No Nigerian president has ever won the coveted Mo Ibrahim leadership prize, which recognises exceptional leaders and rewards them with an enormous $5 million lump payment spread over 10 years. That in itself is an indictment on the legacy of Nigerian leaders since the awards began in 2006.
After eight tumultuous years of social, political and economic experimentation on Nigeria and its citizens, General Ibrahim Babangida was forced to leave office. Hounded by a citizenry fatigued of being trialled with, and angered over the annulment of what would be one of Nigeria’s freest elections, Babangida handed over power to an interim government led by a businessman, Ernest Shonekan.
That arrangement was not to last, as Shonekan was booted out of office less than three months later, on November 17, 1993, by the military. It was a palace coup that was executed against the background of a High Court ruling in early November 1993, that the Interim National Government – Babangida’s stop-gap measure on the eve of his ‘stepping aside’ from power, was illegal. General Sani Abacha installed himself as Nigeria’s new ruler.
Having spent much of his time as a political general in the shadows of Babangida, Abacha’s politico-psychological profile was almost a mystery to Nigerians.
Political scientist and the Warren Weinstein Chair of African Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Peter M. Lewis, noted of Nigeria’s military regimes, that the fall-outs from a series of coups and counter-coups had fragmented and demoralised the military organisation. Also, the dissolution of parties and legislative bodies, the intrusive manipulation of the judiciary throughout the transition crisis had depleted other institutional pillars of the state thereby widening the realm of personal control.
Abacha, Peter noted, fully availed himself of these instruments of control, extending repression, enervating the political class and conducting pre-emptive indictments against perceived opponents.
He rapidly sought to maximise his powers. It was a predatory regime that Professor Kunle Amowun, noted, was characterised by a distinctive pattern of economic management, including arbitrary change, deficit financing, capital flight and the chronic and unrecorded leakage of funds.
In the realm of social choice, the ‘rationality’ of the market was vitiated by the ‘logic’ of rent-seeking. By dismantling SAP, through the 1994 budget, in favour of a statist or dirigiste economic policy – but certainly not a nationalist agenda, as Lewis observed – Abacha set the tone and tenor to pocket the economy and privatise state finances.
The process of disintegration of the state was set in motion through a combination of repressive tactics, with the intent of ensuring both a physical and political withdrawal, from the social space, of notable politicians and key citizens that could threaten a planned self-succession bid.
Abacha’s attempt at economic positivism included creating the Failed Banks Tribunal set up to investigate thieving bank chieftains, which soon degenerated into a witch-hunt. While he promised fiscal discipline like all before him and increased the country’s foreign reserve from less than $1 billion to over $8 billion, Abacha was loose with Nigeria’s finances.
Nigeria’s economy, argued Kayode Fayemi in 1999, did not escape Abacha’s grip. He ran it as a personal fiefdom. Unlike Babangida who parcelled out the state to friends and mentors within the military, Abacha kept the spoils of office for himself and his family, a small coterie of his security apparatus and his small circle of foreign friends.
Abacha, Nigeria’s maximum leader ruled the country until June 8, 1998, when he died. At the time of his death, Abacha’s personal wealth was estimated to be around $3 – $6 billion.
General Abdulsalam Abubakar took over as Nigeria’s head of state after Abacha’s death. Plucked from political obscurity where he had been known as the uninspiring name behind the constitution of coup panels as Chief of Defense Staff, Abubakar tried to liberalise Nigeria’s noxious socio-political space. He let political prisoners go, repealed repressive edicts and paid some of the country’s debts.
To acquire international legitimacy, Abubakar began a transition programme midwifed by the newly created Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). On May 29, 1999, less than a year after he assumed power, he left office after handing over to Olusegun Obasanjo and brought into fruition Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, the longest in the country’s political environment, for which he is fondly remembered, and remains his most obvious legacy.
The great debt relief
Perhaps, Nigeria’s most consequential president, Obasanjo, a former military Head of State, retired general and political prisoner under General Abacha assumed office on May 29, 1999. Obasanjo had assumed office in a season of despair.
As president, Obasanjo polished his legacy of engagement in two transitions from military dictatorship to constitutional government by affirming his resolute opposition to militarism as a form of government. In 2005, though, a dark splodge nearly ruined the former president’s legacy of commitment to democracy. As noted by the Journal of Democracy in 2006, “He evidently favoured consideration of a constitutional amendment that would have allowed him to seek a third term despite widespread public disapproval of any such manoeuvre. By graciously accepting the defeat of the amendment, Obasanjo has solidified his contribution to Nigerian democracy, but much remains to be done.”
