A Palace coup is one in which the sudden and decisive change of government illegally or by force is carried out by individuals in positions of authority who are themselves part and parcel of the ruling regime. In other words, one group of members of the Palace court seizes control from another group while the people look on.
Palace coups have occurred since antiquity. Pharaoh Amen-em-het Sehetep-ib-re of Ancient Egypt was killed in a palace coup in 1962 B.C. In 555 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was overthrown in a palace coup and replaced by Nabonidus – a reclusive scholar who ate grass thinking he was a goat. In AD 96, Titus Flavius Domitianus (brother of Titus Flavius Vespasianus) was killed during a palace coup in Rome led by Marcus Cocceius Nerva. Under pressure from the Praetorian guard – to whom he owed his emergence – Nerva subsequently adopted Marcus Ulpius Traianius, (a.k.a. Trajan) as his successor. With the support of the Preobrazhensky regiment, Elizabeth Petrovna gained the throne of Russia by overthrowing her mother Catherine I (second wife of Emperor Peter I ) through a palace coup in November 1741. Having engineered the coup against Egyptian King Farouk as leader of the Free Officers Movement in July 1952, Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser later pushed General Mohammed Neguib aside as Premier in a Palace coup on April 17th, 1954 , relegating Neguib to the role of ceremonial President. On June 23, 1956, Nasser finally assumed full powers as President.
The assassination of US President Kennedy in November 1963 has been described by some as a Palace coup. The Dhofar rebellion in Oman led to a palace coup on July 23, 1970, when Sultan Said was overthrown by his son, Qabus ibn Said. The Sultan was even said to have been shot and injured. On Feb 22, 1972, Khalifa bni Hamadi th-Thani who acted for many years as Deputy Ruler and Prime Minister of Qatar overthrew Emir Ahmed. Then on June 25, 1995, Emir Khalifa was himself dethroned by his own son and heir, acting Defence Minister Shaykh Hamadu bni Khalifati th-Thani, while Khalifa was on a visit abroad. In 1977, then Major Mengistu Haile Mariam, 1st Vice Chairman of the Ruling Ethiopian Derg liquidated the Chairman and Head of State, Brigadier Teferi Benti, and assumed full powers. On July 5, 1978, junior officers on the Ghanaian Military Advisory Committee pressured Lieutenant General Frederick W.K. Akuffo, then Chief of Staff and Vice Chair, to force General Ignatius K. Acheampong to resign as Head of State. Afghan President Taraki was killed in a palace coup in September 1979 and succeeded by Hafizullah Amin. In the same year, Obiang Nguema removed his uncle as the President in a palace coup in Equatorial Guinea. A few years later, on December 12, 1984, Col. Maaouya Ould Sid`Ahmed Taya, already an insider, seized power in Mauritania. The story of how the third ranking member of the Supreme Military Council (SMC), then Chief of Army Staff, Major General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB) ousted the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, Major General Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria in August 1985, is the subject of this article.
In June 1983, among the new graduates of the Nigerian Defence Academy was 23 year old 2/Lt. P. Odoba. After commissioning, he was deployed to the Brigade of Guards Garrison, Lagos to begin a journey, the twists and turns of which he could not have guessed in his wildest dreams.
On December 31, 1983, Odoba was the duty officer at the Radio Station, Federal Radio Corporation, Ikoyi, Lagos. The night before he was casually told by the Acting Commander of the Brigade of Guards, Lt. Col. Sabo Aliyu that some armored vehicles and soldiers would be coming to the radio station for an ‘exercise’ and that he should not ask questions or resist. He complied. Shortly thereafter, Brigadier Sani Abacha, then Commander of the 9th Mechanized Infantry Brigade based at Ikeja, arrived to deliver the speech that ended the regime of President Shehu Shagari and Nigeria’s second experiment with democracy. Brigadier Muhammadu Buhari, former GOC of the 3rd Armoured Division, emerged as the Head of State, while Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon, former Military Secretary, was appointed Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters and Brigadier Ibrahim Babangida, former Director of Army Staff Duties and Plans – and the operational backbone of the coup – assumed the position of Chief of Army Staff [http://www.gamji.com/nowa13.htm].
Declaring itself an “offshoot” of the Murtala-Obasanjo government of the late seventies, the Buhari regime purged the uppermost echelon of the Armed Forces, retiring all officers of the rank of Major General equivalent or above at the time of the coup. But that was not all. Some lower ranking officers, including Captain M Bala Shagari, the former President’s son were also retired. In time to come his junior brother, Musa, would also be thrown out of the AirForce Secondary School in Jos. Buhari detained most political leaders of the Second Republic, accusing them of indiscipline and profligacy. For the first time in Nigerian history, the country’s security organizations were actively used to track down alleged acts of corruption through the Special Investigation Bureau preparatory to formal military style trials at Bonny Camp. As had been the initial practice by various prior military regimes, special asset recovery military tribunals were set up all over the country. A “War against Indiscipline” (WAI) was launched. Such indiscipline was interpreted broadly to mean lack of environmental cleanliness, lack of manners (such as failing to take one’s place in queues), corruption, smuggling, desecration of the flag and disloyalty to the anthem.
The State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree Number 2 of 1984 gave the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters (Major General Idiagbon) the power to detain anyone labelled a security risk for up to six months without trial. Decree Number 4 of 1984 was promulgated to prevent journalists from reporting news that could potentially embarrass government officials. Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson were convicted under the decree. Some high visibility special interest groups, including the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) and Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), ran afoul of the government and were outlawed. The Labour Congress was banned from undertaking strike action.
