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.
Abacha achieved international notoriety by hanging Ken Saro-Wiwa, along with eight other Ogoni activists, in November 1995. (When the doctor suggested to the main defendant that he was having psychiatric problems, he replied: ‘Yes, I must be, because all I can see on the benches are kangaroos.’) Most shocking of all for Nigerians was discovering the existence of at least three death squads – K-Squad, Strike Force, Special Squad – responsible for ‘eliminating’ awkward opponents of the regime. Their victims included the wife of Chief Abiola, the detained winner of the 1993 elections, who was gunned down at a busy intersection in June 1996; and ‘Pa’ Alfred Rewane, the 79-year-old nationalist who had fought against colonial rule in the early Fifties. Rewane was killed by a single bullet in the heart when five gunmen broke into his house in the early hours of 6 October 1995. The killers went away with two briefcases but left behind a sizable amount of cash.
Within days of Rewane’s murder, the Inspector-General of Police, Alhaji Ibrahim Coomassie, constituted a high-powered panel ‘to prove to everyone that we are capable of tracking [down] criminals’. Within a week, he announced ‘a breakthrough’: it was ‘an inside job. It is not assassination as people expect. One of the staff arranged it.’ Three months later the suspects – the gateman and driver of the deceased, a friend of the gateman, a hotelier, two vulcanisers and ‘a job-seeker’ – were arraigned in court, but the case kept being adjourned because five other suspects were yet to be apprehended, or because the case file was with the Investigating Police Officer, who wasn’t in the courtroom just then, or because one of the detained suspects had or hadn’t died – everybody agreed, at any rate, that he had been sick. The case then went into abeyance until, a year after the start of proceedings, Coomassie announced that the suspects had escaped from custody. No fault of his, of course: ‘Once a case is before a legally constituted court and the court, after hearing, pronounces judgment or remands them in prison custody, the police automatically hands off the case.’
The revelations of official complicity in Rewane’s murder were contained in a recent issue of Tell, the best-selling weekly news magazine, under the headline ‘Mustapha’s Confessions’. Major Hamza al-Mustapha had been Abacha’s chief security officer. He was arrested last October, along with about twenty other ‘Abacha boys’, on grounds of ‘national security’, which in this case meant that he knew too much about the other generals in the PRC, including General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Abacha’s former deputy who went on to become Nigeria’s eighth military head of state. According to Mustapha, the assassinations were carried out by the Directorate of Military Intelligence in collaboration with the Military Police. Mustapha also said that Rewane’s murder was deliberately made to look like an armed robbery: some ‘miscreants’ were paraded in front of the public before being spirited across the border.
It seems strange, on the face of it, that Abacha’s former colleagues on the PRC should deliberately leak information implicating themselves, while at the same time trying to promote the idea that Abacha was insane – ‘He was a lunatic, pure and simple,’ his Attorney General has said – in order to duck responsibility for what was done in their names. The regime’s difficulty was captured in a BBC radio interview with Ignatius Olisemeka, the former Ambassador to Israel and now the Minister for External Affairs, who tried to suggest that Abubakar was both loyal and not loyal to his former Commander-in-Chief: ‘Loyal supporter? ... I don’t know about loyal supporter. I am not saying that he was not loyal ... I knew and he knew too that, given the embrace of tyranny, wise men should be careful in order to have a voice in the future.’ Resignation, ‘an English view’, was pointless because ‘you can make more contribution to society if you had a job and did it to the best of your ability.’ In other words, by dissociating themselves from the excesses of the Abacha years, Abubakar and his spin doctors have been hoping to sell to a sceptical electorate their ‘transparent, free and all-inclusive programme of transition to civil rule within the shortest possible time-frame’.
The speed of the programme – eight months from the registration of voters to the swearing in of the elected President (due to take place on 29 May) – suggests that the generals know Nigerians are weary of them, and that their best chance of clinging to power is by changing their attire before anyone notices. In the words of Chief Olu Falae, the Opposition Presidential candidate, who was destined to lose even before he was selected for the slaughter: ‘what they may do is take off the uniform, drop the gun, put on agbada’ – traditional dress – ‘grab naira and use naira as the gun to rule us.’ According to a newspaper report, General Babangida personally donated 50 million US dollars to Obasanjo’s campaign: he is hardly going to sit around waiting for a genuinely democratic government to come along and investigate his affairs, perhaps even shoot him. Obasanjo, who was quick to denounce Chief Abiola’s 1993 mandate on the grounds that the military must not be disgraced, also happens to satisfy the widespread demand for the next President to be a southerner as compensation for the 1993 annulment. Obasanjo is a Yoruba from Abeokuta, the same town as Abiola, which makes him a perfect choice for everybody except his own people, who regard him as a traitor.
