A former military ruler, Abdulsalam Abubakar, has suggested that ex-president Goodluck Jonathan has not been given enough credit for conceding defeat after the 2015 presidential election.
Mr Jonathan in 2015 became Nigeria’s first incumbent president to lose re-election. He promptly accepted defeat to incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari and congratulated him.
Mr Abubakar’s stance is contained in an interview in the latest edition of ‘Nigeria Now’ Newspaper. He was interviewed in commemoration of Nigeria’s 20th year of democracy.
“People keep harping on the role of our Peace Committee in convincing President Goodluck Jonathan to concede defeat to Muhammadu Buhari. Nigerians have not given adequate credit to President Johnathan because he took the decision out of his own volition to concede and congratulate Buhari in 2015,” Mr Abubakar said.
He admitted that although the Peace Committee – a national mediation committee of ex-presidents which he heads – spoke with political contestants when the election results began to trickle in to caution their supporters, “but we did not sit down with Johnathan to dictate to him, he conceded out (of) his conviction.”
Mr Abubakar as military head of state ensured the transfer of power to an elected president in 1999.
He led Nigeria from June 8, 1998 to May 29, 1999, and is Nigeria’s 8th and last military Head of State.
One of his promises after succeeding late Sani Abacha, who died mysteriously in office, was to hand over power to civilians. On May 29, 1999, he kept his promise after a general election that ushered in Olusegun Obasanjo as president. He told ‘Nigeria Now’ what transpired in the buildup to Nigeria’s transition to civil rule.
Mr Abubakar claimed he inherited a divided Nigeria, whose armed forces particularly were concerned about jostling for power than safeguarding the land. So, he said, his government had a mandate to “change this perception and attend to the prevailing political unrest.”
“The (Nigerian) military was a victim of its interference in governance as most of its brains got deployed into administering the country at the expense of professionalism and our management training,” Mr Abubakar recalled.
He said a 9-month transition programme was drawn to brace the country up for civil rule. To this end, Mr Abubakar added, a constitution review committee, headed by late Niki Tobi, was set up. Eventually, the committee delivered the 1999 Constitution.
Also, the Independent Electoral Commission was set up, headed by late Ephraim Akpata, who oversaw registering of political parties that met the stipulated criteria.
The process of this transition was still underway when Moshood Abiola died in government custody. Asked how he died, Mr Abubakar refused to comment beyond ascribing Abiola’s death to fate, which he termed “unfortunate”.
He further said what happened would be made known at the “appropriate time” when his book is out.
Moving on, with the backing from the international community, who were interested in seeing “how Nigeria progressed”, Mr Abubakar said, he was able to help Nigeria broker possible investment deals at various international fora and lift the sanctions slammed on the country after several military regimes.
“Recall that the Commonwealth had suspended us and the African Union was keeping us at arm’s length. With me on board as the new head of state, therefore, they saw a chance in engaging me as a new military leader and see if I could keep promises. So, we had interactions in London, United States of America, France, Europe and so on, where I would say, we want all the sanctions imposed on us removed and needed help with our transition programme,” Mr Abubakar said.
After the emergence of Olusegun Obasanjo as president, Mr Abubakar was accused of aiding Mr Obasanjo’s emergence. He downplayed this, saying every privilege Mr Obasanjo enjoyed — from release from prison to sponsoring of medical checkups — from his government was a joint privilege aimed at everyone due for the privileges, and not Mr Obasanjo alone.
Democracy, 20 years on
Mr Abubakar said he believes Nigeria’s democracy was getting better.
“Yes, our democracy is growing,” he said. “Consider the last election in which we had 92 political parties and 78 presidential candidates But, in the process, you could see how the parties shrunk. I think the beauty of democracy is also about minorities having their say and the majority having their way.”
Officially, INEC says there are 91 political parties while 73 presidential candidates took part in the 2019 election.
The retired general added: “The beauty of democracy is in allowing everybody to have their say. We should not peg their (the political parties) number. In certain countries, some parties are only interested in governing their localities. They don’t contest where they lack strength. A party may be interested in capturing only Minna Local Government and not the Niger State legislature (for instance).
“The situation will curtail itself as many would fizzle out and others dissolve into mega-parties. During the last elections, some aligned with others and many will give way as we go along.
“Democracy is gradually taking roots, even at village levels where, due to voter education and the work of NGOs and CSOs, our people are getting more enlightened in politics, people (are) demanding to know about the performance of their elected officials.”
Mr Abubakar, nonetheless, bemoaned the cost of elections in the country, which he said was limiting the participation of youth in politics, in spite of the passage of the Not Too Young To Run Bill.
Security and foreign policy
On security, Mr Abubakar noted that if the rate at which insecurity, kidnapping and other crimes continue to rise, Nigeria’s “democracy will be imperilled”.
“But,” he asked, “what have we done as citizens to contribute in curtailing the menace of these terrorists, kidnappers, and miscreants living in our midst? The action of bringing security back to the country starts with us as individuals with civic responsibility to Nigeria.”
He said the armed forces are overstretched as many roles of other security agencies are being shouldered by the military. He suggested keeping up with 21st-century demands to tackle 21st-century security challenges as a way forward.
On foreign policy, he said he was worried about “the incursion of China into Africa.”
He, therefore, called for scrutiny in the engagement with the Asian giant “to make sure we are not in bondage again. We need to be careful about our rule of engagement with them”.
Chinese investments in Africa have increased over the last decades, and report suggests that these investments have been mainly concentrated on oil-rich regions like Nigeria and Angola — two countries where one-quarter of all Chinese investments in Africa are concentrated.
There have also been concerns about the debts owed to China by many African countries.