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BUILD YOUR OWN WEBISTE

DEMOCRACY IN NIGERIA: PROSPECTS AND RETROSPECT
07/18/19, Adebayo Williams
Buhari.1.jpg
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP

What President Buhari has going for him are his residual integrity, his stubborn and phenomenal will as well as power of conviction. Many of his compatriots who voted to return him to power believe that despite the faltering in his first term, he can still deploy these attributes to do some fundamental good for the nation, just as he did with the June 12 fiasco. But if these attributes are to be wrongly deployed or misdirected in the coming months, we can safely say that it is not yet Uhuru for Nigeria.

Among sober historians and political theorists, it is a truism that it is impossible for an authoritarian society to transit to full democratic rule in a jiffy, and without some accompanying trauma and stress. Perhaps in the long run nothing can beat the profound observation that rather than being a preferred destination, democracy ought to be seen as a process. There is no ideal democracy anywhere in the world.

 Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa and its largest economy, is a classic example of an authoritarian and hitherto military-dominated society in traumatic transition to some form of democratic rule. It has so far been a mixed result and an ambiguous adventure. But it could be worse. Nothing can be guaranteed. 

 So it is then that when on June 12 last month, the drums and cymbals rolled out at the Eagle's Square in Abuja before a glittering assemblage of global dignitaries and local nobility, it was with a measure of personal satisfaction and elation that the newly re-elected president and former military ruler, Muhammadu Buhari, took the salute. 

The euphoria was understandable. Nigeria was celebrating twenty years of unbroken democratic rule, a remarkable record. The earlier attempts had lasted only six and four years. General Babangida's putative Third Republic was aborted in vitro. Hitherto prone to instability and coup-related disorder, Nigeria and its people have every right to beat their chest in accomplishment that they have finally beaten off the demon of military disorder.

For President Muhammadu Buhari, it was the culmination of a personal odyssey. Thrice beaten in earlier attempts to secure the presidency, he had withdrawn in a teary farewell to the nation only for fate and superior strategy to dramatically catapult him to the highest office in the land in 2015. Now re-elected in 2019, no other contemporary Nigerian leader has spent a longer time in the democratic coliseum than the withdrawn and crowd-shy former military ruler. It is a typical Nigerian paradox.

The celebration this year is even more remarkable in the sense that after dithering for so long, the Nigerian authorities finally found the strength and conviction to effect a closure on a national tragedy that had festered for a quarter of a century. This was the annulment by military authorities of what is still regarded as the freest and fairest election in the history of the country. 

 The June 12, 1993 presidential election won by the Yoruba business mogul, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, is regarded by many as a defining watershed in the history of Nigeria. It will be recalled that Abiola himself was to perish in military incarceration having publicly declared himself elected president. 

His crusading wife, Kudirat, was publicly murdered on the streets of Lagos obviously on the order of the military authorities. His entire business empire was destroyed for daring to stand up to the military authorities. For four years, Nigeria witnessed a low-intensity war until the military ruler died in mysterious circumstances on the morning of June 8, 1998.


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Some members of the Nigerian Senate at a session. President Buhari will have a more cooperative National Assembly this time round

Having broached the possibility on the occasion of Democracy Day last year, President Buhari has not only made good his word, he also announced that henceforth June 12 would replace 29th May as Democracy Day in order to inculcate the spirit of heroism and sacrifice in coming generations of Nigerians. 

To cap it all, he renamed the National Stadium in Abuja after the fallen democratic martyr. Having conferred on Abiola last year the highest title in the land, this was as good as proclaiming him a posthumous president of Nigeria. To many of Abiola's Yoruba compatriots, this was the best thing to have happened in Nigeria in the last 20 years.

To understand and appreciate the high-wire politics surrounding this remarkable state restitution, it will be necessary to dwell on the politics and circumstances surrounding the annulment of an election that had the capacity to reinvent Nigeria and to set the postcolonial state on the path of righteousness and rectitude. 

After eight years of a circuitous transition programme hallmarked by the banning, unbanning and re-banning of political foes and potential adversaries, the transition programme of General Ibrahim Babangida came to a shuddering halt with the announcement of the annulment of the June 12 election on June 23, 1993. It was the culmination of what has been famously described by Stanford political scientist, Larry Diamond , as "the most sustained exercise in political chicanery ever visited on a people".

