The 25th Anniversary of June 12, 1993

Today marks the 25th anniversary of June 12, 1993, a date with tremendous significance in Nigeria. On that day, Nigeria held a presidential election that was supposed to help bring the country out of military rule. Instead, the administration of military ruler General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the election. In the ensuing crisis, Babangida stepped down, a civilian caretaker regime was established, and another military coup occurred – bringing another officer, Sani Abacha, to power in November 1993. In 1994, the Abacha regime imprisoned the man widely considered to have won the 1993 elections, MKO Abiola, after Abiola declared himself Nigeria’s rightful president. Both Abacha and Abiola died, the latter in prison, in 1998, in circumstances that remain disputed in both cases. Nigeria ultimately transitioned back to civilian rule in 1999 and has not had a coup since.

This year’s anniversary has attracted even larger than usual symbolic actions. For example, current President Muhammadu Buhari shifted “Democracy Day” from May 29 (Inauguration Day) to June 12, in honor of Abiola. The presidency also “said Mr Abiola will now be conferred with nation’s highest honour, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, GCFR. The honour is exclusively conferred only on presidents and former presidents.” There is also pressure from the Senate on the Independent National Electoral Commission to finally declare official results from the 1993 election.

If you see any noteworthy commentary or have any of your own reflections and memories to share, please comment below.

Nigeria: Legacies of General Sani Abacha

1993, a pivotal year for Nigeria, is in some ways still very much present. That year, a long-promised transition from military to civilian rule was blocked. Presidential elections organized by the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida were annulled, and by year’s end a new military regime, that of General Sani Abacha, was in place. The apparent winner of the June 1993 elections, businessman M.K.O. Abiola, was jailed in 1994, and remained in captivity until his death in 1998, only two weeks after the death of Abacha. The deaths of Abacha and Abiola, both of which occurred in mysterious circumstances, sparked a period of political turbulence that ultimately birthed Nigeria’s Fourth Republic in 1999.

The names of Abacha and Abiola are back in the news this week. The Lagos State High Court recently passed a death sentence against a close aide of Abacha’s, Major Hamza al-Mustapha, whom the Court found guilty of murdering Abiola’s wife Kudirat (she was shot in 1996). Al-Mustapha’s case has occasioned substantial commentary in the Nigerian press and a statement by at least one political party, the Lagos chapter of the Action Congress of Nigeria. The names Abacha and Abiola, especially when they’re evoked due to an event like this, have powerful associations with fundamental struggles in Nigerian politics over democracy, transparency, and accountability.

Abacha may look like the villain of this story, but he is not necessarily a one-dimensional or evil figure for everyone in Nigeria. American political science literature on Nigeria consistently depicts Abacha’s rule as brutal, a brutality symbolized above all by the execution of activist Ken Saro Wiwa in 1995. The conviction of al-Mustapha lends weight to this image of Abacha.

Political scientists sometimes take the step, however, of assuming that brutality automatically engenders unpopularity. The evidence for this contention is more mixed. After having read for years how much Nigerians hated Abacha’s rule and welcomed the return to democracy in 1999, I was surprised in Kano to see and hear, on a regular basis, testaments to Abacha’s continuing popularity. The General’s sticker appears on a number of cabs and cars in the city, and during periods of political tension and insecurity some people spoke nostalgically of his rule. One of the General’s sons came close to being the gubernatorial candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change in last year’s elections in Kano, suggesting that his father’s name is not completely mud in the state.* These examples all come from Kano, which after all is Abacha’s home town, but to me they indicate that the General’s legacies are more complicated inside Nigeria than outsiders might imagine at first.

Zooming out even further, these contradictory legacies are yet another demonstration of Faulkner’s observation that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Whatever Abacha’s legacy is, it is still relevant to Nigerian politics.

*The family’s money may also be a factor in the younger Abacha’s prominence, however.