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Democracy In Nigeria: Completing Obasanjo's Legacy
 

By

 

Richard L. Sklar, Ebere Onwudiwe And Darren Kew

 

 

culled from GUARDIAN, October 1, 2006

 

Time and again, observers of Nigerian politics have predicted - so far incorrectly - the nation's ineluctable demise. Recently, this vibrantly multiethnic country has been coping with intense political strains, including vexatious issues of presidential tenure and entitlement to that office.

In Nigeria, presidential elections are the main events of extended electoral exercises that involve voting to fill the bicameral national assembly, the 36 state legislatures, and the corresponding gubernatorial offices required by Nigeria's federal system. External as well as domestic observers monitored the electoral sequences of 1999 and 2003. Each time, credible observers from both sectors made widely known their scathing criticisms of electoral malpractice. Yet the Nigerian public overall was willing to live with the results of both sets of elections.

 

The great game of politics in Nigeria is perilously rough and at times lawless, but one constitutional rule, in particular, has had broad support: The president and the governors are all limited to two terms in office.

 

As president since 1999, former general Olusegun Obasanjo has burnished his legacy of engagement in two transitions from military dictatorship to constitutional government (in 1979 as retiring head of state and in 1999 as a presidential candidate) by affirming his resolute opposition to militarism as a form of government. To that end, he has raised the level of military professionalism, stressed a zero-tolerance policy toward would-be putschists in the armed forces, and overseen an administration that has taken the lead in de-legitimising military coups and restoring democratic governments elsewhere in Africa. The president has also steered Nigeria toward greater macroeconomic stability and has won international acclaim for his fight against endemic corruption.

In 2005, however, a shadow descended on the president's legacy of dedication to democracy. He evidently favoured consideration of a constitutional amendment that would have allowed him to seek a third term despite widespread public disapproval of any such manoeuvre. An Afrobarometer survey had reported that "an overwhelming majority" of 84 per cent of Nigerians agree that the president should "obey the Constitution, including serving no more than two terms in office." British and U.S. officials publicly warned that prolongation of the presidential term could destabilise Nigeria; privately they advised the president that his retirement in 2007 would secure for him an important role as an elder statesman.

 

The problem is not the president personally, but the personalised nature of Nigerian politics. Decades of avaricious military rule have left the Nigerian political landscape dominated by powerful "godfathers" who sit atop vast patronage networks at the local, state, and federal levels. Political outcomes are primarily a function of titanic struggles among these magnates, who bargain among themselves - and at the expense of the impoverished greater public - within a political context of multiple ethno-religious divisions.

 

If Nigerian democracy is ever to consolidate, most of these elite must perceive that the democratic system serves their interests better than extra-systemic alternatives such as coups or warlordism, and the system must increasingly be able to check those elite who conspicuously break the rules. Sadly, since the deeply flawed elections of 2003, these power brokers have grown increasingly bold in circumventing the democratic system, even to the point of attempted constitutional manipulation.

 

This slide toward godfather politics was curbed on 16 May 2006, when Nigeria experienced a constitutional epiphany. The Senate blocked the most feasible route to tenure extension that day when it decisively rejected an omnibus bill of amendments to the Constitution that would have provided for both presidential and gubernatorial third terms. In the minds of many senators, conviction prevailed against the lure of inducement, financial and otherwise. The president responded by hailing the decision as a "victory for democracy," and congratulated the members of his party, who participated on either side of the debate. His graceful acceptance of this defeat will cement his remarkable contributions - both direct and indirect - to Nigeria's young democratic system. His job as the Fourth Republic's founding president, however, is not yet finished. He still can make several critical contributions toward democratic consolidation, as he prepares to oversee his third and last major transition in 2007: the first handover of presidential office from one civilian to another in the history of Nigeria.

