Abuja, Nigeria – On February 25, Africa’s largest democracy will hold its sixth election since the return to civilian leadership in 1999. The polls in Nigeria will be held a few months shy of the 30th anniversary of the annulled 1993 presidential elections, widely seen as the “freest and fairest” in the country’s history.
In January 1966, six years after Nigeria’s independence, a coup – the country’s first – ended civilian rule. It was not until 1979 that a military government handed over to a democratic administration but that peace was punctured by a New Year’s Eve coup four years later.
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The military regime set up a timeline for return to civilian leadership and established two parties for the 1992/1993 electoral season: the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC).
On June 12, 1993, as incoming results of the presidential vote showed that the SDP’s Mooshood “MKO” Abiola was heading for a landslide victory, the military annulled the election and disbanded both parties. A civilian-led interim government was installed and Abiola was arrested, alongside several opponents of the annulment.
Already, parallels are being drawn between both elections.
Bola Tinubu, leader of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) and a front-line candidate in this election, sits atop a Muslim-Muslim (president-vice president) ticket that is causing controversy.
In a country split almost evenly between the mostly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south, an unwritten agreement exists in the major parties, for rotation of the presidency between north and south and both religions.
The incumbent president is Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim, who succeeded Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian. Tinubu, a southern Muslim is the first to jettison that arrangement since 1993 when Abiola – also a southern Muslim – did so.
After the annulment, Tinubu, who had been elected as a senator in Lagos, joined a coalition of politicians and civil society leaders to press for the return to civilian rule.
The APC chieftain is now one of 18 candidates jostling to succeed Buhari, whose second term ends this May.
‘Class of 1993’
Except for Labour Party candidate Peter Obi – whose current campaign chief was the NRC spokesman in 1993 – the other leading contestants came to national relevance in the 1992/1993 electoral season, now being called the “class of 1993”.
Atiku Abubakar – who lost in the SDP presidential primaries to Abiola – and Rabiu Kwankwaso – elected into federal parliament in that season – are also contesting the presidency this year on the platforms of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and New Nigeria’s People’s Party (NNPP).
Some of the fringe candidates include Abiola’s eldest son, Kola – who spent years canvassing for the recognition of his father’s mandate – and Hamza al-Mustapha, a top military officer accused of complicity in the deaths of several activists who protested against the subsequent imprisonment of Abiola.
The domestic and international pressure that accompanied the annulment and harassment of activists then laid the bedrock for a return to democracy and the capacity for successive transitions, analysts say.
For Idayat Hassan, director of Abuja-based think tank, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), the continued involvement of many actors from that period shows the staying power of Nigerian politicians and their ability to evolve.
“It tells you that election in Nigeria is like a continuum, a turn by turn,” she told Al Jazeera. “It’s this particular set of people who have always been there. They continue to grow and they become institutions.”
A new era
In Nigerian politics, the military has always been such an integral part of transitions that the generals, often referred to as the “class of 1966” are also seen as kingmakers.
The forthcoming election will be the first time since the return to democracy that no retired general will be on the ballot or hold a top public office. Olusegun Obasanjo, president from 1999-2007, was military head of state between 1976-1979; Buhari, a retired general, contested every presidential election between 2003-2019; yet another, David Mark, was senate president from 2007-2015.
The retired generals accumulated wealth due to state assets being assigned arbitrarily to them by friendly military rulers and crony capitalism under civilian leaders, analysts say. And that helped them keep hold of power.
As that group of soldiers-turned-politicians now makes way for the “class of 1993”, it is seen as evidence that the possibility of any young person occupying the office of the president remains far from reality.
“For thirty years, these people have been the emerging class and here they are today, still dominating,” Ayisha Osori, former executive director of the Open Society of West Africa, told Al Jazeera.
Obasanjo tried to bring in a number of ‘young Turks’, sons of politicians in previous democratic dispensations, appointing them as special advisers, Osori added. But it “seemed a way of consolidating his power by bringing in the scions of powerful families” than actually recruiting new leaders.
Many positions across federal and state parliament, as well as governorship races, are filled with people in their fifties and older. In a country with the world’s largest youth population and where 70 percent are aged 30 and under, the youngest governor – the only one born after the civil war – is 47.
Indeed, 61-year-old Obi, who several polls project will win the presidential race, is regarded as relatively young compared with Buhari (80), Abubakar (76), Tinubu (70) and Kwankaso (66).
“The age disconnect in Nigerian politics is so palpable that many young people looking to build a political career are often derided by their peers,” Ikemesit Effiong, head of research at Lagos-based geopolitical risk advisory consultancy, SBM Intelligence, told Al Jazeera. “The youngest candidate with wide national recognition in this cycle is 51-year-old Omoyele Sowore.”
“This election cycle is seminal in the sense that the presidency may be decoupled from that historical lock,” he added. “Peter Obi, if he wins, will be the first Nigerian president born post-independence.”
Until May 2018, when Buhari signed a law reducing the age of eligibility to run for elections, Nigerians under the age of 30 could not vie for state or federal office and had to wait until they were 40 to attempt a presidential run.
Analysts say despite the law, financial and structural impediments are keeping young people without the means to underwrite their political ambitions, from running for office.
Obi’s supporters, mostly young people, hail him as a rare transparent Nigerian politician. Like Abiola, he was a wealthy businessman before he entered politics and is still seen by the political establishment as an outsider, despite two terms as governor of the southeastern state of Anambra.
“Deeply entrenched political patronage networks which prize political loyalty and long service, as well as the expensive nature of running for elected office, mean that very few young and talented people come through the pipeline in their prime,’ said Effiong.
“Institutional misogyny further winnows the opportunities for women,” he added. “All of this means that a person starting out on a political career in their 20s or early 30s may only get close to top political office in their late 40s to early 50s.”
‘Politics is a continuum’
Still, this election could signal the injection of new blood into Nigerian democracy as younger politicians step into the void vacated by the “class of 1993” who see this as their last opportunity to win the presidency.
“Our projection is that by the time we finish this election, a new generation of leaders that will take us forward will emerge,” Hassan said. “New kingmakers are also coming up. As people are ceding ground, other people are taking those positions.”
Of around 411 candidates involved in the 28 governorship races on March 11, 115 of them are aged 40-49 while 53 are aged 30-39.
“While that is a positive, the thing we have learned from 1993, is that politics is a continuum,” she added. “People who have been actors since 1993 continue to be the actors 30 years after.”