REINVENTING THE NATION

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REINVENTING THE NATION
 

BY

 

DARREN KEW

 

 

Being excerpts from a recent published book, Countries at the Crossroads 2006 (Africa at the Crossroads (Sanja Tatic (ed.)

Introduction

 

 

culled from GUARDIAN, October 1, 2006

 

 

As Nigeria enters the seventh year of its latest effort to build democratic rule; the country remains stuck at the political crossroads, vacillating between democratic consolidation and the slow road to decay and dissolution. With an estimated population of 130 million growing at nearly three per cent annually and an oil output of 2.5 million barrels per day increasing to 4 million by the end of the decade, Nigeria should be taking its rightful place as the giant of Africa. Instead, the giant was brought to its knees by 20 years of brutal and corrupt military rule, which left a legacy of executive dominance and political corruption in the hands of Nigeria's so-called godfathers - powerful political bosses sitting atop vast patronage networks and who view the government primarily through the lens of their own personal enrichment.

 

Since President Olusegun Obasanjo was elected in 1999, he has undertaken a number of marginal reforms seeking to reverse this situation. At the same time, however, he has increased his personal hold over the ruling Peoples Democratic Party and refused or been unable to promote the most important reforms to secure democratic consolidation, such as ensuring the independence and probity of the electoral commission or respecting the independence of the legislature through the budgetary process.

 

Freedom in Nigeria remains protected more by the nation's immense size and massive diversity than by the actions of its government. The lifting of military rule in 1999 opened the public arena to a host of non-state actors, producing a renaissance in civil society and the media. Labour unions regained their place as the leading public advocates amid an explosion in the numbers of civic associations and non-governmental organisations. Journalists, meanwhile, grew increasingly bold in their political coverage, forcing the removal of two speakers of the House (of Representatives) and a Senate president after exposing their corrupt practices.

 

Moreover, with some 250 ethnic groups speaking a myriad of languages and split evenly across the Muslim-Christian divide, Nigeria's sheer cultural complexity evokes an environment of constantly shifting alliances and ready balances that tend to check the authoritarian inclinations of the country's political elite.

 

Yet, the Nigerian government remains distant from serving the interests of its people. Politics at the federal, state, and local levels of the Nigerian federation are dominated by the powerful mandarins (incumbents), who built vast patronage networks during the military days and who now use political office to expand these networks and their personal fortunes. Moreover, many of these so-called godfathers have been cultivating personal militias to secure their positions, prompting a local arms race in some regions, particularly in the oil-producing Niger Delta.

 

Even though several governors are under indictment for money laundering abroad and others are being investigated at home, the bonanza continues at public coffers for these power holders, while basic public infrastructure in many parts of the country remains as dilapidated as under military rule. Electricity, for instance, is available to less than half of the population and is on for as little as two hours per day in some areas, while many major roads are nearly impassable, and health clinics face a severe shortage of trained staff and supplies.

 

To his credit, President Obasanjo has kept the military loyal under civilian control and has undertaken a number of key macroeconomic reforms - such as some privatisation and paying down the nation's exorbitant foreign debts - that have fostered moderate GDP growth. He has also set up anti-corruption machinery at the federal level. Yet, the President has been unable or unwilling to attack the heart of the corruption empires of Nigeria's godfathers through the government-controlled oil industry, their monopolisation and exploitation of government contracts, or their subversion of the nation's electoral system. Indeed, the President has shown a growing willingness to play their game, appearing inclined to build such a network himself, to ensure his tenure in power past his constitutional limit of two terms ending in 2007.

 

While the politicians wrestle endlessly for control, most Nigerians suffer declining health, education, and employment standards, such that the British government has declared that "Nigeria has some of the worst social indicators in the world."

 

If freedom and democracy are to continue to grow in Nigeria, the government will have to make some tough decisions that contradict the interests of many of the powerful men who dominate the nation's political life. These reforms will become even more difficult as the potentially explosive 2007 elections loom and virtually impossible if the President's supporters are successful in amending the Constitution to extend his term in office, at the price of heightened godfather influence.