In July 1984, in what was clearly a high risk move, the Buhari government – allegedly assisted by Israeli intelligence – unsuccessfully attempted to kidnap Alhaji Umaru Dikko, self-exiled 2nd republic Transportation Minister, from a flat in London. He was grabbed while taking a stroll, bundled into a van, intubated and placed on ventilator support supervised by an Israeli anesthesiologist, then placed into a crate and taken to Stansted airport outside London. Just before embarkation on a Lagos bound cargo plane suspicious British Police and customs officers – already alerted by Dikko’s assistant who witnessed the kidnap from her window – aborted the heist. The incident created a diplomatic storm and even resulted in tit-for-tat seizures of Nigerian and British Airways aircraft in London and Lagos. High Commissioners to both countries were withdrawn – and were not reinstated until February 1986.
To address economic issues, Buhari introduced austerity measures. He closed the country’s borders – which were not reopened until March 1st, 1986 – and expelled illegal aliens. Severe limitations were placed on imports. Smuggling and foreign exchange offenses were viewed as acts of economic sabotage – with severe penalties. Unfortunately, accompanied by high inflation, these measures made business onerous for import-dependent local businesses. Many workers were retrenched in the public and private sectors at a time prices of elementary food items, caused in part by famine, were rising. Nevertheless, with all the attributes of a military operation, the color design of Nigeria’s currency was also changed in April 1984, in part to deal with fake notes in local and regional circulation thought to be affecting liquidity, but also to undercut corruptly expropriated cash stocks outside the country. Generals Buhari and Idiagbon secretly initiated this major undertaking by reaching down to a staff officer at SHQ, then Lt. Col. MC Alli, who in turn relied on one clerk, Sergeant Ibrahim Audu, bypassing the Finance Ministry, Central Bank, Supreme Military and Federal Executive Councils.
The credibility of the currency exchange exercise was, however, severely tested when the late Emir of Gwandu, father of Major Mustafa Haruna Jokolo (rtd) who was then the ADC to the C-in-C, arrived back in the country from a foreign trip with a large delegation of wives and children. Newspapers reported that aided by connections to the regime, he cleared 53 suitcases, none of which were inspected by the customs service at the airport which was then under Abubakar Atiku – the current Vice President. However, the issue remains controversial with latter day unsubstantiated comments from General Buhari himself as well as aides to former Major Jokolo (who is now the Emir of Gwandu) claiming on the one hand that the count of “53 suitcases” was inaccurate and on the other that the scenario was contrived by then NSO Boss Rafindadi allegedly to protect a friend of his in the diplomatic service.
To deal with the emerging problem of narcotics trafficking a retrospective law was passed to have suspects arrested, tried, convicted and shot. Irrespective of the merits of taking a harsh line to the problem, the retrospective nature of the decree – leading to the deaths of Bartholomew Owoh, Bernard Ogedegbe and Lawal Ojuolape – was inherently controversial to many neutral observers. The fact that a death sentence was the prescribed punishment was considered too severe by others. On the other hand the risk that investigations would someday target well placed military officers and their mules became a source of quiet background agitation, particularly when some very prominent businessmen like Dantata, Isyaku Rabiu, Maidaribe, Bako Kontagora, Amali Sokoto, Haruna Dan-Ja and others were arrested for this or other reasons or their relatives investigated.
Separately, the Buhari government – or agents purportedly acting on its behalf – humiliated several important personalities and opinion leaders in the country. The O’oni of Ife and Emir of Kano were publicly cautioned and restricted to their domains after they paid a visit to Israel, a country with which Nigeria did not have diplomatic relations at the time, dating back to OAU actions in solidarity with Egypt during the 1983 Arab-Israeli war. A team of soldiers was sent to the Park Lane residence of Chief Awolowo in Apapa where they proceeded to ransack the premises, searching for nothing in particular. Sheikh Mahmoud Gumi, a reverred moslem cleric, was allegedly removed from chairmanship of the Nigerian Pilgrims Board, his salary terminated and official car impounded – ostensibly because he disagreed with the decision to execute cocaine traffickers. It remains controversial to this day whether some of these activities were undertaken, not by the Supreme Headquarters per se, but by lower echelons in the Army (specifically the Directorate of Military Intelligence) as part of a psyops campaign to discredit the regime and set it up for the kill. I recall, for example, that while leading members of the NMA were being hunted down by the NSO supposedly on behalf of General Buhari, at least one prominent activist claimed to be in touch with the Chief of Army Staff, Major General Babangida who was said to be sending signals to aggrieved Doctors at variance with the public posture of the regime.
As fate would have it, twenty months later on Sallah Day, Id-el-Kabir August 26/27, 1985, Odoba, now a full lieutenant, was again at the FRCN Radio station in Ikoyi as the duty officer. Once again he was told by his Garrison Commander not to resist when he sees armored vehicles approaching for yet another ‘exercise’. Shortly thereafter, Colonel Joshua Nimyel Dogonyaro, Director of Manning (“A” Branch) and concurrent Director of the Department of Armour at the Army Headquarters arrived, barely taking notice of the young officer.
