General Buratai and his coup talks

Our own Tukur Buratai and the United States’ Michael Flynn are both Lt Generals. Buratai, Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff, four days ago warned his Generals against toying with any plan to undermine our democracy. Buratai reminded his Generals that, “democracy has come to stay.” He warned that he “will not tolerate any agent of destabilisation” and that “the years of military misadventure in politics have never carried us anywhere.”  It is over, he declared.

Flynn, a recently pardoned former US National Security Adviser, also, a few days ago, retweeted a message asking President Donald Trump to “temporarily suspend the constitution,” “impose martial law,” annul and rerun the presidential election, and “silence the destructive media.” The message, composed by a pro-Trump group, added that “if the legislators, courts and/or Congress failed to do their duty under the 12th Amendment,” Trump must be ready as the President to take those extraordinary decisions “for the sole purpose of having the military oversee a national re-vote.” What Flynn retweeted would be recognised by experienced Nigerians as a call for coup d’etat – because that is what it is.

Ironies are savage knives; they are used to prise casings of hypocrisy and duplicity. When Americans talk about Banana Republic, they think of places like Nigeria where strong men don’t cede power unless forced to. Today, they have an elephant in their White House, threatening to tear down the entire pride of the American nation. Is it not also intriguing – and ironic- that what the General from role model, democratic America recommended was what the Nigerian General warned against? Americans would never have dreamt of a dark night of incautious, careless talks of military intervention descending on their democracy. But it is happening to them and Trump’s 74 million plus supporters are hailing the call because they lack our experience. And because no one is wise who hasn’t suffered deprivation, they won’t understand the gravity of what their General Flynn retweeted. Nigerians who are about 30 years old or younger, may also not understand the total ramifications of what their own General Buratai stridently warned his officers against. Those who lived through the darkened years of jackboots know that the use of ‘military’ and ‘intervention’ in same sentence by a General cannot be funny at all.

We should sit down and interrogate Buratai’s warning beyond the syntax and the words he used. We should be worried that the warning came at all – and from him. A democracy that is 21 years old is as fragile as the tenuous cords throttling it. We can see that 225 years after the peaceful transition from President Washington to John Adams, someone is still heard recommending military intervention as solution to a political crisis in America, world’s best democracy. Tempestuous Trump did not buy the idea – or has not attempted to – because he knows the system would sink him. We should be worried because we lack the kind of shock absorber that is helping America on its current bumpy ride from Trump to Joe Biden. Democracy may not be a perfect, saintly system but it is the best antidote to the poison of arbitrariness. The fact that Flynn endorsed that subversive message and he and the authors are still free means democracy truly works in that country. In traumatized Nigeria, they would all be in jail, standing trial for treason, or waiting for execution by firing squad.

The statement from General Buratai was both a warning and a reminder of where we are coming from. Nigerian millennials and the generation following them are likely to be lost here. The same reason my generation would go with Buratai on this matter was the reason we warned in 2014/2015 against helping affliction to arise twice. We told the Twitter warriors then that leopards of the past would behave same avaricious, predatory way if unleashed a million times. There is no redemptive breather for beasts of prey, big and small. For predators, whatever moves is food and everything is about them; their thought of others is about how to repay loyalty with deadly betrayal. That is why the wise would not trust a trapped carnivore with freedom. I remember I told a junior colleague how we queued endlessly for rice, for milk and for sugar in 1984 and in 1985. We queued for food, the lucky ones got the ‘essential commodities’ to buy; the less fortunate ones got literally whipped into and out of line by savage, feral soldiers. A hostile glance from the young man told me he didn’t believe what I said. Was Nigeria an IDP camp? He asked me as he proceeded to vote for what he called ‘change’ and I laughed. Recently, we revisited the matter and he told me he didn’t know it was really possible to experience what I described. Now that we are all IDPs, and darkness has fallen, and N30,000 minimum wage can’t buy a bag of rice, he said he was sorry for doubting my generation’s judgment six, five years ago. But is it not too late for us now?