 

The next two years will be dominated by the struggle for ascendancy among the many powerful individuals in Nigeria, as the April 2007 elections approach, as well as by the efforts of the President's supporters to alter the Constitution. If they are successful, then centrifugal forces in the Nigerian polity may grow increasingly difficult to resist. The Nigerian government can undertake a number of reforms that will help to strengthen democracy and political freedoms, thus preventing the nation from taking the road to slow decline:

 

Accountability and Public Voice

THE bitter fruits of Nigeria's flawed 2003 elections came to harvest throughout 2004 and 2005. The drama of the July 2003 coup in Anambra State, in which seemingly rogue police elements arrested the governor on behalf of his estranged godfather, continued to produce stunning revelations regarding the extent of election fraud in 2003. While mediating between the governor and this godfather (who has close ties to the President), President Obasanjo told the media that both men had admitted that they had rigged elections in their state. Both were suspended from the ruling party, and the governor's election was overturned by an election tribunal in 2005. By late 2005, however, the governor remained in office awaiting an appellate court decision on his case, and the former godfather in question was readmitted to the ruling party.

 

A similar drama played out between the governor of Plateau State and his political opponents. Community anger over reportedly rigged elections followed by inflammatory actions and corruption by the governor ignited Muslim-Christian tensions in the state, leading to religious riots in several cities across Nigeria and prompting the President to impose six months of emergency rule in Plateau starting in May 2004.

Worryingly, the President himself appeared to grow less interested in accountability and free elections throughout 2005. Early in the year, he packed the leadership of the ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), with his supporters, who then ensured that supporters of the President's main rival, the Vice President, were unable to vote in the PDP party congresses from October to December 2005. This move has ensured that the President's supporters will have a lock on determining who can run in the PDP primaries in late 2006.

 

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), meanwhile, shows little interest in addressing its vulnerability to rigging. Despite stating that the outcome of the 2003 elections was primarily the result of "how much money exchanged hands," the new INEC chairman later announced that international monitors would not be permitted for the 2007 elections. He also said that the Commission intended to introduce electronic voting, but opposition parties voiced concern that the machinery would be even less transparent and prone to more centralised rigging. In addition, because campaign finance laws are minimal and largely un-enforced, the President's supporters will hold an overwhelming advantage as the 2007 elections approach, having both access to state funds and the power of the presidency. INEC also remains chronically under-funded, receiving only 13 per cent of its budget appropriation in 2005.

 

Opposition parties control eight of the 36 States of the federation, but as they are divided, they have posed little challenge to PDP governance. The opposition is generally free to campaign on the pages of the newspapers and to some extent in the private televised media, but the government has grown increasingly willing to prevent them from holding rallies in the capital and major cities across the country. In some states and in the rural areas more generally, opposition parties face formal and informal harassment when they organise and campaign. The states of the Niger Delta have proven particularly inhospitable to opposition events; a major opposition figure, Marshall Harry, was assassinated there in 2003. Televised media, especially the public stations, carry generally positive news about the government, although opposing views are occasionally aired. Hostility to opposition within the PDP over 2004 and 2005, however, grew far worse among the factions jostling for control, particularly between those loyal to the President and those connected to the Vice President.

 

Rotation of political offices among Nigeria's ethnic groups and geographic regions has become a firmly entrenched principle of politics. The leading political parties are widely multiethnic, in part due to progressive election laws, and they typically rotate elected offices and party positions among members of their own party across the main regions of the country. Cabinet offices and leadership positions in the National Assembly are also distributed to mirror the 36 States of the federation, and state-level offices are similarly distributed across intra-state divides. Critics of President Obasanjo's purported third term bid, however, have argued that it would violate the rotation principle and jeopardise the fragile stability that principle has afforded.

