President Muhammadu Buhari has alleged that a number of groups are uniting to illegally try and overthrow the government. The Presidency alleges that it has evidence that disgruntled religious leaders, ethnic champions, and former political leaders are seeking to use the sharply deteriorating security situation as a smokescreen. Despite calls from two prominent lawyers for the army to take over and deal with the insecurity the military chiefs quickly pledged the armed forces’ loyalty to the elected government. There has not been a coup in Nigeria since it retuned to democratic rule in 1999 after 30 years of military rule.
Some critics have accused Buhari of being haunted by his own past which explains his concern about a coup. In December 1983 he became head of state after overthrowing the democratically elected but deeply corrupt government of President Shehu Shagari. Critics allege that the Presidency’s current allegation will be used by it is an excuse to crackdown on its opponents in order to silence dissenting voices who are criticising its inability to deal with the security crisis.
These fears were further heightened on 4 May when the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, said that the government was preparing to arraign over 400 people for sponsoring Boko Haram. He declined to name any but said that the list — which includes businessmen; bureau de change operators; gold miners; and others linked to financing terrorism — had been compiled after examining their banking transactions. This has led to concerns that some of the government’s critics could find themselves facing prosecution for financing terrorism.
Nonetheless, the concerns about a coup cannot be totally dismissed. There are high levels of disaffection in the army’s junior officer ranks over the prolonged war against Boko Haram which has resulted in some being left on the frontline for years. This disaffection is fuelled by: poor welfare conditions; the lack of adequate ammunition to prosecute the war; and a suspicion that senior officers are prolonging the war because they are financially benefiting from it. These sentiments have been seen in occasional videos produced by soldiers which have then been leaked on social media.
The 5 May disclosure by the Minister of Finance Zainab Ahmed to the National Assembly that at least ₦1,008 billion (US$2.64 billion) has been provided to the military in the last 28 months alone will only add fuel to this disaffection. She dismissed allegations that the Federal Government had not funded the war effort in the Northeast and said that, not only had the military often received what has been earmarked for it in the budgets, but also that additional special funding releases had been approved by the Presidency. There is a widespread belief amongst junior officers that these funds are not being used properly and that some is finding its way into the pockets of the military’s senior officer class. Such disaffection has previously provoked revolts against senior commanders and these could easily spill over into coup attempts against the government.
Despite the disaffection, however, the chances of a coup remain very slim. The military is totally overstretched with the current crisis so its most senior commanders are too far apart and busy to effectively plan a takeover. The soldiers and equipment which would be used in a coup are fully engaged and mobilising for a coup would be very challenging. The internal disaffection within the military is also directed not at the political leaders but more at their own commanders. Money to fight Boko Haram has been provided by the Federal Government but not enough is getting to the rank and file. The army’s disaffection is therefore against its own officers and consequently more easily contained within the military.
Also, despite the security challenges, most Nigerians want democracy to succeed. There is a wider acceptance that a genuine democratic system works, and that military rule is unacceptable. A military coup would be resisted because disaffection with the government is not deep enough for most Nigerians to accept the military as a viable alternative. One of the biggest criticisms of Buhari is that he has not shed some of his military past as a civilian president. Another military president would be unacceptable to the majority of Nigerians and his overthrow could probably increase ethnic tensions and lead to the possible disintegration of the country. The international community would also oppose a military regime so the chances of a coup are almost nil.
Despite all of his shortcomings, Buhari still retains a fanatical support base in both the Northeast and Northwest. A takeover would spark widespread protests that would be difficult to quell without serious bloodshed which an already overstretched military would not want to face. Besides which, any overthrow led by northern officers would be widely seen as an attempt by the North to ensure that the Presidency is not returned to the South. If it was led by southern commanders, it would be seen as an attempt to cut short Buhari’s Presidency which would be unacceptable to the North. The mechanics of a coup are simply too complicated to be successfully without huge repercussions for Nigeria’s stability which is why it is most unlikely to happen.