At 0600 hours on Tuesday August 27, 1985, snoozy from the laid back atmosphere of a moslem public holiday, unsuspecting Nigerians woke up to familiar cycles of martial music interspersed with a radio announcement made in an unfamiliar voice. It was Dogonyaro. Among other things, he said: ‘A small group of individuals in the Supreme Military Council had abused their power and failed to listen to the advice of their colleagues or the public, about tackling the country’s economic problems.’ He then announced that the regime of Major General Muhammadu Buhari had been deposed. Hours later, at about 1 pm, the more familiar voice of Brigadier Sani Abacha, then GOC, 2nd Mechanized Division of the Nigerian Army, based in Ibadan, came on to announce the appointment of Major General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, then Chief of Army Staff, as the new Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Babangida, having flown back to the capital from Minna, in his home state, where he was allegedly on vacation, subsequently took the title of ‘President’. The position of Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters was eliminated. Navy Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, then Flag Officer Commanding, Western Naval Command was appointed to the new position of Chief of General Staff (CGS) at the General Staff HQ. This subtle change in title neatly removed the service chiefs from any kind of direct reporting relationship to the new CGS.
WHAT WAS THE REASON FOR THE COUP?
All coups are usually justified in high brow terms designed to appeal to the emotions and patriotism of the uninformed public. This was no different. Each of the three speeches made that day – by Dogonyaro, Abacha and finally by Babangida himself went to great lengths to rationalize the Palace coup and make expedient gestures designed to appeal to cheap populist instincts.
The official line was that the erstwhile Head of State and his deputy (Major General Tunde Idiagbon) were guilty of dictatorial lack of consultation with their military colleagues, gross abuse of human rights, exemplified by mass detention of politicians and others without due process, proscription of professional organizations, muzzling of the Press and promulgation of retroactive laws (e.g. execution of drug peddlers). To this was added insensitivity to respected leaders of thought in various parts of Nigeria, the issue of counter-trade and alleged intent to take the IMF Loan against popular wishes. The real problem, however, was a profound personality clash and divergence of expectations and priorities among the officers (and civilians) who originally conspired to effect (or benefit from) the removal of President Shagari in 1983. Indeed, Buhari, although peripherally involved in that plot, was not an insider and was not critically operationally active by virtue of his posting at the time in Jos – away from key centers of power. It has since come to light that he may have owed his emergence as the new C-in-C on January 1, 1984 to the near solo effort of Major Mustafa Jokolo of the Military Police who later became his ADC. Jokolo reportedly convinced his fellow middle ranking inner circle storm troopers in Lagos to adopt the ascetic and relatively clean Buhari, fresh from battle victories along the Lake Chad border, as an acceptable national figure to unite the armed forces as a whole behind the change and give it the façade of a patriotic putsch. Jokolo’s efforts were no doubt assisted by Babangida’s lack of interest in the job at that point in time – as well as the death of a key plotter, Brigadier Ibrahim Bako, in murky circumstances. Unconfirmed news reports – never in short supply in gossip rich Nigeria – quote Babangida as telling confidants that he was “not yet ready to move over to the other (political) side.”
Over the years, more mundane reasons for the August coup have become public knowledge. For example, in a unpublished thesis titled, “Military Involvement in Politics in Nigeria: The Effect on Nigerian Army”, written in 1989 at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, then Major Habibu Idris Shuaibu, speaking as one of those who backed General Babangida’s putsch, claims that the reason for the coup against Buhari was that Buhari did not distribute positions to junior officers. Another unconfirmed report, for example, suggests that Colonel Dogonyaro’s promotion to Brigadier may have been delayed by Buhari. Clearly these were the perspectives (if true) of some of the junior and middle ranking officers who were used to carry it out but does not inherently explain the coup at the level of its originators.
Regarding civilian involvement, other unconfirmed reports speculate profound displeasure on the part of Chief MKO Abiola, who was alleged to have helped finance the 1983 coup. Abiola was upset not only with the decision of the Buhari regime to seize and auction a large consignment of his newsprint (which had allegedly been smuggled into the country) but also with an inquiry into the possible role of a relative in the drug trade. This, the story alleges, motivated Abiola to financially assist Buhari’s removal. But Abiola was not the only unhappy figure in the private sector, assuming such reports are true. Unconfirmed reports identified other individuals with business interests like Dantata.
Regarding the role of intellectuals, Professor Omo Omoruyi, a self described personal counsellor and friend to Babangida, has also written that he was “privy and party to” Babangida’s “personal decision (not as Chief of Army Staff) to overthrow the government of Major General Muhammadu Buhari”. He has revealed that IBB “came to office without a political programme and with no modality for putting one in place.”
Major General MC Alli (rtd) throws in another dimension. He described the coup as “an enigmatic, sleek and sophisticated purge received with press-inspired fanfare in August 1985” concocted by Babangida “in consort with northern officers, particularly of Middle Belt extraction based on the products of Regular 3 Officer’s Course at the Defence Academy.” It was executed by a cabal of company and field grade officers who, in due course, would come to be known as “IBB Boys”. Speaking with the benefit of insights gained as then Deputy Director, Joint Services, at the Supreme Headquarters, Alli says that tensions between the Army (specifically Babangida and Abacha) and the Buhari regime (specifically Buhari and Idiagbon) came to a head when Ministry of Defence contracts and accounts were placed under scrutiny.
Refining this further, in a recent interview in Kaduna on 20 March 2002, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) (MB) had the following conversation with Antony Goldman (AG):
“AG: What prompted the coup in 1985? MB: We had confirmed evidence that for the second time Aliyu Mohammed had been making money from passing on contracts to the tune of N1m, which was worth $1.4m at the time. It was brought before the army council and Aliyu was retired. Some of those involved are dead. But enough of us who were there are still alive and they know this is what happened.
