The state of Nigerian democracy
13 - 1 - 2006
West Africa's oil-rich giant is convulsed over the president's plans
to run for a third term in office. Ron Singer maps the debates among
political and civil-society activists who are asking if Nigerians can
escape from the legacy of "one-man democracy".
As citizens prepare to return to the polls in 2007, Nigeria's future
hangs in the balance. A current initiative to change the constitution
so that President Olusegun Obasanjo could run for a third term
threatens to turn the nation into another of those familiar African
one-man "democracies", such as Uganda, ruled for twenty years now by
Yoweri Museveni. Alternately, the initiative could plunge Nigeria into
Over the last six months, two constitutional conferences have
suggested radically different futures for the nation. The third-term
initiative stems from President Obasanjo's National Political Reform
Conference (NPRC), which took place in the capital, Abuja, in July
2005. Meanwhile, since July, under the aegis of a pro-democracy
umbrella group, Pro-National Conference Organisations (Pronaco) led by
noted activist Chief Anthony "Pa" Enahoro (1923-) and others,
including Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, plans have been moving forward
for a rival conference, the People's National Conference (PNC).
The NPRC was Obasanjo's belated response to long and loud calls by
Enahoro and others for reform of the constitution bequeathed the
nation seven years ago by its last military ruler, Sani Abacha.
Ironically, given the conference's first stated aim of making Nigerian
democracy more effective, the third-term initiative was one of only
two principal themes to emerge. The proposed amendment would affect
not only the president, but federal legislators. According to critics,
the former would act as a "beard" for the latter.
The second major theme of the NPRC, revenue derivation, partially
derailed the conference. Delegates from the six oil states of the
Niger delta proposed an amendment to raise their current 13% of
revenues to 17%, and, when that seemed acceptable, gradual escalation
to 25%, 50%, and 100%. When anything above 17% was voted down, the oil
faction walked out in time to boycott the closing banquet. No one
called them back.
At the banquet, the president was ceremonially presented with six
volumes of recommendations. Besides its dubious motivation, the NPRC
was flawed in several other respects: no support from the national
assembly or senate, delegates handpicked (by Obasanjo), no impartial
monitors, a pre-set and limited agenda, and no guarantee of, or even
specific provision for, implementation.
Politics and kleptocracy
As flaws in the NPRC suggest, two-term president and former military
ruler Obasanjo has been, at best, an uncertain democrat. As military
ruler in 1979, he allowed elections that resulted in the second
republic of Shehu Shagari (1979-83). Paradoxically, General Obasanjo
may thus have done more for democracy than has President Obasanjo. In
2003, the President's People's Democratic Party (PDP - or, to its
enemies, "People Deceiving People") stole elections it most likely
would have won, anyway, if not so overwhelmingly. To a large extent,
Nigeria in 2003 became a one-party democracy.
Since 2003, internecine PDP strife has escalated. Perceived as being
insufficiently loyal to the president, many figures - including a
party chairman, Audu Ogbeh, and the house speaker, Ghali Na'Abba -
have been removed. Vice-president Atiku Abubakar, the target of a
current Obasanjo vendetta, has now joined with several of these other
ex-PDP-ers to form a new party of their own, which is currently
seeking to register for the 2007 elections. Rumours say that the only
reason Obasanjo has not yet sacked Atiku is that the v-p knows where
too many bodies are buried. One could say that, having dismantled the
opposition in 2003, the president's demands, since then, for absolute
personal loyalty, and his efforts to squelch dissent within the ranks
have left the PDP - and the Nigerian polity - in tatters.
And, now, the third term!
Aside from his efforts to achieve personal rule, how well has
President Obasanjo ruled Nigeria? Consider several of the nation's
deepest problems: corruption, the north-south divide, revenue
derivation, and local conflicts.
Obasanjo's efforts to gain control of party and country have had a
major impact on one of the initiatives for which he is lauded, his
sustained, Herculean efforts to cleanse Nigeria's den of thieves. The
president has appointed to key posts people who are known to be clean
and competent, such as finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. While
still near the top of the world corruption tables, Nigeria has
recently slipped a few notches. Notable kleptocrats like federal
police chief, Tafa Balogun, have been successfully prosecuted by the
Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), and, in cases of
gross inefficiency or notable malfeasance, several governors have been
suspended or removed.
However, the question remains whether this effort has been selectively
tainted by politics. For instance, the recent removal of Anambra
governor, Chris Ngigi, for stealing the 2003 election is still in
play, in part because the man who bankrolled him, Obasanjo protégé,
Chris Uba, has remained untouched. Immune so far, as well, have been
other notoriously corrupt, but loyal, PDP governors, such as Peter
Odili of Rivers state. A particularly sensational current case centers
on Bayelsa governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who jumped bail in
England dressed as a woman, and is in the process of being removed
from office and sent back to face trial for money laundering.