It is settled that democracy is the best form of government. The primary goals of democracy are the people’s safety and their prosperity, their tranquility at home and their peace abroad. But all these are imperiled where the wheels of change of power won’t move unless the whims of big men endorse their movement. The people’s democratic will – and wish – prevails where power is allowed to change hands without violence. Wherever violence changes baton, absolute power reigns and wrecks people’s lives. That is why we have found it difficult to count our years in Nigeria because the years have not really counted in people’s lives. Writing in the Smithsonian Magazine on September 20, 2011, an American journalist, Joseph Stromberg, argued that the dawn of American democracy didn’t come in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. He said it didn’t come in 1788 when the constitution was ratified by the states, neither did it come in 1789 when George Washington took office. The real birth of American democracy, he said, came in 1797 with the first peaceful transfer of power in American history.  The chastity of that history is now being violated by subversive suggestions backed by the president’s men.

Only fools test the depths of a river with both feet. That is what Flynn did. If the General had known what that thing he endorsed meant for his own safety and peace, he would not be seen even reading it. He could help Trump to subvert the constitution, but he would not be able to bail himself from the consequences of helping a hungry wolf. Since Africa’s ‘democracy’ is now his preferred model, I suggest Flynn should read carefully the history of Africa’s dictators and what they did eventually with their collaborators. I suggest he finds out about Master Sergeant Samuel Doe of Liberia and what he did with his right hand man, General Thomas Quiwonkpa on November 12, 1985. I recommend he reads similar stories in Nigeria, in Ghana, in Mobutu’s Zaire, in virtually every country that has experienced what he is recommending for his America and its commander-in-chief.

Nigeria can only laugh at the US this hour. But what can we do so that we won’t have to fear again the ugliness of our own past or wait for a Buratai to tell us how perilous the past was and why we must not repeat that tragedy? America’s democracy is shaking off Trump and his threats because it is rooted in institutions, and in fairness, equity and justice. We cannot grow the system here with a cheating system of six masquerades allotted four bean cakes; a system that makes only the closest to the king eat from the collective plate. What we should fear is not what our army chief is warning against; it is what happens in our relationship of abuse and cheating. Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart says there is no story that is not true. A Chinese folk tale will tell clearly the consequences of today’s bad behavior of Nigeria. The tale is the story of hundreds of chickens of varying strengths living under one roof. The story teller says: “each day the chickens went to the fields nearby and hunted bugs, rice, and green things to eat. The largest one was called the king of the chickens, because, of all the hundreds in the flock, he was the strongest. And for this reason he was the leader of them all. He led the flock to new places for food. He could crow the loudest, and as he was the strongest, none dared oppose him in any way.

“One day he said to the flock, ‘Let us go to the other side of the mountain near the wilderness today, and hunt rice, wheat, corn, and wild silkworms. There is not enough food here.’ But the other chickens said, ‘We are afraid to go so far. There are foxes and eagles in the wilderness, and they will catch us.’ The king of the chickens said, ‘It is better that all the old hens and cowards stay at home.’

“The king’s loyal assistant said, ‘I do not know fear. I will go with you.’ Then they started away together. When they had gone a little distance, the assistant found a beetle, and just as he was going to swallow it, the king flew at him in great anger, saying, ‘Beetles are for kings, not for common chickens. Why did you not give it to me?’ So they fought together, and while they were fighting, the beetle ran away and hid under the grass where he could not be found.

“And the assistant told the king, ‘I will not fight for you, ​neither will I go to the wilderness with you.’ And he went back home. At sunset the king came home. The other chickens had saved the best roosting place for him; but he was angry because none of them had been willing to go to the wilderness with him, and he fought first with one and then with another. He was a mighty warrior, and therefore none of them could stand up against him. And he pulled the feathers out of many of the flock.

“At last the chickens said, ‘We will not serve this king any longer. We will leave this place…’ “

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