Centenary Honours List: Who's Responsible For This Mess?

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Time changes things and hindsight has a way of doctoring our recollections. History is often kinder to political reputations than contemporary news cycles but none of this justifies the sort of amnesia demonstrated by the Centenary honours list. Leaving aside the absurd acclamation of the racist Frederick Lugard and his consort Flora Shaw, or the irrationality of a free people feting their erstwhile colonial overlord or the fact that a civil war that claimed over a million casualties cannot really throw up “heroes”; it is the rendition of recent history that is of concern.

The list was a startlingly incongruent mishmash that purported to honour the human rights advocate, Gani Fawehinmi and the two men, Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, who did the most to abbreviate his life through ceaseless persecution and incarceration. Was the Kuti clan supposed to be grateful to share honours with the men who killed their matriarch and serially jailed Fela and Beko?

MKO Abiola, the winner of the annulled 1993 election, was honoured as well as Babangida who annulled the election, Abacha who jailed him and murdered his wife, Kudirat, and Abdulsalam Abubakar on whose watch he died mysteriously. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua is honoured along with his murderer, Abacha. The list reconciled Olusegun Obasanjo with Abacha who jailed him on trumped-up charges of coup-plotting. Ernest Shonekan, who continues to parade himself as a former head of government even though a court declared his regime illegal, makes the list. It was under his watch that Abacha as minister of defence in 1994 ordered troops to mow down scores of demonstrators protesting the annulment of June 12 and the imposition of Shonekan’s regime.  

With the list, Abacha’s rehabilitation is almost complete. In June 2008, Babangida, Abdulsalam and Muhammadu Buhari claimed that contrary to widespread belief, the be-goggled dictator was not a thief. The occasion was the tenth anniversary of his demise, the inspiration, apparently a case of solidarity among despots. It was a bizarre claim, not least because only a week earlier, the Swiss government had returned $505 million of Abacha’s loot stashed in Swiss banks. It was Abdulsalam himself who had initiated investigations into Abacha’s thievery and launched efforts to recover his hidden loot. Moreover, as head of state, Abacha had set up an inquiry headed by Pius Okigbo which indicted Babangida for the disappearance of $12.3 billion of oil revenue. As for Buhari, his loyalty to a former employer clearly belied his reputation as an honest truth-teller who says it like it is.

According to Richard Joseph, under Babangida and Abacha, Nigeria shifted from mere Prebendalism – the appropriation of state resources under the cover of legal rules and procedures – to outright confiscation in which government officials simply seize public assets without bothering to camouflage their larcenies with rules or procedures. Abacha’s kleptomania placed him in the league of plundering potentates such as Mobutu and Bokassa. The general and his associates stole over $2 billion amounting to more than a million dollars for every day Abacha was in office, including weekends.

One of President Goodluck Jonathan’s favourite ripostes to his critics is that he inherited a mess from his derelict predecessors. The honours list begs the question: who is responsible for the mess? How does a country so universally acknowledged to be scarred by bad leadership constantly fete a dazzling array of supposedly exemplary leaders? Strangely, Abacha’s son, Mohammed is currently facing federal prosecution for being in possession of federal property stolen by the late dictator. What does it tell us that Mohammed was also part of a delegation of Northwestern leaders to Aso Rock this past January, an occasion on which Jonathan claimed that his administration had performed better than any other in Nigerian history?

If Abacha was truly responsible for an economic miracle, as his citation read, then the implication is that his successors, Abdulsalam and Obasanjo, in particular, destroyed that legacy. Thus, neither of them should have been on the list. Historical revisionists are obviously trying to burnish putrid reputations. Abacha left Nigeria as the world’s 13th poorest country, a pariah nation with a $30 billion debt and a wretched income per head of $345. Oddly, while Jonathan was exonerating Abacha, Nigeria was paralyzed by fuel scarcity – a legacy of the tyrant’s era along with failed refineries and toxic fuel imports.

The irony is that Abacha and Babangida seem retrospectively tolerable only in the light of the inadequacies of their successors including the current administration. Not long ago, we were treated to Obasanjo and Babangida publicly accusing each other of running the country’s most corrupt regime. The celebration of these former leaders raises questions about how we define accomplishment and heroism in these parts. Already, upon their assumption of office, Nigerian heads of state and presidents are decorated with the Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic, the nation’s highest honour, for little more than successfully staging coups and rigging elections. It is a system that rewards the attainment of office by any means rather than what is actually achieved while in office.

The singular message of the centennial honours list is that ‘might is right’. Where in our algorithm of hero-making does the sanctity of life fit in? Babangida and Abacha led two of Nigeria’s most murderous regimes. Honouring them airbrushes a grim and bloody chapter of our history. Does anyone now remember the massacre of protesting students at Ahmadu Bello University in 1986? Dele Giwa, Bagauda Kaltho, Alfred Rewane, Ken Saro-Wiwa and many others would obviously have had very different perspectives on the list.

Obasanjo visited death and destruction on Odi and Zaki Biam. Unsurprisingly, T.Y. Danjuma who as his defence minister oversaw those military assaults made the list. Courts have since recognized those expeditions as crimes and awarded a multi-billion naira compensation package to the two communities. In 2012, Jonathan deployed troops to suppress the Occupy Nigeria protests in which over 20 Nigerians were killed nationwide despite the protests being essentially peaceful.

Leaders that casually terminate their citizens either by commission or omission, negligence or intent, are not heroes regardless of what economic miracles they perform. They can be simultaneously applauded for their dexterity and censured for their brutality. At a time when there is much handwringing over Boko Haram’s atrocities, it should not be forgotten that bomb attacks were actually pioneered by Abacha’s security establishment in the mid 1990s. The disregard for human life that we see today is the latest iteration of a culture of violence authored by the political figures that are now uncritically festooned with national honours. No amount of hagiographical detergent can whitewash the bloodstained legacies of these men.

We are now paying a high price for being too forgiving of the sins of the powerful and too forgetful of their victims. We need to regain a sense of history for memory is our shield against perpetual oppression and posterity is a harsh judge of the forgetful.   

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