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Democracy in Nigeria: the road less travelled

Godwin Nnanna
27 March 2007

The presidential election in Nigeria on 21 April 2007 is a crucial one for democracy on the continent. A fair and successful election in the continent's most populous nation - and the world's fifth largest federation (after India, the United States, Brazil and Russia) - would be a shining example to the region and even the world; a compromised one would damage the reputation of a country already tarnished by violence and corruption. The current signs - especially a bitter feud between the incumbent president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and his vice-president, Atiku Abubakar (whose candidacy a court disqualified on 15 March) - are not good.

The election takes place against a background of violence in a north divided by sectarian and religious faultlines and a south ravaged by the "curse of oil". This problem is long-lasting: since the bitter feud that led to a secession attempt by the eastern region in 1967 (leading to the three-year Biafra war), successive governments in Nigeria have - in various ways and with limited success - tried to purge the country of its endemic centrifugal tendencies.

The country continues to grapple with ethnic militia groups demanding autonomy and control of natural resources.

After several attempts to quell insurgence by the three leading militia groups in the country namely: the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF) in the oil-rich Niger delta region, the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob) in the southeast, and the Oodua People Congress (OPC) in the southwest. President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005 ordered the arrest of their leaders who are still being held in detention for treason charges.

Godwin Nnanna is a journalist in the Ghana bureau of Business Day in Accra.

Also by Godwin Nnanna in openDemocracy:

"Ghana: fifty years of independence"
(6 March 2007)

The government seem very unwilling to expedite action on their trial for fears of its likely impact on the forthcoming polls in the country. Many of their followers, however, continue to clamour for their release. The militant youths in the oil-rich Niger delta region are the most forceful in their demand. They have consistently pointed to the release of Mujahid Asari Dokubo, the NDPVF leader as one of the measures to ensure lasting peace in the region.

The region has seen some of its worse cases of violence and kidnapping since the arrest and detention of Dokubo. In his absence, the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force has melted into different militant groups with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) being the most notorious. Over 150 oil workers (mostly non-nationals) have been kidnapped in the region since 2005 with the resultant disruption in production causing Nigeria, a leading member of Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) and the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States, huge loss in revenue.

Challenging as the activities of these groups may be, the biggest threat to the peaceful conduct of the April presidential elections in Nigeria today is the feud between President Obasanjo and his vice-president, Atiku Abubakar. With less than a month to the elections, Nigeria's political landscape looks already tense. Since its independence in October 1960, the country has never witnessed a transition from one elected government to another making the next month's election a critical test of Nigeria's maturity in self-governance.

The relationship between Obasanjo and Atiku went sour after the former's bid to prolong his tenure through constitutional amendment failed. They had managed to work together before then, albeit grudgingly. However, since the tenure elongation bill popularly known as the "the third-term project" was rejected and discountenanced by the country's legislature in May 2006, it has been bitter rivalry between the two leaders.

President Obasanjo has never hidden the fact that he does not want Atiku to succeed him. He recently made that plain when he stated that over his dead body will Atiku succeed him.

A few hours after last Thursday's release of the list of candidates for the April presidential polls by Nigeria's electoral commission which clearly omitted Atiku's name, Obasanjo issued a statement praising the commission for stopping the "bad eggs and corrupt elements" that want to "resume the unbridled looting of our national wealth".

"Against the background of recent developments in the polity and intelligence reports available to it, the Presidency wishes to state with all possible emphasis that under no circumstances will it allow any individual, group or institution to abort next month's general elections in the reckless and irresponsible pursuit of personal ambitions to the detriment of overriding national interests", the statement warns.

The rift between the two worsened in late 2006 when Atiku decamped from the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to join the opposition. He is currently the presidential candidate of the Action Congress and has since being facing allegations of corruption by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the country's leading anti-graft body. A report by the commission accuses Atiku of diverting public funds running into several millions of dollars for private business. The embattled vice-president has since denied the allegation.

Also on the politics and governance of modern Africa in openDemocracy:

Richard Dowden, "In search of Ugandan democracy"
(6 December 2005)

Achille Mbembe, "South Africa's second coming: the Nongqawuse syndrome"
(15 June 2006)

Edward Denison, "Eritrea: a cheap holiday in other people's misery"
(20 December 2006)

Wilf Mbanga, "Happy Birthday, Robert Mugabe"
(21 February 2007)

Gilles Yabi, "Guinea: a state of suspension"
(28 February 2007)

Lara Pawson, "Angola: the politics of exhaustion"
(2 March 2007)

Peter Kimani, "Kenya's voices of discontent"
(27 March 2007)

Despite its remarkable success in tackling corruption in Nigeria, many critics of Obasanjo accuses the EFCC of only going after the president's enemies. The commission in a recent report indicted thirty-two out of the thirty-six state governors for corruption. It has since published the names of the affected governors and other government officials equally accused. Some have lost their jobs while others are currently facing varying charges.

The intensification of the commission's activities in the last few months is seen by critics as a deliberate act of intimidation by Obasanjo of strong elements in the opposition. "This assault is especially vicious on those who appear to have good chances of winning the presidency, thereby leaving the stage to those whose prime motive in joining the race is probably to be known and addressed as ‘presidential aspirants'", says Abubakar Umar, a former military governor and one of the president's prominent critics.

Atiku's dream of succeeding Obasanjo looks irredeemably doomed by his exclusion from the list of contestants. He has gone to court to challenge the decision. Except the court expedites action, his name is likely to be omitted from the ballot papers which is expected to be ready in a week or two latest. Most analysts say Obasanjo is determined to enthrone Umar Musa Yar'Adua, the flag bearer of his ruling party, as the next president. Until he was chosen as the party's candidate in the elections, Yar'Adua who is the governor of Kastina state in Nigeria's northern region, was relatively unknown on the national scene.

Reports say the president opted for the quiet unassuming younger brother of the late General Shehu Musa Yar'Adua (who served under him as chief of the general staff when he was military head of state, 1976-79), because he is one of the few serving governors adjudged not have stolen public funds while in office.

Taking serious interest in who succeeds you as a leader is ordinarily not wrong except that the manner Obasanjo is going about it suggests an exercise that will end up in a "selection" rather than an election. That, of course, portends danger for this diverse country of 140 million people.

At this stage many expect that the president would be more concerned about ensuring that the country he fought as a soldier to protect during the country's civil war, does not degenerate into anarchy. For now, the major challenge faced by Mohammadu Buhari, Atiku Abubakar, Pat Utomi and other leading contenders in the April polls is not the ruling party's candidate but the incumbent president who despite the success of his economic reforms has shown that he is far from being a democrat.

As the elections draw near, the hope of many Nigerians is that the president will concentrate on ensuring its peaceful conduct, desist from his war of attrition with Atiku Abubakar and allow the Independent National Electoral Commission (Inec) to live up to its name by being truly independent. So far the commission does appear to be everything but independent.

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