“Anybody who headed a military regime subverted the wishes of the people… We all subverted the wishes of the people.” General Ibrahim Babangida, interview, Tell Magazine, 7th December 1998
It’s been a week of high stakes chess moves in preparation for the 2019 general elections. There was a joint session of the National Assembly, which sat for the purpose of threatening the President. For his part, the President makes a move re-positioning a holiday. On Wednesday, President Muhammadu Buhari directed that effective 2019, Nigeria’s Democracy-Day, marked every May 29 for the past 18 years, be shifted to June 12 to honour Moshood Abiola, the winner of the 1993 presidential election.
Election data had shown that Mr. Abiola won the presidential polls but the military under the leadership of General Ibrahim Babangida refused to declare him winner and cancelled the election. Mr. Abiola was later imprisoned by the Sani Abacha’s military regime as he struggled to actualise his mandate. He died in prison in 1998.
It would be recalled that successive governments have brushed aside strident calls for Mr. Abiola to be honoured and for the federal government to recognise June 12 as democracy day. Since the announcement by President Buhari that Mr. Abiola will now be conferred with nation’s highest honour, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, GCFR, an honour exclusively conferred on presidents and former presidents, Nigerians have come out to express their happiness on giving honour where it’s due. The government also said Mr. Abiola’s running mate in that election, Babagana Kingibe, would be conferred with the second highest honour of the Grand Commander of the Niger, GCON. Also to receive a GCON is the late Nigeria’s foremost pro-democracy activist, Gani Fawehinmi.
June 12 is an important marker in the development of Nigerian democracy because it became the moment when citizens realised that the military were insincere and playing games with the programme of transition to civil rule and if Nigerians were to get democracy, it could only be on the basis of chasing the military out of power. The 1993 elections took place under conditions that reflected many concessions from the people. The political transition programme was convoluted and the transition handover date was moved from October 1990, to October 1992, to January 1993 and finally to August 1993 at which point the elections had been successfully held, and maybe because of that, cancelled.
At the beginning of the transition programme in 1986, the military junta announced a ten-year ban on some old politicians. In September 1987, the ban was extended to the totality of those who had held political office in all proceeding civilian and military regimes and in 1989, the ban was extended to all those who had been heads of the various transition agencies. This was undemocratic. The military then decided a new breed of “grassroots politicians”, who were “untainted” by multiparty politics were to be created.
The military and their friends rejected a multi-party framework and imposed a two-party system with both parties requiring state registration. To determine the two parties to be registered, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) and the government imposed very expensive and virtually impossible preconditions that only the upper section of the bourgeoisie or old politicians with established networks could have afforded or met. In three months, the parties were to establish well-equipped offices with at least three paid staff in all the then existing 435 local government areas in the country.
In addition, they were to supply 25 membership lists of their parties comprising the names, photographs and personal details of at least 200 members from each local government in the country (making at least 87,000 individual membership files per party) to the NEC. In spite of these draconian measures, 13 parties were able to submit their files before the deadline. Nigerians had decided to tolerate the high-handed behaviour just so that the elections would hold and the military would leave. There was therefore shock on 6th October 1989 when Babangida rather than pick the two best parties, disbanded all the parties for illegal use of money to satisfy the conditions he had put in place.
General Babangida then created two new parties himself, allegedly for the “ordinary people” – the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention, with the former leaning “a little to the left of centre” and the latter leaning “a little to the right of the centre”. The government drew up the manifestos and constitutions of the two parties, and decided to fund and staff them, before calling on individuals (as opposed to organised groups) to sign up. What was clear from the transition programme was that the military government had decided to define and apply each “democratic” step on behalf of the people. Again Nigerians tolerated the aberration and went ahead with the two parties. The first set of leading Presidential candidates for the two parties were disqualified by NEC for using money and rigging the primaries. In response, the Option A4 method was introduced to resolve the problem of undue influence from moneybags. The idea was to organise primaries through a series of elections from the ward level, through the local governments and states to the national level. However, by multiplying the number of times and places elections had to take place, the costs of transport, feeding etc, skyrocketed thus making the nomination open to the highest bidder.
Eventually, two rich and close personal friends of General Babangida – M. K. O. Abiola for the SDP and Bashir Tofa for the NRC emerged and Nigerians felt that there would be no other excuses for the military. The elections took place, it was open and credible and yet the military rejected it. It was at that point that Nigerians came out into the streets to get rid of the military. It was in that context that Nigerians came to realise June 12th as democracy-day, which also meant getting rid of the military in power. That was why for the past 18 years, Nigerians have been celebrating May 29th, as Democracy-Day.
Also happening this week is the joint sitting of the National Assembly where they gave marching orders to the security agencies to curtail the sustained killings of Nigerians across the country and protect life and properties of Nigerians. They also castigated the “systematic harassment and humiliation by the Executive of perceived political opponents, people with contrary opinions including Legislators and Judiciary by the police and other security agencies must stop”. Both chambers then passed a vote of confidence on the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the entire leadership of the National Assembly clearly indicating that they were making anticipatory political moves in preparation for the forthcoming APC party congress in which the friends of the president might seek to exclude President Saraki, Speaker Dogara and their friends. They then reaffirmed their earlier resolution of a vote of no confidence on the Inspector General of Police who they said does “nothing other than preside over the killing of innocent Nigerians and consistent framing up of perceived political opponents of the President and outright disregard for constitutional authority, both executive and legislative.” Finally, they concluded on the note that “the National Assembly will not hesitate to evoke its Constitutional powers if nothing is done to address the above resolutions passed today”, which can only be interpreted to be an impeachment threat.
At this point, it is clear that they do not have the numbers to do so but as the issue of the politics of the 2019 election will be in the front burner for the coming weeks and months, I will return to it in subsequent columns.