The Abortive Third Republic
In early 1989, a constituent assembly completed work on a constitution for the Third Republic, and political activity again was permitted. In April 1990, mid-level officers tried and failed to overthrow Babangida, and 69 accused coup plotters were later executed after secret trials before military tribunals. In December 1990 the first stage of partisan elections was held at the local government level, followed by gubernatorial and state legislative elections in December 1991; turnout was low but non-violent. However, Babangida canceled primaries scheduled for August and September 1992 due to fraud. All announced candidates were disqualified from again standing for president once a new election format was selected. After delayed promises for elections in 1990, the government finally held a presidential election on June 12, 1993.
In what most observers deemed to be Nigeria's fairest elections, early returns indicated that wealthy Yoruba businessman M.K.O. Abiola had won a decisive victory. But on June 23, Babangida, using several pending lawsuits as a pretense, annulled the election, throwing Nigeria into turmoil. More than 100 persons were killed in riots before Babangida agreed to hand power to an "interim government" on August 27. Babangida then attempted to renege on his decision. Without popular and military support, he was forced to hand over to Ernest Shonekan, a prominent nonpartisan businessman. Shonekan was to rule until new elections, slated for February 1994. Although he had led Babangida's Transitional Council since early 1993, Shonekan was unable to reverse Nigeria's ever-growing economic problems or to defuse lingering political tension.
With the country sliding into chaos, Defense Minister Sani Abacha quickly assumed power and forced Shonekan's "resignation" on November 17, 1993. Abacha dissolved all democratic political institutions and replaced elected governors with military officers. Abacha promised to return the government to civilian rule but refused to announce a timetable. Following the annulment of the June 12 election, the United States and other nations imposed various sanctions on Nigeria, including restrictions on travel by government officials and their families and suspension of arms sales and military assistance. Additional sanctions were imposed as a result of Nigeria's failure to gain full certification for its counter-narcotics efforts.
Although Abacha's takeover was initially welcomed by many Nigerians, disenchantment grew rapidly. Many opposition figures formed the "National Democratic Coalition (NADECO)" to campaign for an immediate return to civilian rule, and most Nigerians boycotted the May 1994 polls for delegates to a government-sponsored Constitutional Conference. On June 11, 1994, using the groundwork laid by NADECO, Abiola declared himself president and went into hiding. He reemerged and was promptly arrested on June 23. A series of strikes by petroleum workers and other unions initially brought economic life in Lagos and the southwest to a standstill, but by mid-August Abacha had dismissed the national union leadership, arrested his opponents, closed media houses, and moved strongly to curb dissent. In early 1995, Abacha alleged that some 40 military officers and civilians were engaged in a coup plot, including former head of state Obasanjo and his deputy, retired Gen. Shehu Musa Yar'Adua. After a secret tribunal, most of the accused were convicted, and several death sentences were handed down. The tribunal also charged, convicted, and sentenced prominent human rights activists, journalists, and others--including relatives of the coup suspects--for their alleged "anti-regime" activities.
In an October 1, 1995 address to the nation, Gen. Sani Abacha announced the timetable for a 3-year transition to civilian rule. Public turnout for his sham local elections in December 1997 and in April 1998 state assembly and gubernatorial elections was under 10%, and public reaction to Abacha's presidential nomination by the five accepted parties was apathy and a near-complete boycott. Widely expected to succeed himself as a civilian president on October 1, 1998, he remained head of state until his death on June 8 of that year. During the Abacha regime, the government continued to enforce its arbitrary authority through the federal security system--the military, the state security service, and the courts. Under Abacha, all branches of the security forces committed serious human rights abuses. Abacha was replaced by General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who subsequently released almost all known civilian political detainees and decreased the number of reported human rights abuses.
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