A (not so) short history of Nigerian Presidents, Part 3
General Sani Abacha came to power at a time Nigeria’s economy was deeply stressed. Babangida’s SAP had widened the economic gap and the country was increasingly isolated following several cases of human-rights abuse and press repression. But Abacha seemingly had no real intention of repositioning the country in good light. Essentially a dictator, Abacha ruled with an iron fist. Besides a few economic positives, there was little to credit to his administration. The hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the arrest of the supposed winner of the 1993 elections, Abiola, attracted international headlines and became the hallmark of the government’s intense campaign against protests and human freedom. Revelations after Abacha’s death will also outline the many corruption allegations against his government. In August 2014, the US DoJ revealed that it had forfeited about $480 million believed to have been stolen by Abacha and his other corrupt administration officials. On 8 June 1998, Sani Abacha died in office while strategizing to return as a civilian president. There were speculations about the circumstances surrounding his death, including an allegation that he was in company of two Indian prostitutes who poisoned his drink, but none has been substantiated. The official cause of death was a sudden heart attack. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, a sitting leader died in office of natural causes. This left the top office vacant.
The death of Abacha and the immediate vacancy created in its aftermath sparked speculations about the course Nigeria would now take. While some theorized that room had now been created for the supposed winner of the 1993 June elections, the imprisoned Abiola, some didn’t see a chance for the reintroduction of suspended civilian rule. The chief of defence staff, Abudusalami Abubakar took over the reins following the death of Sani Abacha. Reported to have initially refused the position, Abubakar, a rather quiet General with a relatively quiet military career, immediately declared the military’s intention to hand over power to an elected civilian government.
Unsurprisingly, not a lot of people believed him. The several promises made in the past decades had rendered the population distrustful of the military’s motives and immune to their promises of vacating the coveted top seat. Increased suspicion hit his government after the widely-admired MKO Abiola died in prison some few days following the visit of a delegation from the United Nations. However, election preparations commenced and elections were conducted into the highest office in the land. The contest was mainly between the People’s Democratic Party who fielded former head of state Olusegun Obasanjo, now a civillian and recently released from prison, and the ANPP, who presented Olu Falae, a former secretary to the military government of Babangida and former Finance minister. As there had been some unspoken consensus to console the western region of the country after the death of the widely admired Abiola, both leading contestants came from the western region. Olusegun Obasanjo won 62.6% of the vote cast, only failing to win convincingly in his home south-west region. On 29 May, 1999, Abubakar surprised the nation by handing over power to Olusegun Obasanjo in the second ceremony of its kind in the nation’s history. The first had ironically been Obasanjo himself handing over power as a military administrator to the elected Shagari. This marked the beginning of the fourth republic.
The talk soon centered on rebuilding the country and re-knitting relationships. Apparently Abacha’s isolationism and poor human rights record had shaped the country in bad light, requiring intense foreign policy maneuvers to get the country going on a firmer, more agreeable course. Obasanjo took a lot of trips out of the country and traveled so much he earned the title of a globetrotter among critics and admirers alike. And many critics he did have. While he saw to the introduction of favourable policies which repositioned the West African economic power, it can also be claimed that he did less to tackle growing corruption eating into the Nigerian fabric. A dying NITEL was replaced with ubiquitous GSM providers and a soulless NEPA was put up for privatization in bits, in circumstances contested by critics as unfair. As one of his earliest decisions, Obasanjo also retired all top military leaders in the country, essentially clipping the military’s wing and removing the threat of a possible coup masterminded by members of the old guard. Some observers believe this was one of the best moves made by his government. Obasanjo ruled Nigeria for 8 years and in May 2007 successfully handed over power to another civilian government. This marked a historical point in Nigeria’s history as the first transfer of power from one civilian government to another.
Elections were held that year in April, with Obasanjo possibly meddling in the affairs of his party in anointing a successor. This successor was a little known governor from a Northern state in Nigeria, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. An unusually quiet politician who was rather notable for his humility and scruples, Umaru seemed a confident choice for a country taking up new economic challenges prepared for it by the previous government. Before politics, Umaru was an arts lecturer and after 1983 embarked on a string of assignments in the corporate world. This seemed to have prepared him for his foray into politics. As Vice President was an even obscure former deputy governor of a south-south Nigerian state, Goodluck Jonathan, who by a stroke of fate had become governor and for whom fate still had more in store.
Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s reign as president of Nigeria started out on a controversial note with claims that the elections which brought him to power were fraught with irregularities. Opposition charged court tribunals to either annul the elections or declare them winners. The supreme court eventually affirmed the validity of the election, letting the regulation-conscious president settle into his new role as the nation’s leader.
Notable among Yar’Adua’s policy was his 7-point agenda which set out a plan for Nigeria to improve in the areas of Power and Energy, Food Security and Agriculture, Wealth Creation and Employment, Mass Transportation, Land Reform, Security plus Qualitative and Functional Education. In addition, Yar’Adua, generally accepted as a scrupulous politician, emphasized greatly the rule of law and the importance of the courts in his dealings with the Nigerian state. This, an unusual step among Nigerian politicians who generally flout court orders, endeared him to some while earning him disgust from others who felt it encouraged tardiness in the execution of his plans. He was referred to as “Baba Go Slow”, an appellation mocking his slowness in action. Among other things, Umaru also initiated a widely-supported amnesty programme for militants in the Niger Delta designed to encourage the laying down of arms and embrace of dialogue.
MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, an armed militant group laid siege to oil pipelines and other oil installations from around 2006. Other splinter militant organizations looking to profit from government’s capitulation also caused intense unrest in oil-producing states in Nigeria. The Obasanjo government, in a bid to suppress this divisiveness, had encouraged a confrontation with these militant armies. Yar’Adua’s brilliant idea of dialogue and a subsequent amnesty seemed to do the trick in suppressing the violence which dominated the Niger Delta region. Though the amnesty programme was no doubt abused, it provided some degree of succour for the Nigerian state and associated oil multinationals who desperately needed the petrodollars spewing from oil wells dotting the Delta areas.
Sadly, Yar’Adua only ruled for about three years. In May 2010, the president was announced dead, the second time a sitting Nigerian head would die in office of natural causes. He had been flown into the country on the 24th of February ill from an inflammation of the pericardium, the fibrous sac surrounding the heart, after spending several months since 2009 in Saudi Arabia receiving treatment. Though, during his time away, several questions were asked of his state of health, many went unanswered. His deputy, the similarly quiet and unambitious Goodluck Jonathan also faced difficulties assuming the seat of leadership as he remained, according to reports, kept away from the details of his boss’ illness. Like his deputy, Nigerians were also generally kept in the dark regarding the first citizen’s health, though there had been reason during the campaign to suspect the potential president wasn’t of sound health. Eventually, his final death and the circumstances surrounding it was not immediately made known to the country. This marked the second time, after Aguiyi Ironsi’s passing, that Nigerians would generally grope for answers regarding their president’s death.
As if by goodluck, Jonathan stepped in the place of his boss and became Nigeria’s fourth civilian president in 2010. He had become Governor of Bayelsa state after his then boss, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha was charged with money laundering in the UK and later impeached by the state’s House of Assembly. Now, however, he was president and had an arduous task of governing a nation before him.
Unlike Yar’Adua, Jonathan was not beleaguered by court tribunals seeking to annul his mandate, nor by health challenges distracting his efforts. He had been acting president since 9 February 2007 following Yar’Adua incapacitation. After taking over in May, he began exercising his full strength as president, having been initially constrained by a “cabal” that had continued to see the dying Yar’Adua as in charge of the country. Jonathan, however, did not hit the ground running. Many of his earlier policies were merely continuations of his predecessor’s. No doubt, a good part of his government (and that of Yar’Adua’s), being of the same party as Obasanjo, inherited a lot of Obasanjo’s apparatus and personnel, while also expanding on some of the former general’s programmes. In 2010, Jonathan launched a Roadmap for Power Sector Reform designed to reposition a critical, but inefficient sector in Nigeria’s industry. He also launched other series of policy initiatives during this first term in charge.
