Adewale Maja-Pearce watches Nigeria march away from democracy
The military should make a clean break from politics to retrieve its fast-vanishing reputation.
General Olusegun Obasanjo, August 1993
No, I am not interested in becoming the head of state again. Besides, I am a retired professional soldier. Civilians should elect the leaders they want to become their President.
General Olusegun Obasanjo, September 1998
In the early Eighties ‘ordinary’ Nigerians were told by a prominent politician that they weren’t suffering if they weren’t yet eating out of dustbins. Today ‘ordinary’ Nigerians live at or below the level of their brothers and sisters in the rest of Africa – in neighbouring, landlocked Niger, for instance, where geography and the accidents of colonial history have conspired to keep the bulk of the population in perpetual dependency. Before they started eating out of dustbins – a familiar sight in any of the bigger cities now – Nigerians would boast that theirs was not a typical Third World disaster area where any madman can do what he likes in the name of government. But that is exactly what it has come to. Nigeria, ‘the giant of Africa’, with one-fifth of the continent’s population and a great deal of its resources, is effectively a disaster after four decades of misrule. Wole Soyinka said recently that he sometimes wished he had been born into a tiny, impoverished African country of no strategic value to anyone.
At the heart of the problem are the generals and their civilian collaborators who have run the country for all but ten of the forty years since Independence: a tradition that looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. This was the real lesson of February’s Presidential elections won by General Olusegun Obasanjo (retired), the former military head of state and now the country’s duly elected civilian leader. Fela Kuti, the late Afro-beat musician, called it ‘army arrangement’ in one of his more provocative compositions. It was during Obasanjo’s first term as the Number One Citizen, in the late Seventies, that Fela’s house was burned to the ground by a thousand soldiers because he had called them ‘zombies’ in another song. The subsequent tribunal ignored eye-witness accounts of soldiers carrying jerry cans of petrol, and complaints by the fire brigade that they were prevented from entering the area: Fela had asked for it because ‘no single individual, no matter how powerful or popular, can set himself above the laws of the land and the Government will not allow or tolerate the existence of a situation which is capable of undermining the very basis of civilised society.’ Fela later tried to sue the Government through the civil courts, but the case was thrown out on the grounds that ‘government can do no wrong’ – the enduring principle of military rule.
Fela understood earlier than most that once the Army had sunk their claws into the body politic it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prise them loose. We were to discover what this meant more than a decade ago when the military began the tortuous series of transition programmes which saw one general after another pass the baton to his deputy, while claiming that he was ‘midwifing an enduring democracy’. The only difference now is that everybody, inside and outside Nigeria, is heartily sick of them, hence the candidacy of Obasanjo, who had already earned international respect for being the first, and so far the only, Nigerian military ruler voluntarily to relinquish power when he organised elections for the Second Republic in 1979. In fact he had little choice in the matter. Obasanjo is a Christian southerner in a country ruled by Muslim northerners. The anomaly is that the south is not only better educated and more populous (although the 1991 census had this the other way round), but possesses most of the country’s resources, including crude oil, which accounts for 80 per cent of GDP and 90 per cent of foreign exchange earnings. Obasanjo, who found himself at the helm of state (‘against my personal wish and desire’), following the assassination of his mentor, General Murtala Muhammed, in a botched coup attempt, was quick to see that he was required to step down and, with a little help from the Supreme Court, fulfilled his obligations to the letter. The soldiers allowed democracy just one term before they struck again, ostensibly to stop the looting that has continued unabated since then.
The trouble began in earnest in the mid-Eighties with ‘the evil genius’, General Ibrahim Babangida. His eight-year tenure resulted in what the IMF described, with consummate understatement, as ‘a breakdown of fiscal and monetary discipline’. It saw the disappearance of 12.4 billion US dollars – now worth 110 billion naira – in oil receipts. Many people believe that Babangida, personally, stole one-third of that money; some of the rest went on 70 six-door Mercedes limousines presented to visiting heads of state when Nigeria hosted the 1991 Organisation of African Unity jamboree. But Babangida’s decisive contribution to the political history of his nation was to annul the 1993 election that was supposed to bring about ‘lasting democracy’. This isn’t something he has even bothered to explain: ‘what happened in 1993 ... is okay in the life of a developing country,’ was all he cared to say in a recent interview, which suggests that he was only concerned to hand over to his deputy and long-time fellow coup-plotter, General Sani Abacha.
Abacha was, if anything, more venal than his former boss. After his unexpected death last June, apparently in the arms of two Indian prostitutes, his colleagues in the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) decided to spill the beans. In early November, Chief Anthony Ani, Abacha’s long-serving Minister of Finance, revealed that Ismaila Gwarzo, Abacha’s national security adviser, withdrew a total of 1.331 billion dollars from the Central Bank of Nigeria over a period of 18 months. A few days later, we were told that around three-quarters of a billion dollars in cash in various denominations had been recovered from the Abacha family. A few days later still, we were told that a further two billion dollars were discovered to have been ‘shared by two former ministers and a member of the Abacha family’ after a complicated deal with a Russian company that had been contracted to run one of the country’s steel works. The amounts involved, about four billion US dollars, were the equivalent of roughly half Nigeria’s external reserves.