Saturday, 3 October 2015

13 Nigerians Who Shaped The Last 55 Years By Oghene Omonisa

When the British Union Jack was lowered in the morning of Saturday, October 1, 1960 and the Nigerian Green, White, Green flag was hoisted, signifying the birth of an independent state, the Nigerian people had a supreme political leader in 47-year-old Alhaji Tafawa Balewa.

In the federal preparatory elections the year before, no party had won a majority. Balewa’s Northern People’s Congress (NPC) had formed an alliance with the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.

Thus on independence, Balewa, whose party had the highest number of seats, retained his Prime Ministership, and Azikiwe was appointed Governor-General. Power actually lied with the former school teacher as Azikiwe’s role was largely ceremonial.
Fifty-five years down the road, 12 other Nigerians have joined Alhaji Tafawa Balewa as the privileged few who have had the opportunity to determine the fate of the nation with the largest number of black population in the world.

Balewa the Urbane
History does not remember Alhaji Tafawa Balewa as the firebrand political radical who desired sudden developmental changes. He was clearly a major product of Northern Nigeria’s anxiety to avoid a political upstage by the Southerners. And he was sought as an educated Northerner to serve in political posts.
Nevertheless, nobody can accuse him of political ignorance. He had helped found the Northern People’s Congress (NPC). Beginning with a call to political service as the Bauchi Native Authority’s representative to the Northern House of Assembly, the House eventually selected him to become a member of the Nigerian Legislative Council.
Ironsi the Naive
In his keynote lecture during the Guardian newspaper’s silver anniversary celebration in 2008, world-acclaimed writer, Professor Chinua Achebe best captured the first military coup of January 15, 1966 as “a naively idealistic coup” which proved “a terrible disaster”, and that to many other Nigerians, “it was interpreted with plausibility as a plot by the ambitious Igbo of the East to take control of Nigeria from the Hausa-Fulani North.”
But if the idealistic coup-plotters were naive to assume it would be tolerable to summarily execute corrupt politicians and senior military officers mainly of Northern extraction, Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Nigerian Army and most senior military officer who emerged the Head of State following the failed coup, crowned this naivety with his mismanagement of the coup’s aftermath.

Gowon the Bridge-builder
Following the counter coup six months after, and the reprisal assassinations of General Ironsi and other military officers mainly of Ibo extraction, Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon was made the new Head of State by the Northern-dominated coup-plotters.
Though not the most senior military officer, especially from the North, Lt. Colonel Gowon’s choice was greatly informed by the fact that he was strictly a career soldier with no involvement whatsoever in politics, and had the background of a Northerner who was neither of Hausa or Fulani ancestry nor of the Islamic faith. His choice was to unify a nation seething with ethnic and religious tension.
General Gowon, as he later attained, is best remembered as the Nigerian leader who led the country to make Nigeria one by averting the secession attempt of the Ibo-dominated Eastern Region. But the general derailed when, in 1974, he reneged on his transition promise to hand over to an elected civilian government in 1976 by postponing the handover date indefinitely.

Mohammed the Revolutionary
General Murtala Mohammed who was mostly regarded as a mastermind of the July 1966 counter coup, and was considered to have reluctantly given up his ambition for the unifying choice of Gowon, took advantage of Gowon’s decision to execute his own coup and emerge the Head of State exactly nine years later: July 29, 1975.
Unlike Gowon, Mohammad had a vision before his emergence: he craved for a revolution to clean the nation of corruption and indiscipline, and to attain international respect and recognition for Nigeria in the comity of nations with principled and dynamic leadership.
He is mostly remembered for cleansing the Augean stables by dismissing more than 10,000 public officials and employees, even including cleaners and messengers, without benefits, on account of age, health, incompetence, or malpractice; some officials were brought to trial on charges of corruption; and he began the demobilization of 100,000 troops from the swollen ranks of the armed forces.
By the time he was assassinated in a coup attempt seven months later, Gen. Murtala Mohammad had attained the status of a folk hero.

Obasanjo the Faithful
Following the assassination of Gen. Mohammad, Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, then Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, de facto second in command, easily emerged the new Head of State. He faithfuly executed the policies of his late boss, especially the transition to civil rule programme scheduled to terminate on October 1, 1979 and the continued relocation of the federal seat of power to Abuja, the new Federal Capital Territory. Gen. Obasanjo attained international statesmanship with his successful transition of power to a civilian government.

