By Kola King
The Head of the Interim National Government, Chief Ernest Shonekan who passed away on January 11, 2022 took on an assignment that seemed far beyond his usual corporate brief. It must have been the toughest assignment he had ever handled in his chequered career as a businessman and lawyer.
Chief Shonekan, a corporate chieftain and former chairman of the United African Company (UAC), the company with deep roots in British swashbuckling buccaneering, had found himself in the murky terrain of Nigerian politics, especially the cloak and dagger type of the military, which he had no affinity for. In short, Shonekan a thoroughbred boardroom executive was not cut out for that type of stuff.
For a man used to dealing with facts and figures, data and projections, as well as spreadsheets and comprehensive analysis of business trends, he found himself in the labrinythine complexity of dark politics driven by deception, guile and subterfuge. The two worlds were poles apart. Besides, the military were steeped in intrigues, schemes and stratagems. As a political neophyte, it appeared Shonekan was determined to navigate the murky waters of Nigerian politics.
Though some analysts would argue that Shonekan had displayed unusual patriotism at a time when the nation drifted dangerously, and had taken on the yeoman task of steadying the course of turbulent winds set to capsize the ship of state. On the other hand, his critics view him as an opportunist who wanted to reap where he did not sow. He was seen as a betrayer, who had deliberately stepped in and made short shrift of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, believed to have been won by Chief Moshood Abiola, a kinsman from the Southwest. The election was annulled by the military president General Ibrahim Babangida.
Right from the outset, Shonekan had to contend with the military dictator, Gen Ibrahim Babangida who said at the former’s inauguration as head of the Interim Government that he was only stepping aside, leaving different connotations in the minds of the people. This had created the impression that Babangida will still call the shots from his redoubts. Besides, the former military president also left behind Gen Sani Abacha, the Chief of Defence Staff, who was expected to provide a modicum of stability for the interim government. So Shonekan had to constantly look behind his back as the military breathed down his neck.
Face to face with realpolitik, Shonekan had confessed in a moment of sober reality that even though he could cope with the intricacies of government business, yet he was being truthful when he said military politics was a different kettle of fish. It was an awkward arrangement in which the civilians shared power with the military. In essence, it was more of a diarchy.
It is important to recall that June 1993 presidential election was won by Chief Moshood Abiola, but for reasons yet to be fathomed, General Babangida annulled the election. As would be expected, this led to rioting, particularly in the southwest, which was harshly suppressed by the ruling military junta. After a lot of rigmarole, Gen Babangida announced that he would step aside on 26 August 1993, and handed over to Ernest Shonekan as head of the Interim National Government (ING) on 27 August 1993.
A lawyer by profession, Shoenkan had also studied at the Harvard Business School in the US, and had held senior management positions in UAC, culminating in his appointment as the chairman and chief executive officer of the company. Thus he was an unlected technocrat chosen in a deal brokered between Babangida and political leaders, principally former head of state, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. Still Shonekan’s ING suffered from poor perception since many viewed the government as illegitimate. Also the ING received a hostile press.
Under the ING, the country experienced runaway inflation and saw strikes by workers in various sectors. Most foreign investors withdrew apart from oil companies. Shonekan made efforts to have government debt forgiven. He drew up a timetable for return to democracy and for withdrawal of Nigeria’s contingent from the ECOMOG peackeeping force in Liberia.
He also launched an audit of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, and tried to restore civil liberties. Shonekan managed to remove laws that allowed arbitrary arrest and confiscation of property, promoted press freedom, obtained the release of some political prisoners and made reforms to the corrupt public services and state-owned companies. In general, the Interim Government was marked by acute political uncertainty.
Indeed, the Interim National Government (ING) set up by military dictator, Gen Ibrahim Babangida was the culmination of an extensive political experiment, which collapsed due largely to Babangida’s own making. Thus the ING which was roundly condemned by the generality of Nigerians seemed destined for failure right from the outset. There was widespread revulsion and condemnation for the annulment of the June 12 presidential election, as well as the enthronement of the interim government.
First and foremost, Babangida had severally tinkered with the political process by creating two hybrid political parties funded by the government. The two parties were the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC). While setting up the parties, Babangida wanted them to be ideologically based parties. So on the ideological spectrum, one was supposed to be a little to the right, while the other one a little to the left. In his wisdom, all members of the two parties would be equal joiners and founders, in the hope that the parties would not be held hostage by some powerful political forces, as was the case in the past.
