November 17th has had its fair share of palace coups in history. It was the day in 1954 that General Gamal Abdel Nasser assumed full powers as Egyptian head of state following the overthrow of President Mohamed Naguib in a Palace coup. On the same day, four years later in 1958, General El-Ferik Ibrahim Abboud, then Sudanese Army Commander-in-Chief, staged the first coup in the history of Sudan when he deposed the civilian government of Abd Allah Khalil. On the same day, in 1971, Prime Minister Thanom engineered a coup against his own government in Thailand. He suspended the 1968 constitution, dissolved parliament, and created a new Troika composed of himself, the deputy prime minister, Field Marshal Praphat Charusathian; and Colonel Narong Kittikachorn. Narong was Thanom's son and Praphat's son-in- law.
On November 17, 1993, as judges from 11 nations were being sworn in at the inaugural session of the
United Nations Yugoslavia War Crimes Tribunal and Zaire was celebrating its Armed Forces Day, Nigeria was once again the throes of a political succession crisis. General Sani Abacha, Secretary for Defence and Vice Chairman, ousted Chief Ernest Shonekan, then Chairman of the 82-day-old Interim National Government (ING), in order "to save Nigeria from imminent disintegration.”
It happened quickly and in broad daylight. All relevant military units and conspirators in Lagos, Abuja and Kaduna were quietly placed on alert. Under protective cover provided by a detachment of the National Guard led by Colonel Lawan Gwadabe, three very senior officers, motivated by different instincts and with no consensus on what would happen thereafter, flew to Abuja from Lagos. They calmly walked into Shonekan’s office at the Presidential Villa and asked that he resign. These officers were General Sani Abacha (Defence Secretary), Lt. General Oladipo Diya (Chief of Defence Staff), and Lt. Gen. Aliyu Mohammed Gusau (Chief of Army Staff). Shonekan, the former United African Company (UAC) Executive, never had operational control of the Armed Forces during his controversial tenure. He wisely chose not to resist.
Interestingly, the Army Chief, Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, was said to be a personal friend of Shonekan and reportedly played games with him from time to time. With British backing, he is even alleged to have nominated Shonekan for the position back on August 25 when outgoing General Babangida decided to make Shonekan the Chairman of the ING as an exit strategy, rather than General Obasanjo (rtd) or one or two other contenders. In the macabre environment of schemes and counter-schemes preceding the November coup, Gusau was not originally supposed to accompany the group to confront Shonekan. As a bonafide coup merchant himself, some say he had his own plans for power, but that unknown to him the “Lagos Group” that backed Abacha’s take-over had identified him for retirement. He allegedly heard of the original plan to confront Shonekan – without him – and reportedly confronted Abacha about it. Abacha and Diya then invited him along for the show, some say, by some sort of subterfuge. I have not been able to confirm the authenticity of the rumor that he was falsely promised that he would become the Head of State after Shonekan if he cooperated in the scheme.
With Shonekan’s “resignation letter” in hand, General Abacha invoked a version of the legally moribund Decree No. 61 of 1993 as the basis for his assumption of power as the “most senior” Minister. [Less than 24 hours later he would abrogate this same decree No. 61 that he claimed brought him into office]. Generals Abacha and Diya called a meeting of the Interim National Government to apprise them of developments and promise that he would work with them to find a solution to Nigeria’s problems. They also met with the National Assembly and pledged collaboration. Once this was done they returned to Lagos to meet with the “Lagos group” of military officers for the usual post-coup horse trading in order to distribute appointments and chart the way forward.
Within twenty-four hours after Shonekan’s removal, Lt. Gen. Gusau was baited into open disagreement with his colleagues over the issue of a Sovereign National Conference. He found himself in an untenable position and submitted his letter of retirement - as Abacha wanted him to do. Major General Mohammed Chris Alli took his place as Army Chief, as had been intended all along by the so-called Lagos group of military conspirators. Lt. Gen. Oladipo Diya became Chief of General Staff; Maj. Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, Chief of Defence Staff; Rear Admiral Allison Madueke, Chief of Naval Staff; Air Vice Marshall Femi John Femi remained Chief of Air Staff; and Alhaji Ibrahim Coomasie became Inspector General of Police. The relationship between Aliyu Gusau and Sani Abacha was not a good one until Abacha died in June 1998. At various times Gusau was under security watch, had his passport impounded and was prevented from traveling.
