There were high hopes and great expectations that fateful May 29, 1999. The air was fresh, there was excitement too. The nation heaved a huge sigh of relief: It was a new dawn! The men of jackboots and decrees, were retreating to their barracks. And on their exit, freedom borne on the wings of rule of law, was expected with joyous anticipation. Democracy at last!
Nigeria’s return to the path of the civil rule, after 16 years of military interregnum, was winding and tortuous. On December 31, 1983, the second republic, which heralded the beginning of American type Presidential system, was dismantled in a military putsch.
Two years later, precisely on August 27, 1985, the General Muhammadu Buhari/Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon-led junta that took over after President Shehu Shagari was dethroned, was also sacked in a palace coup led by General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida. Reviewing the draconian decrees that signposted the Buhari/Idiagbon regime, Babangida took up the designation of military President instead of military head of state that Buhari adopted.
Babangida took the country through many courses in devious nation building schemes, which were but clever designs to hold on to political power. The national conversation on what economic model that was best suited for the country’s development, otherwise known as the IMF (International Monetary Fund) debate was one of such political pastimes.
On the surface, the general outline of the debate was whether, in the light of stiff conditionalities, Nigeria should take an IMF loan facility or swallow the conditionalities without the loan. However, beneath the thin veneer of populism and public participation, was a clever smokescreen to keep the politicians too busy to demand the return of democracy.
From the IMF debate came the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), which entailed belt-tightening economic measures. And, in a bid to cushion the crushing effect of the strangulating fiscal measures, the Babangida junta introduced the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) to train middle level manpower through skill acquisition.
Babangida set up the Nigerian Political Bureau to get inputs from Nigerians on the shape of the country’s political future. The Bureau was tasked to take a critical look at the nation’s political problems and recommend ways of tackling them.
Although the bureau stoked incisive political thought for the political engineering of the country into a functional federation, it was later discovered that Babangida was merely pandering to the whims of politicians to strengthen his hold on power.
One of the fallouts of the Political Bureau was the introduction of Mass Mobilisation for Self-Reliance, Social Justice and Economic Recovery (MAMSER), which was the socio-political parallel of its economic counterpart, SAP.
It could be stated that while the Babangida regime received quality and well informed suggestions for improved statecraft and socio-political stability of the country, the regime’s decisions were skewed in favour of populism rather than viability and sustainability.
That tendency explained the regime’s decision to decree two political parties into existence. And, to railroad the two parties – National Republican Convention (NRC) and Social Democratic Party (SDP) – into the nation’s body polity, the military regime started constructing party secretariats across the various local government councils of the country.
Similarly, to inject the sense of serious intention to berth democracy, the Babangida regime enjoined Nigerians to join any of the party that meets their ideology-progressive socialist or conservative republican.
It was that ensuing elections that would expose Babangida’s insincerity and pave the way for his forced exit: He authorised a hurriedly conducted census and thereafter empowered the National Electoral Commission (NEC) to conduct parliamentary elections, which gave the country a semblance of diarchy.
Midway into the process, when it became obvious from the pattern of voting, which handed majority of elected representatives to the SDP and General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua looking set to clinch the Presidential seat, Babangida banned a set of politicians called the old brigade/money bags.
The process was started afresh with the ‘new breed’ set of Presidential aspirants. Yet again, when it became apparent that the business mogul, Chief Moshood Abiola was coasting home to victory, Babangida prevailed on NEC led by Prof. Humphrey Nwosu, to abort the announcement of results and subsequently annulled the election.
It was an infringement too many. Nigerians could not take it anymore. They saw through Babangida’s chicanery and protested for the endorsement of the mandate given to Abiola.
Not even the setting up of an interim government and Babangida’s decision to step aside could quench the fervour citizen’s angst. To make matters worse, the Interim Government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan was sacked by General Sani Abacha, thereby reversing the affected transition to civil rule programme.
Deploying brutal force to quell civil resistance, Abacha managed to hold onto power for four years before he kicked the bucket. Perhaps, learning from the experiences of the preceding five years, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who became the next military head of state, set his heart and mind on immediate transition to civil rule.
New Dawn, Fresh Fears
IT was against that chequered background that the general election was heralded with joy and beautiful anticipations. The Presidential democracy that was ushered in on May 29, 1999 has gone through many electoral cycles. Five epochs have been witnessed by Nigerians.