AG: Do you think you should have found any way also of retiring Babangida?
MB: I had no idea, I had no intention of retiring Babangida. It’s just like what they cooked up. They said I took away the passport of Sheikh Mahmud Gummi, aformer respected mullah here, that I had stopped his salary, that I had ordered his house to be searched. But all of these things I didn’t do as Head of State. But it was part of the campaign to subvert me and to subvert my authority.
AG: And that was the trigger for the coup?
MB: Yes, Babangida felt threatened, he was close to Aliyu and perhaps he was afraid. He was head of the armoured corps, he could move.”
It would seem, therefore, that from Buhari’s perspective, the retirement of then Colonel Aliyu Mohammed was the trigger factor for the take-over – whatever else may have been brewing in the background.
As Director of Military Intelligence, Aliyu was Babangida’s siamese twin in the coup against former President Shagari. Some have claimed that “live and let live” arguments were made to the effect that Aliyu Mohammed’s import license and other business activities were at least in part geared to raise funds for the December 1983 coup, of which Buhari, although unaware of the said transactions, was the eventual beneficiary. This line of thinking allegedly found justification in the precedent whereby ‘revolutionaries’ may have to rob banks to raise funds in support of the ‘revolution’. However, Buhari allegedly rejected this argument, declaring that there could be no sacred cows or extenuating circumstances. By so doing he profoundly upset the innermost cabal of officers who organized the 1983 coup – and played into the hands of his alarmed Army Chief who had long laid the groundwork for such a confrontation. As things happened, assuming newspapers and magazines are to be believed, Aliyu was actually retired by the office of the Military Secretary (MS), at that time under Colonel Rabiu Aliyu, who was away on vacation. However, one of his assistants, the Deputy MS II, then Lt. Col. Bashir Salihi Magashi was on hand to complete the task. Along with Babangida, Aliyu Mohammed Gusau was reportedly placed under intense surveillance (including wire taps) by the NSO -prompting him to pressure the coup planners to stop prevaricating, act quickly or leave him no choice but to escape. Buhari was removed in the nick of time before his government could formally officially gazette the retirement – which was revoked by executive order immediately Babangida came to power.
WHO WERE THE KEY CONSPIRATORS? WHEN WERE THEY RECRUITED?
As Head of State, Buhari’s isolation from the military was gradual but relentless. It began almost as soon as he came to power in 1984. While he was fixated on purely political national issues with religious fervor, he did not notice that specific officers were being quietly placed in specific operational positions to lay in wait like ‘sleepers’ until they would be called upon to strike by the very service chiefs he had naively placed his trust in to run the armed forces on his behalf.
A classic example was the way then Lt. Col. Halilu Akilu, already a Grade 1 Staff Officer in the Directorate, was inserted into the office of Director of Military Intelligence while the regular person on seat, then Lt. Col. MC Alli, was away to Britain and the US for a very brief official assignment establishing liaison with other military intelligence groups. MC Alli had been deputising for Col. Aliyu Mohammed who had left for a course at the Royal College of Defence Studies after assisting the overthrow of President Shagari. [Aliyu Mohammed later returned to start up the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) with Col. S. Anthony Ukpo as his deputy – although the DIA was not formally established in law until June 1986 when Decree Number 19 was promulgated]. Akilu was Babangida’s mole in the intelligence community, a counterweight to Alhaji Muhammadu Lawal Rafindadi, Buhari’s loyal Director of the Nigerian Security Organization (NSO).
Officers who would be crucial to Babangida’s take-over in 1985 had been cultivated for many years dating back to their days as cadets in the Nigerian Defence Academy between 1970 and 1972 when then Major Babangida, having recovered from war injuries suffered at Uzuakoli as CO of the 44th battalion in the 1st division under Colonel Shuwa was made an Instructor and Company Commander in the Short Service Wing (pairing up with his coursemate and rival, Major MJ Vatsa of the Regular wing). Simultaneously, over the years, aided by the convenience of his permanent military posting to the Federal capital interrupted only by foreign courses from late 1973 until 1985, Babangida developed intricate connections with civilian contacts in business, the media, civil service, academia and religious circles. He even devoted his thesis at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) in 1979 to the question of civil-military relations. He also skillfully manipulated the military sub-culture of “welfare”, through personal generosity and expressions of interest in the personal lives and problems of junior officers, endearing himself to many.
THE ARMOURED CORPS AND BABANGIDA’S RISE TO POWER
Referring to Babangida (above), Buhari said “He was head of the armoured corps; he could move “. What Buhari meant was that Babangida’s clout increased as the size, power and complexity of the Nigerian Army Armoured Corps (NAAC) increased. To clarify this point, a brief history of that Corps – in parallel with Babangida’s own career history – is in order.
First, let me explain a basic concept. In American doctrine, the Army is organized into three main areas (or “arms”) of specialization. COMBAT OR “TEETH” ARMS, like Infantry, Field Artillery, Armour, Army aviation, and Combat Engineers (sappers), consist of branches involved in direct combat; COMBAT SUPPORT ARMS, like Air Defence Artillery, Military Police, Intelligence, and Signals are those which directly aid Combat Arms; while COMBAT SERVICE SUPPORT ARMS, like Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Medical, Chaplain, Supply and Transport, Ordnance, and Finance include those branches which provide logistic or other forms of support to the Army. It should be noted, however, that there is a school of thought (of British origin) that classifies Intelligence and Signals as “Teeth” arms. Nigeria subscribes to the latter thinking.
