Finally, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida kept his word—to a point. The 52-yearold Nigerian dictator met his selfimposed deadline to give up the presidency by Aug. 27, leaving office last week one day before the eighth anniversary of the bloodless coup that brought him to power in 1985. But a simple ceremony that put the transfer of power into effect underlined the dominant role that the military will continue to play in Nigerian politics. The outgoing ruler used the occasion to award a special medal to his defence minister, Lt.-Gen. Sani Abacha, who will sit on the unelected 32-member Interim Federal Executive Council that succeeds Babangida’s government. A despot who had plunged Nigeria into its worst crisis since its 1967 civil war was gone, but he had not kept his often-repeated promise to cede power to a democratically elected civilian government.
Nigerians initially welcomed Babangida as a pragmatic leader committed to ending corruption and ethnic conflict in Africa’s most populous (88.5 million) country. But he failed utterly to live up to those expectations. After twice postponing presidential elections earlier this year, he finally bowed to pressures for a democratic poll in June. But then Babangida annulled the vote before the results were even announced, triggering civil unrest and mass movements of people fleeing Lagos and other large cities to their ethnic homelands out of fear that the situation would collapse into tribal war. Late last week, as he moved out of the presidential villa in the inland capital, Abuja, and headed to his northern homeland into apparent retirement, Babangida left behind an anxious nation consumed by uncertainty about its future.
In fact, even as the general was officially retiring from the army at an elaborate military parade in Abuja, Nigeria’s two biggest cities, Lagos and Ibadan in the southwest, were paralysed by stay-at-home protests called by the Campaign for Democracy, a human rights coalition of about 30 groups. Meanwhile, business tycoon Moshood Abiola, whose supporters claim that he was robbed of the presidency when Babangida annulled the June 12 election, declared that the new interim council “represents nobody but Ibrahim Babangida and a small clique.” And he vowed to return to Nigeria this week from travels abroad in self-exile to form “a real government.” That brought an ominous warning from the council. Justice Minister Clement Akpamgbo declared that Abiola’s threatened action “would be an act of insurrection” that would invite “the necessary sanctions.” Nigeria has been ruled by the military for 23 of the 33 years since it gained independence from Britain in 1960. Shortly after taking power in 1985, Babangida repeatedly promised—then delayed—a return to democratic rule. His officials detained hundreds of dissidents and journalists, often without formal charges, when they criticized his government. Babangida shut down several independent newspapers and magazines. Other critical elements of the country have ceased to function. Its universities, once the pride of Nigeria, have been closed for the past year, impoverished by poor management and increasingly bitter strikes by teaching staff. And its National Assembly, fashioned after the U.S. Congress, with a Senate and House of Representatives, has been largely inactive since its inauguration last year because most of its powers were suspended by the military.
By most accounts, Abiola handily won the June election that international and Nigerian observers deemed to be fair. But Babangida refused to accept the outcome, claiming fraud and vote buying. Like about half of the population, both Abiola and Babangida are Muslims. Still, fears of outright civil war arose from the fact that, while Abiola comes from the south, stronghold of the Yoruba tribe, Babangida comes from the north, where political power and dominance of the military have been traditionally held by the Hausa-Fulani tribes. Seeking to avert a disaster, prominent politicians, including former military president Olusegun Obasanjo, publicly backed the idea of an interim civilian government as the only solution to the crisis. Said Obasanjo, who in 1979 became the first Nigerian leader to freely hand over power to an elected civilian government: “What is most important is that Babangida should go. Then the processes of good governance and democracy in Nigeria can start.”
The unelected interim council installed last week, which will rule by military decree, is expected to govern until a new presidential election is held, probably next year. To Babangida’s critics, it appeared to be a smoke screen allowing him to exert power from the background. “What Babangida has done is to place the interim government on a superstructure he has created,” said Tunji Abayomi, head of Human Rights Africa, one
of the opposition groups that organized stayat-home protests last week. “With the interim government in place, Gen. Babangida will still pull the strings whether he officially holds power or not.”
The new interim leader is Ernest Shonekan, 57, a former industrialist and lawyer who has headed a transitional council handling day-to-day government since January. He comes from the southwestern town of Abeokuta, also home to Abiola and many other critics of Babangida, including Beko Ransome-Kuti, the detained leader of the Campaign for Democracy, Nobel laureate novelist Wole Soyinka and ex-military ruler Obasanjo. Some observers say that Babangida chose Shonekan to appease supporters of Abiola. But many of Shonekan’s Yoruba-speaking kinsmen say that, in accepting the job, he has betrayed the cause of a people cheated out of the presidency. “Because Shonekan is a Yoruba man like Abiola does not mean he will have it easy,” said businessman Ishola Lamidi, a Yoruba. “Shonekan is going to face a lot of problems in Yorubaland, where many people will see this as a sellout.”
Shonekan clearly faces a tough job guiding Nigeria through difficult times. Nigeria’s is the dominant economy of sub-Saharan Africa. But it derives 80 per cent of its revenues from petroleum sales—a precarious source of income as the oil-price slump of the early 1980s proved. In 1980, Nigeria earned $25 billion from oil exports. But by 1990, that figure was reduced to just $10.6 billion. And while Nigeria continues to earn well by African standards, successive governments, mainly military, have squandered more than $175 billion of its oil revenues since 1965.
The country is enormously rich in natural resources (besides oil, it exports coal, tin and rubber), but widespread corruption and mismanagement have kept living standards abysmally low. Nigeria’s per capita GNP is only $315, among the lowest in the world. The annual inflation rate is 70 per cent and the foreign debt is a crippling $32 billion. Much of the blame rests with Babangida and other politicians, who critics say have used public service as an avenue to personal fortune. According to Lagos-based journalist Ochapa Ogenyi: “The average Nigerian politician is not only a master of intrigues, he is the very embodiment of bad politics. Not for him such ennobling attributes as honesty, sacrifice, discipline and strict adherence to the rules of the game. Not for him Abraham Lincoln’s famous declaration that politics is a call to service. Here the hallmarks have remained constant: selfishness, intolerance, bitterness, greed and avarice.”
In a brief acceptance speech last week in Abuja, Shonekan acknowledged the challenges ahead. Said the interim leader: “Our task has not been made easier by the events of the past weeks, which have gone a long way in undermining our national economy.”
That task could become even more difficult if Abiola carries out his promise to return to Nigeria this week. The thwarted presidential candidate has been out of the country since Aug. 3, canvassing for international support for his claim to power. He has met with some success, winning various sanctions against Nigeria from the European Community, the United States and Canada. But many Nigerians fear that Abiola’s reappearance now could spark mass demonstrations by pro-democracy groups—and give the military an excuse to crack down. And that, they fear, may only further delay Nigeria’s long-awaited return to democracy.
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