Alamieyeseigha's ties to vice-president Atiku may taint the federal
government's firmness in this instance. According to Orji Uzor Kalu,
governor of Abia state, "corruption is under Obasanjo's table."
North and south
One reason the third-term initiative is so explosive is that it raises
the spectre of north-south conflict, which has been endemic since
colonial days. At the Berlin conference of 1884-85, existing and
aspiring colonial powers notoriously carved Africa into unviable
units. In Nigeria's case, a largely conservative Islamic north and
Christian/animist south were welded into one fragile whole. Nigeria
may simply have been set up in such a way that centrifugal forces will
always tear it apart.
It is widely known that Obasanjo was sponsored in 1999 by northern
elements, including strongman billionaire kleptocrat and former
military ruler Ibrahim Babangida (1985-93). The idea was to find an
acceptable - i.e. malleable - figure who could placate the clamour in
the south for an end to northern domination. Whose turn is it in 2007?
There is no clear constitutional basis for, or zonal "right" to, the
presidency. Of Nigeria's six zones, each could make a claim. How do
you count time in office when so many regimes have been truncated by
coups? Does military rule count? Regimes that were puppets of other
zones? The two main contenders are either the neglected south-south or
southeast, or one of the northern zones.
Sacked house speaker Na'Abba contends that a deal was reached in 2002
at Aso Rock, the presidential seat in Abuja, in the presence of
himself, Ogbeh, and Atiku. The deal was that, in return for sponsoring
Obasanjo, the north would regain the presidency in 2007. Na'Abba
hinted that Babangida (aka "IBB," or "Maradona") guaranteed this deal
because he thought Obasanjo would play ball, but that Obasanjo has now
The north-south divide has already manifested itself in some of
Nigeria's most dreadful conflicts. Since independence, the nation has
been bedeviled by constant outbreaks of ethnic strife, of which the
Igbo secession/civil war/Biafran interlude (1967-70) was certainly the
most traumatic: Biafra remains a festering wound. A second, related
legacy of the colonial era also roils today's polity. In a provision
of the 1946 constitution immediately dubbed by Enahoro "the four
obnoxious ordinances", the federal government was accorded permanent
control of all natural resources. This provision has been a particular
bone of contention since the 1970s, when the discovery of oil turned
the nation into a den of thieves, exacerbating north-south,
federal/zonal/statal, and local ethnic divisions.
Oil and power
Perhaps the most contentious issue of all, then, because it is an
umbrella issue for problems such as corruption and the north-south
conflict, is revenue derivation. 85-90% of revenues come from oil and
natural-gas exploitation. Federal control remains in force, and, as
mentioned, the current system allocates 13% to the six producer states
of the Niger delta, with the rest going into federal coffers, to be
shared equally among all thirty-six states, including those of the
north, which collectively produce about 2% of revenues. The oil and
gas producers' demands for a larger share of this pie have, in some
cases, included an offer to pay 87% back to the federal government in
taxes. So both the amount and control of revenues are in play.
Whatever the formula for division, with Nigeria's light sweet crude
oil at more than $63 bbl in early 2006, the money is rolling in, plus
there is an informal system of direct payment by oil companies to
"anointed" local villages, creating another layer of corruption and
In Nigeria today, pockets of chaos and local conflict are numerous,
the most serious involving oil. Ethnic militias in the delta, freedom
fighters-cum-thieves, disrupt production. In 2004, for instance,
according to Shell estimates, $2 billion worth of oil was "bunkered"
(stolen) by these groups and others. Local conflicts and disruption of
production, in turn, prompt crackdowns and depredations among the
populace by the federal military, further weakening Nigeria's already
shaky human-rights record.
Beyond the delta, there are also many local conflicts, ranging from
brush fires to near-conflagrations. A secessionist movement centered
in Anambra state, the direct legacy of Biafra, finds widespread
support among the perhaps 30 million Igbos of the southeast zone. On a
smaller scale is the farmer/Christian v herder/Muslim dispute that
quickly merged with political conflict in Plateau state. Other recent
Nigerian conflicts reflect international geopolitical issues. For
instance, there have been militant Islamist skirmishes with police in
the north and Shi'a-Sunni clashes in Sokoto, also in the north. The
general sense of anarchy is heightened by rampant crime in Lagos and
elsewhere, prompting US state department travel advisories.
Given President Obasanjo's attempts to consolidate power and his
general failure to solve the huge problems of this fissiparous nation,
it is small wonder that opponents have treated his conference, the
NPRC, as an irrelevance, if not a menace. Hence, the efforts of
Pronaco to convene the People's National Conference.
