February 3, 1999
If Army Can't Play Politics, There's Always Polo
Join a Discussion on Africa in Transition
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
ADUNA, Nigeria -- Weakened by malaria, chilled by the harmattan blowing down from the Sahara, his left ankle still healing from a recent fall off his pony, the retired colonel was going through a bad stretch.
Col. Abubakar Umar, his eyes blotted out by dark sunglasses, sat by himself at the Kaduna Polo Club on a recent Saturday afternoon. He had hoped to resume playing Sunday. But a sudden bout of malaria had derailed his plans and left him sitting in a folding chair by the sidelines, facing an empty field, with not even the strength to pick up the hard-cover book on a table beside him, "Colonial Army and Society in Northern Nigeria."
"The military was used by the British to conquer territories," said the colonel, who was Kaduna state's military governor in the 1980s. "It is seen as a tool of colonialism. The kind of people they had had no choice but to serve the interests of the British. Some people argue that the military is a continuation of colonial rule.
"But," the colonel added quickly, "the Nigerian military after independence is totally different from what it had been in colonial times."
After ruling Africa's most populous nation for many years, Nigeria's military is going through a collective bad stretch these days.
Abroad, its soldiers in a West African force were embarrassed in Sierra Leone when, under their watch, the capital, Freetown, almost fell to rebels in January. At home, a presidential election is scheduled for Feb. 27, as a step toward a handover to a civilian government in May.
Many Nigerians believe that powerful generals, who are playing a big role in the election, will retain their influence over the next government and that a truly civilian government will emerge only in four or five years. But the possibility of losing official political power -- amid a growing public outcry that any civilian candidate is better than a military one -- has unsettled many old soldiers in Kaduna.
After all, this city is the seat of Nigeria's military, which has ruled the country for all but 10 years since independence from Britain in 1960. Frederick Lugard, the British governor general who cobbled various territories together to create Nigeria in 1914, founded Kaduna and made it the seat of power of the north.
Today, more than three decades after Nigeria's military academy was created here, Kaduna has also become something of a retirement community for senior officers. In the 1970s, the governor of Kaduna state started giving out free lots of land in the city to senior officers. Once they began building houses on the lots in recent years and looked over their gates, prairie dog-like, they saw they were all neighbors.
Inside one of the gated houses, Yohanna Madaki, a retired colonel and a former military governor in eastern Nigeria, was fuming.
"I am not going to stand by and see anyone exclude me from my country," he said. "To now say that we need a clean break from the military -- there is no such thing as a clean break, because everyone is guilty. The politicians resisted only in the last five years."
Inside his office, Madaki reached for a Webster's dictionary and, turning to the list of U.S. presidents, yelled out the names of those who had been senior officers.
"It is most unfair and most painful to have the people lump us and say that we are incompetent because we are the military," Madaki said, his voice alternating between full-throated statements and high-pitched protests. "It is painful."
Pointing out that he was a young 56, he added: "That's why it's so painful. At 56 and condemned! No way! No way!"
The colonel's longtime next-door neighbor, a brigadier general, had died. But his brother-in-law, Ike Nwachukuru, a retired major general and a former foreign minister, was visiting Kaduna and huddling with some advisers in the living room.
"To deny us the opportunity to run for office would be like denying us our citizenship," the major general said, adding that he was mulling over a run for the presidency.
It is perhaps at the Kaduna Polo Club -- on Waff Road, named after the West African Frontier Force, which the British established to protects its colonies in this corner of Africa -- that the military finds its social and spiritual center.
The British introduced polo in 1904 in Lagos, the country's commercial capital in the south. But it was in the north, in the horse-riding cultures of the military and the emirs, that polo's popularity spread quickly; today, most of Nigeria's 11 polo clubs dot the north. Until the late 1970s, when economic hard times strained the military's budget, polo was even mandatory at the national academy, Umar said.
Over the years, though, the Kaduna Polo Club has become a magnet not only for the military but also for powerful businessmen and politicians. Not joining could prove costly.
Consider Abdulkadir Balarabe Musa, a Marxist who during a brief period of political openness in the late 1970s was elected governor of Kaduna State. Soon after taking office, Musa received a written invitation, along with a mallet, to join the club.
He threw away the invitation and gave the mallet to a servant.
"I don't play polo," Musa said recently. "It is the game of the rich and powerful, of neo-colonialists."
In 1981, after all his choices of commissioners were rejected by the legislature, Musa was ousted from office. But he had no regrets.
"A neo-colonialist," he added, "is a person who is a shadow, a caricature, a zombie. He does something and doesn't know the meaning of it."
On a recent Sunday, no such talk could be heard in the bar of the Kaduna Polo Club. Instead, between one of the three matches, Ibrahim Abdullahi, a retired major and the secretary of the Nigeria Polo Association, waxed on about the different breeds of ponies.
"This is a pure Sudanese," he told a visitor, "and the landing cost is now about $15,000."
Professional players, businessmen and the sons of sultans dominated the three matches.
Umar, still recovering from malaria, sat in the front row in the viewing stands, with a couple of fellow retired officers.
On this day, the officers did not play. But after each match, all the players filed past them and, in northern Nigeria's traditional gesture of respect, bowed their heads and raised clenched fists before them.
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