Once Gusau was on his way out, Abacha moved forward with his broadcast to the Nation on November 18, 1993, in which he went for the jugular:
Sequel to the resignation of the former Head of the Interim National Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Chief Ernest Shonekan and my subsequent appointment as Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, I have had extensive consultations within the armed forces hierarchy and other well meaning Nigerians in a bid to find solutions to the various political, economic and social problems which have engulfed our beloved country, and which have made life most difficult to the ordinary citizen of this nation.
Chief Ernest Shonekan took over as Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces at a most trying time in the history of the country. Politically, economically, and socially, there were lots of uncertainties. Things appeared bleak and the atmosphere was heavy with uncertainties. However, driven by a belief in himself, his countrymen, and love for his country, he accepted to face the challenges of our time. I will, therefore, like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for his selfless service to the nation. He showed great courage at taking on the daunting task of heading the Interim National Government and even greater courage to know when to leave.
Many have expressed fears about the apparent return of the military. Many have talked about the concern of the international community. However, under the present circumstances the survival of our beloved country is far above any other consideration. Nigeria is the only country we have. We must, therefore, solve our problems ourselves. We must lay a very solid foundation for the growth of democracy. We should avoid any adhoc or temporary solutions. The problems must be addressed firmly, objectively, decisively and with all sincerity of purpose.
Consequently, the following decisions come into immediate effect:
(a) The Interim National Government is hereby dissolved.
(b) The National and State Assemblies are also dissolved.
(c) The State Executive Councils are dissolved. The Brigade Commanders are to take over from the Governors in their States until Administrators are appointed. Where there are no Brigade Commanders, the Commissioners of Police in the State are to take over.
(d) All Local Governments stand dissolved. The Directors of Personnel are to take over the administration of the Local Governments until Administrators are appointed.
(e) All former Secretaries to Federal Ministries are to hand over to their Directors-General until Ministers are appointed.
(f) The two political parties are hereby dissolved.
(g) All processions, political meetings and associations of any type in any part of the country are hereby banned.
(h) Any consultative committee by whatever name called is hereby proscribed.
(i) Decree 61 of 1993 is hereby abrogated.
A Provisional Ruling Council (PRC), is hereby established. It will comprise:
(a) The Head of State, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the federal Republic of Nigeria as Chairman.
(b) The Chief of General Staff as Vice-Chairman
(c) The Honourable Minister of Defence
(d) The Chief of Defence Staff
(e) The Service Chiefs
(f) The Inspector General of Police
(g) The Attorney General and Minister of Justice
(h) The Internal Affairs Minister
(i) The Foreign Affairs Minister
Also, a Federal Executive Council will be put in place.
Our security system will be enhanced to ensure that lives of citizens, property of individuals are protected and preserved. Drug trafficking and other economic crimes such as 419 must be tackled and eliminated.
On the current strike throughout the nation following the increase in the price of fuel, I appeal to all the trade unions to return to work immediately. We cannot afford further dislocation and destruction of our economy.
On the closed media houses, government is hereby lifting the order of proscription with immediate effect. We, however, appeal to the media houses that in this spirit of national reconciliation, we should show more restraint and build a united and peaceful Nigeria.
Fellow Nigerians, the events of the past months, starting from the annulment of the June 12 presidential election, culminating in the appointment of the former Head of State, Chief Ernest Shonekan, who unfortunately resigned yesterday, are well known to you. The economic downturn has undoubtedly been aggravated by the ongoing political crisis.
We require well thought-out and permanent solutions to these problems if we are to emerge stronger for them. Consequently, a constitutional conference with full constituent powers will be established soon to determine the future constitutional structure of Nigeria. The constitutional conference will also recommend the method of forming parties, which will lead to the ultimate recognition of political parties formed by the people. While the conference is on, the reorganisation and reform of the following major institutions will be carried out:
(a) The Military
(b) The Police
(c) The Customs
(d) The Judiciary
(h) The Banking Industry
(i) Higher Educational Institutions
This regime will be firm, humane, and decisive. We will not condone nor tolerate any act of indiscipline. Any attempt to test our will be decisively dealt with. For the International Community, we ask that you suspend judgement while we grapple with the onerous task of nation building, reconciliation and repairs.
This government is a child of necessity with a strong determination to restore peace and stability to our country and on these foundations, enthrone a lasting and true democracy. Give us the chance to solve our problems in our own ways.
Long Live the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”