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24 years of democratic struggle –– Hope betrayed

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Just like the green-white-green of Nigeria flag, the contrast between expectation and gratification in the country’s democratic experience is rich. There are no grey areas. On May 29 Nigerians celebrated or better, observed Democracy Day. But while the idea of celebrating eighteen unbroken years of democracy was been debated, some citizens contended that what stood out as authentic Democracy Day in the country’s political progression remains June 12.

June 12 apologists cite the level of popular participation and enthusiasm that preceded the June 12, 1993 presidential election, which was annulled by the military junta under military President Ibrahim Babangida, as unrivaled.

In that election, business mogul and philanthropist, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, who contested on the platform of the then Social Democratic Party (SDP) was believed to be at the threshold of defeating his defunct National Republican Party (NRC) rival, Alhaji Bashir Othman Tofa, before the military struck.

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By the time the political mishap took place, Nigerians from all walks of life were united in the struggle for the return of democracy as a system of governance in the country. But inebriated with political power, the military, which executed a bloodless palace coup to depose the Buhari/Idiagbon junta, threw up a military president in a vain effort to assuage the clamour for civil rule.

Yet offering a contrast to the clenched fist and brutal regime before it, President Babangida offered Nigerians a placebo as his regime executed a long winding transition programme that ended up as a dribble run policy. Although his cunning and deceptive manipulation of public opinion earned him the sobriquet, Maradona, many a Nigerian citizen believed that the end was in sight when his friend, Abiola, appeared on the presidential ballot after some presidential aspirants were disqualified along the dubious transition.

But like a dictator waking from a bad dream, the June 12 presidential election, which was adjudged as at that time the most credible, free and fair election ever organised in Nigeria, was annulled.

If Babangida thought that the annulment of June 12 elections would leave him leg room to further his joggling with handover process and dates, he was proved wrong. An opposition political movement known as National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) was born. NADECO served as the conglomeration of civil society groups, former military officers, politicians and academics that battled continued military rule in Nigeria.

As NADECO protested the annulment of June 12 presidential election, it highlighted the damages military rule was doing to Nigeria’s development and perception in the comity of nations. The fact of presence of former military officers in NADECO helped to galvanize public opinion against the military, leading to a half-hearted admission by Babangida that military rule is an aberration.

With the inconvenience of high voltage heat generated by the NADECO and other pro-democracy activists, the military president decided on a decoy and empanelled an Interim Government (IG), headed by a corporate czar, Chief Ernest Shonekan. By the configuration of the Interim Government, Abiola was to be the Vice Chairman.

But although Shonekan hailed from the very same Southwest as the presumed winner of the June 12 election, his headship of the Federal Government was seen as a cheap photocopy of the original, as such it could not douse the fire of agitation for the recovery of Abiola’s mandate.

It was at the height of the inconsequential novelty of an interim administration that national apprehension about the full import of Babangida’s declaration that he was stepping aside came to light. At his departure, the Maradona of military in Nigeria politics said, to the temporary relief of citizens that he was stepping aside.

But the question on the lips of virtually every Nigeria was why General Sani Abacha was left behind in what was perceived by some as the retreat of military from governance of the country. By November 17, 1993, less than three months after the strange interim government was put together, Abacha sacked the team and became the Khalifa (successor) that he was programmed to be.

Applying his own cloak and dagger approach, Abacha hid behind his dark goggles and ruled with a no nonsense approach towards the pro-democracy groups, including the media, which adopted the guerilla tactics of publishing to escape the onslaught of military mad dogs, particularly the infamous strike force. Human right abuses were extensive.

Exactly one year after the annulled election, the presumed winner, Chief Abiola, decided to take the bull by the horns. Supported by some NADECO stalwarts, he proposed a Government of National Unity (GNU) to supplant the interim government, which had been displaced by Abacha.

To date, it is not yet known who advised Abiola to inaugurate himself as President. But on Saturday June 11, 1994 the presumed winner of June 12, 1993 election declared himself head of the GNU. At a brief ceremony in Epetedo, a Lagos suburb, Abiola narrated what he had gone through in the hands of military despots, stressing that it had come to a point all Nigerians would say ‘Enough is enough.’

He declared: “Our patience has come to an end. As of now, from this moment, a new Government of National Unity is in power throughout the length and breadth of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, led by me, Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, as President and Commander-in-Chief.”

Abiola reminded Nigerians of how “you voted for me in your millions and gave me an overwhelming majority over my opponent. To be precise, you gave me 58.4 per cent of the popular vote and a majority in 20 out of 30 states, plus the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. Not only that, you also enabled me to fulfill the constitutional requirement that the winner should obtain one-third of the votes in two-thirds of the states,” he added.

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Perhaps, encouraged by the moral suasion by rights groups and members of the international community, Chief Abiola regretted that “this peaceful approach has exposed me to severe censure by some who have mistaken it for weakness on my part.”

“Those with whom I have sought to dialogue have remained like stones, neither stirred to show loyalty to the collective decision of the people of their own country, nor to observe Allah’s injunction that they should exhibit justice and fair-play in all their dealings with their fellowmen.”

Having noted all that have been going in the attempt to ensure that the will of the people as expressed in the election did not come to pass, Abiola declared: “I hereby invoke the mandate bestowed upon me by my victory in the said election, to call on all members of the Armed Forces and the Police, the Civil and Public Services throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria, to obey only the Government of National Unity that is headed by me, your only elected President. My Government of National Unity is the only legitimate, constituted authority in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as of now.”

