In Nigeria: Completing Obasanjo's Legacy
Sklar, Ebere Onwudiwe And Darren Kew
culled from GUARDIAN, October 1,
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
Current proposals to
obstacles posed by
Nigeria's highly complex
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
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
Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo
account for nearly 60
per cent of the national
nationalities range in
size from several
thousand to several
In order to escape
number of leaders
have proposed a
the federation based
on the distribution
the existing 36
States into six
These six zones are
in practice, even
though the federal
no mention of them.
Proposals for zonal
emanate mainly from
the three southern
Southwest; and what
Nigerians call the
inhabitants of the
Niger Delta and
This zone's oil and
wells, accounts for
more than 90 per
cent of the total
value of Nigeria's
While the Igbo
and Yoruba zones
Edo-, Efik- and
with those other
The groups of
aspire to gain
control of the
oil and gas
them for the
of the Niger
that (or any
as well as
of a much
The two other southern zones,
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