The Problems of Political Succession

By Ebere Onwudiwe


Adapted from his guest lecture at the  Concerned Professionals symposium "Towards 2007: The Challenges of Political Succession in Nigeria," The Chartered Institute of Bankers, 19 Adeola Hopewell, Victoria Island, Lagos, Thursday 9 February, 2006 (marking Prof. Pat Utomi's 50th birthday.) 

Originally, the crisis of political succession in Nigeria was, in a way, systemic. The colonial structure bequeathed to us at independence ensured that that the northern region dominated the center. The size of the three regions into which the Milverton Constitution of 1946 divided the country ensured that one of the federating units, the North, would have a larger population than the combined Eastern and Western federating units.

This gaping inequality in the size of the regions has remained the main source of the Eastern and Western fear of political domination since independence. The North was made so large that it could override the wishes of the other two regions in the federation. This has direct bearing on the domination anxiety and the crises of political succession in this country. It informs the recent South Forum's position that "the North held the presidency for 35 of the 45 years of independence of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and cannot be justifiably asking for a return of the same power after a mere eight years (by 2007) it has been held by a Southerner."

It is important to note that the problem of succession in our country is not just a civilian phenomenon. Even our unlamented military leadership had this problem when the coup makers after the death of Ironsi picked a junior officer Lt-Col Yakubu Gowon a northerner, over Brigadier Ogundipe, a southerner. The crises of course were complicated by purely personal considerations. It was not a northern plot when General Gowon reneged on his promise to hand over power to the civilians in 1975, or when President Babangida hung on to power until he was removed in I993 or when Abacha devoted his energies and public resources to self-succession instead of governing the country. Such actions can be traced to personal ambition and intoxication or even addiction of power rather than purposeful leadership.

But a case can be made that both the Shagari election through some mystic arithmetic and the infamous June 12 denial of Abiola's mandate are clear returns to the "a northerner must rule" imperative. While the case of Shagari is not crystal clear, the case of June 12 is beyond debate. In general, the long experience of military rule has left a legacy of dysfunctional political process in Nigeria, one marked by executive dominance and political corruption. This has created a "Godfathers" political culture that sees government mainly as an instrument of personal power and accumulation of private wealth.

The result is huge patronage networks rooted in years of military rule and dominated by political "godfathers," who are at once intolerably powerful and often unimpeded by law, as in the cases of Chris Uba and Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu. Their hold on power is the primary means of acquiring more wealth and, therefore, more power. This is one reason power in Nigeria is difficult to transfer in a prescribed and orderly manner.

Apart from these historical considerations, we should explore some of the systemic structures that feed the hunger for power at the center. If we can identify these and seek ways of manipulating them in ways that diminish their attraction to political power mongers, I believe we would have gone beyond analyses of the problem to proffering some possible solutions.

1) The problem of over-centralization: At the center, where the system unwisely concentrates political power, and the bulk of the national wealth, it is no wonder that leadership frequently degenerates into a daily struggle for the control of political power rather than a focus on governance. Therefore, another reason why we have problems of political succession is the concentration of political power at the center. This brings out the issue of federalism, a concept of checks and balances that has lost its meaning in the Nigerian context where EFCC a federal body can freeze the account of a state.

Ordinarily, federalism is supposed to limit the power of the national government to its appropriate sphere of action by creating a second level of government that is independent of the national government. States should be free to be different from each other, and should strive to restrain the economic power of the national government. Rules or structures that limit the economic power of the federal government would preclude some of the problems of succession. Therefore, one cure for the problem of political succession is decentralization of power or real federalism.

2) The problem of executive supremacy: It has been clear during the course of the Obasanjo administration that within our system of separated powers, the executive branch enjoys unambiguous supremacy. By executive supremacy I mean the treatment of the powers of the national government as if they were the powers of the president. This is odd, because in real presidential democracies legislative power is on a par with that of the executive. This is frequently guaranteed by giving the sole power of appropriation to the legislature. Unless legislative parity replaces the current presidential supremacy, the job of the presidency will remain so attractive that the premium put on it will continue to derail civilized processes of succession in Nigeria. The current arrangement centers national politics on Aso rock.

The centre of national politics has to shift from Aso rock to the dual chambers of the National Assembly. The best way would be to give control of public funds to the House of Representatives, the body that is closest to the people. The money belongs to the people after all. As it operates now, the oil revenues are effectively controlled by the presidency while the National Assembly goes annually through the motion of budgetary allocations. But this legislative role is meaningless as long as a President can refuse to release the budgeted funds. President Obasanjo is a master of this kind of impounding and preferential releasing of budgeted funds by the National Assembly a situation that effectively gives to the executive the power of the purse. What we have, therefore, is an excessively powerful president.

Let me emphasise that this is not a reflection on the incumbent; it is about the office. When we leave this kind of resources in the hands of one man or woman, we create an office to die for, an imperial presidency that might call for loyalty more urgently than merit in public service. In the face of such power in the hands of one man, few of us will behave differently and many of us in that position might seek self-succession. One of the best legacies of the current administration could be to work to change this structure of national power in favor of legislative parity. That way President Obasanjo would have shown the way toward a future of smooth political successions.

We are now at an important juncture in the future of democracy in this country. What happens in 2007 will determine whether our democracy is consolidated or derailed. The history of the rebirth of democracy in this country has always involved critical moments of determined leadership. In 1979, when President Obasanjo wisely handed over power to the civilians, he became a hero of democracy. In 1999, General Abubarkar wisely handed over power to civilians; he became a hero of democracy. And in 2003, when that same civilian government successfully conducted an election that produced the current regime our country moved forward towards greatness.

The next test will be 2007 when the term of our incumbent president should be concluded. If we are able to show the same leadership this time around, if we are able to change from this administration to another one without divisive rancor and destabilizing violence, we would have told the world that we have come of age in this country, that at last, our democracy is here to stay.