 

A Context of Ethnic Insecurity

THE rise of Nigeria's "godfathers" can be attributed to several historical developments. The first is what can be called the ethnic-security dilemma. This dilemma arises when ethnic categories become the primary lens through which the public views political events, thereby constraining and aggravating the choices of political elite. In the absence of other viable social categories for the protection of group interests, others view one ethnic group's apparent political gain as a potential loss. This zero-sum prospect creates an incentive for elite to maximize their ethnic group's position, which, in turn, makes other groups feel insecure and forces them to follow suit.

Consequently, Nigerian politics occurs within a broader context of ethnic insecurity and an ethnic calculus of "Who's up, who's down?" in terms of relative power within the federation.

 

Thirty years of military rule, with its promotion of political and economic centralisation, made all this worse. Overwhelming political power was concentrated in the presidency and the executive branch, which also dominate the all-important oil industry. Control of the presidency and the governorships, therefore, is prized above all other offices, creating powerful incentives for politicians and their supporters to win them at all costs. In addition, Nigeria's 36 States and 774 Local Governments are largely dependent on the Federal Government to finance their functions. Centralisation is reinforced by constitutional provisions that establish a single national police force and prohibit separate state forces.

 

Current proposals to decentralise the federation encounter obstacles posed by Nigeria's highly complex pattern of ethnolinguistic diversity. With about 130 million people, Nigeria is the world's fifth largest federation - only India, the United States, Brazil and Russia are more populous. In Nigeria, the term "nationality" is normally used to connote ethnolinguistic identity. Politicians, who favour remodeling the federation along ethnic lines, have suggested that it would be feasible to recognise as few as 70 of Nigeria's estimated 350 nationalities for political purposes. Three nationalities, Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo account for nearly 60 per cent of the national population; other nationalities range in size from several thousand to several million people.

 

In order to escape the ethnic-security dilemma as exacerbated by political centralisation, a number of leaders have proposed a reconstruction of the federation based on the distribution of ethnolinguistic nationalities that would consolidate the existing 36 States into six geopolitical zones. These six zones are currently recognised in practice, even though the federal Constitution makes no mention of them. Proposals for zonal (or regional) reconstruction emanate mainly from the three southern zones: the Igbo-speaking Southeast; the Yoruba-speaking Southwest; and what Nigerians call the South-South, a six-state region containing diverse ethnolinguistic groups including inhabitants of the Niger Delta and adjacent wetlands. This zone's oil and natural-gas production, supplemented by deepwater offshore wells, accounts for more than 90 per cent of the total value of Nigeria's exports.

 

While the Igbo and Yoruba zones are politically cohesive, the South-South, including large Edo-, Efik- and Ijaw-speaking nationalities among others, shares little with those other zones beyond their common grievances against the Nigerian central government and the international oil companies. The groups of the South-South aspire to gain control of the oil and gas industry and thereby realise benefits that will compensate them for the destruction of their traditional economies by pollution and environmental despoliation.

 

The political watchwords of the Niger Delta and environs is "resource control," connoting the acquisition of ownership and management rights by the indigenous people of that (or any other) zone, probably through agencies of their state governments, as well as the receipt of a much higher volume of export revenue than that to which zones of origin are presently entitled.

 

The two other southern zones, however, are ambivalent about resource control. While many Igbo and Yoruba political leaders have generally regionalist dispositions, they are far less motivated to support the principle of resource control than are the claimants to oil-bearing lands, seabed and petrochemical production facilities in the multilingual South-South zone.

 

All three northern zones have pronounced anti-regionalist political tendencies, but with different emphases. The Northwest is culturally and politically cohesive. It is the heartland of Nigeria's so-called emirate sector. Nearly all the indigenes of the seven states that compose this zone are Hausa-speaking and live in emirates - Muslim polities over which emirs and their counselors presided directly in pre-colonial times - whose traditional institutions retain important political influence. The emirate sector extends into the northeastern and north-central zones, although these two zones are linguistically diverse.

