Absolute power loves to come in the benign habiliment of profound understatement. When General Yakubu Gowon came to power after the coup of July 29, 1966, he was called the Supreme Commander and Head of the Federal Military Government. Yet his supremacy was heavily contested and the military government was deeply divided. Then the soldiers went to Ghana under the auspices of the new military ruler of that country and they met in Aburi. From that point on, Gowon took on the title of Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces. Yet with this new sober title, Gowon wielded more powers than hitherto.
When he came to power in succession to General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, the new Gowon was talking of handing over power to an elected regime by 1971. Then the Civil War intervened and the assignment of nation building came in earnest. After the war, Gowon wore his powers with outward lavishness. We all love his regular movement to the airport, with the white uniform outriders displaying the arts and science of acrobatic motorcycling. The pomp and pageantry of power appealed to our youthful sense. Gowon was young, breathtakingly handsome and power becomes him like a natural accouterment. He too fell in love with power, its dizzying scent, its allure and its tantalizing romance.
He had promised that he would hand over power to an elected government by 1976, just six years after the Civil War. By that 1976, he would still just be a young man of 43, a full general on top of his game. And to walk away from all these at such a young age! He looked across the African continent, hardly was there any President looking for another job. Maumar Gadhafi of Libya, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo, Mobutu Sese-Seko of Zaire; all long timers and not one of them were thinking of quitting. In 1974, Gowon told Nigerians that 1976 “is unrealistic.”
At that time when he seemed to be so powerful, power was actually slipping out of his hands. His governors openly defied him. He said he was going to change governors, but one of them said that was not possible. He still had a lot of jobs to perform. He appointed new Federal Commissioners (ministers) and brought past war commanders like then Brigadiers Murtala Muhammed and Olusegun Obasanjo into his cabinet. He instituted public service reforms under the leadership of Chief Jeremiah Udoji who recommended the payment of new salaries to public workers. The oil boom was in full swing and Gowon authorised the payment of salary arrears. Everyone was happy. In 1974, I had just finished secondary school and was offered employment by the Ekiti Divisional Local Schools Board, based in Ikerre, with Chief J.K. Gbadebo as its chairman. My salary was increased from Forty-Five Naira to Ninety Naira per month, thanks to the Udoji Award.
But by the time Gowon appeared so powerful, power was actually slipping from him. His soldiers plotted openly against him. His ministers (Federal Commissioners) contradicted each other and the Head of State was aloof from the reality in Nigeria. Some of his ministers were accused of corruption and new “anti-corruption crusaders” appeared on the national stage. It was not a surprise that Gowon was toppled in the coup of July 29, 1975.
The coup that brought General Murtala Muhammed to power was announced by Gowon’s Commander of the Brigade of Guards, Brigadier Joseph Garba. Muhammed, who had no time for the panoply of power, certainly wielded more powers than Gowon ever did. He fired all the governors, appointed his ministers and left no one in doubt about who was in control.
With the issue of power, it is not always clear who is in control. General Ibrahim Babangida, in a mood of self-satisfaction during his hey days declared: “We are not only in government, we are in power!” Yet power is an unfaithful mistress. It lies coyly with the powerful. But sometimes, it drifts away and moves in with the unknown elements who wield power without the responsibility of office. So by the closing years of his reign when power had drifted away, it took the reality of August 27, 1993 to open the eyes of General Babangida that power was no longer his mistress.
Babangida was a lucky man to ever find out the truth. In the old Oyo Empire, the greatest state among the Yoruba kingdoms of the pre-colonial era, the Alaafin was the potentate. The kingdom was founded by Oranmiyan, an Ife prince, who took the cognomen, Alaafin. At the height of his power, Alaafin authority covered a swath of territories in the present Oyo, Osun, Kwara, Ogun and Benin Republic. So provincial rulers would travel to the capital of Oyo bringing tributes to the Emperor. By Yoruba tradition, the Alaafin in those days cannot appear in public, except on ceremonial occasions and even at that, he must appear veiled.
The Alaafin’s palace was a mini-city. In it were many court rooms and when one of the provincial rulers, many of whom were kings also of their domains, appeared at the palace gate, he would be welcomed by the royal drummers and be led to the court room. There the visiting royal would meet the Alaafin on his throne and then he would prostrate before the emperor while the latter blessed him. The palace slaves and servants would collect the tributes and carry them to the vast courtyard of the emperor.
Unknown to the visiting provincial king, he had just been duped. The servants and the palace slaves had dressed up one of their own and installed him on a fake throne. The provincial king, not knowing the truth, thought he had met the real Alaafin, not knowing that he was prostrating to an Ilari, (a special palace servant) or a slave, who was dressed up in the royal robe of the emperor. Neither the emperor not the provincial king may ever know the truth. This practice was common when the emperor was weak or had ineffective control over the bureaucracy of the palace and the dark catacomb of old Oyo politics.
So in the year of Our Lord 2017, are we being led into the wrong court room to prostrate before the wrong emperor? By his antecedents and public profile, General Muhammadu Buhari, the man we elected our President in 2015 is a strong man who should be jealous of his powers. He would not want to share his powers with a shadowy group or surrender it to those his enemies called the cabal, or the mafia, or the group of modern ilari. Now, he must know that power is an unfaithful mistress. She must be kept in sight at all time and better kept on a leash.
In Nigeria, we do not want our President to be less powerful than our President should be. In the words of Babangida, the leader of Nigeria “must dominate his environment.” The President of Nigeria must not only be powerful, he must be seen to be powerful and be ready to use his powers. Now there is a nagging feeling that some people are making efforts to dominate the President and use the enormous powers of his office without his knowledge or his consent.
Those who were plotting to dominate the President have apparently installed themselves in a court room and everyone else thought they were dealing with the real President. They ordered the recall of Adulrasheed Maina, a former civil servant, who was accused of stealing public fund meant for the payment of pensions for retired public officers, back into the country and into his old post in the bureaucracy. Maina had been accused of stealing public fund ranging from N2 billion to N20 billion. Former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan wanted him to have his day in court and he was handed over to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. Maina proved that he was bigger than that and he soon fled and the government sent the International Police, INTERPOL, after him. Then Buhari came to power with his anti-corruption agenda and Maina remained a wanted man.
On Monday, Buhari fired David Babachir Lawal, the embattled Secretary to the Government of the Federation, and Ayo Oke, the Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency, NIA. Both have pending corruption cases. But the President is still apparently trying to unravel the mystery of the Maina saga. Who invited a wanted man back into the country and rolled out the red carpet for him? Who authorised Maina’s promotion? Who took him off the wanted list of the police, the EFCC and the Interpol?
With all these happening around him, it shows how isolated our President is apparently becoming. Buhari cannot afford to keep power, his unfaithful mistress, out of sight. He cannot simply allow her to sleep around or else there are many Mainas that would happen on his beat. We know that our President is back from his medical vacation. Buhari still lives in Aso Rock. What we are not so sure of is whether power still resides there with him or she has gone out on a flirty adventure.
01 November 2017 THE GUARDIAN