The overthrow of the government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari by the military in December 1983 marked the end of Nigeria’s second democratic dispensation. It also ushered in the military government led by Major – General Muhamadu Buhari and Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon. For Nigerians, another era of despair was perceived to be over. History will judge the stewardship of the Shagari administration. As with most changes from democratic to military regimes in Africa, Buhari cited alleged troubles and a declining economy of the Second Republic as reasons for the change of government.
The Buhari – Idiagbon leadership at the beginning declared “WAR AGAINST INDISCIPLINE” (WAI). It asserted to itself the role of a corrective regime. Mass arrest, detention and jail terms for several politicians accused of corruption followed. But the WAI crusade soon crossed applauded boundaries with the arrest of journalists and numerous others not accountable for the social decay and economic problems. Draconian decrees were enacted, some with retroactive force. The regime became dictatorial in outlook and soon fell out of favour with mainstream Nigerians, and was overthrown by Gen Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida in a bloodless coup in August 1985.
For a start, Babangida endeared himself to Nigerians as an affectionate and considerate leader. He also released political detainees and assured that public opinion would guide his Armed Forces Ruling Council. As usual, the public soon demanded a return to civilian government to which Babangida responded in the affirmative. His announcement of a transition programme in 1986 raised hopes. His plan to hand – over to a civilian government in 1990 was applauded nationwide. The transition plan was scrapped with a shift to 1993 as hand – over date. The military would dictate the pace of the transition plan without input from the civil society constrained to watch from the sidelines.
The AFRC went ahead to announce the creation of two political parties: the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and the National Republican Convention (NRC). Politicians were denied a free hand in the formation of political parties. Besides, many prospective contestants woke up one morning to find their names among a long list of banned politicians in this transition programme. Babangida took further steps to get the 1979 Constitution modified by a handpicked Constituent Assembly. Elections were held into local government councils, state legislatures and governorship positions.
In a swift turn around Babangida voided the 1992 primaries to the presidential elections, banned all the participating politicians and slated new Presidential elections for June 1993 between two Pro-Government candidates: Chief MKO Abiola of SDP and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the NRC.
He schemed out measures that would lead to failed Presidential elections capitalizing on the age-old North/ South divide in Nigerian politics. Babangida expected a stalemated election result that would suit his purpose. To his chagrin, MKO Abiola had a landslide victory over Bashir Tofa in an unusually free, fair and peaceful election, devoid of all rancour.
But before the result could be announced Babangida annulled it. The entire nation came agog with protests. That miscalculation was his undoing, and eventually forced him out of office when he stepped aside in August 1993.
He inaugurated an Interim National Government (ING) headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, a Yoruba businessman, apparently to appease Abiola’s ethnic roots. From the very start, Shonekan’s government faced opposition from all sides. In November, barely three months in office the ING was overthrown by General Sani Abacha, Babangida’s right-hand man and Defence Minister. The military was back in the helm of rulership in Nigeria.
The reaction of Nigerians was spontaneous towards a perceived bleak political future. Numerous questions were raised from all quarters across the nation as to why Nigeria should remain one corporate union. Many outstanding politicians clamoured for a break-up of the country. Yet several others called for restraint while exploring other avenues to forge forward in these trying times. Some called for a confederation with a weakened centre and a separate army and police forces. Abroad, the country’s image was denigrated through condemnations and isolation. The Abacha regime was high handed and without regard for the rule of law. The press was routinely gagged; individual liberties were flagrantly undermined, and human rights abuses knew no bounds. Abacha resorted to excessive use of force as an instrument of coercion. Violence was adopted as a weapon and means of governance. Protesters were killed in numbers as the government in it’s crude extreme resorted to the use of helicopter gunships to tackle the unrest.
Opposition from Nigerians increased both from within and those who fled into self-exile. Over time the government faced increased isolation from the international community. In the prevailing atmosphere of uncertainty Chief MKO Abiola declared himself president, was arrested in 1994 and later died in jail four years later, precisely in 1998.
Abacha, though an absolute dictator, had promised to embark on a transition to civilian rule but was not sufficiently tactful like his predecessor, Babangida. He indeed embarked on a programme that would ensure him as the civilian successor to his military government. He intensified the use of force to drive his plans through to reality until he suddenly died in June 1998.
On the economic front, Abacha and his loyalists used the national treasury as their personal estate and that of family members.
General Abdusalam Abubakar, a member of his junta, was appointed to replace him. His first reaction was a promise to put the nation on track to civil rule. Furthermore, he freed political prisoners, brought Abacha’s reign of terror to an end. The image of the country improved abroad, and sanctions were relaxed. On the economic front, questions remained unanswered as the economy remained sluggish. Abdusalam followed his laid out time table to a civilian government. Political life flourished as many political activists in exile returned with high expectations to participate in the political process.
Numerous political parties were established, with three being the most outstanding: the People’s Democratic Party ( PDP) the Alliance for Democracy (AD) and the All People’s Party (APP). At the end of active political participation involvement by numerous Nigerians, elections were held from January to March 1999 into local government councils, state legislatures and the National Assembly along with those for governorships. The presidential election held in February and was closely monitored by international observers. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo of PDP who as Head of State in 1976-79 and also midwived the last transition from the military rule, was declared the winner. A new Constitution adopted by the Abdusalam Government in 1999 became operational effective from October 1.