In terms of experimentation, Babangida takes the cake in his effort to create a new political order, whether out of genuine and patriotic concern or as part of a grand plan to buy time,since most politicians believed he was only taking them for a ride.
This experiment went on for close to five years. Yet in a bid to perpetuate himself in power, Babangida kept shifting the political goal post, as it were, until things turned out a Frankenstein monster that almost devoured the conjurer. In short, the outcome of the political experiment virtually blew up on his face, and it was by sheer happenstance that the political laboratory, that is, Nigeria, was not consumed by his hairebrained schemes.
Due to rising tension over the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections, the ING was craftily put in place to assist Babangida retreat from power. But this led to a disorderly retreat from power after the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections, described as the freest and fairest in the nation’s political history.
With the annulment of the election, Gen Babangida seemed to have been caught in his own artifice. His bosom friend Bashorun Moshood Abiola was the flagbearer of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and against all odds, Abiola had won the elections, fair and square. Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Conversation (NRC) had squared with Chief Abiola in the election. Even so Abiola had defeated Bashir Tofa in his ward in Kano.
But the ruling military junta bluntly refused to recognize Moshood Abiola’s victory. Midway into the collation and announcement of results by the National Electoral Commission, the Chairman of the electoral body, Professor Humphrey Nwosu was held at gunpoint and forced to stop the announcement of the election results, which was presumably won by Bashorun Abiola.
Thus, the ING, which was the brainchild of former military head of state, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, was meant to give Gen Babangida an exit strategy so as to avoid a situation of the bull in China shop. In short, this was a face saving device put in place to prevent Babangida from pulling the roof down on everyone’s head.
Expectedly, the annulment had created grave political crisis and the nation convulsed as the presumed winner of the election, Bashorun Moshood Abiola had insisted on the sanctity of the election results. But the ruling military junta would not budge.
According to reports, hot heads within the ruling military junta had vowed that Abiola would become president only over their dead bodies. The die was cast and the nation tottered dangerously on the brink of disaster. On this score, Babangida had become a hostage to forces that he had unleashed, but which he could no longer tame or control.
In the end, the ING, a rickety political contraption, was the saving grace as it helped Babangida negotiate his exit from power, and it temporarily helped to douse tension. Even at that, Gen Babangida left the nation mystified when he said he was only stepping aside from power. It left many wondering whether he had another joker up his sleeves.
In any case, by accepting to serve as head of the Interim Government, Chief Shonekan had virtually placed his head on the chopping block. Yet he took all the strident and harsh criticisms in his stride.
As days turned into weeks and weeks into months, protests and agitations were unrelenting, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), political groups and various forces were ranged against the ING. There were calls for the revalidation of the June 12 election. In the same vein, the presumed winner of June 12, 1993 elections Moshood Abiola also vowed to retrieve his mandate.
Above all, the ING faced severe strictures from the media and a heavy campaign was waged against the government because of the delay in returning to democracy and the continued involvement of the military in politics. The government was opposed by pro-democracy activists, civil society organisations, labour unions and students.
However, on 10 November, 1993, Justice Dolapo Akinsanya of the Lagos High Court nullified Chief Shonekan’s appointment and called for Chief Abiola to be sworn in as the elected candidate for the presidency. The judge described the ING as illegal.
Hon. Justice Akinsanya in her judgment had declared as follows: “President Babangida has no legitimate power to sign a decree after August 26, 1993, after his exit, so the decree is void and of no effect.” Consequently, the legality of the Interim Government was determined. Justice Akinsanya ruled that the head of state had no authority to install an interim government.
“It takes us one step closer to the establishment of government based on the consent of the people,” Abiola said in a statement. “This is a significant victory for the people of Nigeria.”
Latching on the court judgement, General Sani Abacha forced Chief Shonekan to resign on 17 November 1993, and as the most senior military officer took over as head of state. The rest as they say is history.
Thus the rickety political contraption birthed in crisis and controversy could not stand the test of time. Suddenly, it collapsed like a pack of cards.
Chief Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party has since been recognised by the Federal Government as the legitimate winner of the 1993 poll.
All said, history may still be kind to Chief Shonekan, for he came in at a time of dark uncertainty and helped to stabilize the polity. In the face of military intransigence, the alternative would have been chaos, or possibly war. Shonekan would be remembered as the patriot who helped pull the chestnuts out of the fire when the nation faced a grave crisis.