According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, the Infantry “. has borne the brunt of human conflict through the ages, and has been called the ‘Queen of Battle.'” Infantry officers often refer to excerpts of a famous Fort Benning quote that goes:
“I am the Infantry.. Queen of Battle! Where the fighting is thick, there am I . . . I am the Infantry! …Follow me!”
No one “Arm” is independent. However, although the infantry understandably likes to call itself the “Queen of Battle”, of all the ‘teeth’ arms in the Army, the Armored corps is arguably the most powerful and decisive, uniting the concepts of firepower, mobility and protection. This was brilliantly exploited by German General Heinz Guderian in developing the “Blitzkrieg” strategy of world war 2. All through modern history, the decisive defeat of Armored units and/or their predecessors or variants in the Cavalry has been a key element of finality in the military equation. In armoured corps circles in the world, they think of themselves as the “Combat Arm of Decision”. In the 20th century, from an internal security perspective, Tanks on the streets increasingly became recognized as the ultimate symbol of the power of the State.
The combination of this basic military fact with the geohistoric inevitability of Ikeja cantonment in Lagos as a crucial pawn in Nigerian military political power tussles has proved to be an issue again and again for victors and vanquished alike. It used to be said that he who controls Ikeja controls Nigeria. Examples include the quest for control of the 2nd infantry battalion at Ikeja supported by the Recce Squadron at Abeokuta in January and July 1966, 9th infantry brigade and 4th reconnaissance regiment in July 1975, 4th reconnaissance regiment in February 1976, 9th mechanized brigade and 245 Recce Battalion in December 1983, 201 Armour HQ Administrative, and the 245 Recce and 123 Infantry battalions in August 1985. Even during the Vatsa Conspiracy Trial of 1985/86, the question of what to do to neutralize the armored vehicles at Ikeja cantonment, proved to be a thorn in the side for alleged conspirators in the Army and Air Force who were even reported to have briefly discussed air strikes as an option. A major reason why the April 1990 coup attempt failed was largely because its proponents failed to get control of the Armoured vehicle shed at Ikeja.
In half-jest, following a spate of recurrent coups and attempted coups involving armoured corp officers it later became fashionable to simply refer to them as “Fellow Nigerians.” – the typical start to a radio broadcast announcing a coup. However, General Abacha, in no mood for jokes regarding matters of security, was sufficiently wary of the Armored corps that he redeployed Recce and Tank units to border regions away from centers of political power in the mid-nineties.
The Nigerian Army Armored Corps began with humble origins with a decision in late 1957 by the Federal Defence Council (FDC) to disband the Artillery regiment and set up a Recce unit in its place to better patrol the open lands of the north. Until the Artillery regiment was again reconstituted, young first generation Nigerian artillery officers (like Alexander Madiebo) were briefly transferred to Recce before Recce began developing its own dedicated officer corps. From one Recce Squadron based in Kaduna, it evolved into two Recce Squadrons (Kaduna and Abeokuta) in the Recce Regiment. The earliest Nigerian Recce officers included Christian Anuforo, John Obienu and Hassan Katsina. The regiment was later redesignated an Inspectorate of Recce, primarily armed with Ferrets. Although there were quite a few second generation eastern officers (like Isong and Ugokwe), it was – like the Infantry and Artillery – mainly attractive to second generation northern recruits (like M Remawa, DS Abubakar, Pam Jungdam Mwadkon, MJ Gin, I Babangida, S Ifere, G Duba, Saliu Ibrahim, J Dogonyaro etc.) while southerners generally preferred technical arms like Signals, Combat Engineers, Electrical Mechanical Engineers, Ordnance, Supply and Transport, etc. As role models for younger northern entrants, the early northern Recce officers naturally established an informal mechanism for a self-recycling elite which gave the corps an unmistakable geopolitical configuration – the significance of which will be clear later on.
During the civil war the range of armored fighting vehicles was expanded to include the Fox, Saladin and Saracen family. The Inspectorate of Recce (led by an “Inspector”) evolved after the civil war into four Recce regiments (1, 2, 3, and 4 Reconnaissance Regiments, respectively). Then in 1976/77 it matured into the Armoured Corps (led by a “Commander”) at a time of significant expansion of its range of Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFV) to include French Panhard AML 60s and 90s and light Tanks (like the British Scorpion CVRT). Armored Brigades were created in Enugu (21st), Ilorin (22nd), Bauchi (23rd) and Epe (24th) in the place of regiments. These have long since been reorganized.
Just after the civil war, the School of Armour was located along old Ife Road in Ibadan but moved to ‘Tank terrain’ in Bauchi sometime in October 1979. Later on, medium Tanks (like the Soviet T-55) and heavy Tanks (like the Vickers “Eagle” Main Battle Tank) were acquired. In addition to reconnaissance (recce) battalions, therefore, Tank battalions were created, further differentiating the organizational structure. To establish a transit mechanism for new equipment training, orientation and testing, a 201 “administrative” Corp HQ battalion was established at Ikeja where officers from parent units all over the country would mill in and out in armoured corps overalls, looking busy interacting with Russian and French technicians – but ready at any time to be used for power play. In addition to this dynamic battalion, a demonstration battalion (202) was located in Kaduna (Ribadu Cantonment) to support training at the Defence Academy and at training institutions around Jaji. The “Commander” of the Armored Corps later became a “Director” in charge of a “Department of Armour” in the Army HQ – located at Bonny Camp. Subsequently, in line with the American style consolidation of Corps Headquarters with Corps Schools, the “Director” position was combined with that of the “Commandant” of the School of Armour at the Obienu Barracks in Bauchi. In later years, as noted previously, several waves of reorganization motivated by political (ie fear of coups) and military considerations (ie concerns about Cameroun and Chad) led to fundamental restructuring of armoured units. That is why 241, 242, 243 and 245 Recce units, for example, came to be located in obscure places like Nguru, Badagry, Monguno and Ikom during General Abacha’s era. Tank Battalions organic to two consolidated Armoured Brigade Headquarters were located in Maiduguri (21st) and Yola (23rd) both reporting to the 3rd Armored Division HQ at the Rukuba cantonment outside Jos, where a mechanized infantry unit (and at one point a Recce unit) also used to reside.
