At 52: Critical landmarks in Nigerian History

As Nigeria and its people celebrate 52 years of independence anniversary, Dapo Falade, takes a retrospective look at some of the major landmarks that have helped to shape the cause and course of the nation.

Crisis of the First Republic

When the Union Jack, the national flag of the British Empire, was lowered on October 1, 1960 and the country’s Green-White-Green flag was hoisted in its stead, not a few people across the globe expressed the optimism that Nigeria, the young, freshly independent African country, holds the promise of liberation and freedom in its true sense for the entire continent. The optimism was hinged on the vast and abundance human and natural resources (which the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, aptly described as unnatural natural resources) available to the country and its people.

However, hardly had the euphoria that greeted the attainment of political sovereignty settled down than the young country was, in 1962, thrown into a deep political and constitutional quagmire over a disputed election in the old Western Region. Amidst suspicions and allegations of bias on the part of the Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa-led Federal Government, the region nearly went up in flames as the people resorted to a violent protest of an alleged grand conspiracy against their leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the former Premier of the region and his followers. Armed with dangerous arsenal, the people literally changed the name of the Western Region to the Wild, Wild West and resorted to Operation Wetie to register their displeasure with the perceived electoral fraud.

The crisis ignited in the then Western Region assumed a national dimension as the Federal Government, in the wake of the violence, declared a state of emergency in the region and appointed Chief Moses Adekoyejo Majekodunmi as the sole administrator of the region. Subsequently, the man in the eye of the storm, Awolowo, along with some of aides, was charged to court for allegedly violating the laws of the land. Justice George Sodeinde Sowemimo eventually found the former Premier guilty of treasonable felony.

Coming of the military and the counter-coup

As the people of the Western Region were still mulling over their losses and the predilections of their leader, Nigeria experienced its first organised political change as the men in Khakis, officers and men of the Nigerian Army, led by the late Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, staged the first ever military coup on 15 January, 1966 toppling the Balewa-led Federal Government. The coupists, among others, alluded to tribal nepotism and corruption as the factors responsible for the military putsch. In the wake of the military intervention, many of the political leaders of the era, including Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, Sir Festus Okotie-Eboh, Chief Ladoke Akintola and Sir Ahmadu Bello, among others, lost their lives.

That first military coup, signposting the what would eventually become a recurring decimal in Nigeria’s political history, led to another one, barely six months later by the then Colonel Yakubu Gowon, on 29 July, 1966. The second coup, an event which many agreed sowed the seed of discord and mutual distrust among the ethnic nations that made up the country, was seen as the master-minders as a reaction to the structural imbalance in the polity.

Civil War (1967-1970)

Still battling with the hydra-headed problems inherent in the first two military coups, the entire world woke to the sad reality that Nigeria is neither a nation nor the land of dream of her people as the entire country found itself in a civil war which shook the nation to its roots, lasting between 1967 and 1970. In the course of the 30-month war, the people of the Eastern Region, led by the late Colonel Odimegwu Ojukwu, made it clear that they were not satisfied with the then political arrangement. They thus declared the Biafran Republic and announced the secession of the entire region from the country.

After several loss of lives and property and wanton destructions, with the Biafrans recording more casualties than the federal troops, a truce was announced and the then Head of State, General Gowon, while announcing an armistice, said that there were no victor, no vanquished. Though he went further to announce a programme of Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and …., it is becoming increasingly clear that, even 52 years after political independence, the issues that precipitated the civil war are still undermining national integration namely, mutual ethnic distrust and disunity.

Yet another coup

Still smarting from the 30-month civil war, the Nigerian nation witnessed yet another military hiccup as the nine-year-old regime of General Gowon was toppled in a bloodless putsch by some army generals in 1975. Among the accusations leveled against Gowon by the coupists the issue of corruption, maladministration, favouritism, nepotism and loss of control. The late General Murtala Ramat Mohammed, ably assisted by Generals Olusegun Obasanjo, Yakubu Danjuma and late General Shehu Yar’Adua, took over the mantle of leadership and was in power till 13 February, 1976 when the regime was again overthrown, albeit in an unsuccessful plot by the late Colonel Bukar Dimka and his fellow co-travelers.

While Murtala lost his life in the 1976 putsch, Dimka failed in his mission as General Obasanjo became an ‘unwilling’ bride on whose hand fate and circumstances threw the destiny of the most populous black African country. The trio of Obasanjo, Danjuma and Yar’Adua effectively directed the affairs of the country and, in keeping faith with the promise by their alter ego, Murtala, to return the country to the path of democratic governance.

After 13 years of uninterrupted military rule, the Second Republic was, on October 1, 1979, ushered in as the General Obasanjo regime supervised the 1979 general election which produced Alhaji Shehu Shagari as the first elected civilian president of the country. While Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief at the return of the country to democratic government, the political leadership of that era did not live up to its ratings as the Second Republic was characterised by what some analysts described as politics without integrity, maladministration, ineptitude and gross corruption

Return of the military

It was therefore not surprising when the ‘boys’ with the jack boots once again made an incursion into the political arena as the Shagari administration was toppled in December 1983. General Muhammadu Buhari and the late General Tunde Idiagbon led other military boys to truncate the second attempt at civilian governance in the country. However, the Buhari/Idiagbon regime was short-lived as General Ibrahim Babangida, once again, rolled out the tanks to effect another military take-over on 25 August, 1985.