It was obvious that General Babangida had no intention of leaving the stage and was merely buying and playing for time. But in the end, he was finally manipulated by his own manipulations as military and civil knives were out to see just how he would pull through the historic scam. It is a measure of how overbearing and insufferable Nigeria's military rulers have become that after his transition programme finally collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions, General Babangida informed a flustered and agitated nation that he was merely stepping aside.

There are two important reasons for this total dominance of the Nigerian political space at that point in time by the military oligarchy. One is sociological and the other is economic. The passage of time also meant the passage of titans. By the time General Babangida came to power in 1985, most of the political giants of the First Republic had gone on to higher glory. Among these were men who could look the soldiers in the face and tell them how they got their commission.

Most of those who survived the military blitz had become poor shadows of their former selves as a result of systematic humiliation and calculated harassment. To compound matters, the military sought to create after their own image and ideological perspective a new group of politicians who they named the new breed. Famously dismissed as newgreed by Nigeria's civil society, they were there to checkmate the surviving members of the old brigade and to complete the process of their political cremation.

The second factor that aided and facilitated the emasculation of the old political class by the military was sheer economic exhaustion. As patronage evaporated and normal avenues for influence peddling dried up, the old politicians became spent forces in both literal and figurative manner of speaking. In order to survive, many were forced to seek accommodation and compromise with the new military overlords. 

The fear of the new Caesars had become the beginning of wisdom. As a result of his ruthless cunning and iron will to power, Ibrahim Babangida had become the most militarily dominant ruler in the history of the country. It was this background of a docile political class, supine labour unions and military connivance that provided the impetus for the annulment of the freest and fairest election in the history of the nation.

Yet it is obvious in retrospect that in his overconfidence, Babangida had not factored into the equation, the murmuring and stirring of a hitherto dormant civil society and the possibility of some of his erstwhile military supporters going rogue once it became clear that he had lost control of the military situation as well as international support.

The annulment was a study in a nation in itself suddenly becoming a nation for itself. For the very first time in their history, Nigerians rose as one and across ethnic, regional, religious and cultural lines to vote for a presidential candidate of their choice. An election that would have united the entire country and cemented the national ideal now became an incubus around the neck of the whole nation. A five-year low intensity confrontation ensued in which thousands perished and the continued survival of the country gravely imperilled.


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Vice President Yemi Osinbajo signs his oath of office during the second term swearing-in ceremony of President Muhammadu Buhari on May 29, 2019 - Sunday Aghaeze / Nigerian Presidential Press Services / AFP

The Nigerian military was faced with the nightmare scenario of all armies of occupation: a virtually united and emboldened populace rising in defiance of despotic rule. Accustomed to ethnic and religious uprisings which it routinely suppressed with maximum violence, this was a sophisticated civil confrontation for which it was not prepared and which was not in the military manual or Order of Battle.

It turned out to be a bridge too far. On June 12, 1993, the Nigerian Armed Forces entered into a potentially fatal contradiction with the Nigerian people. The issue was very clear: whether the military, despite the constitutional clause subordinating it to civil authorities, can retain an electoral overlordship over the rest of the nation without subverting the foundational basis of a modern nation-state.

It was clear to discerning observers that had the crisis continued beyond a reasonable timeline, Nigeria would have been consumed in a fireball of ethnic insurrection and civil disobedience. But Nigeria's legendary run of luck again prevailed. The mysterious death of General Sani Abacha and General Abdulsalami Abubakar's brisk and brief Transition Programme gave the nation a lifeline. Civil rule returned to Nigeria on May 29, 1999 after a sixteen-year hiatus to much national and international relief.

Yet despite the return of civil rule and the restoration of Nigeria from its pariah status to international respectability, it was obvious that something did not really add up. The nation was living in denial. 

The succeeding civil authorities made no attempt to offer restitution for the damage inflicted on the nation's psyche by the annulment or to offer succour to those who have been psychologically maimed and permanently mutilated by their ordeal. For example, the presumed winner of the election, MKO Abiola is believed to have died in questionable and controversial circumstances while his business empire was destroyed.