 

The legislatures and judiciaries at the federal and state levels remain largely beholden to the executives, although important pockets of independence have grown. The National Assembly mounted an impeachment effort in 2004 that fizzled after several months, and both the National Assembly and state Assemblies contain a number of members truly dedicated to reform who have launched investigations into a number of alleged corrupt practices. The Supreme Court for its part has shown a dogged determination to protect its independence and to defend the rule of law in Nigeria.

 

The key source of institutional dominance of the executives remains their monopoly of public funds. The presidency collects the revenues first (particularly from oil), and even though the National Assembly passes a budget to allocate the funds, the President has refused to release the budgeted amounts every year and instead has released funds as he has seen fit. Governors in turn receive the states' portions of the oil revenues first, and they have used this control as leverage against their Assemblies and judicial branches. Within this context, the civil service remains troubled by political patronage and advancement by personal loyalties rather than by objective standards of merit, although some state and federal bureaucracies have improved their performances, as has the military in this regard.

 

Civil society has grown vibrant in recent years, managing to make its voice heard on a number of important issues, such as fuel price hikes, and some minor legislation. The National Assembly has proven increasingly open to civil society involvement. Perhaps, the most important civil society-led legislation is the Freedom of Information Act (see "Anticorruption and Transparency"). Politics overall, however, remains dominated by the Big Men, and civil society groups continue to have to clamour for respect and recognition from many government actors. Moreover, President Obasanjo's third term bid is prompting many civil society groups to return to organised opposition, a move that will close some of the doors in government that have opened to civil society in recent years.

Nigeria's fabled independent media remain largely vibrant, particularly on the Internet, which is awash in competing political visions and investigative journalism. The print media, however, have grown increasingly prey to bribery, especially as media houses often refuse to pay field reporters under the expectation that they will raise their own funds. Government harassment of journalists, which was largely absent in Obasanjo's first term, has reappeared in the last two years. The State Security Service's closing of the Insider Weekly magazine and arrest of its production manager in 2004 for releasing several articles critical of the President was particularly telling, in that the issue that prompted the arrival of the SSS and the seizure of 15,000 copies alleged that the President was planning to amend the Constitution to allow himself a third term in office. In addition, the Bayelsa Broadcasting Corporation and African Independent Television were both closed for periods of 2005 for televising stories on subjects that were deemed politically sensitive. Many journalists feel increasing pressure for self-censorship.

 

Recommendations

Proper checks and balances should be restored to Nigerian democracy by giving the legislatures control of revenue collection, appropriation, and allocation agencies and processes so that the Assemblies truly have the power of the purse.

 

The independence of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) must be assured, in part by giving INEC direct access to a guaranteed minimum percentage of the federal budget, extending the tenure of the chair to an eight to 10-year term (subject to impeachment); giving opposition parties significant oversight of the election process, and allowing domestic and international election monitors substantive watchdog roles. State electoral commissions, now often heavily manipulated by local politicians, should be absorbed into INEC.

 

The party primary process should be reformed so that party-candidates must win their nominations through competitive, open elections through INEC, which should monitor and regulate party finances and election expenditures.

Political opposition and opposition parties should be allowed to organise and hold peaceful public rallies and events without unreasonable government interference or prohibition. Opposition parties should be given formal oversight roles in the legislatures, including substantial voice in the anti-corruption oversight committees.

 

Government harassment and detention of journalists should stop, and the media houses should be encouraged to institute standards and oversight practices to expunge bribery from Nigerian journalism. Civil society groups should be given the government access and oversight privileges they deserve in a free society.

 

Civil Liberties

USE of torture remains rampant on the part of the Nigerian police and security services, despite condemnation of these practices from the upper echelons of the government and spirited efforts by civil society groups to alter entrenched patterns. Police and military brutality also remain standard practice, particularly in the militarised Niger Delta region, where peaceful, women-led protests against multinational oil corporations' lack of investment in their communities were fired upon on several occasions in 2004 and 2005.

