By Olatunji Dare
What were former military president Ibrahim Babangida’s thought and preoccupations as the events memorializing June 12, 1993, the day of promise he turned into a nightmare, unfolded?
Remorse? Contrition? Vindication? Fulfillment? Triumph? All of the above?
We may never know until he releases his much-postponed memoirs.
Why, in any case, did Babangida annul the 1993 Presidential election, the anniversary of which was marked last week under the rubric of Democracy Day?
Twenty-eight years later, he has not been able to give a coherent answer. Rather, he has been fudging and dissembling as is his wont. He has said, among other things, that he annulled the election as a favour to Abiola, because Abiola would have been overthrown and probably killed if Abiola was allowed to take office.
Colonel (as he then was) David B. Mark, is on the public record as having stated that he would personally shoot – and presumably kill — Abiola if Abiola was installed president.
The closest Babangida ever came to laying out his regime’s case for the annulment was his June 23, 1993 broadcast. But as I will try to show presently, the case falls apart under the most cursory of readings.
Those, it is necessary to recall, were desperate days in Abuja – days of wild improvisation and frenzied experimentation. The scheduling of the broadcast reflected that much.
It was to be made at midday, according to an official statement. It did not take place. It was rescheduled for an hour later. Still, no broadcast. The broadcast would now take place at 7 p.m, they said. That hour came and passed, without the broadcast.
It took place, finally, two hours later, at 9 pm.
It was a sprawling, laboured speech, some 2,700 words long.
The first part was an exercise in self-glorification. Babangida said that the policies and programmes he had pursued -SAP, for example? — were sound “in understanding, conception, formulation and articulation,” and “comparatively unassailable,” and that history would certainly score the administration high in its governance of Nigeria.
Twenty-eight years later, the widely-held verdict is that Babangida is the prime architect of the nation’s current woes.
So much for the testimonial he issued himself. The concern here is with the rest of the speech, in which Babangida laid out his reason for annulling the election.
In implementing its reform programmes, he said, the regime had to contend with social forces that had in the past impeded national growth and development, as well as new social forces that the programmes spawned. To resolve matters, he said, the regime was constrained to tamper with the rules governing the transition.
Here, one positively must interject: Whatever happened to the “in-built” corrective mechanism that the regime and its palace intellectuals had forever advertised as a unique feature of the transition design?
To return to the speech: Tampering with the rules out of sheer necessity unwittingly attracted “enormous public suspicions” of the regime’s intentions and policies.” Translation: The attentive public came to the conclusion that Babangida was nursing a secret agenda, the object being to perpetuate himself in office and in power.
The transition programme, Babangida continued, was about building a lasting foundation for democracy. But “lasting democracy,” is not a temporary show of excitement and manipulation by an over-articulate section of the elite of the whole nation and the political process; lasting democracy is a permanent diet to nurture the soul of the whole nation and the political process.”
A further interjection, the last. Democracy as “soul food?” As “stomach infrastructure,” in other words? Shades of Ayo Fayose.
The June 12 election, like the presidential primaries that were cancelled the previous year, Babangida said, did not meet the basic requirements of democracy: free and fair elections, un-coerced expression of voters’ preference, respect for the electorate as final arbiter in elections, decorum and fairness on the part of electoral umpires, and absolute respect for the rule of law.
But because the administration was determined to keep faith with the deadline of 27th August, 1993 for the return to civil rule, it overlooked the reported breaches. The breaches continued into the June 12, 1993 on an even greater scale, but Humphrey Nwosu’s National Electoral Commission went ahead and cleared the candidates.
There was also a conflict of interest between the government and both presidential candidates that would have compromised their positions and responsibilities were they to become president.
The courts had been intimidated and had been subjected to “the manipulation of the political process by vested interests, to the point that the entire political system was endangered. Under these circumstances, the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) decided to annul the election in the supreme interest of law and order, political stability and peace.” (emphasis added,)
Resting his case, Babangida declared: “To continue action on the basis of the June 12, 1993 election, and to proclaim and swear in a president who encouraged a campaign of divide-and-rule among our ethnic groups would have been detrimental to the survival of the Third Republic.” (my emphasis.)
Despite all the fudging, it is beyond dispute that the NDSC approved holding the election. Babangida admitted that much in the broadcast, perhaps unwittingly. In any case, the NDSC in whose name he claimed to have acted was for all practical purposes a phantom of his own making, whose authority he invoked whenever it suited him.
It was Babangida’s proxy, Arthur Nzeribe and his so-called Association for a Better Nigeria that, to use Babangida’s words, “intimidated and manipulated” the courts. In that subversive undertaking, they were aided and sheltered by the regime’s Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Clement Akpamgbo, and Babangida’s retinue of shysters and forensic cardsharpers.
The alleged breaches of the electoral laws that vitiated the election, as Babangida claims, furnished an opportunity to disqualify and prosecute the perpetrators and clean up the process. Why did he put up with them for so long?
The public was well primed to vote on June 12. That date had been seared into its consciousness. It was Babangida’s regime, not NEC, that created a climate of uncertainty around it. Even so, 15 million Nigerians came out to vote.
To invoke the “rule of law” to justify the annulment as Babangida did, was to stand that concept on its head. How can a regime that promulgated retroactive laws and routinely ousted the courts of jurisdiction claim adherence to the rule of law with a straight face?
Who among the candidates, by the way, encouraged “a campaign of divide-and-rule” among Nigeria’s ethnic groups, as Babangida claimed? A candidate for national office employing such tactics would have known that he was committing electoral suicide. The public would have rejected him emphatically.
The resident court never missed an opportunity to tell the public that Babangida’s “place in history” was assured. They pontificated that Nigeria’s history would be divided into two epochs: the pre-IBB Era when all was dark and void and formless, and the IBB Era, when light and progress supervened and reigned.
Recognising at last that his case for the annulment was always threadbare at best, and seeing June 12’s salience wax year after year even as whatever was left of his reputation waned, Babangida changed tack.
Now, he has been saying that he presided over the freest and fairest election ever held in Nigeria, and should be accorded the fullest credit for that distinction.
This schizophrenic claim does not square with his sweeping rejection, nay demonisation, of the June 12 election. Men -and women – in public life rarely set out to quarrel with and reject their own signal achievements so viscerally.
The legal titan Professor Ben Nwabueze, who served as Secretary for Education in Babangida’s ineffectual Transitional Council while doubling as a strategist in the evisceration of the June 12 election that was supposed to be the culmination of the transition provides an important clue to Babangida’s disposition at that critical time.
“His behavior in the last days of his regime, “Nwabueze wrote in the inelegantly titled June 12, 1993 Election: Problems and Solutions, “left a rather strong impression of a man forced to quit against his will, of one un-reconciled to quitting in the last days of his rule and in the face of defeat, he cut a figure of someone unwilling to reconcile himself with composure to the adverse torrent of events, of an angry and bitterly disappointed man.”
More tellingly, Nwabueze wrote of Babangida, “His mind, his motions and his actions seemed to have become somewhat disoriented, and no longer governed by disinterested, patriotic considerations. . .”
It remains to add that Babangida has lived to see the day he sought to eviscerate with manic desperation become a national symbol, a point of reference and a goal of our collective aspiration, holed up in the opulent sterility of his Minna Hilltop Mansion, grateful for the occasional visitor, an object lesson in the delusions of power.