Max Siollun is a historian and commentator on Nigerian political and governmental issues, with a focus on those pertaining to Nigerian history and the Nigerian military’s participation in politics. He has written a number of articles and critiques regarding Nigerian history, politics and its military coups. He is also the author of a forthcoming book on the origins of military engagement in Nigerian politics. Mr Siollun welcomes reader feedback on his articles and may be contacted by clicking here. His website.
Over the next few weeks, I will be revisiting the controversial attempt to kidnap Umaru Dikko in 1984. Dikko was one of the most powerful and notorious figures in the government of President Shagari between 1979 and 1983. This is the first of a three part series which recounts the circumstances, timing and details of the kidnap.
Alhaji Umaru Abdurrahaman Dikko was born on December 31, 1936 in the small village of Wamba , close to Zaria in Kaduna State . As a young man Dikko worked for the BBC’s Hausa service. He has been at the vanguard of northern Nigerian politics since the 1960s when, then as a promising young politician he was instrumental in (i) mobilizing northern public opinion against Nigeria’s first military government headed by Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, and (ii) he was also secretary of the committee of northern politicians that toured the north to build support for the creation of states across the federation in 1966. By the time civilian democratic rule was restored in 1979, Dikko had matured into a wily and experienced politician.
Background: Corruption in the 1980s
The early 1980s were marked by spectacular government corruption. It is not that corruption did not exist before, but that it was amplified due to greater availability of funds. Since there was more money around, the asking price for kickbacks rose correspondingly and the corruption became unashamedly brazen. It was claimed that over $16 billion in oil revenues were lost between 1979 and 1983 during the reign of President Shagari. Government ministry buildings would mysteriously burst into flames just before audits, making it impossible to discover written evidence of corruption. President Shagari later claimed that he pleaded with his ministers to stop embezzling state funds but was simply ignored. The exasperated Shagari said he simply gave up and prayed over the matter. No politician symbolised the graft and avarice under Shagari’s government more than the combative Transport Minister Umaru Dikko. Stories regarding Dikko’s corruption are legion. One such instance arises in the biography of an American contractor that had a contract with the Nigerian government. When the government was not performing its obligations under the contract, the contractor took his complaint directly to Dikko. After listening to the contractor’s complaints, Dikko went into an adjacent room and emerged moments later with a suitcase full of money which the contractor estimated at approximately half a million US dollars. Dikko then said words to the effect that if the deal could be done a little “differently” life would be easier for both of them. Realising that he would be in Dikko’s pocket forever if he accepted, the contractor wisely refused the offer (Life Is an Excellent Adventure: An Irreverent Personal Odyssey, by Jerry Funk).
Aside from being the Transport Minister Dikko headed a notorious presidential task force charged with alleviating food shortages by distributing imported rice. The task force was accused of hoarding rice to artificially exacerbate existing food shortages in order to drive prices up further, and of issuing import licenses to businessmen with connections to the ruling NPN party. Dikko’s name became synonymous with corruption. In many ways Dikko became the 1980s answer to first republic Finance Minister Festus Okotie-Eboh who was similarly disliked by army officers (leading to his assassination during a military coup in 1966). The comparison was not fanciful. Dikko was the ultimate personification and symbol of 1980s corruption and shady deals in Nigeria . He perhaps thought himself untouchable because he was President Shagari’s brother-in-law and had the President’s ear. Stories have been told of how Dikko would follow Shagari around after major policy decisions so as to ensure that Shagari would not change his mind, and to ensure that each day, his was the last opinion that Shagari heard.
Dikko also had a way of rubbing people the wrong way. At a time of soaring inflation, scarce commodities and falling oil prices, Dikko’s contribution to a debate about poverty in Nigeria was to remark that things were not so bad, since after all Nigerians were not yet eating out of dustbins. He managed to antagonise even his colleagues in the ruling NPN. The NPN had an elaborate zoning system for the distribution of government portfolios - including the presidency. Since the presidency had been zoned to President Shagari (from the north), the multi-billionaire businessman, Moshood Abiola hoped he would benefit from the NPN’s zoning system. Abiola assumed that when President Shagari’s term of office expired, the NPN would “zone” the presidency to the south, and he would be allowed to run for President. He was wrong. When Abiola articulated his presidential ambition, he was rebuffed by Dikko who told him that “the presidency is not for sale to the highest bidder”. Abiola “retired” from politics soon after – totally exasperated with the NPN. Abiola was however to remerge from the shadows to play a key role in Nigeria ’s political history.
