Democracy in Nigeria is Failing


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October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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Democracy in Nigeria is Failing Again







culled from VANGUARD, January 26, 2005

THE world may not know it, but the ongoing democratic experiment in Nigeria is failing again, just as the earlier experiment of the 1960s failed so signally that it opened the way to a catastrophic civil war and the 29 years of military dictatorship that consumed the hopes and dreams of a generation. The recent events in Anambra State have demonstrated that the Federal Government led by President Olusegun Obasanjo and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has learned no lessons from the past and is setting the scene for a reenactment of the tragedies of the past. The government seems perversely determined to repeat all the errors and evil actions that brought the country to the brink of ruin. When in May 1999 the people of Nigeria installed retired General Olusegun Obasanjo as the first post-military civilian president, many people doubted that a former military dictator was the right person to bring the country to the democratic new order for which Nigerians yearned.

Most Nigerians, however, were willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt, because he had antecedents that seemed to stand in his favor. They remembered that he was the only military ruler in Nigeria’s history to return power to civilians, albeit for a brief period before another group of soldiers sauntered back into power. They also remembered that Obasanjo had been imprisoned by the late General Sani Abacha and could therefore be said to have been a victim of military dictatorship. And finally, Obasanjo had joined a number of highly visible international organizations, including Transparency International and anti-Apartheid committees. He even aspired to becoming the secretary-general of the United Nations at some stage.

A man with these impressive credentials, Nigerians reasonably imagined, was well equipped to negotiate the transition from the age of military dictatorship to a new era of democratic rehabilitation. More so because Obasanjo was one of a few Nigerians who have been continuously involved, in one role or another, in the public domain of Nigerian national life from the 1960s to the present time and who would, therefore, be expected to understand in detail the endemic problems of the country and to fully empathize with Nigerians during the difficult period of intensive post-military nation building.

Obasanjo’s administration had its task cut out for it and was, for that reason, quite privileged. By reason of its succeeding a long period of military dictatorship that uprooted the fragile democratic infrastructure left by the British at independence, it inherited a people traumatized by military misrule, an intelligentsia totally demoralized and fleeing the country to escape the blight of militarism, and an economy that was in utter ruins. Nigerians expected the new administration to attempt to restore morale, to properly restructure the political system, to re-plant and nurture the institutions of democracy and to create a favourable atmosphere for democracy to flourish in.

Rule of Law
 They expected the administration to strengthen judicial institutions and restore respect for the rule of law, to streamline the Constitution and make it a satisfactory fundamental law of the land, sensitive to the needs of the multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious, pluralist nation, to demarcate the responsibilities of the various tiers of government, and to neatly separate the powers and responsibilities of the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. Equally importantly, Nigerians expected his government to encourage the culture of dialogue, debate, and consensus building, to provide security of life and property in a land that has known great insecurities, to be even-handed in its dealings with the people, to be honest, transparent, and accountable in its actions and policies where previous administrations had enthroned corruption, lack of accountability, and wholesale looting of the treasury and national resources.

Above all, Nigerians expected the government to make the resolution of internal conflicts and problems a great priority over all other commitments, after such a long period of national turmoil and instability. The first four years of Obasanjo’s administration proved a great disappointment. Nigerians realized with something of a shock that President Obasanjo remained very much a military dictator at heart, impatient of dissent and insensitive to the deep cravings of the people for peace and security. The man was not a democrat. Under his leadership, the institutions of democracy were not strengthened; if anything, some of the few existing ones were weakened by an administration furiously pursuing narrow partisan political advantages. No serious efforts were made to elevate the judicial institutions and make the rule of law the anchor-point of the people’s rights and liberties. Widespread agitation for a National Conference to streamline the poorly structured, military-manipulated Constitution was rigidly opposed by his administration.

The spirit of democratic tolerance and disciplined discourse indispensable in a democracy was not allowed to germinate under his leadership style. A general sense of insecurity, frustration, and exasperation almost as bad as existed during the harsher periods of military dictatorship crept back into Nigerian life. Nigerians were again becoming emotionally and physically battered, as they were during the dark periods of the country’s history. There has been little accountability. A simple straightforward democratic ritual, like the holding of elections, was completely botched. The economy has remained in the doldrums, and political assassinations have become rampant. Some people have begun to characterize the Obasanjo administration as a “Democratic Dictatorship.”