Shagari the Gentleman
Alhaji Shehu Shagari, like his civilian predecessor from the North Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, was only a school teacher when the drive for educated Northerners to take up leadership roles saw him elected into the Federal House of Representatives in 1954, and in 1958 appointed the Parliamentary Secretary to Alhaji Balewa.
Though other higher offices, including Minister of Economic Affairs and later of Finance in Gowon’s government ought to have prepared him for the leadership of Nigeria, he certainly did not aspire to that exalted position in 1979.
Thus when he was chosen as the candidate of the North to fly the presidential ticket of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), the party with the most national appeal, it was a seemingly reluctant Shagari who emerged the first Executive President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This frame of mind reflected in his leadership style, as his in-law and Transport Minister, Alhaji Umaro Dikko, a more astute politician and administrator was known to be the most powerful figure in that government.

Buhari the Radical
Right from the start, Major Gen. Muhammadu Buhari who overthrew Alhaji Shagari did not leave any one in doubt that he was set for radical changes in the polity. Politicians were arrested all across the land and tried for corruption charges, with some getting over 100-year jail terms. His War Against Indiscipline (WAI) policy was a major vehicle to instill discipline in Nigerians. And none of his ministers or any other appointee had been known to have corruptly enriched himself.
Together with his equally no-nonsense deputy, Brig. Tunde Idiagbon the duo led Nigeria with such high-handedness not before witnessed by Nigerians. But it was clear that Nigeria needed such strong characters as leaders.   As they garnered praises and adoration in few quarters, so also did they attract criticisms and condemnations in many for their inflexibility, perhaps because they lacked the beguiling traits Nigerians associated with their leaders. And the duo forgot to smile.

Babangida the Fox
Twenty months later, the duo were overthrown in a bloodless coup led by their Chief of Army Staff, Major Gen. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, the gap-toothed general who knew how to smile, smiled often and smiled his way into the hearts of millions of his compatriots. Babangida released some of the politicians incarcerated by Buhari, and ordered a re-trial of a few others.
Gen. Babangida brought so much panache to the office and leadership style not exhibited by any Nigerian leader before, nor those after him. Dropping the traditional military title of Head of State, he chose President, making him the first and only military president Nigeria ever had.
With a complementing wife who institutionalized and glamourized the Office of the First Lady, and who became Nigeria’s “‘first’ First Lady”, the general took Nigeria on a speedy train Nigerians never realized was moving until it was the 8th year, and he survived two coups: one, the only coup nipped at the bud before it was executed, the other the bloodiest.
But no matter his reasons, Gen. Babangida will be remembered most as the Nigerian military leader who truncated his own transition to civil-rule programme by annulling the presidential election, the final stage of the programme, bringing his government to the kind of ending neither he nor Nigerians ever envisaged.

Shonekan the Technocrat
A trained lawyer who took to the boardroom of the corporate world, Chief Ernest Adekunle Shonekan had had a successful career as a business manager, culminating in his appointment as the Chairman and Chief Executive of United African Company (UAC) of Nigeria PLC, the largest conglomerate in Nigeria.
In preparation to vacating office along with other senior military officers, President Babangida had come up with the idea of a Transitional Council, made up of civilian ministers, and appointed Chief Shonekan as Head on January 2, 1993.
But following the tension generated by the annulment of the presidential election, President Babangida had to leave office in a hurry and established an Interim National Government (ING) to oversee government activities preparatory to another presidential election whose winner would be sworn in by Chief Shonekan.
But that was not to be. Gen. Sani Abacha who Babangida ironically appointed into the council of the ING as Minister of Defense, and the only military officer in the ING, was alleged to have forced the technocrat to resign   after 83 days in office.

Abacha the Strong
On assumption of office, many Nigerians, especially from the civil rights community had expected Gen. Sani Abacha to move in a direction to de-annul the cancelled presidential election, announce the remaining results, declare the winner, presumably Chief Moshood Abiola, and swear him in. But that was not to be. Abacha had stamped his authority by disbanding every political party and association.
He also dismantled all elected institutions, terminated all national and state assemblies, putting an end to the Babangida transitional programme.
And when the mettle of the general was put to test by Chief Abiola who declared himself president and announced the setting up of a government of national unity, Abacha quickly arrested him and later put him to trial for treasonable felony. Like Abiola, every single individual who stood in the path of Abacha in his five-year reign as well as in his desire to transmute to a democratically president, was brutally dealt with.
The list of those Abacha dealt with is almost like that of who is who in Nigeria. Some did not live to tell the tales, especially Yar’Adua who died in prison and Abiola who, though he died after Abacha, never came out from detention alive. It was therefore a shocking relief for many when the goggled-general passed on mysteriously on June 8, 1998.