The rigging began with the voter registration exercise last October, when a sizable percentage of the 60 million registration cards went missing. Even Justice Ephraim Akpata, the chair of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), conceded that there were flaws in the distribution but blamed ‘unscrupulous Nigerians’ for contributing to ‘the artificial scarcity’: ‘One is not really surprised at the level of corrupt practices ... It is the general belief that over 25 per cent of Nigerians who seek elective office do so by foul means. It is endemic.’ Voters are no more scrupulous. I spoke with a number of people who had registered in ten or more centres for 50 naira a time. They didn’t know or care which party they were supporting. Poverty doesn’t discriminate, even in a democracy.
More serious improprieties occurred in the course of the December local government elections which saw Obasanjo’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) win 425 of the 774 Local Government Areas (LGA) in the 36 states of the Federation, plus the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The All People’s Party (APP) won 174; the Alliance for Democracy (AD) won 94. The bulk of the rigging occurred in the south of the country, excluding the six Yoruba-speaking states of the south-west, which were dominated by the AD, a party of principled, mainly Yoruba politicians who had stood by Abiola’s mandate. Two days before the election, Dr Udenta O. Udenta, the AD’s national secretary, warned that the other two parties had ‘commenced the harassment, intimidation, personal assault and violent invasion of homes of AD chairmanship candidates by roving bands of paid hirelings and thugs’. Their plans, he claimed, included kidnapping AD candidates, bribing INEC officials to falsify results, hijacking ballot boxes and results sheets, and generally causing pandemonium, particularly in the south-eastern states, where the AD had a strong presence – as I saw for myself when I travelled in the region last November.
Following the AD’s no-show in that very region, its leading southern members issued a communiqué alleging ‘open fraud, rigging of results, preparation of false results, snatching of ballot boxes and papers, announcement of prepared results and announcement of results in wards and local government areas where voting never took place’. One party ‘chieftain’ claimed that ‘the mayhem visited on AD members’ on polling day resulted in 28 deaths.
Most of the allegations concerning the conduct of the election were made by the APP, otherwise known as ‘Abacha People’s Party’ because of the preponderance of the dead dictator’s cronies within its ranks, but it hadn’t helped its case by calling on its members before the election to ‘outrig’ the opposition. ‘Don’t tell me tomorrow that somebody had rigged the election,’ the party’s national chairman said at a pre-election rally in Enugu, ‘and that’s why you did not win. No, this is not an excuse. We have heard that 101 times. You should rig; all we want is to win the elections at all costs.’
The APP’s initial allegation was that the PDP had paid 2.5 million naira to all 37 INEC offices in the country, and two million naira to each state police force in order to swing the election its way. Justice Akpata immediately demanded that the APP prove the allegation or offer a public apology, because ‘the days when politicians are allowed to make sweeping statements defaming officials are over.’ He and his commissioners, he said, had ‘taken this job because of our desire to serve and contribute our quota to the progress and development of this country’. The APP eventually retracted and apologised to INEC, but more allegations were to follow, this time naming names and identifying wards. The allegations took the form of a six-page advertisement published in the national papers on Christmas Eve, cataloguing the ‘gory picture of mayhem unleashed on APP and its members nationwide’. There was a two-page follow-up in January, on the eve of the elections to the state assemblies and governorships. In Abia State, for instance, Chief Uche Nworu was supposedly doused with acid following an attack ‘in his compound by men believed to have been sent by a PDP Chairmanship candidate’. He died an hour later. His crime was to have refused the overtures of ‘a PDP Governorship aspirant who had sent emissaries’ to point out to him the error of his ways. In Bayelsa State, the APP Chairman of Nembe LGA lay ‘critically ill in a hide-out in Port Harcourt from injuries sustained on the eve of the election from attacks by PDP members and supporters’. In Enugu State, the APP chairman was beaten to a ‘stupor’ for challenging ‘a busload of thugs and two mobile police officers’ who descended on the polling station and ‘ordered the presiding officer to stop the accreditation’ and to accompany them to ‘an undisclosed destination’. The chief was then bundled into the boot of a car and driven five kilometres to the bank of a river where they threatened to kill him if he didn’t produce 50,000 naira. He eventually persuaded them to accept half that amount, which was all he had, before they released him, telling him ‘to go home and sleep and never to interfere in the process’.
