Nigeria’s military, heavily criticised for its handling of the war against Boko Haram Islamist extremists, is making waves again, 15 years after its last rule ended.
On Wednesday the country’s top soldier was forced to dismiss talk of a possible coup in Africa’s most populous nation, which has a strong history of unconstitutional take-overs of power.
“Why should anyone be thinking in negative fashion? Tell them we will not do it. Those rumouring coups must be living elsewhere and not in Nigeria,” Chief of Defence Staff Alex Badeh said.
On the same day the west African country dropped theft charges against a son of former military dictator Sani Abacha, after Liechtenstein announced that it would return millions of dollars looted by his father and stashed in banks there.
“The attorney general, at his absolute discretion, filed a notice of withdrawal this morning,” lawyer Haruna Abdullahi, who represented Mohammed Abacha at the court in Abuja, told news agency AFP.
It was a day back in the news for Nigeria’s military, which has ruled the country for more years than civilians have since independence from Britain in 1960.
The Boko Haram uprising, which has killed thousands across Nigeria’s north since 2009, combined with ethnic and sectarian strife as well as a weakened government, has led some commentators to openly suggest that the situation could lead to a military takeover.
But Air Chief Marshal Badeh sought to downplay the growing rumours in Africa’s biggest economy.
“The armed forces are defenders of democracy. We are an arm of democracy. So how can an arm of democracy work against the democracy that we are part of?” he asked at an event in Abuja.
The military was professional and “had no option but to love Nigeria”, he said.
Facing fierce criticism of its inability to keep Boko Haram at bay, the army has in recent weeks embarked on seizures and searches of national newspapers on what it said were security grounds.
This has prompted some media to claim that the government was trying to stifle free speech.
One daily likened the action to the dark days of censorship under military rule, suggesting thereby by that the soldiers are increasingly set the state agenda.
Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960 but six years later experienced its first coup, and in 1967 a brutal civil war broke out over the secessionist aims of the Biafra people in the country’s east. At least 1 million civilians are thought to have died.
There was a brief period of civilian rule between 1979 and 1983 before a succession of coups in the mid-1980s to late 1990s. Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999.
But of all its military men, the five-year reign of General Sani Abacha, who died in office in 1998, was the most controversial.
His regime is best remembered for the execution of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995. Abacha also jailed the widely respected Moshood Abiola, who is deemed to have won Nigeria’s inconclusive 1993 election.
Abiola, charged with prison for declaring himself president, died in prison in 1998 under unclear circumstances, while his wife Kudirat was assassinated two years earlier.
Abacha is suspected of having looted Nigeria’s central bank to the tune of $2.2 billion, and his family’s companies were ordered in 2008 to repay the cash.
His eldest son, Mohammed, had been accused of unlawfully receiving more than $2.7 million of government money during his father’s rule.
The United States announced on March 5 that it had ordered a freeze on $458 million stolen by the general and his accomplices some of which was hidden in European accounts in Britain, France and Jersey.
Acting US assistant attorney general Mythili Raman said at the time: “General Abacha was one of the most notorious kleptocrats in memory, who embezzled millions from the people of Nigeria while millions lived in poverty.”
On Wednesday, Liechtenstein announced that it would return $227 million to Nigeria, ending protracted legal action in the tiny European principality by four companies linked to Abacha’s family.
The stature of the military in Nigeria’s politics has continued to loom large in daily life. In March this year President Goodluck Jonathan controversially decorated Abacha for “ensuring the continued unity of the nation”.
He was posthumously honoured under the category of “outstanding promoters of unity, patriotism and national development.”
His would be co-recipient, Nobel laureate Prof Wole Soyinka, turned down the opportunity to share the centennial award with Abacha, who he described as a “murderer and thief of no redeeming quality”.
Under Abacha’s successor, Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar, Nigeria adopted its current constitution, which led to multiparty elections in 1999 won by another soldier, Olusegun Obasanjo.
Obasanjo left power in 2007, but retains great influence in the ruling People’s Democratic Party, and has also since reinvented himself as an African elder statesman as he globetrots on the speeches circuit.
In a controversial letter in December 2013, Obasanjo criticised Jonathan for pursuing selfish personal and political interests”. He also accused the incumbent of not honouring a pledge not to vie for next year’s presidential election.
Jonathan described the letter as a threat to national security.
Moves are afoot to mend the frosty ties between the pair as an under-pressure Jonathan, faced with a united opposition and a raging insurgency, cannot afford to lose the support of his political benefactor.
The speculation of a military coup will further add to Jonathan’s headache at a time he can ill afford it.
—Additional reporting by AFP