The entire political history of Nigeria would have been different had the plot hatched by a prominent Northern politician succeeded on the eve of the installation of President Shehu Shagari in 1979.
As the nation then awaited the swearing-in of Shagari, unknown to many Nigerians, a prominent politician of Northern extraction, who was among the four that coveted the seat with Shagari, was not happy that the Sokoto-born prince, who is now a nonagenarian, actually beat them all to it; and was going to claim his victory in a matter of hours and become the second president of Nigeria.
This stunning revelation was made to LEADERSHIP Friday by Amb. Denis Ukume, who was an aide to President Shagari, in his yet to be unveiled slim memoir, titled: “I Believe”.
According to Ukume, some 5,000 dissident soldiers, who called themselves ‘Bisalla boys’, after the 1976 failed coup arrowhead, Gen. Iliya D. Bisalla, had contrived the plot to disrupt Shagari’s swearing-in ceremony.
Bisalla was convicted by the secret Special Military Tribunal of conspiracy and concealment of treason although the extent of his involvement in the 1976 coup is still mired in controversy. Obasanjo’s government, which indicted him told the world that Bisalla gave Col. Bukar Suka Dimka operational orders.
This was later punctured by the visible leader of the coup, Dimka, who under interrogation, stated that another officer (Major Rabo) provided the operational orders).
Whatever the circumstances, Bisalla wasn’t spared from the sentence of treason. He was shot along with 31 other alleged co-conspirators on March 11, 1976. Apparently, it was his death that the dissidents had sought to avenge by truncating Shagari’s installation and what is now historically known as the Second Republic in the annals of Nigerian history.
However, the plot didn’t fall through because it became known to then Head of State, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, who got a security report on it and promptly informed Shagari via a secret courier, which fortuitously fell into the hands of Ukume.
Ukume narrated the circumstances under which he got the document. He wrote that after a messenger arrived the NPN secretariat in Lagos with a letter from Chief Michael Ani, FEDECO chairman- addressed to Shehu Shagari, the President-elect, he (Shagari) “called me into his office and handed me a single sheet handwritten document, warning that it was confidential and should be treated as such.”
He then ask him to make a single sheet photocopy and return it to him.
As the messenger waited in the reception, Ukume rushed to a public photocopy shop as the one in the party’s head office wasn’t working.“Several customers were milling around when I got there. I offered the machine attendant N2,000 and he ordered everyone out of the room.
“The first copy did not come out well but the second did. I picked up the copy and the soiled one and went straight to Shagari. I handed back the original and the clean copy to him. I kept the soiled one. The messenger left almost immediately with the letter he had brought. I returned to my office and decided to read the content of the soiled copy,” he narrated, emphasizing that since Shagari had “warned about the confidential nature of the note, I dared not spend even a minute perusing it.
“I was petrified as I quickly read the document and shredded it,” he noted, saying he concealed the knowledge until he wrote his book.
The report had been a product of the timely whistle blown by venerated Benue leader, Joseph S. Tarka.
It was said that Tarka, a former minister for Transport and then Communications under General Yakubu Gowon, who learned of the deadly plan had rushed to his friend, Gen. Gibson Jallo, who later became the Chief of Army Staff and Chief of Defence Staff under Shagari. As the author recollects Tarka, who was also a founding member of the United Middle Belt Congress, a political organization dedicated to protecting and advocating for the country’s Middle Belt, from what he later gathered from Jallo and late Sen. Mahmud Waziri, was the one who saved Nigeria from a monumental crisis.
At Jallo’s place he spilled the beans and the report of what he said was put in the report that Obasanjo surreptitiously smuggled to Shagari.
“The document, which soiled copy Ukume, who was instructed by his boss to make a copy and return to him, read, committed to memory and later destroyed, stated that a meeting was convened by the late … who had contested the presidential election alongside Shehu Shagari, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and others,” wrote Ukume.