 

Security forces frequently fire indiscriminately when in hot pursuit of suspects. The government occasionally prosecutes police offenders, such as four police officers who fired at Abuja market traders over non-payment of bribes in 2005. But the media prominence of this case underscores the infrequency of such prosecutions, much less redress for the victims of these crimes or of police torture.

Ethnic and religious militias, some supported by state actors, also engage in an array of torture and violent practices. State-sponsored enforcers of the Sharia criminal code, who are known as the Hisbah, are notorious for practicing summary justice that typically involves corporal punishment. Ethnic militias associated with oil smuggling networks are particularly violent and known to murder opponents both within and outside their ranks. The President spearheaded a successful disarmament and amnesty programme in the Niger Delta in late 2004, but the programme was allowed to lapse and the participating militias had largely rearmed with more modern equipment by late 2005.

 

Prison conditions across Nigeria remain abysmal. Most inmates do not come to trial for 10 years on average, and police evidence is often poor or fabricated. Policemen are frequently open to hire for a range of noble and ignoble activities, including political skullduggery and criminal gang dealings. Consequently, arrests are often arbitrary and financially motivated, and judicial redress, much less appeals, can often take years unless the individual has powerful political connections.

 

In response to these concerns and to overcrowding in the prisons, the Obasanjo administration announced in January 2006 that it would release 25,000 prisoners, roughly half the entire prison population, who had already served longer terms than sentencing would have given them if they had come to trial, or who were too old or sick to be public security concerns. Amnesty International hailed the move as an important step forward, but the structural problems in the justice system, remain largely un-addressed.

 

With regard to women's rights, Nigeria remains a firmly male-dominated society. Only 24 of the total 469 members of the National Assembly are women, and women face significant discrimination in the workplace. President Obasanjo has made some effort to reduce this trend by naming an increasing number of women to high-level positions in his government, including four women ministers, most notably the powerful position of Finance Minister.

Women's organisations across the country have also increased their political advocacy, winning important legal battles that expand women's protections under the Sharia code, such as the internationally covered case of Amina Lawal, who would have been stoned to death for adultery had she been convicted. At home, however, women face regular brutality, such that the New York Times reported that one-third of Nigerian women surveyed had responded that their husbands had beaten them. In addition, women's legal rights to property, particularly land, are denied on occasion.

 

International news coverage over the last two years of Nigerian prostitute-smuggling rings to Europe has brought increasing attention to the scope of this problem. Most of the women are fooled into thinking that they are joining guest-worker or exchange programmes and then forced into prostitution once they arrive in Europe. The federal government has declared its intention to eradicate the smuggling rings. State and local authorities, however, have been far less willing to become involved, and the police remain on both sides of the issue.

 

Ethnic-based discrimination is a perpetual problem in a society as diverse as Nigeria's. Political elite have enshrined ethnic balancing as a political principle, but Nigerians outside the political arena face a more difficult picture. Officially, the Constitution condemns ethnic discrimination, but individuals typically derive their citizenship based on the state of origin of their parents or grandparents. Nigerians living outside their home states, therefore, are typically deprived of a range of citizenship privileges, such as running for political office, even if they have lived most of their lives outside their states of origin.

The Nigerian Constitution also calls for a principle known as federal character, which is generally applied as ethnic quotas in government hiring. Private companies that do business with the government also must feature ethnically balanced employee profiles in line with federal character standards, and government contracts account for a significant portion of all Nigerian economic activity.

 

Federal character practices have generally led to a more ethnically diverse profile in government hiring and, to some extent, among corporate leadership. Southern Nigerians, however, historically have enjoyed higher income and education levels, and some have complained that federal character has primarily been used to give northerners preference in key positions in business and government while northerners point to southern dominance of the civil service.