For nineteen years, the nation lived in denial. The Oputa Panel for National Reconciliation inaugurated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo failed to live up to its billing. Former military rulers simply ignored it as the proceeding often alternated between tragic farce and low-minded histrionics. 

There was the gnawing suspicion that this was nothing but a well-laid out public spectacle, a hollow symphony for the gullible masses. It was either the nation was not ready for reconciliation or that the driving spirits themselves harboured other ideas.

For nineteen years, the nation lived with its self-inflicted wounds. That was until last year when help once again came from unusual and unexpected quarters. When President Muhammadu Buhari first mooted the idea of honouring Abiola and offering some restitution, many of his compatriots were either nonplussed or pleasantly surprised. 

Buhari was neither a fan nor an admirer of Abiola by any stretch of the imagination. Many thought it was a strategic ploy to woo and retain the support of the Yoruba people and a vote-garnering electoral gambit. They have their point. During Buhari's reign as a military autocrat, a tense cat and mouse game subsisted between him and Abiola which culminated in the seizure of newsprint ordered by the Egba-born business mogul for his Concord Group of newspapers. 

To spite Abiola and cut him to size, Dele Giwa and his colleagues were swiftly granted a newsprint license to start off their new magazine. The rumour was that Abiola provided the financial muscle for the Babangida group to facilitate the toppling of the Buhari military regime. 

Yet whatever his personal animus towards Abiola or private animosity for his politics, Buhari made good his promise by honouring Abiola and granting him the nation's highest honour of GCFR meant principally for former heads of state, he also invited Abiola's family for a national reunion with human rights luminaries in attendance. June 12 was also proclaimed the official Democracy Day even as Buhari shifted the official commemoration of the return of democracy from May 29 to June 12.

It was just a little bit short of proclaiming Abiola a posthumous president, but it resonated very well with Nigerian people, particularly Abiola's Yoruba compatriots.   What President Buhari has done amounts to a radical rupture of the old order; a breach of the protocol of state confidentiality. For a man who is not known to be a radical in any sense of the word, in fact a man who evokes conservative solidity, this is quite a big deal.

It is a remarkable game-changer for Nigeria. This is a confirmation of the hunch that the most remarkable and radical changes in Nigeria are likely to come from Northern power players who are not afraid of looking the traditional supremoes in the eye and telling them to take a walk.

By naming the Abuja Stadium after Abiola, the hero of the June 12 struggle, General Buhari has struck a blow at the heart of annulment. For reasons of self-imposed political correctness, it is arguable if any southern leader would have had the guts to do this. This is an act of spectacular courage. What Buhari, a rebel member of the establishment, has done is to carry the battle to them. Let the memory of Abiola torment them each time they drive round the capital city.

Unfortunately, Nigeria's deep wounds and divisions go deeper than superficial symbolism. Had the nation come to its senses much earlier, it might have been able to reign in the centrifugal forces now driving it to perdition. Now the falcon no longer hears the falconer. Once a nation misses its way in the jungle, it continues to wade deeper and deeper into dangerous territory.  

Today, incalculable political, economic and spiritual damage has been inflicted on the nation. The National Question occasioned by the annulment has worsened. Ethnic conflicts have become the norm in the country. The quality of election has declined. Banditry and kidnapping have escalated beyond the imaginable. 

The political elite have never been more divided or sharply polarised. The Boko Haram scourge remains in the North East of the nation despite the brave efforts of our gallant forces. Meanwhile, Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna and Taraba states have been added to the hotbeds of religious and ethnic mayhem. 

Heavily weaponized herdsmen and rumoured foreign militia all the way from the open borders of the Maghreb have begun to probe the soft underbelly of the Yoruba states sending waves of panic and anxiety to the hitherto peaceful ambience of Osun, Ogun and Ekiti states. Once the Yoruba people begin to chafe and demur in significant number, this is bound to put in acute jeopardy the historic détente between its dominant progressive forces and the dominant conservative group in the north of the nation.

