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Thursday, 6 February, 2003, 07:23 GMT
The generals' election in Nigeria
Ibrahim Babangida
Babangida: Ex-military ruler still pulling strings

Almost four years after handing back power to civilians, how much influence does the military still hold over Nigerian politics?

The appearance of no less than four former army generals contesting the presidency in the 19 April elections is an indication that at a personal level at least, military men are still right at the forefront of power.

This perhaps comes as little surprise.

EX-ARMY CANDIDATES
Olusegun Obasanjo: military head of state (1976-1979)
Muhammadu Buhari: military head of state (1984-1985)
Ike Nwachukwu: foreign minister under military rule
Chukwuemeka Odumegwua Ojukwu: leader of break-away state of Biafra (1967-1970)
Nigeria's post-independence history has been dominated by the military.

Apart from a brief period of civilian rule between 1979 and 1983, a succession of military governments ruled Nigeria from the mid-1960s right through until 1999 when a civilian government led by Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a former military head of state, was elected into office.

During this era dominated by the military, a small group of senior officers became both extremely wealthy and also very powerful in business and political circles.

It was also widely recognised to have been a time in which massive high-level corruption and economic mismanagement severely undermined the country's development.

'Transition'

Nigerians frequently express their tolerance of the presence of former military officers in politics by considering it as a "transitional" phase.

What they mean by this is that over time, perhaps by the next election in 2007, the generals will have moved aside to allow the younger politicians through to high office.

Even that timescale seems optimistic. For now, former military officers and their allies dominate politics not just at the level of the presidential candidates, but behind the scenes as well.

Obasanjo's backer

Few doubt the continuing influence Nigeria's longest serving military leader, General Ibrahim Babangida (1985-1993), holds in the election process.

He is reputed to be one of Nigeria's best connected and wealthiest individuals in a country where money plays a central role in politics.

OLUSEGUN OBASANJO
President Olusegun Obasanjo
1937: Born in south-west; a Christian and a Yoruba
1976-79: Military ruler
1995-98: Jailed by military regime
1999: Elected president

In 1999 he backed the Obasanjo campaign both financially and by bringing his considerable influence to bear on northern political and business interests.

This was despite Mr Obasanjo's origins as a southern, Yoruba-speaking Christian.

Support from Mr Babangida, a northern Muslim, is a powerful indication of the strength of military ties over regional and ethnic issues, as well as a measure of how necessary it was felt to have a former army man in power.

While it is less clear what role Mr Babangida is playing in the 2003 elections, his presence has been felt throughout the campaigning.

Any mention of a meeting between one of the candidates and Mr Babangida brings a flurry of media interest.

He is believed to be financially backing at least one of the smaller parties, but no-one considers this much more than a vehicle for launching any future political ambitions he might have.

Rivals

Mr Obasanjo's closest rival for the presidency Muhammadu Buhari (1983-1985) would certainly like to have Mr Babangida's support.

But there is little evidence of this, despite both men being northern Muslims.

MUHAMMADU BUHARI
Muhammadu Buhari
Military ruler of Nigeria from 1984 to 1985
Deposed in a coup
Poor human rights record
Seen as honest
Muslim from northern Nigeria
Running mate is Chuba Okadigbo, from south-east

It cannot have helped their personal relationship for Mr Buhari to have been overthrown by Mr Babangida in 1985 and then locked up by him.

All indications are that it suits Mr Babangida for Mr Obasanjo to win a second term of office, after which he will no doubt leave the pundits guessing whether he intends to stand for election himself in 2007.

The other two military men in the race are Ike Nwachukwu, a former foreign minister during Mr Babangida's rule, and Emeka Odumugwu-Ojukwu.

For many Nigerians, the name Ojukwu is associated with just one thing - the attempted secession of eastern Nigeria from the rest of the federation and the subsequent bloody and deeply divisive civil war of 1967-1970.

Then as now, Mr Ojukwu has no regrets about the war, seeing his role as one of saving the Igbo-speaking people of Nigeria from a brutal "genocide" by the country's other ethnic groups.

He remembers the short-lived Biafran nation fondly as a place of sanctuary for the Igbo, not a break-away state as such.

This interpretation of history will do little to persuade Nigeria's non-Igbo communities to vote for him. Nor is he likely to get sufficient support even within his own eastern Nigeria.

This is one general for which time and Nigeria has moved on, leaving him well behind in the shadows.

Civilian democracy

That leaves former general Ike Nwachukwu, along with two other non-military eastern candidates as possible flag-bearers for the Igbos in the east.

Although at this stage it is clear that no Igbo president is likely to be elected at these forthcoming elections.

Now that former vice-president Alex Ekwueme has lost the ruling party (PDP) nomination to Mr Obasanjo, the best chance for Igbo representation in the presidency is Mr Buhari's vice-presidential running mate, Chuba Okadigbo.

All this boils down to one inescapable conclusion. The 2003 presidential campaign is being dominated if not by the military itself, then by men who made their names during military rule.

It will take many years yet for this "transitional" phase to end in a fully-fledged civilian democracy in which the backing of military men is no longer a significant factor in electoral victory.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Muhammadu Buhari on BBC Network Africa
"The anger has no credibility"

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06 Jan 03 | Africa
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