John Alechenu examines Nigeria’s democracy over the last 22 years since the military was haggled out of power after decades of repressive rule ended in 1999
For the self-styled military president, Gen Ibrahim Babangida (retd.) and his comrade in coup-plotting, the late General Sani Abacha, military rule was not an anomaly. Though they pretended to love democracy by organising deceitful transition programmes to a return to civil rule, their actions and body languages nonetheless exposed their malevolent thoughts. Nigerians were also not deceived. This could be why they remained unbendable in their demand for an elective representative government. Even after many of them were killed and scores went on exile for mounting pressure and organising civil pressure on the military regimes, Nigerians were not weary to insist on their constitutional demand to wilfully choose their leaders. Thus, after close to two decades, their wish was granted. But it came at a very high price.
The acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Chief MKO Abiola, his wife, Kudirat, and several Nigerian paid for it with their lives.
The anger that came before and after the deaths of these Nigerians forced the Abacha’s successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar (retd.), to set in the machinery for a return to civilian rule within days of assuming office, following Abacha’s sudden death on June 8, 1998.
With the support of the international community, Nigerians went to the polls on February 27, 1999, to elect Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as civilian President.
Before his election, Obasanjo who previously served as military Head of State, was serving a 15-year prison sentence over a phantom coup.
He was released, granted state pardon and won the presidential ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party. He contested and won the election thus getting a second chance to preside over the world’s largest black nation.
In his inaugural address at Eagle Square, Abuja, on May 29, 1999, Obasanjo said, among other things, “Nigeria is wonderfully endowed by the Almighty with human and other resources, it does no credit to us or the entire black race if we fail in managing our resources for quick improvement in the quality of the lives of our people.
“Today, we are taking a decisive step on the path of democracy. We will leave no stone unturned to ensure sustenance of democracy, because it is good for us, it is good for Africa, and it is good for the world.”
Underlining the significance of the day, the then outgoing military ruler, Abdulsalam said, “This day, May 29, 1999, must rank second only to October 1, 1960.”
As expected, Obasanjo hit the ground running. After retiring a generation of military officers who had held political offices, he appointed Rear Adm. Ibrahim Ogohi as the Chief of Defence Staff and Maj. Gen. Victor Malu as the Chief of Army Staff. He also appointed Air Vice Marshal Isaac Alfa as the Chief of Air Staff. The new appointees were professional servicemen whose careers were not tainted by political appointments.
His cabinet was pan-Nigerian with virtually every section of the nation given a sense of belonging. He, like many citizens at home and abroad, recognised the effect of institutionalised corruption on Nigeria’s development.
Working together with the National Assembly, the administration created two anti-corruption agencies, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission.
Many Nigerians, especially politically exposed persons cannot forget the pioneer Chairman of the EFCC, Nuhu Ribadu, in a hurry.
The conduct of government business became a little more open than it was under the military, press freedom also improved. It is to the administration’s credit that Nigeria was able to receive a debt relief of $18bn representing 60 per cent of Nigeria’s debt stock.
However, teething problems associated with trying out a new system were glaring. Obasanjo’s relationship with the National Assembly was that of mutual suspicion. Leadership change, especially in the Senate, was a regular occurrence. Within Obasanjo’s eight years as President, there were five Senate Presidents in quick succession.
The military was more often than not, called upon to deal with civil unrest. Angry soldiers, avenging the death of their comrades in the hands of Niger Delta militants’ also killed scores of men, women and children in the infamous Odi massacre.
There was also the declaration of a state of emergency in the troubled Plateau State and the appointment of an administrator. But as the Executive Director of the Civil Society Legislative and Advocacy Centre, Auwal Musa, puts it, “the Obasanjo era is today remembered more for the attempt to alter the Constitution to allow for a third term than most of his achievements.”
Each election under Obasanjo’s watch became progressively worse than the previous. It was under this atmosphere that the 2007 elections were held. The biggest beneficiary of the electoral heist, the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, acknowledged this when he took the oath of office.
He set up the Justice Uwais Committee on Electoral Reforms which made wide-ranging recommendations to enhance transparency in the electoral system.
Within his first two years in power, Yar’Adua created the Presidential Amnesty Programme and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs to address youth restiveness in the then troubled Niger Delta region.