Religious freedoms are also a controversial subject in Nigeria. From one perspective, Nigeria allows a level of religious self-determination that is rivaled by few nations of the world, in the sense that each state of the federation is allowed to implement its own religious and traditional legal codes and public policies. Muslim majority states in northern Nigeria have implemented their own interpretations of the Islamic Sharia code and promulgated religious-inspired policies such as banning alcohol, while Christian majority states in the South have passed Christian-inspired policies as well, such as providing public funds for Christian festivals or events. The federal Constitution prohibits a state religion, but the federal government provides funds for a range of religious activities such as pilgrimages to Mecca for the Hajj and to Jerusalem for Easter.

 

The limits of this self-determination of the states, however, are deeply disputed across the federation. The most notable problem has been the case of Christian minorities residing in Muslim-majority states, which have argued that they face religious discrimination and persecution. The 12 state governments that have implemented the Sharia criminal code (in addition to the civil code that has been in force since 1979 in most Muslim-majority states) officially claim that most provisions of the code are not applied to Christians, who have recourse to the secular courts, but policies such as alcohol bans have universal effect.

Moreover, the Hisbah militias have enforced their interpretations of the Sharia on Christians as well as Muslims, and instances of Hisbah-led violence against Christians in the Sharia states have been reported. Overall, however, rights abuses by the Hisbah appear to have declined since 2003. Muslims living in Christian-majority states have also been targeted for reprisal killings after minor disputes have ignited inter-communal clashes elsewhere in the federation.

Civic associations are generally allowed to form and function freely, and by and large most Nigerians belong to several such groups, including community associations, religious organisations, and a range of trade and professional associations. The government heavily regulates trade unions, but union leaders have been at the forefront of opposition to a number of Obasanjo administration policies, most notably fuel price hikes. In response to union activism, the Obasanjo administration pushed the National Assembly to introduce legislation in 2005, to break up the umbrella union of all Nigerian trade unions - the Nigeria Labour Congress - but the Assembly has yet to pass it.

 

Union and other public demonstrations are generally allowed, but the government has prohibited or blocked them on occasion. Several unionists and opposition figures had been arrested at these protests, including Nobel laureate and opposition leader Wole Soyinka briefly in May 2004. Security forces fired on peaceful protesters on several occasions over the period of this report, as noted in the case of women's movements in the Niger Delta, or in the case of ethnic-interest rallies in the Igbo, Yoruba, or other regions.

 

Most worrisome, however, was the government's de facto admission in 2005 that the machinery for the notorious death squads active under General Sani Abacha in the 1990s had apparently not been dismantled, and that hitmen from these squads - some awaiting trial - had been returned to duty at the Directorate of Military Intelligence and other state security services.

 

Recommendations

The federal government should undertake a sweeping reform of the police, the security services, and the prison system; torture in particular should not be tolerated, while perpetrators of torture should be investigated and punished.

The federal government should investigate the persistence of Abacha-era death squad machinery in the security services, dismantle any that are discovered, and dismiss officers who are known to have taken part in these units.

Federal and state governments should undertake comprehensive efforts to disarm, demobilise, and reintegrate militias across the country, focusing on those in the Niger Delta in particular, while dismantling the oil-bunkering networks and prosecuting the political kingpins who benefit from them.

The government should respect the rights of Nigerian unionists to organise, peacefully protest, and strike, and should refrain from dismantling the Nigeria Labour Congress.

Implementation of constitutional and legal provisions must be improved, especially regarding women's rights.

 

Rule of Law

NIGERIA'S judiciary continues to be vulnerable to compromise through bribery and political influence. Starved of funds and intimidated by the executive for decades, many judges have lost their independence. The national body charged with administering to the judiciary - the National Judicial Council (NJC) - has made some efforts to crack down on these practices, and the Nigerian Bar Association continues to be an important critic of and advocate for judicial development.

 

The appointment and promotion processes in particular have seen some improvement through NJC action, and several judges had been dismissed for impropriety. Notably, the NJC suspended the two judges who gave initial legal backing to the Anambra coup, in which a political godfather paid an assistant inspector general of the police to arrest the Anambra governor in an effort to force him to resign.