Along with the late Major General Mamman Vatsa, General Babangida (rtd) entered the Army on December 10, 1962. When he completed basic officer training at the Indian Military Academy, he began his career in the 1st Recce Squadron Kaduna (1964-66) before his sojourn as an infantry battalion commander and instructor. He has indicated in interviews that he was involved (as a Recce Lieutenant) in the Kaduna zone of the northern counter-rebellion of July 1966 – while then Lt. Buhari was also active in the revolt as the Motor Transport Officer of the 2nd battalion at Ikeja Barracks in Lagos. In 1974, upon return from the Armoured Training School in the US, Babangida assumed command of the 4 Recce Regiment in the Lagos/Epe area. In early 1975, then Lt. Col. I.B. Babangida was the Head of a team of umpires at a Guards Brigade military exercise (‘Exercise Sunstroke’) along the Lagos-Lanlate axis which is thought by some to have provided a platform for some of the plotting that led to the overthrow of General Gowon in July. As commander of the 4 Recce Regiment in the federal capital area Babangida (along with his neighbour Lt. Col SM Yar’Adua, then a Staff Officer at the Lagos Garrison) was instrumental to the success of that coup and would have been a key contingency factor in any fighting had Colonel JN Garba of the Guards Brigade refused to cooperate. Babangida’s role propelled him to membership of the Supreme Military Council in the post-coup regime. As the acting Director of the Corps of Supply and Transport, Lt. Col. Buhari was also an insider in that coup, but was not a member of the SMC, having been transiently posted away from the Army to a position as Military Governor of North-Eastern State before later assuming a role in the federal executive council as the country’s Oil minister.
As a member of the SMC and one of the pivots of the Murtala Muhammed regime, Babangida – although not the most senior armored officer – became Inspector (and later the 1st Commander) of the Armored Corps. In fact he held the position continuously, even after the advent of civil rule in 1979, interrupted only by courses, until he became Director of Army Staff Duties and Plans (DASDP) at the AHQ in 1981 – while Buhari bounced from command to command as GOC of the 4th, 2nd and 3rd Divisions. Simultaneously, in May 1981, MJ Vatsa, former Secretary of the Dimka coup inquiry, now a Brigadier, having since commanded the Brigade of Guards and the School of Infantry, was asked to take charge of border operations against Cameroun during the fracas resulting from the ambush of Nigerian soldiers on the Akpa Yafi river. How Vatsa’s AHQ and Defence Council approved plans for the invasion of Cameroun leaked and found their way, first to French intelligence, and then on to Cameroun, remains a mystery.
As DASDP, accelerated by some curious retirements of other senior officers like the late Major General JN Garba (rtd), Babangida was second only to the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Inua Wushishi at the AHQ, and was, therefore, still able to monitor and control Armored Corps affairs while spreading his goodwill and patronage to other corps and power brokers in the capital. Indeed, anytime politicians were alarmed by innocuous armored vehicle movements in Lagos – such as during rehearsals for independence day celebrations – they would call Babangida for clarification. On one occasion in 1980 he jumped into a Peugeot 505 after such a call and intercepted a column of tanks near Tafawa Balewa Square, scaring the bewildered junior officers and NCOs who could not understand what the fuss was about. Not surprisingly, Babangida, as DASDP and defacto Deputy Chief of Army Staff, was the critical operational element of the coup against President Shagari in December 1983, securing General Wushishi’s arrest (and resignation) and mobilizing armored officers and units in Lagos and Kaduna/Abuja for the coup – while Major General Vatsa, then Quarter-Master-General, was away on vacation. Incidentally, during Abuja operations, Brigadier Ibrahim Bako, another key conspirator, died in cross-fire under circumstances that have never been clearly explained.
As may be surmised by integrating and extrapolating the above two paragraphs, Babangida oversaw the maturation and massive expansion of the Armored corps including huge foreign armament purchases, training opportunities and career development for upcoming junior officers and soldiers during the heydays of the late seventies and early eighties. The unsuccessful Dimka coup attempt of February 1976 also helped him foster a public image of gallantry when stories circulated of how he risked his life allegedly retaking the Radio Station from his friend Dimka – a ‘feat’ which some claim may actually have been achieved by then Recce Major Chris Ugokwe. Indeed, some newspapers reported that Babangida initially tried to negotiate with Dimka against the orders of then Army Chief Lt. Gen Danjuma, who then sent him back from Bonny Camp to take the station by force. As fate would have it, Dimka even escaped from the station – even though surrounded by troops and armoured vehicles. (Many years later General Obasanjo confirmed this story in an interview).
