A Short Story of January 18, 1984

On this day, the head of Nigeria’s new military government, Major General Muhammadu Buhari said that the question of returning the country to democratic rule would be dealt with after the ailing economy was well on its way to recovery.

General Buhari, who headed the Supreme Military Council, said in an interview that a democratic system might be restored but that it was too early to speak of a time table or to suggest what form that democracy might take. He said that ultimately it would be up to the Nigerian people to decide the form of government.

The head of state said that there was nothing wrong with the democratic system that was swept aside with the overthrow of the civilian government of president Shehu Shagari on December 31. The problem, he said, was with “those who operated it and the way operated.” “I never said that the system was wrong,” he added.

General Buhari said he would be prepared to relinquish power “at a time and a point when the Supreme Military Council decides to ask Nigerians about whatever they want.” “At some point,” he went on, “the Supreme Military Council will decide which kind of system they will recommend to Nigerians or the Nigerian will be asked which kind of system they want.” But it might not be the presidential system or the Westminister system of democracy. I don’t know what it’s going to be but ultimately it’s going to be up to Nigerians to decide whatever it is.”

The 40-minute interview was held in a large wood-paneled room in the State House, the former presidential residence in a military compound in Ikoyi, a high-rent Lagos suburb. Throughout the course of the interview, General Buhari stressed that Nigeria then had a collective leadership. Many of his statements seemed to suggest that he was more the spokesman for the new military regime than its unquestioned leader.

A tall figure with a neatly trimmed mustache and wire-rimmed glasses, the 41-year old general sat on a tan leather couch throughout the conversations, his back straight, and his expression stern. He said senior members of Nigeria’s armed forces began to consider the possibility of staging a coup as early as 1982, just three years after Nigeria’s last military government returned to the barracks after 13 years in power. But the final decision to intervene, he said, was not reached until after last elections. General Buhari indicated that he had not been a participant in planning for the coup, and said he, “had no idea” he would be chosen to head the new government until the day of  the take-over. “I was just called by the armed forces to be the head of state,” he said.

According to General Buhari, it was the economic failures of the Shagari administration that inspired the initial decisions of the intervention. “We were convinced that the former regime did not have the discipline or the will to arrest the deterioration of the economy,” he said. In the interview, the Genaral did not deny that many of the economic programmes and policies being adopted by the new regime were similar to those proposed by the ousted president Sheu Shagari during his final days in office. He emphasized, however, that the military government would carry out those policies more effectively than had the civilian administration. The military’s dissatisfaction with the Shagari’s administration “was not so much a question of intention as a question of performance,” he said.

The head of state denied reports that the so-called “generals’ coup” had been timed to pre-empt a coup planned by younger, more radical officers. “The suggestion that the military is divided between younger and senior officers is being overblown,” he stated. The General said that under military rule many key government jobs would be filled by civilians.

As for military officers, he said, “it is only a small number that will be involved in political appointments.” “We are not going to abandon our posts and take political office, all of us,” he added.

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