Abubakar the Humble
The retirement letter of Lt. Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, then Chief of Defense Staff was alleged to be on the desk of Gen. Abacha, awaiting his signature when the former Head of State passed on, and Gen. Abubakar assumed leadership of the country. An epitome of humility, Abubakar quickly announced the release of all political detainees, requested all political refugees to return home and drew up a one-year transition to civil rule timetable.
Ever unassuming, he adhered strictly to the timetable, conducted generally acceptable general elections and handed over power a year later to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, he won the presidential election; and Gen. Abubakar expectedly assumed the status of an international statesman, playing inter-mediating roles worldwide.

Obasanjo the Bold
It was a totally different Chief Olusegun Obasanjo that Nigerians confronted in 1999, not the Gen. Obasanjo who meekly followed the transition timetable of his late predecessor and handed over power as scheduled. Apparently to secure the new democracy from military incursion, but subtly to safeguard his own presidency, President Obasanjo came up with the policy of retirement of some category of military officers who had held political posts in previous military regimes, especially those who had served as state governors and above.
And as the end of his first term got closer, revelations emerged that Obasanjo, like a few other Southern presidential aspirants, had signed an agreement with some Northern leaders that for him to get their support, he should promise to do one term and relinquish power for a Northerner in 2003, an allegation which he vehemently denied, nevertheless admitting that he actually was given the agreement but that, unlike a few other Southern aspirants, he did not sign.
He went for a second term and not surprisingly, he won. But surprisingly, as he was rounding off his second term, he started dreaming of an unconstitutional third, going to the extent of wanting to amend that section of the Constitution for his personal benefit. And the Nigerian nation strongly rose against him, defeating his third-term agenda.
It was vintage President Obasanjo who vented his legendary vengeance on every major force that had stood against his ambition, especially Gen. Babangida, whose ambition to return to the seat was openly challenged when the EFCC was used to haunt his first son, Mohammed, and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar who was haunted out of the PDP. And Obasanjo single-handedly picked his successor, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.

Yar’Adua the Clean
The presidential victory of Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua did not come as a surprise to many Nigerians as the PDP was the party to beat, and Obasanjo was determined to decide his successor, especially one who he could manipulate. Though the Yar’Adua presidency was short-lived, he is best remembered for his uprightness.
He kept to his electoral promise of publicly declaring his assets on assumption of office, and also admitted that the election that brought him to office was fraudulent, promising to undertake a major reformation of the electoral process. After the election, Yar’Adua proposed a government of national unity, and eventually had ministers from the opposition parties.
His poor health condition denied him his four-year term by leading to his death after 2 years on the throne: May 5, 2010.

Jonathan the Meek
Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan will be remembered as the Nigerian leader who brought ‘reluctant ambition’ to the office with the singular honour of being a deputy governor, state governor, vice president and eventually president without much ambition. The first Southern minority to lead the country, he no doubt, would have been comfortable serving out his two terms as deputy governor, and await his political fate as determined by his former boss, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the former governor of his home state of Bayelsa.
But thrust on by fate and guided by his meekness, he emerged the governor following the impeachment of Chief Alamieseigha. Judging again by his meekness, President Obasanjo who had set his eyes on picking Yar’Adua’s deputy from the South-South, easily chose him as somebody he could manipulate, just as Yar’Adua.
And when Yar’Adua passed on, Obasanjo was again at the forefront to ensure Jonathan had a smooth succession into the office as president. Two years later, emerging as the presidential candidate of the PDP was most challenging, as he was seen as usurping the slot of the North. But victory was sure after he got the ticket.
The ultimate test for his winning meekness was ironically brought by his godfather, Chief Obasanjo with his overbearing nature. This became unbearable for the university teacher-turned politician. And he stood up to Obasanjo – a mistake.
With the North seeking their pound of flesh for allegedly usurping their slot, the South-West believed to be against him for not living up to their expectations with favourable political slots and patronage, combined with Obasanjo’s feeling of betrayal, the conspiracy was just too much for Jonathan’s traditional South-South and a collaborative South-East. He could not win re-election, losing to Gen. Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC).

Buhari the Convert
President Muhammadu Buhari brings on board a reputation of an astute manager of resources and anti-corruption crusader, a reputation he made for himself during his first outing as military head of state. But this is a democratic dispensation, and he is being guided by checks and balances.
So far, he has not displayed any autocratic tendencies and he is not expected to as they will not fit in. Though now a converted democratic, those tendencies, however, are expected to guide his every step on the way to usher the changes he so vehemently promised.


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