An aborted Third Republic

After about six years of another military rule, the General Babangida regime, from 1989, started experimenting with another transition programme. After se3veral false starts, the regime was able to organize and conduct the 1993 elections which held the promise of having a civilian government. However, after successfully electing all other levels of public office holders, Babangida, in consonance with some yet-to-be revealed clique, committed a political suicide by annulling what is still being regarded as the freest and fairest election in the country. With the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, presumably won by the late Chief MKO Abiola, Nigeria was again thrown into the political wilderness.

The ING contraption and the coming of General Sani Abacha

Following the political crisis thrown up by the criminal annulment of the presidential election, the gap-toothed General stepped aside and put in place a strange arrangement, the Interim National National Government (ING), headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, a seasoned and successful technocrat. But after 83 days in the saddle, the dark-googled General, late Sani Abacha, took the nation for a ride, sacking the interim arrangement. The acts and deeds of the Kano-born General while in the saddle for five years remain a dark patch in the nation’s chequered political history. Abacha was eventually sacked by death in June 1998.

Abdusalami, the benevolent dictator

In order to create vacuum, those in authority arranged General Abdusalami Abubakar to be at the head of government following the demise of Abacha. The Minna-born General, who many have described as a benevolent dictator was at the helms of affairs for 11 months before putting in place another transition programme which culminated in the birth of the current Fourth Republic. Abdusalami, taking after General Obasanjo (1979), ensured a smooth transition programme which saw to the election of Obasanjo as the nation’s second elected civilian president.

Second coming of Obasanjo

The man who has been described as the most fortunate Nigerian leader made a return to a familiar terrain, 20 years after his first experiment, on 29 May, 1999. OBJ, who had a consecutive two-term tenure, was confronted with myriads of national problems, principally among which was the issue Sharia Law which most of the northern governors implemented in their various states. While the governors were adamant in implementing the law, former President Obasanjo was optimistic that Sharia would die a natural death.

Another issue that confronted the OBJ administration has to do with the controversial concession of the disputed Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon. After a long-drawn legal battle which Nigeria eventually lost at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Hague in 2005, the Federal Government, after the Green Tea Agreement in Switzerland, ceded the disputed peninsula to Cameroon. However, that action remains an object of contention as the displaced Bakassi people are still at logger-head with the government. At the same time, stakeholders are saying that the ceding is not a foreclosed issue.

The botched Third Term agenda

Whatever the successes recorded by the OBJ administration were blighted by the controversial Third Term agenda which was an attempt to perpetuate the man in office at the expiration of his constitutionally-guaranteed second term. Indeed, the agenda was a failed kite flown by Obasanjo and his supporters and it eventually crash-landed. Nonetheless, it is on record that Obasanjo was able to mid-wife a successful civilian-to-civilian transition programme, the inherent lapses in the 2007 general election notwithstanding.

Umar Yar’Adua tenure

After a successful, albeit disputed and controversial electoral process, the late Alhaji Umar Yar’Adua assumed the mantle of leadership as the nation’s political numero uno. The man, who many saw a dove, in comparism with his immediate predecessor, was able to tackle some of the age-long national problems. Particularly, he was able to settle the problems of the restless Niger Delta youths, eventually granting amnesty programmes for the militant youths.

However, mid-way into Yar’Adua’s tenure, Nigeria was confronted with a constitutional crisis following the sickness of the president. While the man sick and flown out of the country for medical treatment, he was held incommunicado and there was a constitutional breach as there was no formal handing over to his deputy, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, to act in his stead. While members of the ailing president’s kitchen cabinet took charge of affairs at Aso Rock, stakeholders and analysts saw the development as akin to an aberration. The day was however saved by the Senate which eventually came out with the Doctrine of Necessity, a process which culminated in the swearing in of Jonathan as the acting president. Jonathan eventually became the president following the demise of his boss in March 2010.

2011 elections

Another major landmark in the nation’s march towards real nationhood, 52 years after independence, was the conduct of the 2011 elections. Prior to the conduct of the April 2011 elections, there has been much tension in the land, with many of the contestants threatening firestones and storms should the outcome of the exercise be against them. The elections were eventually conducted with the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) losing some of its footholds, particularly in the South-West where the main opposition party, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), bounced back into reckoning as the ruling party after its abysmal failure in the 2003 elections.

After the elections, Jonathan retained his position as the president but not without some human and material losses. True to the threat by the presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), General Buhari, some parts of the North practically went up in flames as people resorted to violence to protest the results of the elections.

While the violence that greeted the 2011 elections had died down, the Jonathan presidency is still battling with a phenomenon that has continually posed a threat to the continued existence of Nigeria as one indivisible entity namely, the Boko Haram insurgency. Though the country is besotted with myriads of problems, ranging from flood disaster, wobbling and dwindling national economic fortunes and collective leadership failure, it becoming quite apparent that its greatest problem is the renewed Boko Haram insurgency, which was inherited from the Yar’Adua presidency.

As the country continues in its march towards attaining a nation “where peace and justice shall reign”, it remains to be seen if the leadership can live up to expectations and sustain the Nigerian project.

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