 

The northeastern zone includes both emirate and non-emirate peoples as well as the populous Kanuri kingdom, which has a traditional organisation that is similar in form to those of the emirates. In the north-central zone, however, a vast majority of the numerous (approximately 250) ethno-linguistic nationalities have political orientations that emphatically affirm their separation from the emirates and their preference for a strong central government that can counteract threats emanating from the three largest nationalities. Neither the restoration of emirate-based hegemony in their sector nor deprivation of revenues from an oil industry that might be regionalised by southerners would be tolerated without protest by those who lead the nationalities of Nigeria's often overlooked "middle belt."

 

Perceptions of the regional (zonal) question throughout Nigeria have been deeply affected by the adoption of the shari'a (Islamic law) criminal code in the emirate sector. During 2000 and 2001, all seven states in the Northwest, four out of six states in the Northeast, and one of the six North-Central states - containing altogether about a third of Nigeria's total population - adopted the shari'a criminal code. The shari'a civil code had been in place across most of the North since 1979, and both civil and criminal codes exist alongside the secular legal systems. Muslims are widely believed to make up half the Nigerian population and to slightly outnumber Christians; approximately two-thirds of Muslims live in the twelve shari'a states.

 

It is important to recognise that the Christian-Muslim cleavage in Nigeria is less significant politically than the emirate-non-emirate cleavage. Half the southwestern Yoruba nationality is Muslim, but Yoruba leaders are not inclined to adopt the shari'a criminal code in their states. In the northwestern zone, where Hausa-speaking emirates are nearly ubiquitous, there are few regionalists, owing to that area's strong cultural and historical links with emirates in the northeastern and north-central zones. Economic considerations also militate against regionalism in all three northern zones, since increased regional or sub-regional resource control would hardly help the oil-free North.

 

Although regionalism is particularly unpopular in the northern zones, leaders nationwide have come to an informal understanding, that the most important political offices must be distributed as evenly as possible across all six of the country's zones. At a minimum, the president, vice-president, Senate president, and speaker of the House must come from different zones, and the cabinet must contain at least one minister from each of the 36 States. Moreover, when a president steps down, it is expected that political parties will rotate their candidates to give another zone a chance to win, although party leaders are divided as to which of the remaining five zones that should be.

 

Godfathers and the Nation

WITHIN this context of zonal or regional struggles driven by ethnic insecurity, Nigeria's political titans vie for power and control over the vast spoils of office. Under military rule (which lasted from 1966 to 1999, except for the Second Republic of 1979 to 1983), political and economic centralisation made the military and civilian individuals, who controlled key state posts, fabulously wealthy while 70 per cent of Nigerians fell into abject poverty.

Although many leaders began their political careers in traditional ethnic-based power structures, their vastly superior wealth and access moved them into a select club of elite from across the nation, who increasingly came to dominate national politics. These elite became the country's "godfathers" or "Big Men." They sit atop vast, pyramid-structured patronage networks based on regular "cash and carry" kickback relationships, such that every level of Nigerian government has its relevant Big Men and their supporters - a phenomenon that scholars call neo-patrimonialism.

 

Over time, a degree of class consciousness has developed among the members of this powerful club, and they generally share more in common with each other than with their own relatively impoverished supporters. Consequently, their deeper motives are rarely ethnonationalistic; they are primarily self-interested wealth and power seekers. In fact, the most powerful among them have built vast networks that stretch across ethnic and religious lines.

Because the larger political categories of the nation are palpably ethnic and beset by the security dilemma, however, the godfathers must operate within these divisions to some degree. In some ways, traditional cultural norms may constrain their political manoeuvres, but such norms also give them an "ethnic card" that they play against rivals in other ethnic groups. Consequently, the current "godfather" networks of political elite have modified the more deeply divisive ethnic divisions that undermined the First and Second Republics, leading to realignment in which godfather-led multiethnic coalitions have emerged.

 

The growing distance between this political elite and the general public, however, has undermined accountability and left the elite free to play the ethnic card for selfish ends. Moreover, poverty and frustration over the slow pace of change fan public anger, providing increasingly dry tinder that ethnic friction can ignite. So far, the Big Men have shown surprising capacity to negotiate compromise solutions that serve most of their ends, often at the expense of the public good. But their penchant for displays of brinkmanship could inadvertently - or in some cases deliberately - send their political struggles spiraling out of control and into the streets.