 

Yet, the Anambra fiasco underscores the fact that only the most high-profile and brazen breaches of the rule of law typically get remedial attention, while the bulk of the system remains deeply susceptible to compromise. Moreover, both the federal and state executives have shown an increasing selectivity in enforcing court judgments over the past two years, as well as a willingness to overstep their constitutional authority.

 

The President set the tone in this regard when in May 2004 he declared a state of emergency in Plateau State and suspended the governor, deputy governor, and state Assembly for six months, placing the state under a military-style sole administrator in the interim. The National Assembly quickly moved to authorise the President's declaration after the fact, but the Nigerian Bar Association argued that these dismissals far exceeded the President's constitutional emergency powers and that the Attorney General admitted that they had been made under a defunct 1961 law.

 

The Supreme Court remains the most trusted judicial body in the federation, after several landmark rulings in the early part of the decade. Because of this trust, however, it has been overburdened with a crush of appeals cases. Thus, the court ruled on the suit brought by the losing candidate for the 2003 presidential election only in July 2005, although part of this delay was attributed to the election tribunals themselves. Supreme Court analysts have also been waiting to see if the four new justices appointed to the court in mid-2005 by President Obasanjo will continue in the path-breaking role of their predecessors.

 

Under Nigerian law, citizens are presumed innocent until proven guilty, although some Nigerian interpretations of the Sharia criminal code place differential burdens of proof on men and women in certain circumstances. Once an accused person has entered the system, he or she is rarely afforded legal representation. A number of human rights organisations across the country try to offer legal assistance, but they are capable of reaching only a small percentage of the total number of cases in the country. Moreover, persons can remain in detention for more than a decade before coming to trial (see "Civil Liberties").

 

Presidential control of the military and internal security forces has remained fairly constant over the past several years, but legislative oversight and civilian defence capacity have grown slowly. In the field, the security services remain unpredictable, using deadly force unnecessarily on occasion and harassing the public by demanding bribes at security checkpoints. In a particularly egregious incident of indiscipline, army and police officers have even leveled their guns at each other over an interpersonal dispute, turning a Lagos neighborhood into war zone for two days in October 2005.

 

The Nigerian Constitution clearly states that all Nigerians have the right to own property. An important exception is property that sits upon mineral, oil, or gas deposits, which is owned by the federal government. Moreover, the 1978 Land Use Act effectively placed all land under state control, creating a difficult network of government licensing astride traditional communal approaches to land tenure, which together remain in practice across the federation. This arrangement allows the federal and state governments to revoke property rights with relative ease and without engaging in a deliberative legal process. This has been most evident in disputes over control of oil-producing lands, but housing contracts awarded under military regimes or other instances had also been arbitrarily revoked without judicial decisions.

 

Recommendations

The President and the National Assembly should work with the National Judicial Council and the Supreme Court to undertake a sweeping reform of the Nigerian judicial system. Particular attention should be paid to giving the judiciary direct access to its portion of the budget, with a minimum guaranteed percentage, and control over all logistics necessary for its proper functioning.

 

All Nigerians should have access to free legal counsel in the secular, Sharia and customary courts when they have been accused of criminal offences. The government should sponsor an extensive public education programme, particularly in the rural areas, that alerts Nigerians to their fundamental rights.

The federal government should undertake a comprehensive review of land ownership in Nigeria and reform the system in a manner that better protects individual property rights and that protects poorer, traditional, and communal landowners.

 

Anti-corruption and Transparency

PRESIDENT Obasanjo has made anti-corruption a central priority for his administration. In 2000, he established the Independent and Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), which has sweeping powers to investigate and prosecute public corruption. The ICPC, however, has made only a handful of arrests of prominent individuals, primarily in connection with a bribery case involving several state high court justices.

 

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