Unity and diversity
The PNC has been spearheaded by Anthony Enahoro, sole survivor among
the founding fathers of independent Nigeria, and regarded by many as
the torchbearer of Nigerian democracy. Enahoro, who was a close
associate of both giants of independence, Nnamdi Azikiwe ("Zik") and
Obafemi Awolowo ("Awo"), is notable for having helped organise the
general strike of 1945, for opposition to the "four obnoxious
ordinances", for first proposing independence (1953), and for his
subsequent leadership of the pro-democratic opposition to a succession
of Nigeria's homegrown military kleptocrats and dictators. Enahoro may
be the only living Nigerian statesman who even approaches the stature
of Nelson Mandela.
Plans for the PNC were kick-started at a meeting 23 July 2005 in
Flushing, Queens, and these plans are now well along the rocky road
either to nowhere or to reform proposals that could push Nigeria
toward real democracy. Whereas the president's NPRC was very much a
selective, "top down" affair, the PNC is "bottom up". The 405
delegates already chosen by the end of August represent 294
organisations, comprising women, the diaspora, political parties,
professional associations, religious groups, governmental agencies,
and the security sector.
The president has called those who boycotted the NPRC "cynicsŠdiehards
and professional opportunists." But legitimacy has been conferred on
Pronaco's bottom-up approach, both by the failure of the NPRC and by
the release in early 2005 of the long-awaited report of the Human
Rights Violations Investigation Committee, popularly known as the
Oputa panel. Modelled after the South African Truth and Reconciliation
Commission, this panel was initiated by the president, himself, in
1999, but in early 2005 the report was finally leaked by NGOs because
its own sponsor had suppressed it. An exhaustive, impartial study of
Nigeria's vexed history since independence, the Oputa report
significantly concludes that the country's deep problems call for
grassroots, "bottom-up palavers".
The PNC differs from the NPRC in several other respects.
Constituencies have selected their own delegates, who convened in
Lagos in October. The agenda is wide open, positions will be staked
out and debated, and decisions for change taken and brought, first, to
a binding national referendum and, then, to the federal legislature
for implementation, and possibly beyond Nigeria, to the attention of
international groups. Civil disobedience will also be an option, as
well as organisation by participant groups to back only those 2007
candidates who accept PNC resolutions.
All this may sound too good to be true. Pronaco, alas, shows signs of
being as fissiparous as the PDP and Nigeria as a whole, and it is
conceivable that the PNC will implode. The plenary session planned for
independence day, 1 October, has now been postponed twice: 1 October
turned into the planning session, itself fraught with crisis, and the
current target date is February or March 2006. Money is also a
problem, partly because the plan to draw tiny contributions from
millions of Nigerians has yielded insufficient amounts for such a huge
gathering. Pronaco leaders realise that 2007 is getting all too close.
More serious are fissures among the leadership, with causes as various
as personal jealousies, objections to leadership style, disputes about
the timetable, and, finally, the substantive question of the tabula
rasa agenda. As early as July 2005, a faction is said to have gathered
around physician-activist Beko Ransome-Kuti in order to challenge
Enahoro's leadership, but that breach has now supposedly been healed,
through the mediation of Wole Soyinka and others.
Some of the young people involved in the PNC want Pronaco to stake out
radical positions and to move quickly toward challenging the
government head-on. For example, at the 23 July meeting, leaders were
pressured to take a stand on revenue derivation, although they were at
pains to point out that preconceptions were anathema to the spirit of
the enterprise. Historically, Enahoro and other conference attenders
had been sympathetic to local control (the 87% solution), but, perhaps
in light of the recent history of local theft, Enahoro's personal
position appears to have shifted to the idea of a mandated national
"bill of rights", or safety-net, so that education, poverty relief,
and so on should first be guaranteed, after which the several robber
constituencies could fight over the residue. However, Enahoro and the
other July leaders were at pains to point out that they would not
impose their own positions on the PNC. Related to revenue derivation
is federalism, since local control of the purse presumes a weaker
center. Again, the young Turks include breakaway advocates.
The PNC and the nation
So what is the current outlook for the PNC and for the nation?
Unsettled. In recent months, the conference has been further
distracted by government arrests of leaders of several prominent
radical ethnic groups participating in the PNC, whose participation is
in itself an impressive gauge of the conference's inclusiveness.
Charged with treason are "Mujahid" Asari Dokubo of the Niger Delta
People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF), an Ijaw youth group at the forefront
of militant protest in the oil region; Ralph Uwazurike of the Movement
for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob), an
Igbo separatist group; and Frederick Fasehun and Gani Adams of the
militant Yoruba Oodua People's Congress (OPC). Fear of the vindictive
Obasanjo has even caused the northern youth group, the Arewa Youth
Consultative Forum (AYCF), to participate only covertly in the PNC.