 

When President Obasanjo entered office in 1999, he wielded political influence, particularly within the military, but he was by no means a "godfather" himself. The Big Men of the ascendant Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) - itself largely an alliance of convenience among these powerful individuals - had, in fact, chosen Obasanjo on the faulty assumption that they could control him. Consequently, he arrived in office constrained within the webs of their various networks. Over the past seven years, however, he has gradually gained ground against the godfathers, using the powers of the presidency to build alliances with some and to undermine others, most notably Vice-President Atiku Abubakar.

 

In a similar fashion, most of the current governors arrived as protZgZs of godfathers and power networks within their states, but have used the executive branch to build increasingly independent bases of their own. Some, such as the governor of Enugu, have succeeded. Others, such as the governors of Anambra and Oyo States, have found themselves losing to their former sponsors.

 

The President may have been open to calls for a third term precisely because he is an outsider, surrounded by these powerful men whom he perceives as having insufficient interest in continuing his reform agenda. Having deftly allied himself with several key godfathers and certain governors, who share his need to outflank their former sponsors; President Obasanjo moved to challenge his many rivals and let his supporters propose the third term amendment.

 

Nigerian democracy activists argue that Obasanjo's supporters have also devised two additional high-risk strategies to extend his tenure if the amendment gambit failed. First, the President could simply push his allies in the National Assembly to delay elections on logistical grounds. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is woefully unprepared to hold elections as scheduled in April 2007 - in no small part because the Obasanjo administration has deliberately starved it of funds for the past four years, to keep it beholden to the presidency. The Senate has already attempted to delay elections until December 2007, but the House rejected the move.

 

The second possible strategy would be to cite the kinds of Muslim-Christian clashes that erupted in parts of the country in February 2006, as well as insurgencies in the Niger Delta, as pretexts for declaring a state of emergency. The president's acceptance of the Senate's quashing of the third term proposal in May 2006 should put an end to such schemes, but ominous references from some of his advisors to "other options" indicate that they may still have troubling intentions.

 

The third term gambit marked a neo-patrimonial moment for Nigeria, when a supra-godfather sought ascendancy while old godfathers tried to decide whether sustaining or destroying the democratic system would best serve their interests. The decision to reject the third term and the aftermath of this decision signal the most significant moment in Nigerian democratic development since the 1999 handover of power to civilians. The nation's powerful political elite are deciding, consciously or not, whether they prefer to extend the neo-patrimonial structure to the nation, with little respect for institutional checks, or whether they will support a more democratic arrangement of respected rules and alternation in power. The Senate's rejection of third term and the president's embrace of its decision, was a victory for democratic institutions and a powerful blow against godfather politics. This progress could be jeopardised, however, as the godfathers spare no expense in their competition to succeed President Obasanjo.

 

Neo-patrimonialism is bad for Nigeria, as for other countries, because power is excessively personalised while national policy is driven by elite relationships rather than by public needs. Neo-patrimonialism may randomly allow more enlightened rulers to govern and even to install some reforms for a time, but these inevitably come second to the unending need to service the expensive elite relationships that keep one in power.

 

With legislatures weak and beholden to executives, as in Nigeria, term limits offer elite what is often the first institutional assurance: that they, too, have a chance to win control of high offices. Moreover, in transitional democracies where formal checks and balances are frequently circumvented, an informal balance of power among political elite is often necessary to provide the all-important self-regulating check on the ambitions of political godfathers. In other, more successful electoral democracies, such as Ghana, Benin, and perhaps Kenya, this balance of power has been manifest in the rise of viable political opposition movements that first fought for meaningful elections. When elite contest by means of relatively fair elections and confine their struggles thereafter largely within the democratic system, these elite will find themselves increasingly driven to provide beneficial policies to the public at the expense of elite patronage. In addition, real elections create important incentives for elite to expose the corruption of opponents.