The democratic experiment is tottering towards collapse. Nowhere does this near-collapse of the experiment register more emphatically than in Anambra State where the Obasanjo presidency has been waging a war of attrition against the government of Dr. Chris Ngige. Governor Ngige has, for some strange reason, become the bete noir of the Presidency, and, in consequence, the people of Anambra State have become virtual hostages to a Federal Government that ought to guarantee their securities, rights, and freedoms. By a bizarre twist of cruel irony, they are suffering an emasculation and dehumanization worse than they had known during the varied periods of military dictatorship. In Anambra State, thuggery and the reign of mob violence and terror, the kind of politically inspired lawlessness that destroyed Nigeria’s First Republic, has returned. In the First Republic, the target of the violence was South-Western Nigeria. It set up a chain reaction that consumed the democratic experiment then and a good deal besides.

In the present situation, the target is Anambra State, the gateway to South-Eastern Nigeria. The fear is that history is about to repeat itself. Fortunately, the Nigerian press is becoming increasingly articulate and the Internet is a mighty engine for disseminating information. What is happening in Nigeria cannot be hidden away from the world any longer. The dark events in Anambra State are fully and exhaustively documented in the major Nigerian newspapers that in return make them available in their various worldwide websites. A cursory visit to “Nigeriaworld” and “Google” websites reveals a staggering wealth of information on the Anambra crisis.

All accounts from the Nigerian press, including well-considered editorials, put the cause of the events smoldering in Anambra State at the door of the President who, in pursuit of narrow partisan considerations, has placed what is left of the democratic experiment in jeopardy in the handling of the Anambra affair. Obasanjo’s second term began inauspiciously. The elections that marked its beginning in May 2003 were said by local and foreign observers and monitors to be marred by irregularities. But the electoral law made provision for the review of all results through the establishment of election petition tribunals. Under this arrangement most of the offices contested were being reviewed - from the presidency through some governorships to several state and federal legislative seats - by various electoral review tribunals. The tragic events in Anambra State were, therefore, independent of the electoral tribunals.

Grave crime
In fact, they arose because some people of power and influence were not willing to await the outcome of the tribunals but wanted to forcibly remove the elected governor of the state outside the legal framework of the election petition tribunals. On July 10, 2003, a month and 13 days after he was sworn in as the second post-military governor of Anambra State, Dr. Chris Ngige, was abducted from office by a contingent of armed - Police officers led by the Assistant Inspector General of  Police in charge of the South-Eastern zone, Mr. Raphael Ige.

This criminal act was instigated by Chief Chris Ubah, described as “the godfather” of Anambra politics. Everyone expected the culprits to be arraigned and prosecuted for this grave crime, but President Obasanjo pronounced the event “a family quarrel” and, therefore, internal to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), his own political party. Ige who led the abduction party at first said he was “acting on orders from above,” but later changed his statement. He died suddenly soon after he recanted that statement. Subsequently, frantic efforts were made by Ngige’s enemies to hustle him out of office through abuse of the judicial process. Two maverick high court judges, who made dubious rulings purporting to remove Dr. Ngige from office, were sanctioned by the National Judicial Commission (NJC), one was dismissed outright and the other had his recommended dismissal commuted to retirement with full benefits by the Federal Government.

Surprisingly, the federal authorities, the Federal Attorney General and then Inspector General of Police, acting on the ruling of the dismissed judge stripped Dr. Ngige of his police security protection. Thus, the federal government created the ironic and anomalous situation in which the executive governor of a state who is the chief security officer of his state is himself without security. Under these circumstances, the Federal Government became the de facto authority responsible for providing basic, day-to-day security for the people of Anambra State. This responsibility was completely betrayed when the same culprits who engineered the abduction of Governor Ngige and who are now emboldened by the failure of the Federal Government to visit on them deserved judicial reprisal for their crime decided to burn the government of Anambra State out of existence.