Anyhow, Babangida’s name was among those of a few members of the SMC (like Yar’Adua, Danjuma, Obasanjo and Muhammed) who had been specifically targetted for elimination, in his case supposedly by Lt. Peter Cigari, allegedly at the behest of Major General Bisalla, then Defence Minister. This “victim status” cemented his legitimacy in the regime, irrespective of what transpired at the radio station. His friend and junior colleague, Lt. Col. J. Dogonyaro, at that time the commander of the 1st Recce Regiment, was nominated to the Board of Inquiry into the Dimka coup – concurrent with his new posting to Lagos as Babangida’s Principal Staff Officer at the Armoured Corps HQ. This investigation Board, which raised charges that were later tried by courts-martial led by Major General J Obada and Brigadier Pius Eromobor, was under the chairmanship of Major General Emmanuel Abisoye. Its members were Mr. Adamu Suleiman (DIG), Navy Captain Olumide, NAF Lt. Col. Muktar Mohammed, and two Army officers whose careers would eventually rise and fall on their relationship with Babangida – Lt. Cols. MJ Vatsa and Joshua Dogonyaro. In contrast to Babangida’s shifty transaction at the radio station, Vatsa, as commanding officer of the 13 Brigade in Calabar had been the first to publicly dissociate his unit from the coup. Quite interestingly a third panel member, then NAF Lt. Col. Muktar Mohammed was destined to clash with Babangida in 1985. Just after the coup against Buhari, Air Vice Marshal Muktar Mohammed openly expressed disagreement with the motives for the coup and was retired from the Air Force.
Going back to the late seventies, coincidentally, the most senior Armour officer at that time – Brigadier Remawa (rtd) – who had already been displaced from the Armour chain of command – found that his career in the Army slowly but surely came to a screeching halt merely because his name was obliquely mentioned to the Dimka coup investigation panel during reference to a game of scrabble he played with one of the alleged plotters at Onitsha.
POWER PLAY – THE MOVIE
In 1978, the movie “Power Play”, a fictional account based on the book “Coup d’Etat” by Edward Luttwak, was released in various versions, English and French. Other versions of the same movie were known as ‘Coup D’État’, ‘Le Jeu de la puissance’ (in French), ‘Operation Overthrow’ or ‘State of Shock’. It was directed by Martyn Burke.
In the movie, encouraged by Dr. Jean Rousseau – an intellectual with military ties – a repressive civilian regime was overthrown by a group of middle ranking conspirators in the Army including Colonels Anthony Narriman, Raymond Kasai, Zeller and Barrientos; Majors Anwar, Minh, Dominique and Aramco; and Captain Hillsman even as they were being closely monitored by Blair, the suspicious Chief of Government Security.
The coup succeeded, ably planned and coordinated by Infantry Colonel Narriman, who nevertheless had to completely rely on Colonel Zeller’s Tank regiment for the decisive assault on the Presidential Palace – the significance of which will be clear later. The conceptualization, recruiting, planning, and implementation of the coup was not without ups and downs. There were various manifestations of internal rivalry and treachery necessitating mutual surveillance and even suspicion among the conspirators. It was necessary at one point to kill an officer who was contacted for the coup but bluntly refused to be recruited, even proceeding to make a radio report to Security HQ. In another part of the movie the reliance of the Unit Commander on his RSM to ensure that troops on a so called “exercise” would not mutiny once they found out what was actually happening was glaringly demonstrated. A breach of operational security necessitated a decision to deliberately sacrifice Colonel Barrientos as a decoy to throw the Chief of Security (Blair) off the scent of the others. The government knew something was in the works but had no details of the real plot.
Convinced that the external environment was right and that an internal window of opportunity had been established to allow for mobilization of units without giving away the game to security organs, the coup was finally launched from the coordinating center at the War College with the code word “Arora”. In carefully timed sequences, various units dashed to their primary and secondary objectives, some to arrest key military and political figures, others to seize strategic centers of communication, public buildings, airports, radio stations, road junctions etc. Considerable effort was made in the movie to dramatize road-block confrontations between loyal and disloyal units, some of which were mobilized via frantic phone calls from key figures in the regime without going through the regular chain of command – which had been disrupted by early morning arrests and other methods of neutralization.
A serious attempt to put down the coup was made by Blair by calling in a loyal air-portable battalion based outside the capital. However, this effort was neutralized by a decision to park armoured vehicles on the runway of the destination air-base near the capital. This prevented the planes bringing in loyal troops from landing. An attempt by the incoming para-commander to bluff his way in by claiming to be out of fuel was called by a nervous young officer in the control tower. One group of soldiers led by Military Intelligence Captain Hillsman shot its way into Blair’s National Security HQ and destroyed all its records, turning the place upside down, irritated by the pervasive and abusive nature of its methods. In reaction, Blair wryly pointed out that once the new coup regime settled down it too would need a security set up, no matter what it thought of the former regime. However, the punch line of the movie was the brilliant illustration of the coup-within-a-coup scenario when Tank Colonel Zeller exploited the fact that Tanks from his own Unit were in control of the Presidential Palace to wrest leadership of the coup from Infantry Colonel Narriman.
Why have I gone through the trouble of explaining all this? Because I have reason to believe that in the early eighties, the movie “Power Play” was circulated among a highly restricted circle of Army Officers in Nigeria and was the guiding resource used in planning key aspects of the coup against Major General Buhari – as will be evident when we begin to discuss operational issues.
THE PLAYERS OF AUGUST
At strategic, operational, and tactical levels a large number of general staff, field grade, company grade and non-commissioned officers made August 27, 1985 possible. Some were physically involved in military operations on D-Day; while others partook in the elaborate game of deception and disinformation that preceded the coup. However, as in all coups there were overlapping concentric rings or tiers of involvement with the lowest echelons being brought into the picture within the last 6 – 24 hours of the operation, in some cases by being misled as to the real nature of what was going on.