 

President Obasanjo's gambit for a third term did more than endanger the fundamental rule of term limits that Nigerian elite have been depending upon for their chance at the top. The move also threatened to upset the growing balance of power among the Nigerian elite, a balance that has been increasingly energising the dormant institutional checks and balances of Nigeria's young democracy. Moreover, numerous reports of the President showering largesse on allies and using the anti-corruption machinery to harass political opponents indicate that he was, for a time at least, willing to play the godfather game in support of the third term gambit at the expense of democratic development.

 

The third term debate, as well as the regional politics of shari'a, resource control and restructuring the federation, have strengthened zonal factions within the PDP, and opposition parties have been moving to woo away the discontented. In particular, advocates of emirate-based views argue that after eight years of the southerner Obasanjo, the next president must come from their zones, and that abrogation of term limits would have been a de facto attack on the principle of zonal rotation. Overlaying this ethnic calculus is the struggle between the governors and their respective local godfathers, which has increased the attractiveness of opposition parties to the losers of these struggles.

 

With the third term crisis averted, the Nigerian political picture is now dominated by elite negotiations and struggles among powerful individuals, with decisions at the national level filtering down to the state and local levels, leading to reactions at each level that then reflect back up to the top. These negotiations will continue throughout the campaign leading up to the 2007 elections, as various powerful figures calculate their best interests and shift their factional alignments accordingly. Tremendous amounts of largesse will change hands, and some of the players will likely resort to force.

 

Now that the President has rejected his supporters' bid to open the neo-patrimonial path to him, he can still take bold action to reinforce Nigerian democracy further against the threat of godfather politics. He can address several threats to his legacy and deficiencies in democratic institutions, so that the godfathers face both greater rewards for playing by the rules and more potent sanctions for transgressing them. In particular, he can strengthen the balance of power among the godfathers through the legislatures and secure a credible election system.

 

Threats to Obasanjo's legacy

THE end of the third term fracas comes at a time when the issue of control over the nation's oil wealth has sharpened the ethnic-security dilemma. President Obasanjo convened a national conference in early 2005, to begin a process of amending the Constitution, at which time an early proposal to extend the presidential term of office was rejected. South-South leaders, however, seized the moment to demand greater local control of the oil revenues earned from their lands.

 

Northern leaders from the emirate states responded by refusing to approve more than a four-point increase in the percentage of oil revenues paid to the states of origin, which currently stands at 13 per cent. Had the northerners accepted a compromise put forward by Middle-Belt (mostly North Central) delegates and agreed to an immediate increase from 13 to 25 per cent, the national conference could have concluded harmoniously, rather than with acrimony. South-South leaders had, by then, adopted a reasonable posture with regard to resource control, and the coastal states would soon thereafter be buoyed by a Supreme Court decision, upholding an act of the National Assembly, that affirmed these states' entitlement to revenue derived from offshore as well as onshore oil production.

 

Subsequently, nearly all the southern governors went on record demanding continuation of a process, initiated by the national conference, aimed at amending the Constitution. They called for an immediate increase from 13 to 25 per cent of the share of oil-export and other revenues directed to states and zones of origin, going up to 50 per cent in five years. Should these changes not happen by 2007, the southern leaders have said, dire consequences will ensue: The South will boycott the 2007 elections and will "consider the reconstitution of the country as a Confederation on the basis of the six geopolitical zones, with each zone retaining its resources and contributing to the centre on the basis of an agreed principle."

 

Should agreement on this matter be lacking, the southern leaders continue, their zones will cease to contribute resources to the federal government. And should the next president be from anywhere other than the South-South or Southeastern zone, the option of confederation among - and full resource control by - the states of origin will be on the table. Were the southern states to rally behind such a strategy, the survival of a federal form of government in Nigeria might well be at risk.

 

In addition to the threat that ethnic insecurity poses to the federation, President Obasanjo's legacy may be shaken by the growing gangsterism in state governments that surfaced in his second term. In July 2003, the governor of Anambra in the Southeast survived a crude attempt to compel his resignation when he was abducted briefly by policemen acting illegally in collusion with the governor's estranged political godfather, who is a presidential ally. This bitter dispute peaked with terrifying effects in November 2004, when armed arsonists destroyed government buildings in the state capital but failed in an attempt to assassinate the governor. Despite these outrages, the well-connected godfather was subsequently appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Peoples Democratic Party.

