Posted by By Edwin Madunagu on
I FIRST heard of Abubakar Umar, then a major in the Nigerian army, in 1985. He was then" I hope remember correctly" the military personnel in control of the Federal Housing Estate, Lagos. His revolutionary language sounded so out of place in the Nigerian army.
I FIRST heard of Abubakar Umar, then a major in the Nigerian army, in 1985. He was then" I hope remember correctly" the military personnel in control of the Federal Housing Estate, Lagos. His revolutionary language sounded so out of place in the Nigerian army. I asked who the young army officer was, and I was told that he had been a radical student activist before joining the Nigerian army.
Later that year, on August 27, 1985, he was featured as one of the young army officers who overthrew the military government of General Muhammadu Buhari and installed General Ibrahim Babangida in power. This group of army officers became known in the Nigerian press as "Babangida boys". They were reputed to be fiercely loyal to Babangida. Umar confirmed this several times. On one occasion he told the press that he could go to war on the side of General Babangida, "blindfolded". This was a clear statement of absolute and unquestioning loyalty.
In March 1986, I met Umar in Kaduna when I led a delegation of the Political Bureau to the old Kaduna state. In our discussion, he appeared to me and, I would say, to other members of the delegation, as a progressive army officer in addition to being radical - for history has taught us that one can be radical in a direction different from the progressive one. He tried to assure us that the Babangida regime, which he helped install, and of which he was now a part, intervened in governance in order to stop the decay of the polity and lay a foundation for a united, democratic and progressive nation. I did not doubt his sentiments and inclinations, but I knew the limitations of a single combatant who was so loyal to a commander with whom he might not share the same vision.
Before then at the inauguration of the Bureau in Abuja on Monday, January 13, 1986, I witnessed the closeness between Umar and General Babangida. At the end of the luncheon which followed the inauguration, I had cornered Umar for one or two questions. On getting to his car, Babangida discovered that Umar, with whom he rode in the same car, was not with him. The general came back and literally dragged Umar away. "Come on, people's governor", the general said with his usual smile. They walked away, hand in hand, and we all laughed.
What I have tried to confirm in the preceding paragraphs is two-fold: First, that Colonel Abubakar Umar (rtd) was a radical and progressive army officer; and secondly, that as a Nigerian army officer, he was fiercely loyal to General Babangida and his leadership; and that, personally, he is close to the general. This held true at least up to the end of the general's tenure as military president on August 26, 1993.
We now come to the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, which Chief Moshood Abiola won. What we knew then was that the military regime, headed by General Babangida, as president, annulled the election, or rather, the election result. Subsequent events, media scoops and rumours were to lead us to a number of intelligent guesses. First, that the brutal manner General Sani Abacha, as second-in-command to General Babangida in the military hierarchy, dealt with the anti-annulment protests in Lagos suggested that Abacha played a very prominent and critical role in the annulment.
Secondly, we suspected that the military regime was divided both on the question of annulment and what should happen thereafter. It would appear that the disengagement of General Babangida, together with his replacement by the Interim National Government (ING) which was inaugurated on August 25, 1993 and headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, was a compromise solution. Thirdly, it would appear that the coup of November 23, 1993 which put an end to the ING and brought General Abacha to power was a repudiation of that compromise. And fourthly, that Colonel Abubakar Umar was opposed to the entire chain of events: from the annulment, through the disengagement of Babangida, through the ING, to the Abacha coup.
One can guess that the gradual ascension of power by General Abacha from the annulment up to his coup of November 1993 was an agreement between him and General Babangida. But, then, an agreement is not always a statement of equality. There can be an agreement between the weak and the strong, between the vanquished and the victor. If Babangida was the weak and the vanquished in the Babangida-Abacha agreement, we can guess that Umar, with his fierce loyalty to Babangida, was also in the agreement, and in a weak and vanquished position.
We can also guess that the safety and well-being of both General Babangida and Colonel Umar were part of that agreement with General Abacha. And if Abacha did not break that agreement in spite of "provocations" from Umar it must have been because Abacha, though strong, was not strong enough to break the agreement. One can propose three reasons why Umar has so far not openly criticised Babangida for the annulment: fierce loyalty; the fact that Umar knows what actually happened; and the fact that Babangida has said very little about the event - beyond accepting responsibility as Head of State at the time.
Colonel Abubakar Umar supported General Olusegun Obasanjo in the latter's struggle to become an elected president in 1999. Just as Babangida did. The Colonel might also have played a part in the decision to release General Obasanjo from prison when Abacha died the year before. Just as Babangida definitely did. I hope I shall not be alone when I say that the relationship between President Obasanjo and General Babangida since the latter came to office on May 29, 1999 has been, to say the least, complicated and confusing and, therefore, unclear. They are friends; and they are enemies.
Babangida is generally seen as Obasanjo's strong supporter, but the former is also portrayed as the latter's bitterest opponent. Babangida plans to supplant Obasanjo through elections in 2007. In this plan, Obasanjo is portrayed as Babangida's strongest supporter; but he is also portrayed as Babangida's strongest demobiliser. In all this, they speak and act, not directly but through their associates, friends, supporters and personal staff. Recently, however, two "gladiators" - one for Babangida, the other for Obasanjo - came to the open: Abubakar Umar and Femi Fani-Kayode. The difference between them is that whereas Umar, at least on this occasion, spoke for himself, Fani-Kayode spoke directly and officially for President Obasanjo as the latter's Special Assistant. Umar can easily insist that he is speaking for himself, but Fani-Kayode cannot make such a claim.
The language and words employed by Umar in his open letter to President Obasanjo titled "Seek proper understanding of the Lord" and published in The Guardian, January 23, 2004 and the first part of Fani-Kayode's response, titled "The government has been good to Abubakar Umar" and published in The Guardian, February 2, 2004, were similar: crude and harsh. I am, by no means, a hater of harshness in political criticism, debates, and polemics. But I have always admonished that a political polemicist should not allow an objective reader to begin to guess what his or her motives are. Make them clear. If someone calls you a thief, do not respond by saying: "you nko, you no be thief?". Answer the charge as fully and convincingly as possible; after this, you can make your own charge, in a stronger language, if you like.
I doubt if an argument gains anything by personal abuses. Purged of its language, what Umar was saying is what many people have been saying of President Obasanjo's government, namely, that it is dictatorial, intolerant, unresponsive to people's real needs and pseudo-messianic. Umar could have added to the literature by citing his personal experiences, if any. Do not clothe your personal experiences in generalities, although, with some risks, it is legitimate to generalise from personal experiences.
Femi Fani-Kayode's response did not confront Umar's charges, or the Colonel's "curses" and "warnings". Rather, he concentrated on suggesting what could have been the sources of Umar's bitterness: failure to get all he wanted from the present government. He then went on to reveal the sum of money he claimed Babangida gave to Umar to start an enterprise. He also cited other forms of assistance Umah had received and the involvement of his family in lucrative sectors of the Nigerian economy. Fani-Kayode also cast doubts on Umar's pro-June 12 claims and commitment. I don't know how wiser we are with this type of "revelations". With changes in names and dates what Fani-Kayode said of Umar and Babangida can be said of almost all Nigerian rulers" past and present.
Fani-Kayode ended with what I consider the high point of his response: "Again, he (Umar) is a man who is desperately seeking relevance and who cannot get over the fact that he and the small group that he holds brief for will never smell power in Nigeria again". This is a clear pointer to what is to come. Be prepared!
These terms and conditions contain rules about posting comments. By submitting a comment, you are declaring that you agree with these rules:
Failure to comply with these rules may result in being banned from further commenting.
These terms and conditions are subject to change at any time and without notice.