UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
NIGERIA: IRIN Background report on moves to clean up military
LAGOS, 15 JUNE (IRIN) - Nigeria, now ruled by its first elected government in more than 15 years, has started coming to terms with an ugly military past during which it teetered, at times, on the brink of collapse on account of misrule.
Under corrupt officers who treated the national treasury as their personal trove, Africa's biggest oil producer was the poorer for military rule while the soldiers who held power were the richer for it.
On the eve of his departure from office on May 29, then military ruler General Abdulsalami Abubakar published, in the official gazette, a list of items worth over US $1 billion seized from the family and top aides of late military ruler General Sani Abacha. The list included nearly US $800 million in cash, estates in Nigeria and holdings in Sierra Leonean refineries.
One of the first acts in office of President Olusegun Obasanjo has been to purge the military of about 149 senior officers who had held political office, including all those who had been ministers or military governors, since 1985.
"The retirements do not indict or cast aspersion on the integrity of these officers but should be seen as some of the sacrifices ... to guarantee the survival of democracy in Nigeria," presidential spokesman Doyin Okupe said. He said it was all part of a process of building a new, professional armed forces.
His explanation tallies with popular thinking that soldiers who had held power were more likely to be tempted to seize power and benefit again from its trappings. But some analysts think the retirements are also an important signal that military rule may be finally over in Nigeria.
Governments in Nigeria have changed six times through military coups since independence from Britain in 1960, with soldiers ruling for all but 10 years. Obasanjo's is only the third elected government in the country's 39-year history.
"Many a young Nigerian has gone to military school in the past three decades with the idea somewhere in his mind that he could shoot himself to power one day or at least benefit from the act," said political commentator Chima Nwimo.
"The purges based on those who had held political office before is a good signal to them that things might not be the same again," he added.
>From the first time they struck, in 1966, soldiers who took power in Nigeria usually claimed that they wanted to save the country from corrupt politicians and disintegration. But in the last decade and half, corruption reached record levels.
Under General Ibrahim Babangida (1985-93), some US $12 billion earned from an oil windfall during the Gulf War was not properly accounted for. Top officers also became purveyors of oil contracts, making overnight millionaires of those who enjoyed their patronage.
Babangida took the country of 108 million people through an eight-year political rigmarole towards civilian rule, but unilaterally annulled the results of elections in 1993 when they did not go the way he and his military cohorts wanted.
Three months after Babangida was forced to leave office, Abacha - who had been his deputy for years - seized power, imposing a brutal regime during which some of his opponents, including Obasanjo, were jailed, while others were killed or driven into exile.
Abacha distributed state resources as he pleased to aides and friends, and amassed about US $5 billion for himself.
His sudden death in June 1998 while transforming himself into a civilian ruler in defiance of local and international opinion allowed a fresh start towards democracy under his reformist successor Abubakar, who freed Obasanjo and scores of other political detainees.
Obasanjo has promised reforms to ensure that the military remain subordinated to elected civilian authority as prescribed by the constitution.
"The purge of these officers is a good signal for democracy in Nigeria," said one elected representative in the national assembly. "As long as these officers who have tasted power at various times are there, democracy in this country will be threatened."
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Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 1999
Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D
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