Dikko and the Military
Dikko also made himself unpopular not just with the public, colleagues and the press, but also with military officers. Given his high profile in the government and scandalous corruption, Dikko knew that if a military coup occurred, he would be a marked man.
In October 1983 President Shagari was re-elected for his second and final term of office in an election that was marred by accusations of electoral malpractice. His campaign was managed by his brother-in-law Dikko. The stage was set for another military rescue operation.
The Military Returns
At 7am on new year’s day 1984 the following broadcast was made by a hitherto unknown army officer:
“Fellow countrymen and women. I, Brigadier Sani Abacha, of the Nigerian army address you this morning on behalf of the Nigerian armed forces.
You are all living witnesses to the great economic predicament and uncertainty, which an inept and corrupt leadership has imposed on our beloved nation for the past four years. I am referring to the harsh, intolerable conditions under which we are now living. Our economy has been hopelessly mismanaged. We have become a debtor and beggar nation. There is inadequacy of food at reasonable prices for our people who are now fed up with endless announcements of importation of foodstuffs. Health services are in shambles as our hospitals are reduced to mere consulting clinics without drugs, water and equipment. Our educational system is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Unemployment figures including the undergraduates have reached embarrassing and unacceptable proportions. In some states, workers are being owed salary arrears of eight to twelve months and in others there are threats of salary cuts. Yet our leaders revel in squandermania, corruption and indiscipline, and continue to proliferate public appointments in complete disregard of our stark economic realities.
After due consultations over these deplorable conditions, I and my colleagues in the armed forces have in the discharge of our national role as promoters and protectors of our national interest decided to effect a change in the leadership of the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and form a Federal Military Government. This task has just been completed. The Federal Military Government hereby decrees the suspension of the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1979 relating to all elective and appointive offices and representative institutions including the office of the President, state governors, federal and state executive councils, special advisers, special assistants, the establishment of the National Assembly and the Houses of Assembly including the formation of political parties.
Accordingly, Alhaji Shehu Usman Shagari ceases forthwith to be the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria . All the incumbents of the above named offices shall, if they have not already done so, vacate their formal official residences, surrender all government property in their possession and report to the nearest police station in their constituencies within seven days. The clerk of the National Assembly, the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives shall, within two weeks, render account of all the properties of the National Assembly. All the political parties are banned; the bank account of FEDECO and all the political parties are frozen with immediate effect. All foreigners living in any part of the country are assured of their safety and will be adequately protected. Henceforth, workers not on essential duties are advised to keep off the streets. All categories of workers on essential duties will, however, report at their places of work immediately.
With effect from today, a dusk to dawn curfew will be imposed between 7pm and 6am each day until further notice. All airways flights have been suspended forthwith and all airports, seaports, and border posts closed. External communications have been cut. The Customs and Excise, Immigration and the Police will maintain vigilance and ensure watertight security at the borders. The area administrators or commanders will have themselves to blame if any of the wanted people escape. Fellow countrymen and women, the change in government has been a bloodless and painstaking operation and we do not want anyone to lose his or her life. People are warned in their own interest to be law abiding and to give the Federal Military Government maximum cooperation. Anyone caught disturbing public order will be summarily dealt with.
For avoidance of doubt, you are forewarned that we shall not hesitate to declare martial law in any area or state of the federation in which disturbances occur. Fellow countrymen and women and comrades at arms, I will like to assure you that the Armed Forces of Nigeria is ready to lay its life for our dear nation but not for the present irresponsible leadership of the past civilian administration.
You are to await further announcements. Good morning.”