Democracy, Biafra and a sense of history by Reuben Abati


Here’s another interesting piece from former Presidential Spokesman, Reuben Abati.

It is sad that many Nigerians today talk glibly about the possibility of a coup or of military intervention in politics. They make it seem as if this democracy is something we can exchange for something else. We need to be reminded, as we celebrate democracy day 2017, how we got to this very moment, and how precious democracy is to us as a sovereign people.

From 1966 to 1999 (with the short break of civilian rule from 1979 – 1983) the military dominated the political landscape in Nigeria. It was eighteen years ago yesterday when our country returned to civilian rule.

The military practically overstayed their welcome. The first military coup in Nigeria was in January 1966, followed by the counter-coup of July 1966, and then the civil war of 1967-70 which turned Nigeria into a military theatre more or less as the Federal forces engaged the Biafran secessionists in a fratricidal war that resulted in the loss of more than a million lives, starvation and the tearing apart of the Nigerian fabric. The military would remain in charge of Nigeria and its affairs for more than 30 years in total, and it is worth remembering that virtually every successful coup was welcome by the people.

It was thought particularly in the 70s that the military had a role to play in many developing countries in Africa to ensure stability and national discipline. The civilians who took over from the colonialists in Nigeria and Ghana, to cite two close examples, proved worse than their predecessors, and hence the usual argument for military intervention was corruption, and the need to keep the country together, and check the excesses of the civilian rulers. Military rule was perhaps closer to what the people had known traditionally and also under the colonialists.

Kings or feudalists who did not tolerate any form of opposition, or free expression governed the traditional communities and likewise, the colonial masters were dictators. The military continued in that tradition. In-fighting among the emergent military elite and the competition for power eroded discipline, and resulted over the years in more coups.

To be fair, military intervention in Nigerian politics yielded some positive dividends, and created a leadership cadre, and indeed till date, the influence of the military in Nigerian politics, as seen in the transmutation of many military officers into professional politicians, remains a strong factor in the making and unmaking of Nigeria. But by 1990, with the global wave of democratization, glasnost and perestroika, the collapse of the Berlin wall, and the greater emphasis on human rights, and the rise of civil society, the Nigerian public began to subject the military to greater scrutiny than was hitherto the case.

After a fashion, every military government presented itself as a corrective regime, with the promise to hand over power in a short while to civilians. By 1986, the Babangida administration after a year in office had launched a political transition programme, beginning with the establishment of a 17-man Political Bureau. In 1989, the ban on political activities was lifted. The military junta would later ban these existing political parties and create its own parties, the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention.

This seemingly endless transition programme and increased civil society activism merely drew more attention to the military and its record in the public sphere. The people began to demand an inevitable return to civilian rule. They complained about the human rights abuses of the military, the apparent domination of power by the Northern elite, the marginalization of other groups in Nigeria, and the spread of injustice and inequities.

When a Presidential election was held on June 12, 1993, and the SDP candidate, Chief MKO Abiola won the election- an election that was adjudged to be free and fair, Nigerians felt that the hour of their liberation from military rule had come. But the Babangida administration refused to announce the final results and subsequently, it annulled the election. It was a disastrous moment for the Nigerian military and the administration. It also marked the beginning of a national crisis that dragged on for six years. The Nigerian people were inconsolable.

In the course of the crisis, General Ibrahim Babangida had to “step aside”, handing over power to an Interim national Government (ING), which was soon shoved aside by General Abacha. Between 1993 and 1999, Nigeria had three different leaders: Chief Ernest Shonekan, General Sani Abacha and General Abdusalami Abubakar.

The ensuing struggle for democracy was long and momentous. Progressive Nigerians and the civil society turned against the military. The South West declared that it had been robbed. MKO Abiola fought for his mandate. The international community ostracized the Abacha government. Nigeria became a pariah nation. The media was in the forefront of the struggle, and many journalists were jailed, hounded into exile, publishing houses were set ablaze. Anyone who criticized the soldiers was framed for one offence or the other and thrown behind bars.

The progressive forces insisted that the military must go. “Never Again”, the people chorused. There had been no other moment like that in contemporary Nigeria. The martyrs of that people’s revolution were the ones that died, including Chief MKO Abiola who died in Abacha’s detention camp, the many innocent persons who were shot by the military, and every one who suffered one major loss or the other. The heroes were the valiant men and women who stood up for democracy and justice and opposed military tyranny.

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