 

A comparable sequence of events roiled Oyo State (Southwestern zone) in December 2005, when a godfather acquired the allegiance of policemen, who allowed his hirelings to vandalise government offices, including that of the governor, after a clash at the state House of Assembly involving gunfire and several casualties. As in Anambra, the governor of Oyo had displeased his erstwhile godfather by not forwarding him the demanded amount of the state budget or control of key appointments. Once again, national leaders of the PDP made conciliatory gestures toward the patron, his criminality notwithstanding. Moreover, a majority of the members of the House of Assembly backed the godfather. They initiated impeachment proceedings against the governor and voted to remove him from office. Even though the vote was less than the constitutionally required two-thirds margin, the governor was forced from office.

 

Meanwhile, in December 2005, the governor of Bayelsa (South-South zone) was impeached and removed from office by the state House of Assembly. This action followed his flight from Britain, allegedly disguised as a woman, where he had been arrested and released on bail pending trial for money laundering and illegal expenditures on personal property in London exceeding several million British pounds. Once impeached, the former governor was arrested by the federal Economic and Financial Crimes Commission on charges involving a yet far greater sum of money stolen from the Bayelsa State treasury. Local militias subsequently attacked oil installations, took hostages, and demanded the release of the ex-governor and a former militia leader. Militia activity across the Niger Delta region continues to target the oil industry while living off trade from stolen oil. And some armed groups have proclaimed the goal of political self-determination, particularly for the Ijaw people.

 

These instances of malfeasance in state governments are not exceptions, but represent tendencies that are discernible throughout the federation. Ineffective government in the states and corruption in the federally-run police have resulted in the creation of publicly financed "vigilante services." In several states, vigilantes have been used to perpetrate violence against ethnic and religious communities. Other discontented groups have organised criminal militias in furtherance of ethno-separatist political causes.

 

Toward the end of 2005, the federal government imprisoned the leaders of three violent separatist groups, one in each of the southern zones. In the South-South zone in particular, criminal syndicates and militias continue to steal immense quantities of crude oil from vulnerable pipelines, tankers and production sites. The current annual cash flow to criminals has been estimated conservatively at more than $1.5 billion. These cases illustrate the depth of public frustration and the dangers posed by chaotic political forces that practitioners of democratic representation have not as yet found a way to tame.

 

A House Divided

THE President's legacy is also threatened by deep dysfunction in the ruling PDP. A 2003 attempt by northern critics of Obasanjo to persuade Vice President Atiku, an emirate personality and powerful businessman, to vie for the party's presidential nomination created a rift with President Obasanjo that has been deep and lasting. The President's determination to block Atiku's nomination to succeed him in 2007 can scarcely be doubted.

In December 2004, the national chairman of the PDP, an ally of the Vice President, publicly criticised the President's failure to mitigate the violent conflict in Anambra. He warned bluntly that Nigeria might be drifting yet again toward a coup. Angered, the President demanded and obtained the chairman's resignation. The party's national executive committee then installed a presidential loyalist as national chairman and party rules were changed to provide for direct presidential control of party officials, effectively rigging PDP party congresses to ensure their domination by a chorus of Obasanjo supporters. While the ability of party barons and governors throughout the country to reassert their prerogatives should not be discounted, the PDP of Obasanjo's second term has been transformed into an instrument of presidential power and supremacy.

 

One upshot of the struggle within the PDP, bolstered by the extraordinary resistance to the third term gambit, may be the emergence of a viable opposition party or coalition. This could set Nigeria on a Ghana-like path toward real party contestation and better governance. Given PDP dominance over INEC, however, that path would likely be long and would require that the opposition engage the public to confront what will almost certainly be a PDP strategy of sharp practices in the 2007

 

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