A peep into Nigeria’s history will confirm that our political landscape is strewn with leaders who rode into office on high public support but left office with unofficial taunts and hisses. Anyone looking for explanations why Nigeria has continued to grapple with the conduct of free, fair, credible, and peaceful elections must look no further than 1993 when the military government of Ibrahim Babangida terminated the presidential election in which Moshood Kashimawo Abiola was poised to emerge winner.
Babangida was presented with a golden opportunity to transform Nigeria into a democracy. He blew the opportunity. The reasons for the termination of that election have shifted as frequently as the number of interviews granted by Babangida to explain his dishonourable role in that catastrophic event.
The 1993 presidential election was groundbreaking not because it was the first general election to be conducted in Nigeria but because it was the first truly democratic election free from violence, official misconduct, rigging and open day ballot box snatching. Nigerians were united in their quest to elect a president who, in their view, ticked all the boxes used to validate the credentials of an apt presidential candidate. Voters were not influenced by Abiola’s religion or ethnicity or region of origin or indeed his towering business empire.
People were happy and hopeful because of the atmosphere of freedom in which the election was conducted. There was hardly any violence or killing or abduction of political opponents during the election. The national mood was electric. The election was adjudged at home and abroad to be free, fair, peaceful, and credible. Humphrey Nwosu, the chief of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), represented a controversial figure. He was seen by some people as unprejudiced while some others heaped coal on him because they perceived him as a veritable tool used by the military government to advance its own agenda. Up until the military intervention, no one factored into their calculation Nwosu’s ability or inability to resist pressure from Babangida and his military government.
Everyone thought Babangida’s government was genuinely interested in moving the nation forward through a free, fair, and credible election. No one expected the bombshell that was dropped on the nation.
Babangida’s annulment of the results already publicised by Nwosu’s NEC was the first indication that the nation had been taken for a ride all along. Babangida and his government never really wanted the election but pretended they were leading the country on the path of democracy. No one was, therefore, surprised by the enormity of the national outrage that greeted Babangida’s decision to terminate the election results.
It was obvious that Abiola was coasting home but the military government did not like what they saw coming out of the election tally room. That ill-informed intervention by the military symbolised a curse that blighted Nigeria’s image in the international community. Babangida’s action (whether his hands were tied or not, as he often claimed) did incalculable damage to democratic elections in Nigeria.
Consider this: Ever since that 1993 inconclusive presidential election (many people would contest the word “inconclusive” because most of the results were already known by the time Babangida halted vote counting), things have never been the same again in the country. The nation has struggled with the conduct of free and credible elections. The country has swayed from one extreme situation to another, unable to conduct any national election that was free of rancour, free of disputations, free of ethnic coloration, free of religious violence, and free of regional influences.
In essence, the military intervention in the 1993 presidential election has ensured the continuation of narrow-minded division of the country along ethnic, religious, and regional lines. Clannishness, someone once suggested, has undermined our ability to approach national election dispassionately with an open mind, as one united country. Perhaps that is true. Perhaps it could be an exaggeration of a problem that has wider implications and wider underlying factors.
The damage that Babangida and his military government did to Nigeria in the 1993 presidential election is still so fresh and deep-seated that it will remain with us for a long time to come. The national injury is irredeemable. The tragedy ended what would have been a remarkable transition from military rule to a democratically elected government. Twenty-six years after that disaster, we can now only rue an opportunity lost. Someone said opportunity knocks but once. The nation lost a rare chance that may never come its way again.
It will not be easy to return the country to the state of mind and atmosphere that prevailed during the 1993 presidential election. Since that military interference, Nigeria has operated like a broken piece of china that can never be glued together. We can now hope for a genuine move toward national reconciliation. But national reconciliation coming against the background of general insecurity across the country, the ill feelings that trail the general election of 2019, and the rampage of herdsmen and kidnappers will be difficult to initiate.
The current government led by Muhammadu Buhari lacks the credibility and track record of a nationalist, a man with a true sense of national unity, to commence national reconciliation. Whatever happens, we must keep in mind that other African countries such as Rwanda and South Africa did it. Why can’t Nigeria do the same?
One of the few consoling features of 1993 Nigeria must be the exit from office of Babangida, the man who promised to entrench the culture of democracy but thwarted national efforts toward democratic rule. His eight-year tenure was marred by inconsistencies of monumental proportions. He rode into office on a groundswell of public support, the kind of backing that is usually accorded to charismatic presidents and prime ministers. Although he was not a captivating military president, he was still regarded by many citizens as a liberator because he wrested the country from the policy of vengeance that characterised the military government of Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon. Eight years on, Babangida the liberator never achieved the political transition he promised.
In 1993, the world watched as Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, staggered as it engaged in political experiments of sorts. Upholding the outcomes of that presidential election would have attracted to Nigeria international investment opportunities and conferred some vestiges of credibility on Babangida and his military officials. Failure of the presidential election meant a loss of face for the citizens and a pariah status for the country in the international community.
In 1993, a question regularly asked by concerned Africans and non-Africans was: “Which way are you going, Nigeria?” The answer came as quickly as the question was posed. Nigeria chose to go the way of other disorganised countries. In the end, fate intervened and Babangida was compelled to vacate office because many people no longer believed him and his constantly shifting political transition programmes.
Will Nigeria ever recover from that decision made 26 years ago?