In three days of unremitting violence - November 10, 11, 12, 2004 - mobs armed with guns, explosives, and incendiary substances burnt down the Anambra State radio and television stations, offices of the governor and the deputy governor, Education Commission office, hotels, vehicles, assembly quarters, the residence of the state chief judge and the State Electoral Commission building. They also laid siege to the capital city of Awka and the commercial city of Onitsha, all this in full view of the Police who effected no arrests and used no police methods to restrain the arsonists.

After the destruction of governmental infrastructure had been completed, President Obasanjo decided to intervene by sending more police personnel to Anambra State and ordering that the governor’s security outfit be “partially” restored, as if security of life and property is a consumptive commodity at the disposal of the President to be rationed out at his own sweet pleasure to his retainers. As if the orgies of destruction and violence inflicted on the people of Anambra State and their leaders were not enough, the perpetrators followed up with an armed attack on the Governor’s convoy conveying a fact finding Senate delegation to scenes of earlier destructions. The governor’s lodge was attacked with explosives.

Widespread condemnation
These events horrified Nigerians and evoked widespread condemnation in the press, on the Internet, and on public fora, within Nigeria and abroad. Here are a few reactions typical of the outrage to the Anambra violence: From a letter by Professor Chinua Achebe, world renowned novelist and Nigerian national, to President Obasanjo on October 15, 2004, rejecting the award of the Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR) made to him on the 2004 honours list: “For some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seemed determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance of the Presidency.” Editorial in The  Punch  of November 19, 2004 titled "For Peace in Anambra" which ends with these words: “The people of Anambra are looking forward to a Federal Government that will act firmly on the side of justice and the rule of law.

Those who perpetrated wanton murder and arson in Anambra must be made to understand that Nigeria is not a jungle where impunity reigns. Any government that pulls down the pillars of law and order inevitably invites anarchy.” From a columnist in Vanguard of November 29, 2004: “There does not seem to be even a single Nigerian who takes seriously the Federal Government's denial that it had not tried to subvert the rule of law and corrupt the Judiciary because of its rabid partisan interests in Anambra.
"The Obasanjo Government’s role in the Anambra issue demeans this government and the principal officers like the Attorney-General and the Inspector-General of Police. It is one of the notoriously sore points of the regime”. From a columnist in  The Guardian of December 3, 2004:

"In the past five years (period of Obasanjo’s presidency), the Nigerian judiciary has been subjected to many tests, dealing with its capacity as a bastion of the people’s democracy, and on many occasions, it has failed. When the President reduces the abduction of a Governor, the burning and looting of government property, the detonation of bombs in the Government lodge, the ambush of the Governor’s convoy, to issues of morality, he is inadvertently endorsing the madness in that state. He also betrays his bias.” From the letter of the Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), dated December 6, 2004, published in Sunday Punch of December 12, 2004: “On behalf of the Peoples Democratic Party, I call on you to act now and bring any, and all criminal, even treasonable, activity to a halt.”

From “Nigeria Burns,” a state of nation statement by “Eminent Persons,” composed of eminent administrators, diplomats, jurists, academics, etc.  In ThisDay of December 10, 2004: “President Olusegun Obasanjo must not only arrest the new wave of terrorism sweeping through the country, but also establish the rule of law.” And on Anambra violence: “At first it was the act of treasonable felony in which a favourite child of the bedchamber attempted to overthrow the government of Dr. Chris Ngige by organising with the aid of an Assistant Inspector-General of Police, the arrest and abduction of the governor. In more recent weeks, the state witnessed acts of arson of unprecedented proportion. No meaningful arrests have been made so far.”

These are serious alarm signals. Anambra is like a bleeding wound in the body politic of Nigeria. The wound must be stanched if the organism is to be saved. This requires the mobilization of the democratic will of the Nigerian people to rescue the experiment from sliding into the dark hole of partisan political chicanery that swallowed up earlier post-independence efforts. In this attempt to save the experiment, Anambra is a critical test case, a national test case, not a Peoples Democratic Party test case. (All the evidence shows that the PDP and its presidential leadership have proved themselves inadequate to the problems of an emergent democracy.) These problems require the linking of efforts by democratically oriented Nigerians who are to be found in all the political parties, within all Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities, and in all Nigeria’s many religious groupings. They cut across class, gender, and generations and a few of them are in Nigeria’s legislative chambers.

