Flashback to 1999 Elections: From Prison to Presidency

Feb 05, 2019|Afolabi Adekaiyaoja

Stears commences its recap of previous elections by looking at the much heralded and highly anticipated 1999 edition, the start of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic.


For many Nigerians, it was the realisation of a dream half-a-decade in the making. After the fraught years of the Abacha regime, the military was returning to the barracks, as Nigerians headed for the polls for the second time in the 90s. Understandably, the shadow of the last election—held in 1993—and the memory of the mandate denied MKO Abiola loomed large. This was made worse by the fact that the two major candidates vying for the mantle in 1999 were Yoruba. Some Nigerians would argue that many of our issues can be traced to that lack of diversity, but in truth, it was fortunate enough that we even got to that point. 


The Background

On June 8, 1998, Nigeria's penultimate military Head of State, General Sani Abacha, died under mysterious circumstances. Appointed to succeed him was General Abdulsalam Abubakar, who promptly announced plans to conduct elections and return Nigeria to a democracy. As part of a drive to inspire faith in the process, many figures imprisoned under trumped-up charges were released. Among them was the former Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo, who had retired after his term ended in 1979, a man famous for handing over power to the democratically-elected government of Shehu Shagari.

In time, three major parties emerged to contest the maiden elections: the People's Democratic Party (PDP), the All People's Party (APP), and the Alliance for Democracy (AD). 


The Stakes

Olu Falae, a renowned civil servant who had served as a Secretary-General to the Federation and Finance Minister, emerged as the AD nominee, and would later be the flagbearer of a joint AD-APP ticket, edging out the initial APP candidate and current Science and Technology Minister, Ogbonnaya Onu. But for many at the time, Nigeria’s next president would emerge from the PDP convention in Jos, where Obasanjo would defeat former Vice-President Alex Ekwueme.

The 1999 polls had a lot riding on them. There was the fact that Nigeria had become a pariah state under the Abacha regime, and needed a democratic leader with bonafide abilities to run the government and conduct robust foreign policy. There was also the economic impact of sanctions placed on the country during the junta, and above all, there was enduring scepticism about how long Nigerians latest democratic experiment would last.


The Result

Former Head of State Obasanjo became the first leader of the Nigerian Fourth Republic, and his victory, however tainted, was welcomed with cautious optimism by a tired nation. The PDP seized control of the Legislature, but the balance of power in the Federation was kept in check by a number of states going to opposition governors. 


The Fallout/Legacy

Obasanjo’s victory precipitated the PDP’s sustained grip on power in the early days of the new millennium, but while his flaws are well-documented, many forget the important work he did in office. He retired many of the military men that had previously served in government, reducing the capacity for future coups. Alongside South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, he also played a significant role in the creation of the Africa Union, later serving as its third Chairperson. On the economic front, he is best remembered for the GSM revolution and laying the groundwork for reasonable economic expansion.