If President Buhari has his work cut out for him in terms of arresting the grave security situation and worsening inter-ethnic relationship, it is actually on the economic front that he has the greatest challenge. So far, he has achieved only middling and mixed results. Nigeria has been named the new poverty capital of the world ahead of India. Obviously held hostage by competing economic dogmas in his first term, Buhari dithered and dilly-dallied as the economy nose-dived.

But of late, the government has shown great pluck and verve in sticking to the economic roadmap it has chosen for the nation. The unorthodox means of shoring up the naira adopted by Godwin Emefiele, despite the protests of the IMF and its neoliberal orthodoxy, appear to have strengthened and stabilized the national currency. 

The heavy investment in infrastructure, particularly in transportation and agricultural resurgence, are beginning to yield some results in terms of food production. Available statistics however indicate that massive smuggling of rice across our porous borders, particularly along the Northwest and Southwest corridors, have continued to serve as a major disincentive to local production.

These are the wages of corrupt state organs that are proving hard if not impossible to reform. Despite President Buhari's bold efforts to confront corruption and graft headlong, the dividends have been miserable. In fairness to the government and compared to earlier eras, corruption appears to be less blatant and in your face. But there can be no doubt that it continues to flourish under the table in dark interstices of government.

One reason for this is that the anticorruption agencies do not appear to have a free hand in determining who to prosecute and when. But more importantly, the whole campaign occasionally succumbs to official whims and caprices and is not driven by any visible intellectual template or holistic framework. While the gung-ho approach of the current leadership of the EFCC is to be applauded, the lack of an institutionalized framework and the ambivalent body language of the president often stymie the efforts, particularly in high profile political cases. 

As a result, Buhari's own anticorruption mantra has waned and wilted in the crucible of harsh pragmatic politics. Despite its renewed mandate, the administration is caught in a double-bind of a political and ideological nature. To drive its anti-corruption crusade in a more holistic and fundamental manner, it needs a pan-elite consensus. 

Yet the more it goes after the same corrupt elite in a partisan and blatantly one-sided manner, the more it alienates sections of the elite and the more the possibility of elite consensus recedes and the more the government is forced to resort to political self-help which is the mother of all corruption. The case of Ibrahim Magu, the hardworking boss of EFCC who was never confirmed by the last National Assembly, is particularly instructive. Magu has also been a victim of internal power play by partisan state institutions. 

In the event, the drastic haemorrhaging of the economy continues due to the gargantuan overhead cost of the legislative and executive arms of government. The third-tier local government structure is not left out of this mindboggling waste. Recurrent expenditure consumes an unwholesome percentile of government spending leaving almost nothing for developmental projects.

If Nigeria's economic woes are reducible to this epic wastage of national resources, it can be postulated that there is a possibility of the nation fumbling and wobbling through in the usual manner. But the lack of economic and political will has thrown up other dark players. The persistence of the Boko Haram imbroglio has already depressed the peasant economy of the Northeast.

If the herdsmen versus farmers crisis, the spate of kidnapping and the general climate insecurity which has driven farmers from their lands in the rich alluvial states of Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna, Taraba, Benue and now parts of the Southwest persist, if the influx of international miscreants is not immediately halted, it may result in drastic food shortages which can snowball into a monumental implosion and something far more nasty than we are currently witnessing.

It can be seen from the foregoing why President Buhari has his work cut out for him. With the population exploding while growth and development lag behind, a demographic nightmare is also unfolding. Nigeria's economic woes are due to the inability of our economists to come up with a savvy and sophisticated home-grown National Development Plan which can drive rapid growth and inclusive development such as witnessed in the First Republic and the early Gowon administration.

Many have fingered the harsh unitary centralisation which succeeding military governments imposed on the nation as against the regionalism which drove phenomenal development and growth in the First Republic. They are accordingly insisting on a re-examination of the current lopsided political configuration of the nation.

What President Buhari has going for him are his residual integrity, his stubborn and phenomenal will as well as power of conviction. Many of his compatriots who voted to return him to power believe that despite the faltering in his first term, he can still deploy these attributes to do some fundamental good for the nation, just as he did with the June 12 fiasco. But if these attributes are to be wrongly deployed or misdirected in the coming months, we can safely say that it is not yet Uhuru for Nigeria.

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