The roles played by Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, in the June 12 struggle was packed full of drama, writes Shola Oyeyipo
Former Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, ascended office with an uncommon style. With colour and charisma typified by his deft political moves, he earned the appellation “The Maradona of Nigeria’s politics.” What more, his administration was characterised by landmark but controversial political and economic policies, all in the bid to make a difference.
For example, he conducted a referendum to secure support for austerity measures suggested by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. He initiated Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) in 1986. At that time, the Nigerian economy was said to have improved with the export sector, doing well. But the consequential fall in real wages, in the public sector and the reduction in expenditure on public services, sparked protests that affected the sustenance of the SAP programme.
On the political turf, Babangida explored extensively, the tool of consultation and gave his regime a democratic outlook. In January 1986, Babangida initiated a political debate on the way forward but ended up with getting the wrath of the people who were unhappy with his penchant for maneuvering the system and was subsequently accused of corruption and autocratic tendency.
Having survived the April 22, 1990 coup attempt by Major Gideon Orkar, he started to consummate his transition programmed which started in 1989 by allowing the formation of political parties. This was followed by a census in November 1991, after which the electoral commission announced on January 24, 1992 that the elections to a bicameral National Assembly and the presidency would be held that year.
He later proscribed then existing political parties and settled for just two- the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC). Nigerians were therefore encouraged to join either of the parties. The process soon led to the June 12 1993 presidential election. Suffice it to say that before the June 12 election, the legislative and governorship elections had held as planned, with the SDP maintaining majority across board.
With Abiola standing as the SDP presidential candidate and Tofa, NRC, the stage was set for the epic election. The election was midway and a few results announced when Babangida annulled the exercise. Indeed, the results as announced then showed that Abiola had comfortable lead in 19 out of the 30 states. And that earned him the phrase- the presumed winner and president that never was. The annulment, however, followed widespread civil disorder with spirited demand for the actualisation of his mandate.
Babangida Steps Aside
Faced with an increasing unpopularity occasioned by the annulment of June 12, the Babangida administration also had a lot of crises to contend with. And so, with yet a controversial exit plan, IBB as he was fondly called, announced an interim government that was inaugurated on August 27, 1993. And so, on August 26, amidst debilitating strike and protests, Babangida stepped aside and handed government over to Chief Ernest Shonekan, an Abeokuta, Ogun State indigene like Abiola.
Shonekan’s Brief Stint
Chief Ernest Shonekan, a British-trained Nigerian lawyer, industrialist and politician was drafted into office following heat that chased Babangida out of office. But Shonekan's stint in office only lasted three months, as he was also edged out by a palace coup orchestrated by the late General Sani Abacha, who not only distorted the arrangement on the ground but brought the government back under full military control on November 17, 1993.
Enters the Abacha Regime
At this time, however, Abacha was fully in charge. Although many shared the view that Babangida was not supposed to have left Abacha behind, he (Abacha) was however expected to release Abiola, being winner of the election. Rather, he arrested and detained Abiola who continued to languish in jail from June 1994 till he died in July 1998.
Abiola was charged with treason, for claiming his mandate. This was because on June 11, 1994, he had declared himself president and went into hiding until his arrest on June 23, 1994. While Abiola was in detention, Abacha did all he could to consolidate himself in power but was rebuffed by a determined civil society.
This, perhaps, compelled Abacha to further manifest himself as a quintessential dictator. He persecuted the pro-democracy and progressive forces. His regime allegedly killed many people perceived enemies of the administration. He ignored appeals by the international community to respect human rights and speed up the return to democratic rule. Abacha was not bulging as he continued with the intimidation, harassment and alleged killing of the people.
The Phantom Coup
As part of his many failed moves to secure public sympathy and legitimise his government, Abacha, in 1995 alleged that some military officers and civilians had planned to upstage his government in a coup that was later described as phantom.
The accused included but not limited to former president Olusegun Obasanjo, Major General Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, Major General Abdulkareem Adisa, Major General Tajudeen Olanrewaju and Lieutenant-General Oladipo Diya, who were arrested, detained, tried, found guilty and handed several sentences depending on the degree of alleged involvement. Yar’Adua however died in detention.
The Ogoni Nine
The history of the Abacha era would not be complete without the story of the execution of the Ogoni nine told. Earlier, in 1994, the government had set up the Ogoni Civil Disturbances Special Tribunal to try a popular Ogoni activist, the late Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others for their alleged roles in the killing of four Ogoni politicians. The tribunal sentenced the Ogoni nine to death and they were executed on November 10, 1995.
The Labour Movement
The Nigerian workers had responded to the state of the nation with a nationwide strike and demanded the release of Abiola as well as hand over power to him. Other trade unions also joined in the exercise, bringing the economic life in some parts of the country, especially Lagos and the South-west to a halt. But in a vexed response, government, on August 17, 1994 dismissed the leadership of the NLC and the petroleum unions; placed the unions under appointed administrators and arrested Frank Kokori, then secretary-general of the union and other labour leaders in order to put them in check.
The Abacha Transition
Not oblivious of the quest for democratic government, Abacha, on October 1, 1995 announced the timetable for a three-year transition to civilian rule. But the transition programme was never to be till he eventually died in office. Observers thought his three-year transition program was an excuse to prolong his stay in office.
Also, his plan to create more states under the bogus transition programme was considered a desperate attempt to divert people's attention from the real social, economic and political problems facing the country. His was one regime that would be remembered for several human rights abuses, including infringements on freedom of speech, assembly, association, travel and state violence.
And Abacha, Abiola Pass on
That era started to come to a close when Abacha first died on June 8, 1998 and followed almost a month after by Abiola, who died on July 7, 1998. Abacha’s death however spurred spontaneous jubilation whilst the demise of Abiola further complicated the political situation of the country. At this time, however, General Abdulsalami Abubakar had taken over power and it was under his watch that Abiola died.
The Return to Civil Rule
Abdusalami assumed office in June 1998 and immediately took fruitful steps to stabilising the polity which had deteriorated under Abacha. He set out with a transition programme which eventually produced Obasanjo as civilian president in 1999.