Pronaco lawyers are currently representing the arrested leaders, whose
detention is regarded as an attempt to sabotage the conference. The
government says it is cracking down on those who would challenge
Nigerian unity. Charges include treason, which can carry the death
penalty. There is also some feeling within Pronaco that government
provocateurs have infiltrated their ranks. Nevertheless, plans are
moving toward the plenary session. Regional confabs are ongoing,
including one scheduled for Enugu in early January. The huge sign-up
of disparate groups continues, and the key issues and arguing points
are being staked out by a "harmonisation committee". The strongest
points Pronaco makes are that the country is not working, and that
they, the pro-Democrats, at least have a plan to fix it.
As a May 2005 report by the CIA put it, "Nigeria's leaders are locked
in a bad marriage that all dislike, but dare not leave", and the
possible collapse of Nigeria "could drag down a large part of the West
African region". Historically, the US has supported "strong men" in
Africa. Nevertheless, the state department has thus far strongly
opposed the third-term initiative, and would presumably not welcome a
state of emergency, either.
Events are now moving fast. Until recently, Obasanjo had been coy
about the third term, preserving deniability. As recently as 23
December, he said: "Those who are talking about a third-term agenda
are irresponsible". However, that statement was prompted by a 19
December meeting of tame PDP governors from the three southern zones,
which produced a very curious combination of praise and demands.
Calling for zoning of the presidency to the south in 2007, the
governors also demanded a change in revenue derivation, going
immediately to 25%, then on to 50%. They called for "constitutional
reform", threatening to push toward confederation if such reform were
not forthcoming. Stopping short of suggesting the third term, their
communiqué nevertheless praised the president for his "reform efforts
Šlaudable and rewarding crusade against corruption Šhistoric
achievement of debt relief, and Šunceasing and practical efforts at
keeping Nigeria united and indivisible."
If those hosannas sound like an oblique endorsement of the third-term
agenda, a few days after this meeting, thirty PDP governors did,
indeed, endorse the third term. Then, on 27 December, Obasanjo told
the US to stop preaching to him about democracy. Assuming the
initiative does go forward, which looks more likely every day, it
remains to be seen whether he could convince the US that stability
and, of course, the uninterrupted supply of oil and gas require this
What the "northern elements" will actually do about a third-term bid
remains to be seen, but it certainly seems possible they will foment
violent protest. Audu Ogbeh and Muhammadu Buhari, another former
military dictator (1983-85) and defeated presidential candidate in
2003, contend that Obasanjo is reneging on the zoning agreement in
order intentionally to provoke a north-south crisis as a pretext for
staying in power. This conspiracy theory has wide support. The
succession dispute, coming as it does at the same time as crackdowns
on Nigeria's three main ethnic militias, has led many commentators,
such as Wole Soyinka (private communication, 23 December), to agree
that Obasanjo is pushing the country toward a state of emergency
and/or the third-term amendment.
Those who support the extension of office point to Nigeria's need for
strong (i.e. anti-democratic) leadership and to the president's
notable economic reforms and progress (the basis, efficiency and
effects of which are another, very complicated question). Of course,
controlling the purse strings, as he does, as well as the (rump) party
apparatus, if he did run again Obasanjo would once more be in a strong
position to bribe his way to victory. Those who oppose the third-term
initiative cry "dictatorship!" Soyinka has called activists "back to
the trenches", and Beko Ransome-Kuti is among many who have called on
Obasanjo to disavow any third- term ambitions "clearly and
The more hopeful, but increasingly less likely, scenario for 2007 is
that the president will respond to the loud opposition by
unequivocally withdrawing the third-term initiative and then
supporting a candidate of his choosing - rumoured to be a southerner
-who would very likely be opposed by Atiku. Are the PNC reformers
being rendered irrelevant? Assuming that the plenary session does
occur, and in time, exactly what resolutions are reached, will
presumably determine the nature and amount of influence the PNC might
have on election platforms, whoever the candidates turn out to be.
Finally, consider the PNC mantra: the will of the people. A poll by
the Nigerian newspaper, the Guardian, between 26 November and 7
December, indicates that Nigerians in all areas, including Obasanjo's
own Ogun state, are strongly (more than 80%) opposed to the third
term. People also feel that the federal legislature lacks the
credibility and integrity (i.e. they are not bribe-proof) to
effectively check the president. Strong sentiment to this effect was
found even in the north central zone, home to deputy senate president
and Obasanjo lieutenant, Ibrahim Mantu.
Nigerians sorely crave democracy. According to Peter Lewis, in another
new survey (not yet released), Obasanjo's approval rating has fallen
below 33%, and there is overwhelming opposition to the third term.
Given this resounding non-mandate, if the president plunges ahead,
Nigeria may well plunge into widespread conflict. As the orchestrator
of several recent regional military efforts to rescue other west
African failed states, Olusegun Obasanjo should be wary of pursuing
this potentially disastrous course.
This article is published by Ron Singer, and openDemocracy.net under a
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