Mr. President, Remember History; Do Not Repeat It

Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema

When Murtala Muhammed, became Nigeria’s third military Head of State on 29 July 1975, he won a place in the people’s hearts with an intensive crackdown against corruption. The then Lieutenant-Colonel Muhammadu Buhari was part of that regime as governor of the defunct North-East state.

The corruption under General Gowon, Muhammed’s predecessor, was awful and Nigeria stank. Muhammed went on an anti-corruption binge devoid of forethought and system, let alone respect for rule of law. In retrospect, we may excuse this last consideration because his was not a democratic government. But the anti-corruption measures really did a number on Gowon’s administration, to the delight of Nigerians baying for their rulers’ blood. Compulsory retirements; seizure of assets; you name it. Only Brigadiers Mobolaji Johnson and Oluwole Rotimi, administrators of the then Lagos and West states, got a clean bill of fiscal health. It rings a bell with the rumor making the rounds that only three out of a large list of potential Ministers in this government were certified worthy.

Max Siollun, the eminent Nigerian historian, made these penetrating observations about the Murtala anti- corruption measures in page 188 of his book, ‘Oil, Politics and Violence:’

‘After dismantling the inner core of Gowon’s regime, Murtala turned his gaze to the civil service. A massive onslaught was instituted against public sector corruption and inefficiency on a scale never seen before in Africa. This led to a wave of dismissals and retirements of over 10,000 public officials who were summarily dismissed or retired on the grounds of inefficiency, corruption or old age. Long serving officials considered ‘part of the furniture’ were not spared….The army and police were not exempt from the gale of retirements…. The campaign was launched at not just senior personnel. Public sector janitors, gardeners and cleaners also found themselves retired. The dismissed officials were not permitted to challenge their terminations or claim unfair dismissal. Such rights were suspended as part of the purge which was eventually halted in November 1975.’ Our civil service has never been the same since that purge.

I hope this dispensation, though civilian and hopefully democratic, learns from this chapter of our history. First, inasmuch as corruption must be dealt with decisively if Nigeria should live, Buhari and his team must not dance to the samba of the sections of the elite who scream for the crucifixion of people based on allegations. I am the first to admit that following due process is slow. Maybe it is time to look again at our laws and how they deal with corruption. But Nigeria will be healthy if mass hysteria is avoided. Right now head-spinning figures are emerging about the awful corruption in Nigeria’s oil industry. It is tempting to resort to commando tactics. But, believe it, our romance with USA and the rest of the world will turn sour if Buhari travels down that road.

Let only those proven guilty be punished. Murtala went after both the innocent and guilty. Let nobody, irrespective of his or her political or ethnic affiliation, be deprived of his or her rights just because Nigerians are sick of corruption and desire change. This is necessary, not just because we lay claims to being a democracy, but because dispensations change. The hunter can become the hunted tomorrow. The world will remember this era if it was just or unjust.

There are readers who will interpret this article as support for former President Jonathan or read it from a tribalist perspective. But Buhari can drive the change Nigerians want by strengthening institutions. In USA, irrespective of who occupies the White House, the FBI, the Justice Department and other relevant agencies are strong enough to keep the country on track. Our president must resist fickle applause and be just and seen to be just. He and his team must remember that General Babangida, who was also Buhari’s colleague in Murtala’s regime, reversed their boss’ measures against Gowon’s team in 1993.

Henry C. Onyema is a Lagos-based writer, historian and analyst.

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Articles by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema