COUP D’ÉTAT ON A NIGERIAN CAMPUS, (Excerpts from my novel Strongman)

By John Otim, journalist and writer

John Otim(Excerpts from my novel Strongman)

Professor Ali Mani was a bigger than life personality. The campus was yet to fully recover from all the ramifications of his momentous visit and controversial lecture. When, bump, it went. It came so suddenly it left most people struggling for breath.

The deputy Vice Chancellor attempted a violent takeover of the university. This was beyond imagination. It was outrageous. The problem was most people had no idea what had hit them.              

At the public hearing that followed when the word coup first popped up, one saw a mixture of gloom and disbelief descend upon the hall. Many of the people in there, loved the university and were rightly proud of its many achievements.        

When Ali Mani made his bold call, some would say shameless call. For the recolonization of Africa. He could not have been unaware that in many instances this had already been done. How do you explain the blood-drenched ascendency of his own friend and former ally General Mahmud Al Harun? Or the frequent intervention of French forces in their former colonies.     

Amazingly, it was this style of power grab that the Deputy Vice Chancellor at the Ahmed Barak had in mind.

If you took away his flowing garb and skull cap and replaced them with a military uniform, Yahiya would look the perfect coup leader. Tall and huge, Yahiya was also intellectually savvy, well-spoken, and socially popular. In the competitive high-class circles of Nigeria, he had arrived.

 A while back he had been on a two-year stint at the federal capital, at the highest level of government. Personal advisor to His Excellency the President. A ruthless military strongman.

 The position ensured money and bestowed prestige. It came with a steady flow of young and beautiful women, willing and ready to please the boss. Yahiya loved this. Yahiya’s friends advised against the move.

“It won’t look good, Man! Don’t take it, Man!” But Yahiya went anyway. “To hell with the bastards!” Those were his words.         

Upon his return to campus Yahiya ran for the top job of Vice Chancellor of the Ahmed Barak. He didn’t get it. He should have known. But it was Yahiya. A man totally self-obsessed.

“Don’t mind him!” his friends said.         

He ran again and he failed again. “Look, I was only trying to help.” Yahiya said.         

His friends organized a get together at the university club. Roast chicken, chili, salad, beer. Agenda: mocking Professor Yahiya.         

When word came through. That Yahiya and his travelling companion had been waylaid on the road to Abuja. The he and his romping mate had been stripped to their underwear and left on the roadside; the friends rocked with laughter. Unknown to them, Yahiya had plan B.

From the many coups he witnessed growing up in Nigeria Yahiya learned many things. He was only 5 when the first coup hit the headlines. He remembers it. He and many of his generation grew up to become Marxists. It was their way of coping with the angst the military had inflicted upon their tender soul. Observing them, a Jamaican colleague at the Ahmed Barak, made fun of them.         

“Look at these Africans! Ever willing to follow the white man.”         

Intellectually this was Yahiya’s most productive period. He wrote stuff on literature and hegemony. Not exactly original. But they were well researched and packed with information. If you were a graduate student, they made damn good reading. They made great seminars. Yahiya was a terrific presenter.         

“For too long Europeans negated Africans.” Yahiya wrote. “Africans must negate Euro-racism.” Yahiya wrote. “And erect the Negation of Negation,” Yahiya wrote. “As an antidote to Euro-racism” The audience applauded.         

Yahiya wrote papers, organized seminars, built up his credentials, and bided his time. When his turn came, he chose the moment carefully. His boss the Vice Chancellor was away in the capital. Yahiya planned to bring about a total breakdown of law and order on campus, but in such a way as to have the blame fall squarely on his absent boss.         

In the ensuing melee, Yahiya will ride to power as the savior prince.         

It was by no means a done deal. Coups are chancy things. Every coup leader is a gambler. Yahiya loved ambiguity. He was going to present himself to the federal authorities in the capital, as the man who put down a dangerous riot. Everybody knew how in Nigeria; campus riots are a prelude to fresh military coups. Those in power were jittery about campus riots.         

Yahiya hired thugs from among the student body to execute the practicality of his coup d’état. A little money can go a long way. These students were poor. Early that morning with money in their pockets, they struck.         

They sang war songs against the incumbent Vice Chancellor. It was Yahiya’s coded message to the Authority. “The Vice Chancellor is the one.”         

They barricaded entrances and exits to campus. They set up roadblocks on strategic locations. They surrounded the Senate Building, the seat of campus power. The idea was to instill fear and cause panic. Wielding horse whips and warrior clubs, the thugs set about harassing other students and Faculty going about their business. Women were a target.         

“Oh mother! Oh mother! why was I born a girl?” A girl wailed to no avail.         

Yahiya set up a command post by his back gardens. From where he could see and not be seen. He kept in touch with his key operators. All his known numbers went dead.         

It was classic coup maneuvers. Until the final moment, the coup leader remains incommunicado. On cue, at the precise moment, the leader emerges. The conquering prince. Coups in Africa had acquired all the elements of the heroic. Each young military bride dreamed: One day my husband will be Head of State.         

“Fellow Citizens! I salute you in the name of Allah! To prevent a bad situation from getting worse. To save our dear country, the military has this morning overthrown the corrupt politicians. The army has assumed control of all arms of government. You are advised to remain calm. And to stay indoors until further notice. God bless Africa.”         

Yahiya had withdrawn all campus security from their posts and confined them to base. But he left well alone the security at the Vice Chancellor’s lodge. He had no wish to alert the family and have them alert the man.         

Yahiya worked closely with his buddy, Chief of Campus Security. Between them they kept top university executives capable of reversing Yahiya’s moves under virtual house arrest. By the simple trick of deploying rampaging thugs around their residences.         

“That should teach the punks a lesson!” Yahiya announced.         

“Yes Sir!” said the Chief.         

At the absent Vice Chancellor’s lodge, a detachment of rampaging thugs stormed the residence, forcing the wife and her two teenage daughters to flee.         

Rioters targeted the Dean of Students. Posters bearing his image appeared on campus. “Wanted!” they said. “Dead or alive.” The dean had crossed swords with Yahiya. Now Yahiya was going to get his own back.         

Rioters identified the dean’s car on the edge of campus and gave chess. They caught up with the dean in front of the apartment block he shared with 19 other residents and their families.         

The neighbors knew there was a riot going on. But they were totally unprepared for this very loud ruckus so close by. They trooped out.  They wrestled the dean from the hands of his tormentors. But not before the rioters cursed and kicked and swore “we shall be back!”         

The dean and his family went into hiding. Smoke rose from all directions. The campus half lay in ruins. A couple of classroom blocks were smoldering. Outside the Student Center, newly imported washing machines meant for student use, had become a burnt-out wreck. The campus was at this moment a no-go zone.         

This was the moment Yahiya dreamed of. A few injuries. No fatality. He needed the place destroyed. But he must avoid fatalities.         

Now was the moment for the Deputy Vice Chancellor to come out. ‘He came down from the Glory! He came down!’ Reporters and television cameras were waiting.         

Bright lights flashing. Yahiya’s broad and stern face was streaming into households. Yahiya expresses “shock and outrage!” He condemned “the real perpetrators hiding in the shadows” He castigated “gullible youth who allow themselves to be used!” As he talked the riots patter and fizzle away.         

A grateful authority in the federal capital will reward him. They will name him the new Vice Chancellor. God is great!         

On the front lawns of their sumptuous residence. Overlooking the scenic little Mount. Against the backdrop of a perfect northern sunset. Yahiya’s trendy wife is holding a victory party.