A (not so) short history of Nigerian Presidents, Part 2

In the morning of Februay 13, Lt Col B.S. Dimka’s broadcast on Lagos Radio informed the nation of “good tidings” in the overthrow of Mohammed’s government. That morning he had walked to the black Mercedes of Murtala Muhammed as it halted in traffic and pumped bullets into the leader, his driver and his aide. Murtala Mohammed was 37 when he died. This marked the fourth coup in the country. Unlike the other three, however, this coup did not ultimately succeed in ousting Murtala’s government, even though it left the poor leader dead. After the dusts settled in the aftermath of the abortive coup, leadership reins fell to the next most senior military officer, a certain unassuming deputy who at no point ever sought to fit in his master’s shoes.

The assasination of Muritala did not go down well with a lot of Nigerians

Lt-Gen Olusegun Obasanjo was a member of the existing Supreme Military Council. He had been marked along with Mohammed for death by the coup plotters, but managed to escape. As the de-facto second man in the country, he was appointed the next head of state following Muhammed’s death. At this moment Nigeria had been experiencing increasing industrialization as revenues poured in from oil discovered in the Niger Delta areas of the country. Obasanjo’s military regime benefited from this boom and he was able to follow through with helpful policies such as “Green Revolution”, a project which hoped to provide food self-sufficiency for the country. Perhaps, his administration’s most significant step was its announcement of its intention to hand over power to a duly-elected civilian government. Given the serial broken promises now characteristic of successive military regimes, only a few believed him.

Obasanjo as military head of state

A draft constitution had been submitted by the Chairman of the constitution drafting committee, Chief Rotimi Williams, to the head of state on 14 September, 1976 and following several revisions became law on 21 September 1978. Soon the game of civilian politics began and the floor was thrown open for elections.

The new constitution made a complete retreat from the earlier Westminister system. By 1979, America had become the global superpower and it was no surprise that the constitution drafting committee borrowed extensively from the American format. Roles were created for a President, Vice President and a National Assembly. Several parties sprung to life in the contest to win the coveted presidential position, but the race was mainly among three major parties still conspicuously split along tribal paths: the National Party of Nigeria, NPN to the north; the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN to the east and the Nigerian People’s Party, NPP to the west. On August 11, 1979, the electoral commission declared results and NPN’s Shehu Shagari was announced winner. Against all expectations, on October 1, 1979, General Olusegun Obasanjo handed over power to Shehu Shagari and he was sworn in as the first President of Nigeria in the second republic.

Shagari was Nigeria’s first civilian president

Faced with law suits from other political parties contesting his victory, Shagari did not settle down easy into the government seat. However, he did manage to achieve some industrialization initiatives during his presidency, particularly as more money flowed into the government’s purse from the oil booms of late 1970s. As surplus crude entered the market in the early 80s after the 1970s energy crisis, the world price of oil which had peaked in 1980 fell sharply. Nigeria, already growing dependent on oil exports, was badly shaken. In addition, administrative corruption worsened, threatening the state of the economy. Shagari’s administration became increasing unpopular with the people, and it was no surprise that another army officer found it necessary to intervene only some months after Shagari’s re-election. Growing weary from the blossoming corruption prevalent in the Nigerian life, one or two national papers may have celebrated the “return of the military men.”

In a bloodless military coup, General Muhammadu Buhari ended the nascent second republic on the last day of 1983. At the time, he was the General Officer Commanding, Third Armored Division in Jos. With a handful other senior military officers, Buhari assumed national power, declaring the civilian government corrupt and setting aside the 1979 constitution. According to them, Nigeria had become “a debtor and a beggar nation” and this should no longer be tolerated. With the country now making less revenue following the oil glut, Buhari started nation rebuilding within the realities of the current economic conditions. He cut back national expenditure, encouraged import substitution, tightened the national purse and employed punitive means in addressing the scourge of national corruption. This fifth military regime was particularly noteworthy for a number of human rights abuses, chief of which was the attempted kidnapping of supposedly corrupt Umaru Dikko from the streets of London, and for an active effort to stifle the country’s press.

Even though a section of the population admired the administration’s sturdy stance, General Buhari and his team’s excesses went far enough to serve as reason for their overthrow nearly 2 years later by a younger crop of ambitious army officers. In another take-over, reminiscent of the quick counter-coup of 1966, but only bloodless, Maj-Gen Ibrahim Babangida seized power. This marked the sixth coup in the country.

Buhari overthrew the Shagari government

Babangida ran fairly intense economic campaigns in his bid to reposition the country’s economy. His “Structural Adjustment Program”, suggested by the IMF, stands out. This failed, and with mounting official corruption and increasing domestic lawlessness, probably plunged the country into deeper economic malaise. His administration also didn’t do very well on human rights. The killing of Dele Giwa, an editor very critical of his government, remains a controversial incident to this day.

Babangida is arguably Nigeria’s most controversial leader

In 1989, he allowed the return of political parties and elections were conducted into the National Assembly. By 1993, both legislative and presidential elections were held following Babangida’s promise to restore civilian rule. Two political parties, SDP & NRC, contested in the elections. Though presidential results were not officially announced, popular feeling was that SDP’s MKO Abiola had in fact won. Hesitant about handing over to Abiola for unsupported reasons of election rigging, Babangida annulled the results of the elections and handed over power to an interim government chaired by Ernest Shonekan.

A businessman with no significant political experience, Ernest Shonekan was scarcely prepared for the politics surrounding this top office. He was head of a transitional council assembled to subsequently hand over power to an elected democratic leader in new elections. But only three months later, he was brushed aside in a palace coup led by General Sani Abacha, erstwhile Chief of Defence Staff.

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