Nigeria: Healing Wounds and Building Democracy in Nigeria

16 June 1999
Africa News Service (Durham)

New York — An attempt this week by some members of Nigeria's House of Representatives to observe a moment of silence for the annulled 1993 presidential election caused a furor, despite the death last year of the man who won. Lawmakers shouted and argued until the House speaker ruled against the observance on a technicality.

The outburst illustrated that though Nigerians have elected a new president, Olusegun Obasanjo, political wounds of the recent past are not yet healed.

June 12 was the sixth anniversary of the election that would have brought to power Moshood Abiola, a millionaire businessman. Instead, former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida reneged on his pledge to bring democracy to Nigeria and Abiola was jailed on treason charges after declaring himself president.

The man behind Abiola's incarceration was General Sani Abacha, who succeeded Babangida after a brief façade of interim civilian rule under Ernest Shonekan. Abiola was held for four years, growing increasingly ill. He collapsed and died in July last year while meeting with an American delegation seeking an end to the country's protracted political crisis, following Abacha's death in June that brought reform-minded General Abdulsalami Abubakar to the country's top post.

Many saw Abiola as Nigeria's great hope for a democratic future, despite the close ties he had fostered with senior generals over the years in his telecommunications enterprises and other business interests. The hope endured in part because he was a civilian from the largely Christian southwest. He appeared to be the antithesis of the Muslim-dominated military from the predominantly Hausa-speaking north that had already ruled Nigeria for all but 10 intermittent years since independence from Britain in 1960.

Obasanjo, like Abiola, is a Yoruba from the southwest, but he is also a former general; he attained political credibility as the only Nigerian ruler to have given up power voluntarily to civilians. His national standing was also boosted by his opposition to Abacha, for which he spent more than two years in detention on treason charges.

But for many, Obasanjo's personal history doesn't automatically deliver Nigeria from its painful past. "No matter how you want to look at it, it's not true that the Abiola issue is dead and buried," said Fred Eno, who was Abiola's senior aide before both were jailed. "Definitely there are strong feelings about what the new constitution of the country is." Eno said Nigerians are wondering if the new president can "make a clean break from his military background and move the country forward in a manner that will soothe the feelings of all."

It is unclear how the memory of June 12 would be carried forward without Abiola. His politically influential wife, Kudirat, is no longer around to galvanize the public; she was assassinated in her car in June 1996. Nevertheless, the name Abiola and the date of June 12 have come to symbolize wholesale betrayal by the military elite - not just one annulled election and one man whose claim to office was denied.

With this in mind, Obasanjo has moved quickly to try prove his commitment to democracy and to surmount Nigeria's military legacy. Drawing praise from human rights groups, the new president has set up a panel to probe abuses committed since 1993.

Among the atrocities of the Abacha regime was the hanging execution of nine minority rights activists, including playwright Ken Saro Wiwa, in 1995. Despite the personal pleas for clemency of South African President Nelson Mandela and other world leaders, the executions were carried out on the eve of the annual summit of the Commonwealth - of which Nigeria is a member - assuring that the country was declared an international pariah.

Scores of other activists, journalists and government opponents served time in jail under Abacha. Eno, Abiola's former aide, spent two years behind bars - some of it in a cell so small he couldn't fully lie down or stand up.

Obasanjo has also earned applause for moving to curb corruption. Millions of dollars disappeared from the country's reserves in recent months as outgoing administrators made a last minute grab for wealth before the new government assumed office. The new administration has revoked all major government appointments and contracts awarded by the Abubakar government since January.

Much of the missing money was from the country's oil industry. Obasanjo has just visited the troubled Niger River Delta region to try to end ethnic bloodletting that in part stems from disputes over the lack of local access to wealth extracted from the land.

But his boldest move yet came last week when Obasanjo retired 149 senior military and police officers, essentially purging the government of stalwarts who had helped prop up the Babangida and Abacha regimes. Among those retired was the officer who sentenced Obasanjo and others to jail on trumped up treason charges. The new government warns that the days of coups in Nigeria are over.

"In future, all officers of our armed forces must recognize that the ultimate reward for participating or benefiting from coups will be premature or forced retirement from service in the minimum," the Panafrican News Agency quoted Obasanjo spokesman Doyin Okupe as saying.

In establishing a distance from the institution that has reached into nearly every facet of Nigerian life, however, Obasanjo walks a fine line. On one hand, he has to show Nigerians that he isn't overly close with the generals; on the other hand, an outright rejection of the military could still endanger his rule.

Eno thinks Nigeria has turned a corner, perhaps owing to the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of the seemingly untouchable Abacha. Many suspect he was poisoned. Or, they prefer to believe it.

"There is a realization both within the military and outside it that no soldier will ever take power in the country and think he will walk away with it," said Eno in a telephone interview from the New York offices of the magazine "We" where he now works as an editor. "People will fight it and they will do it because the legacy of Moshood Abiola lives on."

So does Abacha's. The Civil Rights Congress marked the one year anniversary of his death with a statement saying it remembered "the late tyrant as an epitome of cruelty and depravity, a wicked, evil and bestial ruler who brought grief to Nigeria." The names of many streets, monuments and buildings named after Abacha have now been changed.

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