Nigeria's Troubled Years

Article excerpt

Abiodun Onadipe

There have been only two unforgettable dates in the history of Nigeria since it became independent from Britain on October 1, 1960 because of the impact they have had on the psyche of the nation as a whole. The first momentous date was January 15, 1966, which marked the entry of the military as a major player in Nigerian politics in the form of the first military coup. May 27, 1967, was the second significant date, marking the start of the devastating Biafran War which ended three years later.

In the past two years, a third politically divisive date has been added to these two dates -- June 12, 1993. This was the date of the presidential election for the `Third Republic' annulled by the former military dictator General Ibrahim Babangida. Its great significance is the knock-on effect June 12 has and is having on every segment of the Nigerian society.

On August 27, 1985, Nigeria had witnessed another military putsch -- the sixth successful one in 25 years of independence -- which ushered in a new army strongman in the person of General Babangida, Defence Minister in the ousted military government of General Mohammed Buhari, making him Nigeria's eighth leader.

In his search for credibility with the rest of the world, General Babangida announced on July 1, 1987, a long and tortuous transition programme which would culminate in the inauguration of a new elected president in January 1993. To stave off further criticism he revised this programme in 1992 for eventual hand-over of power to an elected president on the eighth anniversary of his assumption of power. Babangida promised that his government will not stay a day longer than is necessary, however, `We will strive to see this nation out of this vicious cycle of despair, fear and despondency... We want to go down in history as having staked our credibility on a viable and democratically workable Third Republic', he pledged.

After setting stringent and almost impossible conditions for political associations to fulfill for registration, Babangida then proscribed all twenty-three that met the requirements because, he claimed, they were mirror images of parties in the defunct republics. He then brought in a novel political idea, decreeing and establishing two political parties -- the left leaning Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the right wing National Republican Convention (NRC) -- where all were equal `joiners and founders'. The government went further to write the parties' constitutions and manifestos, even undertaking to fund the parties as well as the building of party secretariats all over the country. All this government intervention was to prevent some `fat cats' from hijacking the parties.

Having effectively disqualified many renowned politicians in the revised political programme, which resulted in the polarisation of the nation, there was a rush by mid-ranking politicians to fill the vacuum created as the process took on a life of its own.

Through political horse-trading and influence peddling Moshood Abiola, a southern Muslim multi-millionaire businessman, emerged as the presidential candidate on the SDP platform; the NRC flagbearer was Bashir Tofa, a northern Muslim businessman, and by all accounts the bookmakers favourite. Of the past nine Nigerian heads of state, six have been from the northern part of the country, and of the remaining three, who were southerners, one of them -- Olusegun Obasanjo -- assumed power by default through the assassination of the substantive leader Murtala Mohammed. Another southerner was Ernest Shonekan, the head of the luckless Interim National Government, who served 83 days during the period under discussion.

Against all odds, Abiola and the SDP were far ahead of Tofa's NRC when the election results in the presidential race, judged to have been the freest and fairest in the country's history, were annulled, but not before Tofa, having been defeated in his home state, had conceded defeat. …