They can exert pressure to ensure the democratic experiment does not finally founder.  The Anambra tragedy, being paradigmatic of the many ills that afflict the experiment, will, paradoxically, provide both the insights and the challenges for saving democracy in Nigeria.   A number of important lessons must be drawn from the Anambra tragedy. First of all, it must be recognised that the rule of law is the cornerstone of democracy. It is a concrete and living reality, visible in its operation in everyday life and situations.

It is not a woolly abstraction in the heads of thinkers or a fancy dress in the wardrobe of politicians to be donned on some occasions and put away the rest of the time. Rather, it is an all-pervasive idea that defines the quality of democratic life. Thus, when the Governor of Anambra State was abducted and taken away from his office and then later returned and the monstrous crime was reduced to “a family affair” and internal to a political party, all knowledgeable people immediately understood that the rule of law did not operate there or that those in control of affairs did not believe in the rule of law.

their slow, dreary course to completion. Respect for the rule of law that was a major casualty of the Anambra tragedy should be redressed even at this very late stage. The Anambra affair would not have become a full blown tragedy if the rudimentary principles of the rule of law had been adhered to by the Nigerian government. Events in Anambra State doubly reinforce the urgent need for a review of the existing Constitution of the country.

A situation in which the basic security of lives and property of citizens of a federal state depends on the will and direction of officials hundreds of miles away in the capital city of the country cannot be good from the point of view of administrative effectiveness and the sense of well being of the members of the polity. A political structure which allowed the governmental infrastructure of Anambra State to be fed to the flames while the police stood about awaiting orders from Abuja cannot serve the interest of the people of Nigeria. It may inflate the ego of the occupier of the presidential villa or the minions ensconced in governmental mansions within the city, but it belittles the citizens of Nigeria and diminishes their sense of well being.

The argument for restructuring the administrative system and ensuring far reaching devolution of responsibilities to the federating units becomes incontestable. The general style of the Obasanjo presidency should compel Nigerians to reconsider the impact of former military rulers on ongoing democratic experiment. They should look again at the tendency of many Nigerians to expect former military rulers to return as politicians to lead the democratic experiment. It is naïïve to expect those bred into military life to become champions of democracy, especially at the stage in which the democratic institutions are still rudimentary or in the process of being established.

The military ethic is very often antithetical to democratic values. During the long years of military rule in Nigeria, the military arrested the growth of the democratic spirit and foisted on the people paternalistic, feudal, and authoritarian values from which Nigerians have yet to emancipate themselves. The argument is that former military rulers are also citizens of Nigeria and, therefore, entitled to seek office under democratic dispensation. Of course, it would be unconstitutional to stop anyone aspiring to play a political role just because they had served the country as soldiers. But the people should be aware of the risks involved in choosing former military rulers to govern them. Military despots cannot suddenly become democratic leaders by merely replacing their military uniforms and brass buttons with flowing robes.

Those social scientists in Nigeria who are touting the idea that only former military officers could govern Nigeria because they alone are acceptable to an imaginary “military-industrial complex” are poisoning the political environment and de-empowering Nigerians. The military governed Nigeria for a long time and they left a record behind. When President Obasanjo came to power five years ago, he asked Nigerians to call him “Uncle Segun.” Nigerians laughed then, but they are not laughing now.

They ought to have reflected at the time on the predicament of the people of Malawi saddled with Dr. Kamusu Banda who called himself and was called the “Father” of his country or on the Russians with their “Uncle Joe.” Nigerians do not need uncles or fathers. They need rulers whom they would choose in open, free, and honest elections, people who would respect their rights as citizens, who will establish reliable courts of law, who will be transparent in the use of the resources of the country to improve the quality of life of all the citizens and who will enable the people to take deserved pride in their national and ethnic identities. If India with a population ten times that of Nigeria and with identical pluralist socio-cultural realities could negotiate a successful democratic existence, Nigeria also can. It all depends on the will of the Nigerian people.

Obiechina is one of the world’s top literary scholars.


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