This year marks 22 years since Nigeria returned to civil rule after years of military dictatorship that drained the economy, increased poverty, made people live life on the edge, rise in social unrest and forced many on voluntary exile.
While Abdulsalami Abubakar, the then Head of State, kept to his promise of returning Nigeria to civil rule, and the people felt relieved when Olusegun Obasanjo became the president, that hope reignited in 1999 seems to be lost today as the citizenry faces situations that could be termed worse than the pre-1999 era.
If the current persisting hardship is what democracy means, many would have preferred military rule as there seems to be no sharp difference, especially with the current administration that is being accused of remaining unmoved in the face of excruciating economic pain in the polity.
“Yes, the military generals did not respect the constitution and rule of law, they were brutal and even stole the country dry, but we did not feel the level of insecurity and poverty in the country as we do now,” Fredrick Umelo, a retired civil servant, said.
For him, Nigeria is in a more precarious situation now than in the pre-1999 election era; a development, according to him, makes nonsense of the 22 years of democratic rule. He queried the conscience and truthfulness of the political elite. He accused the ruling class of plunging more Nigerians today into the abyss of poverty than was the case in 1998 before the elections in 1999.
“I think the military should be laughing at the selfish Nigerian politicians, who have proven that democracy cannot work in Nigeria as they have in the 22 years of democratic rule, enriched themselves at the expense of the poor masses.
“Has standard of living improved now? Life expectancy is declining every day; inflation is uncontrollable; unemployment is soaring like never before; killings now appear normal, yet the politicians open their mouths to talk of their achievements in power; which achievement than stashing money in Swiss Bank, pilling debt for unborn children, and directly and indirectly executing their selfish or regional agenda,” the aggrieved retiree lamented.
For Sam Ajanaku Onikoyi, a Nigerian historian and Commonwealth researcher based in Brussels, the respite Nigerians witnessed then was real, but the situation on ground is making a mockery of that joy.
“With the emergence of democratic president in 1999, the world hoped that Nigeria would learn from the long years of military rule, advance from the situation before 1999 and grow her democracy, amid dividends after every general election. But we are not there yet; we seem to start afresh and it is sad,” Onikoyi, who was a university undergraduate at that time, said.
Speaking further, he noted that while he is in Brussels in Belgium on official appointment, many Nigerians are in Europe and America on self-exile because of the security situation and intimidation in the country.
“One of my uncles was a member of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), which forced the military to resign. Today, many who were witch-hunted by the government and its security apparatuses are on self-exile. The fact is that their brothers and friends are part of the people in government, so who is going to force the ruling class to change; nobody because many are scared to lose their lives and investments,” he said further.
He also observed that the media is being gagged, while those benefiting from the central are hero-worshipping their benefactors.
“The situation is simply a change of name or mode of operation, but the realities are even worse than before 1999,” he concluded.
Decrying the current situation in the country, Yohana Dati, a serial entrepreneur, noted that the country has drifted further below the level it was in 1999.
“From the economy, security, peaceful co-existence, corruption, nepotism to other anti-development vices, we have gone from bad in 1999 to worse today, we have moved from grace to grass and from frying pan to furnace fire,” the food commodity exporter lamented.
“Before 1999, NADECO, mainly from the South West, was on Sani Abacha’s neck, most were in exile fighting the military junta to cede power to civilians. Sadly today, many who do not want to be intimidated by the DSS or Police are going on self-exile in the name of relocation abroad. But, ask yourself, who wants to be in this country where cattle is valued more than human lives. In the last seven years, I have been losing my relatives to herdsmen and gunmen and will lose more because the government does not care about those killed,” Dati decried.
Considering that the South West enjoyed sympathy in 1999 over the annulled June 12 election, resulting in the election of Olusegun Obasanjo as president, Chijoke Umelahi, a former Abia lawmaker, noted that the South East may not enjoy such sympathy as many have been clamoring that the zone has been marginalised and should be allowed to produce the next president in 2023.
According to Umelahi, who is also an Abuja-based lawyer, the body language of the present administration does not signal that and the political parties, especially the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which the South East zone has been supporting since 1999, is opening the presidential ticket to all candidates across the country, heightening the fears.
“Some of my learned colleagues say that the South West used NADECO to fight the military junta before 1999 and deserved to present the president then. But other zones were in the fight too, the Ogonis lost some of their illustrious sons, as well as the Igbos, Tivs, Effik among others. Today, the Igbos are fighting too, using the apparatus that they can obtain, despite some governors that are sellout. Are the killings in the East, intimidations by the security and menace of herdsmen not enough to consider them for presidency,” he said.
Today, the sing song in society is that Nigeria has never had it so bad.
There is the perception that President Buhari has not done enough to unite the country; rather he has directly or indirectly fuelled ethnic division through glaring sectional policies, pronouncements and legislations which have pitched one section of the country against another.
Ayo Ogunjimi, a public affairs analyst, urged Nigerians to take their destiny in their own hands and make the needed change they want at the ballot.
“I agree the country is in a bad state, but it is up to us to vote and make that change in 2023. I think the situation now is different from 1999 where we were just returning to democracy after years of military rule, where there was not much confidence in the electoral system; in fact, a lot of people refused to vote, and some politicians avoided the transition process for fear the military would not hand it over.
“I don’t think the South-East would get such sympathy this time, I don’t even think the ruling party would pick its presidential candidate from the region, because the party barely exists there. Maybe they have more chances in PDP, but I agree they should be allowed to rule for equity and justice sake,” Ogunjimi said.
Similarly, Kunle Okunade, political commentator, said the South-East should not believe the presidency would be handed over to them on a platter of gold, stressing that they need to position themselves, strategies and lobby other interest geopolitical zones.
He added that it would be difficult for the South-East to enjoy the sympathy and political grace the South-West enjoyed in 1999 because the circumstances are different.
“Politics is all struggles for political power among interests and so, no interest will want to easily relinquish power or allow power shift. That is to say, the South-East should not believe the presidency would be handed over to them on a platter of gold. They need to position themselves, strategies deeper, lobby other interest geopolitical zones, negotiate power with both centripetal and centrifugal forces in the country and push forward a unified candidate.
According to him, “However, it might be hard for the South-East to enjoy the sympathy and political grace the South-West enjoyed in 1999 because the circumstances are different. The political drama of the pre and post 1993 era was part of what paved the way for a South-West president in 1999. It was never as a result of any marginalisation as it is with the South-East.
“On whether the 2023 general election would be fair as in 1993, this can’t be given an exact answer because candidates of the political parties truly emerged from the party not imposed on the party because of money. Unlike what we have right now, where the provisions in the Electoral Acts are not duly followed.
“What I know is that the fairest of elections in this contemporary would be determined by how effective and efficient the provisions of the Electoral Act are followed by all stakeholders.”