In 2011, Goodluck Jonathan was reelected by a significant majority into the office of the President. His challenger was on his third run as an opposition candidate, having contested against Obasanjo in 2003 and Yar’Adua in 2007. This candidate was Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s former military head of state who had seized government from the Shagari government on account of what he perceived as widespread corruption. Jonathan’s second run as president witnessed a lot more positive changes in government and a fair share of controversies, some of which are now staples for internet memes. Part of the former is the introduction of the YOUWIN initiative designed to create jobs for young Nigerians between 18 and 35, the expansion of his transformation agenda to deliver important projects and programmes and revival of some dying sectors in Nigeria such as transportation and agriculture. Among the latter are severe allegations of corruption, the bungled handling of the Boko Haram insurgency (which, though started taking form during the Yar’Adua administration, assumed its full blossom during Jonathan’s tenure) and a first lady who continually meddled in government affairs beyond her office. A handful other allegations no doubt increased the people’s resentment towards the Jonathan administration so that its head became the first person to lose reelection in the history of Nigeria’s democracy.
In 2015, Attahiru Jega, the chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission, sitting behind a huge desk and an array of colourful microphones stretching along its length, announced to Nigeria and to the world the results of the just concluded presidential elections. As the results were announced state after state, it became gradually obvious that the incumbent had lost the election. The opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, contesting for a record fourth time, won the election and became Nigeria’s new president. Though this was a big blow for the ruling PDP, Jonathan demonstrated rare courage and unrivaled statesmanship by calling Buhari to congratulate him once it became obvious he was not reelected and before the very final results were announced. A conglomeration of parties, assembled under the banner of the All Progressives Congress (APC) had managed to dislodge the sitting president. Major votes came from the northern region of the country and also from the south-western region. A sizable portion of the electorate seemed happy. It would appear these new parties have somewhat departed the style of Nigeria’s older democracies whereby party affiliations by both electorate and elected were divided fairly strictly along ethnic lines. The winner party, APC, was no more a northern party than it was a southern party. Though this pattern started taking form since the second republic, it assumed appreciable form few years after the reintroduction of civilian rule in 1999. By the election of Buhari in 2015, it would seem party participation, at least, became scarcely encumbered by tribal affiliations.
The election of Buhari, as claimed, marked a change in Nigeria’s political landscape. Now, the electorate seemed to have the power to change a non-performing government. In spite of irregularities which continue to dog elections in Nigeria, many feel this is true. On 29 May 2015, Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as Nigeria’s president in a handover ceremony in Abuja. Buhari who rode a campaign against corruption into office immediately set to work on recovering substantial assets and monies which had been wrongfully taken by many who worked in different capacities in the previous administration. The EFCC, an organ created under the Obasanjo administration, has been an effective tool of the Buhari government in prosecuting cases and going after offenders. Since his term in office, Buhari has endeared himself to some. For some, however, he has failed to deliver on many of his promises. His opponents point to the recession currently biting hard on the economy; his supporters think no one has done better in terms of recovering stolen assets. There have also been arguments about his administration’s lack of concrete economic or social plans to take Nigeria to a higher level of infrastructural development. But the administration has not just economic challenges to worry about; it is also plagued by a more sinister one.
On Friday, March 10 2015, Buhari arrived from an extended medical vacation in the UK. He spent 49 days on a trip that got many Nigerians worried in the least, and in the extreme many propagating stories of his death on the internet. Reminiscent of the episode which confronted Nigerians during the Yar’Adua tenure, indications of health problems plaguing the president has continued to attract warranted attention. Again, the presidency has refused to divulge the details of the president’s health, preferring to put the nation in the dark regarding the health of the top citizen. While this may appear a safe course to a presidency which seeks to mystify, it unwittingly encourages rife speculation with no end to it. For the period Buhari left the country, his Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, assumed office. Quite a significant number of people felt he discharged the duties of the office substantially well.
Buhari’s first term in office has seen a number of policies revamped. Some of the previous governments projects are also being continued, while new ones are developed. It is still too early to pass judgment on this relatively new government, but time will tell if the massive frenzy that followed the former general’s election is justified after all.