Armed youths were persuaded to lay down their arms and in exchange, they were paid a monthly stipend and given educational and vocational training in institutions of higher learning at home and abroad.
Sadly, it was during Yar’Adua’s presidency that the Boko Haram sect became a deadly terrorist group following the extra-judicial killing of their founder, Mohammed Yusuf, by the police.
His tenure was cut short by a terminal ailment which eventually claimed his life. He was succeeded by the then Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan, after what almost became a constitutional crisis. Before his death, close aides of the late President kept Jonathan and most Nigerians in the dark about the true state of Yar’Adua’s health.
It took several street protests and the intervention of the Senator David Mark-led Senate which came up with the doctrine of necessity to break the impasse and transfer power to Jonathan to act as President until 2011, when he contested and won the presidency.
His administration recorded modest achievements but was marred by allegations of corruption. Under his watch, security situation grew worse with the Boko Haram sect becoming more daring.
Bombings became a near regular occurrence in Abuja and other cities. The situation came to a head with the abduction of at least 276 girls from a secondary school in Chibok town, Borno State. Several of the girls are still in captivity close to a decade later. The abduction drew global attention to Nigeria’s insecurity.
The Bring Back Our Girls movement became a global movement with celebrities and world leaders joining to put pressure on the Jonathan administration to rescue them.
This became the rallying point for opposition figures and dissatisfied members of the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party.
In the run up to the 2015 general elections, opposition political parties formed the All Progressives Congress. Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), who promised to tackle corruption and tame the monster of insecurity, became the candidate of the APC.
He won the election with Jonathan conceding defeat even before the final votes were tallied. Buhari, who was re-elected in 2019, has also recorded modest achievements in agriculture and completion of several infrastructural projects in the transport sector.
However, his regime has been characterised by allegations of massive corruption, nepotism, economic hardship and insecurity at a scale never before seen.
The Executive Director of the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria, Emmanuel Onwubiko, said, “It is sad that this regime has placed greater value on the lives of cows than that of citizens. Armed herdsmen have been going about raping, maiming and killing citizens across Nigeria with most of them not being brought to book. Crop farmers in the middle belt and the South have been at the receiving end. There is banditry across the country, including Zamfara, Kaduna and even in the President’s home state of Katsina.
Speaking in a similar vein, the National Publicity Secretary of the main opposition PDP, Kola Ologbondinyan, noted, “This APC-led regime has taken Nigeria back to a disgraceful level. Nigerians and the rest of the world can testify to the progress made under the PDP since the days of President Obasanjo, right through the Jonathan presidency.
“But today, what do we have? We have a nation where human life has become cheap because of the ineptitude of those in power.
“Because of the divisive posture of this regime, we now have more separatist agitations than at any time in our history.
“Rest assured, Nigerians who have now known the difference between governance and the mistake of 2015 know better and will make better informed choices come 2023.”
A chieftain of the ruling APC, Abdullahi Jalo, while assessing the progress made since 1999 said, “It is true we have not gotten to where we should be, but it will be untrue to say we have not made progress. We have certainly made progress in several areas.”
The Chairman of the Buhari Media Organisation, Niyi Akinsuji, who spoke in a similar fashion, noted, “It will definitely be unfair to blame the current Buhari-led administration for all of our problems. An objective assessment of our situation will reveal the truth that Nigeria under President Buhari’s watch has taken a leap forward.”
In spite of claims and counter-claims about the progress made so far, there are still lingering issues of federalism.
Never has the agitation for the devolution of power from the centre to the states been this loud. Nigerians across the board have recommended the reduction of items on the exclusive legislative list in order to unbundle the centre and give more powers to federating units.
An elder statesman, Edwin Clark, in an opinion, said, “We cannot continue to have a situation where I, as an Ijaw man, will have to travel to Daura to benefit from the proceeds of the oil God has blessed my land with.”
He recalled that during the First Republic where regionalism was the order of the day, various parts of the federation developed at their own pace with the resources they were endowed with.
Two-term Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, on his part, said, “We cannot continue with this feeding bottle kind of federalism where everybody will come to Abuja cap in hand to come and share from oil revenues. I have said it on several occasions, we need to have state police to tackle some of the internal policing issues we are having. This system where you take a policeman from Kaura Namoda to Enugu, is simply not working.”
Although there are still challenges, the general consensus among Nigerians is that the worst form of democracy is better than the best military rule.
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