing an opportunity to serve as the Vice- President.
A couple of days later, I was summoned to Aso Rock by Mr. President. He was presiding at a meeting of the National Defence and Security Council when I arrived. He came out on break around 1pm and called me to his office. Looking tired and angry, he said to me, “I am really fed up with all this. I am going to quit this thankless job and allow you guys to find a solution to your problems” or words to that affect. I expressed surprise. He then told me about the security reports he received to the effect that the military was against the election results and that some middle- ranking officers had vowed to topple the new government as soon as he handed over. Some senior officers had become apprehensive of the decision to hand over immediately.
I was shocked by this revelation and assured IBB that such reports were baseless. They were the creation of senior officers who did not want to retire from service. I told him that my reading of the situation was that Abiola did very well in the barracks and most officers I spoke to expressed satisfaction with the results received so far and were happy that the military was after all relinquishing power. He looked unsure.
Well, I beseeched the President not to even contemplate annulment. It was already evident that Abiola had emerged the winner after the results of 29 states were already known to NEC. Abiola’s win was an added bonus because it would achieve the much desired power shift to the south. He agreed. Before taking my leave, I informed the President that I planned to retire from service as soon as he found any need to annul the June 12 election. I also informed him that some newspapers had that morning mischievously and falsely identified me as the leader of a group that met and recommended that the President should annul the result of the election. He was very sympathetic. I took leave.
On my way to the ADC’s office, I met the Chief Press Secretary, Chief Duro Onabule. Knowing how very close he was to the President, I pleaded with him to encourage the general to accept the results of the elections. He promised to do that. At the office of the ADC, I met the NEC chairman who was looking rattled. I took Prof. Nwosu aside and said to him. Mr. Chairman, I know you are a good Christian, I beg you in the name of the good Lord to follow the path of honour and justice by doing what is right; any misstep on your part could spell doom for the very existence of Nigeria. He assured me that he was conscious of that and would abide by his oath. I left for Bauchi a very dejected and troubled man . I could not fight the thoughts of what terrible fate would befall Nigeria if annulment occurred. Why would officers, some of who had fought in the war to keep Nigeria one, push the nation to the brink? What sort of ambition could cause officers who by virtue of their commission had sworn to defend the territorial integrity of the country and aid in the maintenance of law and order, to deliberately plunge the nation into avoidable chaos? Why was it difficult for brilliant and experienced administrators identify this easy way out of our crisis as the election of Abiola provided? This was God’s grace, I reasoned. Why then should anybody reject it?
But again, I recalled the rebuke of one senior officer who once admonished me not to insist that my views or ways were the only solution to problems. So perhaps I should use his counsel in my assessment of the situation. But at the end of this introspection, I made up my mind to quit the service if the election results were annulled. What preoccupied my mind in the rest of the journey to Bauchi was my fate in retirement. Fear of the unknown gripped me and I prayed.
On 23 June at around 10am, an officer rushed into my office and inquired if I had heard the latest news, I asked what it was and he informed me that the BBC had just announced the annulment of the June 12 presidential election. I was shocked and immediately called the office of the president. I spoke to the Principal General Staff Officer (PGSO) who confirmed the news. The president was away in Katsina to attend the burial of General Yar’Adua’s father who passed away that morning. I summoned my Staff Officers to a meeting at which I informed them of my decision to apply for voluntary retirement from service.
Soon after, I dispatched my letter to the Office of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), I also copied the Military Secretary. I honestly don’t know how my letter got to the print media, which published a copy of it. On hearing about the letter, some officers including some of those I had taken into confidence on my plan, rushed to the president and pleaded with him to court martial me. I was told later that a decision was reached to simply accept my letter and allow me to go quietly. The COAS, Gen. Salihu Ibrahim summoned me to Lagos and expressed regret that events had turned out this way and felt sorry that I decided to go on retirement. He also regretted the leakage of my paper to the press. He informed me that the president had been persuaded to accept my application but would want to see me immediately.
Gen Salihu had been my first commanding Officer. He was a thoroughly professional officer who came through many travails to deservedly rise to the enviable post of COAS against many odds. This is a topic for another day. We reviewed the situation at length. I left for Abuja the next day to meet with IBB as instructed. I was ushered into the president’s office by the ADC. I met Gen. Tanko Ayuba who was on his way out. I had hardly sat down when IBB received a call from Gen Salihu. They spent about five minutes and when he was through, he turned to me and asked why I had decided to put in my letter which was leaked to the press without informing him first. I apologized immediately and denied being responsible for the leakage. We reviewed the political situation and I finally told him that I was convinced that it was in my interest to retire. He disagreed and ordered me to return to my station and
Generals Tanko Ayuba, Salihu and God knows who else, pleaded on my behalf but most importantly, I believe IBB genuinely appreciated the struggle of some of us. I still don’t believe that if he decided to send me to jail, heavens would have fallen. Perhaps a one-paragraph explanation if the need ever arose, would have settled my case and consigned me to the list of dismissed officers. That he didn’t do that is evidence of his magnanimity.
I returned to Bauchi convinced of the need for the military to resist this annulment, which was said to have been done on our behalf. I was torn between two loyalties while considering what could be done.
One was my loyalty to IBB, which had just been reinforced by his show of sympathy and kindness in refusing to accept my application for voluntary retirement. The other was my loyalty to the nation. Gen Abacha aided me in reaching the decision to consider easing out IBB through a military coup. (To be continued in part two)
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