Democracy Tangles With Dictatorship
BETWEEN November 17, 1993 when he mounted the saddle as military head of state and June 8, 1998 when he died under mysterious circumstances, Nigerians went through harrowing experiences in the hand of Abacha.

But while some danced immorally, but with feeling of relief, expectations that Abiola’s mandate would be restored further deemed. Citing the Epetedo declaration, the military junta arrested Abiola and incarcerated him while the charge of treasonable felony was slammed on him.

If the authorities expected that to douse the agitation for democracy by the arrest and detention of Abiola, it however energized pro-democracy groups to mount strenuous campaigns against the triumph of dictatorship and attempt to return the country to fascist rule.

Those who escaped assassination or arrest fled the country and sustained the campaign overseas. NADECO went a notch higher by setting up a pirate radio, through which the outside world was getting reports about the wanton despoliation of fundamental human rights.

With time, Nigeria became a pariah nation. The murder of Kudirat Abiola, wife of the presumed winner of the 1993 election, as well as the killing of Ken Saro Wiwa, an environmental rights activist; put serious international pressure on the country. Despite the somewhat international health of Nigeria’s credit rating following the lowering of the country’s foreign debt and increase of foreign reserve, the polity remained intense.

Three years after the killing of Saro Wiwa, Abacha died under mysterious circumstances. And after some internal debates and discussion within the military, General Abdulsalami Abubakar was selected as new head of state.

With the demise of Abacha, hopes were high that the new head of state would take a fresh look at the 1993 election, with a view to either completing the electoral process and announcing a winner or releasing Abiola from prison. But that was not to be, as barely one month after Abacha died; Abiola was declared dead after drinking ‘tea’.In the light of that balance of calamities, Abdulsalami announced to the joy of the citizenry a brief transition programme, stressing that he would not want to stay more than six months as head of state. As usual, the ever pliant citizenry, Nigerians rejoiced and waited the prosecution of the transition programme and return of democracy with suspicions anticipation.

A Rigged System
DESPITE widespread skepticism, General Abdulsalami kept his word. Born on June 13, 1942; it was as if posterity positioned him to be a passive beneficiary of the June 12 presidential election impasse. Abubakar did not try to play hanky-panky with his transition programme, even when most politicians refused to take him by his word.

To show his serious commitment to early handover of power to civilians, Abubakar put together the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and expedited action on the draft Constitution that was put together under the Abacha regime. But the head of state’s constituency, the military, played a fast one on Nigerians. During the formation of new political parties, the military showed interest and bias for Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which received a modicum of national trust due the fact that the G34 led by second republic Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme challenged Abacha to return the country to the path of constitutional democracy.

Having cleverly penetrated PDP, the military officers bent backwards to register the Alliance for Democracy (AD), even when the political association did not meet the stipulated requirements for registration as a political party. As such, while Babangida toyed with the idea of two-party system, Abdulsalami’s transition accommodated a third leg, all in a deliberate effort to show that he meant to handover.

Subtly, what Abdulsalami government was giving the people with the right hand; the military retrieved with the left hand, through the imposition of a former military head of state, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo.

The military not only gave fillip to the sentiment that the Southwest should be allowed to produce the President in propitiation for the loss of Abiola, it ensured that the wishes of Nigerians were skewed in the ultimate choice of who becomes the President from the Southwest geopolitical zone.

And having been rushed into office, Obasanjo who did not see the constitution until the day of his inauguration on May 29, 1999, ended up bringing his own idiosyncrasies into office, thereby bequeathing a quasi democracy on Nigerians

Evil Seeds
THE joy in the hearts of most Nigerians that fateful May 29 was infectious even in its subdued animation. Within the eight years President Obasanjo held sway as democratic head of state, Nigerians kept contrasting his style with what obtained during the many years of military interregnum.

From the National Assembly through the Judiciary and Electoral Commission, the rough hand tactics, inducement and barefaced electoral larceny compounded the transition to civil rule. Loyalty to the Presidency supplanted patriotism. Constituency projects became contingency fund for legislators. The evil seeds of democracy, including imposition of candidates during election, inducement of Judges in election petitions, intimidation and violence on Election Day was sown, as party politics depended on either President or State Governors.

As the evil seeds germinated and grew, security agencies and ad hoc staff of electoral commission joined in eroding democratic values. The end product was voter apathy, which provided further impetus for politicians to manipulate the system according to their whims and designs.

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Consequently, especially in the light of recent alarm by the Chief of Army Staff, General Tukur Buratai that some politicians were romancing the military unduly, it becomes easy to ask whether Nigerians are getting the best of participatory government.Not many citizens could hazard a guess as to what happens along the budgetary processes, because the people are not included. Gender tokenism has continued in the name of unmerited inclusion. Party politics seem to have failed to gratify the people’s taste for democracy, such that some Nigerians are left to wonder whether what they see is all there is to democracy.

Although some innovations have been made to improve electoral system, much remains to be done as politicians are yet to factor the feelings of the people into their strategies and programmes. When in 1983 the military crashed the democracy, the popular refrain was that the system would have endured to correct itself.

Unless political power returns to the people, the clamour for democracy and the experience of June 12 election may not turn out as a good teacher. And if elections continue to be a hollow ritual of politicians having their way by ignoring the say-so of the masses, Nigeria’s democracy may undergo fresh strains.


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