Internationally, Obasanjo restored Nigeria’s status as a major African power after years of isolation under Abacha, a feat yet to be matched since he left office in 2007.
He launched a war against corruption and created the two major agencies that drive anti-corruption efforts in the country today: The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC).
It is on the macro-economic level that Obasanjo gets top marks. He brought in economic reformers whose budget discipline enabled Nigeria to build over $40 billion in foreign reserves and persuaded creditors to write off $18 billion in debts. A 2007 IMF report noted then that, “GDP growth and increases in per capita income have doubled in the last five years compared with the previous two decades.” Inflation is down to single digits. Reserves have risen to $41 billion.
Nigeria under Obasanjo shook off the economic malaise of the 1980s and 1990s; a time says Jonathan Power, “of recession, declining incomes and rapid inflation—as well as at least some of its maladministration and corruption.” The country’s credit rating appreciated enough to issue bonds on the global market.
Under Obasanjo, the prevalence of fake drugs in the country fell from 41 percent to 17 percent, according to the World Health Organisation.
More than anything else, Obasanjo’s major legacy would remain the debt relief he secured for the country. He would always be remembered as the only Nigerian leader who unchained his country from the debilitating debt burden that arrested economic growth and development. While he met a debt of some $32 billion in 1999, Obasanjo helped to negotiate a debt relief that left the country with less than $3 billion in debt in 2006.
Peace in the delta
On May 29, 2007, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, then governor of Katsina State, succeeded Obasanjo as president. He was Obasanjo’s handpicked candidate; a hitherto unknown and publicity-shy politician who’d lived most of his political life under the shadow of his more powerful and influential brother, Shehu, who had served as Obasanjo’s deputy between 1976 and 1979.
For many in Lagos, Yar’Adua’s legacy is assured. For almost four years, former President Olusegun Obasanjo had refused to release federal allocations to Lagos State, claiming the creation of 37 Local Council Development Authority (LCDAs) by former Governor Bola Tinubu was an assault on the nation’s Constitution. A couple of months after assuming office as president, Yar’Adua reversed the policy and released all the withheld allocations, running into billions, to Lagos.
Perhaps Yar’Adua’s greatest legacy is the peace he brought to the Niger Delta. Against the tense background of violence, agitations and attacks on oil infrastructure by militants in the region, Yar’Adua in 2009 granted unconditional amnesty for violent actors operating there as a means of ensuring sustainable peace and development in the oil-producing region.
The granting of amnesty was unmistakably innovative as a mechanism for peace-building. On June 24, 2009, the Federal Government officially opened a two-month amnesty window to all militants in the Niger Delta region in exchange for their demobilisation and disarmament. Upon surrendering their weapons, militants began to receive financial compensation from the government over a period of time.
While the rationale for the amnesty and its effectiveness remains debatable, the cessation of almost a decade long armed struggle by the militants was as dramatic as it was surprising. It brought relative peace to the Niger Delta region.
However, no doubt, one of Yar’Adua’s biggest failures was the fact Boko Haram began their murderous rage during his reign.
Victory in defeat
Goodluck Jonathan had been personally handpicked by former President Obasanjo as vice-president to Yar’Adua. A former teacher and civil servant, he was the governor of the oil-rich Bayelsa State when he was tapped to run alongside Yar’Adua.
His biggest achievement during his five years in office is the legacy of a tremendously improved electoral system to such an extent, which he admits, “that I, as an incumbent lost to an opposition candidate; a personal loss I consider a win for the Nigerian nation. I had every instrument of state coercion at my disposal to undermine and compromise the electoral process to my incumbent advantage but I refused to do so because I placed the interest of Nigeria ahead of my personal interest.”
His government promulgated the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in 2011, to expand media freedom and give people reasonable access to information on the activities of government for the good of society.
No other leader in the history of the country has encouraged female participation in governance as Jonathan did. Some 35 percent of profile appointments made by Jonathan went to the women. In addition, he also opened up the Nigerian Defense Academy (NDA) to women.
While the jury is still out on the outcome of the process, Jonathan privatised the power sector, taking the inefficient power infrastructure that bedevilled the country out of the hands of the government, thus saving billions of taxpayer funds.
His biggest failure, no doubt, was his inability to end the Boko Haram crisis that has devastated the Northern region. Under his leadership, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 secondary school girls from Chibok in Borno State in April 2014. Before then, in February that year, 59 boys had been killed at the Federal Government College of Buni Yadi in Yobe State when it was attacked by Boko Haram.