And with each new leadership, starting from Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, who gave Nigeria a quasi democracy through his military background, Nigerians looked forward with hope that the country was coming to become the great nation it has always expected to be.
Armed with the lessons of history and expectations from Nigerians, each of the four leaders that were products of the six electoral cycles, did much to reflect hope in their inaugural addresses. But the socio-political challenges in the country not only continued to defer the hope and raise fresh fears about the country’s continued existence, but also exacerbate concerns for the well being of its citizens.
Standing on the dais that fateful May 29, 1999, Obasanjo, who was one-time military head of state, summarised the socio-economic and governance challenges confronting the country.
At his inauguration, Obasanjo stated: “Nigeria is wonderfully endowed by the Almighty with human and other resources. It does no credit, either to us or the entire black race, if we fail in managing our resources for quick improvement in the quality of life of our people…
“Instead of progress and development, which we are entitled to expect from those who govern us, we experienced in the last decade and half, and particularly in the last regime but one, persistent deterioration in the quality of our governance, leading to instability and the weakening of all public institutions
“Politicians have a duty in whatever capacity they may find themselves, whether as legislators or ministers, to be committed and be seen to be committed to the public good. Politicians must carefully examine the budget to ensure that public funds are judiciously spent.
But after eight years in office, flawed elections and jackboot tactics towards state governors and members of the parliament, Obasanjo’s delivery did not match his promises. He adopted impunity as political style and executed imposition at the expiration of his constitutionally sanctioned two terms.
President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who succeeded Obasanjo, did much to chart the path towards constitutional democracy through obedience to the rule of law. As he took his oath of office and allegiance to the Constitution of the Federal Republic, Yar’Adua declared that the task of building a just and humane nation was a must for him.
While noting that the nation’s economy was on the path of growth, the former Katsina State governor remarked: “Over the past eight years, Nigerians have reached a national consensus in at least four areas: to deepen democracy and the rule of law; build an economy driven primarily by the private sector, not government; display zero tolerance for corruption in all its forms, and, finally, restructure and staff our government to ensure efficiency and good governance. I commit myself to these tasks.”
Unfortunately, barely three years on the saddle and harassed by declining health, Yar’Adua could not see through his seven-point agenda of restructuring the governance and enhancing a private sector-driven economy.
Vice President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, who took over from Yar’Adua after his demise, came under the weight of identity politics that is at the bottom of the country’s governance slide.
Upon winning the 2011 Presidential election, Jonathan noted that collective sacrifice was what the country needs to experience economic growth and sustain socio-political stability.
“Our decade of development has begun. The march is on. The day of transformation begins today. We will not allow anyone exploit differences in creed or tongue, to set us one against another,” he stated in his inaugural address.
However, perhaps, assailed by the political recriminations that attended his quest to run for President contrary to the power rotation arrangement in the country, President Jonathan was assailed by divisive politics compounded by self-serving and opportunistic aides. The President could not live true to the fresh birth or transformation he promised.
It was against that background that the defeat of Jonathan’s Presidency in 2015 was heralded with a new wave of hope and great expectations. When, at his inauguration, President Muhammadu Buhari declared that “I belong to everybody and belongs to nobody,” Nigerians looked up to interesting times.
Like Obasanjo, who began the democratic journey anew in 1999 for Nigeria, Buhari was a former military head of state. The expectation was therefore high that the knowledge of the country’s problems, especially pervasive official corruption, his emergence in 2015 would rejig the nation.
However, either out of temporary alienation of intellect or being overwhelmed by the nature of problems he met in office, the President became a hostage of powerful political forces. Getting a team to assist him deliver on his three cardinal programmes of security, economic revitalization and anti-graft crusade was the first sign that the country was still on the march to old future.
In his inaugural address, President Buhari had observed: “At home, we face enormous challenges. Insecurity, pervasive corruption, the hitherto unending and seemingly impossible fuel and power shortages are the immediate concerns.
“We are going to tackle them head on. Nigerians will not regret that they have entrusted national responsibility to us. We must not succumb to hopelessness and defeatism. We can fix our problems.”
But seven years on, President Buhari’s knowledge of past mistakes has failed to serve as his secret of success. Despair continues to loom in the nation, making democracy seem like a whisper in the wind 23 years after!