KEY PLAYERS IN SUPPORT OF THE COUP INCLUDED (BUT WERE NOT LIMITED TO):
1. Major General Ibrahim Babangida – Chief of Army Staff (COAS)
2. Brigadier Sani Abacha – GOC, 2nd Mechanised Division, Ibadan
3. Colonel JT Dogonyaro – Director, Department of Armour, Army HQ
4. Colonel Aliyu Mohammed Gusau – former Director, Defence Intelligence Agency
5. Lt. Col. Halilu Akilu – Director of Military Intelligence
6. Lt. Col. Tanko Ayuba – Commander, Corps of Signals
7. Lt. Col. David Mark – Military Governor, Niger State
8. Lt. Col. John Nanzip Shagaya – Commander, 9th Mechanised Brigade
9. Lt. Col. Chris Abutu Garuba – Commander, 34 Self Propelled Artillery Brigade, Jos
10. Lt. Col. Raji Alagbe Rasaki – Commanding Officer, AHQ Garrison and Signals Group, Lagos
11. Col. Anthony Ukpo – Deputy Director, Defence Intelligence Agency, Lagos
12. Major John Madaki – Commanding Officer, 123 Guards Battalion, Ikeja
13. Major Abdulmumuni Aminu – Military Assistant to the COAS
14. Major Lawan Gwadabe – just back from US Armour School, Fort Knox, returning to 245 Recce Battalion where he was the former Commanding Officer
15. Major Abubakar Dangiwa Umar – General Staff Officer (1), Department of Armour, AHQ, then Chairman Federal Housing Authority
16. Major Mohammed Sambo Dasuki, Staff Officer, HQ Corps of Artillery (and son of Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki, who later became the 17th Sultan of Sokoto).
17. Major Maxwell Khobe-Commanding Officer, 245 Recce Battalion, Ikeja
18. Major UK Bello-Commanding Officer, 202 Recce Battalion, Kaduna
19. Major Kefas Happy Bulus-Commanding Officer, Armour Headquarters Company (201-Administrative-Unit) Ikeja
20. Major Sule Ahman, Supply and Transport, Ikeja Cantonment
21. Major Musa Shehu (2ic to the Commanding Officer, Recce Battalion in Jos)
22. Captain Nuhu Umaru- 2ic, 202 Recce Battalion, Kaduna
In support of the Key players a chorus of other company and field grade officers also played various supportive roles. These included (but were not limited to)
1. Lt. Col. Ahmed Daku
2. Lt. Col. Abubakar Dada
3. Major IB Aboho (Staff Officer at Defence Intelligence Agency)
4. Major Friday Ichide (Staff Officer to Colonel Dogonyaro)
5. Major Simon Hart
6. Captain M. Bashir (Lagos operations, in support of Bulus)
7. Major S.B. Mepaiyeda
8. Captain Victor Scott Kure (physical security for the COAS).
NON-COMMISSIONED OFFICERS in the Armoured corps who were crucial to the mobilization of armoured vehicles in Lagos include
1. WOII Sule Ayinla
2. WOII Billy Adekunle
3. WOII Army Sweet
4. WOII Yerima
5. S-Sgt Bazaria Kabara
6. Sgt. Hitler Bongo
7. Corporal Sule Owoicho, and others.
In addition there was another mixed tier of crucial but less mission critical enablers. Some were “aware” but not “active”. These included:
1. Brigadier Peter Ademokhai (Director of Army Staff Duties and Plans)
2. Brigadier Abdullahi Bagudu Mamman (Director of Army Training and Operations)
3. Brigadier YY Kure (GOC 82 Division, Enugu)
4. Brigadier Ola Oni (GOC, 1st Division, Kaduna)
5. Lt. Col. John Inienger, Commander, 4th Mechanized Brigade, Benin
6. Lt. Col. Tunji Olurin, Commander, 1st Mechanized Brigade, Minna
7. Lt. Col. A. Abubakar, Commander, 3rd Mechanised Brigade, Kano.
Although they had no operational commands, a number of Military Governors formed part of the BODY OF OPINION in the military that encouraged the palace coup, reflecting the wide nature of the plot and near total isolation of Generals Buhari and Idiagbon. They included (but were not limited to):
1. Brigadier Garba Duba (Sokoto State)
2. Brigadier IOS Nwachukwu (Imo State)
3. Brigadier Jeremiah Timbut Useni (Bendel State).
ON THE OTHER HAND, KEY PLAYERS IN SUPPORT OF THE REGIME INCLUDED:
1. Major General Muhammadu Buhari, C-in-C
2. Major General Tunde Idiagbon, Chief of Staff, SHQ
3. Major General Mohammed Magoro – Minister of Internal Affairs
4. Alhaji Rafindadi – Director General, Nigerian Security Organization
5. Lt. Col. Sabo Aliyu – Commander, Brigade of Guards
6. Major Mustapha Haruna Jokolo, ADC to the C-in-C
OFFICERS WHOSE LOYALTY TO THE REGIME WAS STRONG ENOUGH THAT THEY HAD TO BE PRESUMED HOSTILE AND NEUTRALISED INCLUDED:
1. Brigadier Salihu Ibrahim, GOC 3rd Armoured Division, Jos
2. Commanding Officer, Recce Battalion, Jos