By Olajide Meseko
former Chief of Army Staff Gen Theophilus Danjuma has narrated how he made President Olusegun Obasanjo Military Head of State against his wish after Gen Murtala Mohammed was assassinated
“Then, Murtala was killed. I think it is public knowledge that Obasanjo fled on the day Murtala Muhammed was killed. He remained in hiding until the coup was aborted and he reached out, first, to M.D Yusuf (Inspector-General of Police), who then called him and he came out of hiding, and joined us in Dodan Barracks. We discussed the funeral of Muhammed and made arrangement as to who would accompany his remains to Kano, so on and so forth.
At the end of the meeting, Obasanjo asked M.D Yusuf and I to stay with him in the chambers (Dodan Barracks). After everybody had left, Obasanjo told M.D Yusuf and I that what had happened had destroyed his faith in the loyalty of the Nigerian Army. That he had decided that after the funeral, he would retire, leave the Army and go home. But before that he would name me as the successor to Murtala. I told him that, that amounted to desertion and that he could not run away. He was number 2, number 1 had been killed in battle; he as number 2 would take over.
He said no, no, no; that he didn’t think he should stay; that he wanted to go. We argued that. In the end, Yusuf said, “look, let’s all sleep over this matter; tomorrow we will decide.” I said, “look, there’s no question of sleeping over it; the point now is we should be looking for who is going to take Obasanjo’s seat as number 2 because there is no way we are going to allow him to chicken out and leave at this time; we must all stay and face the future together.” So, we left and I went home. By this time, we had called all the members of the Supreme Military Council to Lagos.
The following day, he (Obasanjo) started to talk in the same vein and I cut in. I said that Obasanjo could not leave; he had to stay and be the Head of State and we should be looking for the number 2 man. I had, over night, considered the consequences of what had happened and came to the conclusion that if we were not careful; we would end up with a religious conflict on our hands. Already, that evening – the evening that it became public knowledge that Murtala had been killed – Dimka had made a broadcast in which he said, “good tidings” among other things. He had imposed a curfew – from dawn to dusk (laugh) and said all sorts of things using the expression, “good tiding.”
Abubakar Gumi, in the North, said that the coup that killed Murtala was a Christian coup because of the utterances of the coup leader, who said, “good tidings” because it is an expression of Christians. Already, there was tension in the North. The governor of Kaduna State, an air force officer, Usman, had to contain him: that it had nothing to do with Christians, that it was a purely military affair.
I knew that if we were not careful, as time went on, we should be consumed by religious strife in the country. I decided that the new Chief of Staff must come from the North preferably, a Hausa/Fulani man. From my knowledge, I had two candidates – (Muhammadu) Buhari, who was really my number one candidate for that post and the late Shehu Yar’Adua. Shehu was not in the country; he was abroad as Minister of Transport. You would remember we had inherited a cement armada in the Lagos and Port Harcourt (ports) and his (Shehu’s) first assignment was to decongest the Lagos port and get rid of all the vessels that were clogging Nigerian waters, and attracting huge demurrages from our government. He (Shehu) was abroad attending to that problem when Dimka struck.
So, they were the two candidates. Buhari, at that time, and even today, is one of the most upright Army officers that the Nigerian Army has produced – very clean, a very strict officer.
Unfortunately for him, he served under me for a short time in Port Harcourt and I observed that he was a very inflexible person. I reasoned that Buhari, any day, could be a first class Chief of Army Staff. Why waste him in a political post? Why shorten his career because if he became Chief of Staff, he would have to leave at the end of the tenure. Why waste him there?
Besides, I observed that he was too rigid; he was too inflexible to hold a political post. If you are in politics, you must be flexible; you must compromise from time to time. In politics, they call it pragmatism. But in the military, if you are pragmatic, it is regarded as a weakness. I said no, not Buhari. Shehu, I didn’t know him well except that I knew that, of all the officers of his rank, he was the most politicised. So, sending a politicised Army Officer to a political post, I thought, was a good thing. That was how I named Shehu the next Chief of Staff.
When we came to the Supreme Military Council and Obasanjo started singing the same tune that he had sung to me and M.D Yusuf the previous night, I said no, that was not the issue; he was the most senior person and he had to stay there.
He had to stay in office. He made some feeble resistance but I think he had slept over our discussion and concluded that if we insisted, he would stay.
There were a few voices of dissent. The first came from the Chief of Air Staff, Isa Doko, who said that the problem we were facing was an Army problem and that the Army boys had confidence in me. That we had just crushed an attempted coup, and we should not put somebody there that the Army didn’t have confidence in. A few other officers supported him but I overruled them. And so, I imposed Obasanjo on my colleagues in the Supreme Military Council.”