Atiku Abubakar and President Muhammadu Buhari.
By Samuel Ogundipe
The circulation of a document which allegedly called for a coup to overthrow President Muhammadu Buhari appeared to have been exaggerated by the Nigerian government and security agencies, PREMIUM TIMES can report after efforts to obtain it fell through.
Over the past two weeks, security chiefs and political appointees of the president have inundated the public with claims that disgruntled opposition elements were plotting to sabotage Mr Buhari’s administration and implement a coup.
Top amongst those being castigated as setting off the “desperate tactics” were Nigeria’s former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, and his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Mr Abubakar was the major challenger to Mr Buhari at the February 23 presidential elections.
After security chiefs spent days sidestepping disclosure of those responsible for the alleged anti-democratic plots, the first unambiguous allegation came from the Defence Headquarters on May 14, claiming that a document seeking Mr Buhari’s removal via a coup was in circulation.
The statement blamed ‘Nigerian Continuity and Progress’ for the viral document, describing the authors as “faceless” and “demonic.”
Three days later, on May 17, the State Security Service (SSS), which is responsible for the country’s internal intelligence, also released a statement that essentially repeated the Defence Headquarters’ claim.
The SSS said the so-called Nigerian Continuity and Progress was being sponsored by “aggrieved politicians” with an end-game of instigating widespread violence to force Mr Buhari out of office.
The SSS said it would, “not condone any form of extra-judicial activity or method designed or adopted by persons or groups to subvert constituted authorities.”
On May 15, Information Minister Lai Mohammed became the first member of Mr Buhari’s cabinet to pointedly mention Mr Abubakar and the PDP as contributing to the subversive measures because they lost February 23 presidential election.
No ‘document’ in circulation
But two weeks after Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai first made the claim of the alleged plot, and one week after the Defence Headquarters named ‘Nigerian Continuity and Progress’ as the group behind the alleged coup plot, there is no evidence that the document was ever circulated, or that any ‘faceless’ group has been going by the name before the military statement.
PREMIUM TIMES interviewed 46 people in the media, civil society, national security, defence, police, intelligence and social media, between May 16 and 20, but none of them could confirm either seeing the document or being familiar with ‘Nigerian Continuity and Progress’.
They all told PREMIUM TIMES that the sparse information they have learnt about ‘Nigerian Continuity and Progress’ came from the security agencies’ alarmist statements.
“I have not seen the document,” Mike Ejiofor, a former director at the SSS, told PREMIUM TIMES. Citing national security, he declined further comments about why the document might not be in the public domain despite security agencies’ claim.
Multiple checks within security circles also failed to yield the document.
The spokespersons for the police and Nigerian Army and the Nigerian Navy declined to make the document available, saying they do not have it and that all enquiries should be directed to the Defence Headquarters which first made claims to it or the SSS which followed suit a few days later.
Onyema Nwachukwu, the Defence Headquarters spokesperson, did not return PREMIUM TIMES enquiries about the document between May 16 and 20.
Although SSS spokesperson Peter Afunanya told PREMIUM TIMES the document existed, he declined to make it available.
“Please go and investigate it,” Mr Afunanya said after being told that the document they claimed was in circulation had not been seen by anyone in public or security circle.
PREMIUM TIMES also reached out repeatedly to Mr Mohammed about the document, but he declined comments. The information minister had said on Saturday that the government had credible evidence about those plotting a coup.
The comments came a day after PREMIUM TIMES published concerns of national security experts about the danger in government’s allegations of subversive tactics by the opposition.
The elusive nature of the document which the military said was ‘circulated’ had prompted allegations from both Mr Abubakar and civic groups that security agencies might be toeing a familiar path in their pursuit of opposition.
“President Buhari wants to replay the phantom coup saga of his now deceased mentor, who threw former President Olusegun Obasanjo in jail after falsely accusing him of treason to perpetuate himself in power,” Mr Abubakar said when he pushed back against allegations of subversive plots on May 15.
In 1995, as he grew paranoid about his brutal junta, former military ruler Sani Abacha ordered the arrest of several opposition politicians and their alleged collaborators in the military.
Between February 28 and March 1, 1995, Mr Abacha’s government cracked down on those who purportedly took part in the phantom coup plot to overthrow him.
Mr Obasanjo, Musa Yar’Adua, a retired major-general, and Lawan Gwadabe, who was an active brigadier-general, were amongst dozens of influential persons taken into custody.
On March 10, 1995, the government announced purported details of the could on national television, and subsequently charged the ‘suspects’ for treason before a military tribunal.
Virtually all those arrested were convicted and placed on death row. They were all later pardoned when Mr Abacha died of cardiac arrest, and a new interim government replaced him.
Chidi Odinkalu, a former head of Nigeria’s human rights commission, said the security agencies put themselves in a fix when they claimed the document was “circulated”.
“They announced to the public that the document was circulated, yet the public did not see anything of such,” Mr Odinkalu said. “Well, Nigerians have a right to be shown the document that was purportedly circulated to them.”
Mr Odinkalu said security agencies exist to protect the people, and not necessarily a regime.
“This is not about the regime; it is about Nigerians and their democratic system of government,” Mr Odinkalu said. “If security agencies have that document that threatened to hijack the country’s democratic institutions, then they should not be hoarding it.”