And so it went on. In Obio/Akpor LGA in Rivers State, the returning officers in all the wards were abducted. In Abua/Odula LGA, also in Rivers State, the collation centre was petrol-bombed by PDP members when they realised the party was losing in 11 of the 13 wards. A by-election was held the following Saturday, but when APP agents demanded to be shown the results sheets, they were chased away by security agents, one of whom opened fire with live bullets, killing a young man. Not all the mayhem was confined to the south. One especially pathetic incident occurred in Kano State. The problem started when the Divisional Police Officer of Isanyama LGA ‘ordered the stoppage of the collation of results’. Two hours later, he allowed the counting to continue but ‘insisted that the results should not be declared on the spot’. APP supporters ‘protested vehemently’, whereupon the police used tear-gas to disperse the crowd. Some of the supporters fled to the house of the party candidate to alert him to what was happening. The police followed them to the house, released more tear-gas and opened fire, killing two of the candidate’s sons, whom they buried ‘without conducting a post-mortem to determine the cause of death’. The candidate was detained for seven days, during which time his house was vandalised and over 400,000 naira in cash stolen.
A number of these allegations were substantiated by press reports at the time, but the Nigerian press is almost exclusively based in Lagos, in the extreme south-west of a large country with poor infrastructure. Besides, few people can afford a daily newspaper costing 50 naira. Events outside the commercial capital, where most of the advertising originates, are cursorily covered, even during elections. The PDP naturally rubbished the allegations, calling them the ‘lamentations’ of ‘congenital failures’ and ‘distressed political widows’ intent on ‘trying to derail the transition by beginning these cock-and-bull stories of yester-years’. Justice Akpata dismissed them as ‘frivolous’ and out of keeping with the views expressed ‘by both international and local observers’.
The last point was true enough. The Transitional Monitoring Group, for example, a coalition of over sixty local non-governmental organisations that came together to ‘point out early-warning signals if the programme appears to be derailing’, issued a flimsy ‘interim report’ in time for the state elections on 9 January. It simply concluded that the 5 December ‘elections were largely peaceful and free of rancour in many voting centres. However, some isolated cases of violence were reported.’ The international community concurred, but then the Commonwealth had already made up its mind about ‘the integrity and nature of the transition programme’ before voting took place, by lifting the risible sanctions it had placed on the country following the hangings of the Ogoni Nine. The day after the 5 December election, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, himself a Nigerian, was to be seen everywhere in the company of Justice Akpata declaring himself ‘delighted at the evident enthusiasm of Nigerians’ in ensuring a peaceful transition. Other international monitors were equally impressed, among them, Hama Amadon, ex-president of the Republic of Niger, which is currently ruled by a former soldier put there by his good friend, General Abacha. Amadon represented the Carter Centre. Jimmy Carter himself, a personal friend of Obasanjo, arrived in time to witness the February Presidential election.
The 9 January elections were much better organised. There were malpractices, of course (a gubernatorial candidate’s wife, for instance, was caught with 120,000 naira and ‘a black earthen pot containing objects suspected to be charms and amulets’ with which to bribe or intimidate potential voters) but generally there was ‘a remarkable improvement in the logistics put in place by INEC’. This was the conclusion of the Justice, Development and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church, which fielded 2500 monitors in the six south-western states and which also drew attention to INEC’s innovative use of academics from the local universities as returning officers. This helped to reduce corruption because politicians found them difficult to bribe. As a result, the APP made a better showing, increasing the number of states it controlled from two to nine, with the AD increasing its hold on its own six states. However, according to INEC’s own rules, the winning Presidential candidate was required to poll a quarter of the votes in at least 24 of the 36 states. This meant that neither the APP nor the AD stood a fighting chance unless they formed an alliance to capitalise on the 15 states they already controlled between them, which they duly did. Unfortunately, they underestimated the determination of the generals to cling to power. Even Jimmy Carter questioned the discrepancy between the number of people observed at polling stations during the February election and the figures released by INEC. Chief Olu Falae, the Alliance’s flag-bearer, wondered how a coalition which had polled 84,000 votes more than the PDP in the previous month’s election managed to lose the Presidential by over seven million. The reason wasn’t hard to find. In Niger State, for instance, INEC returned 871,000 votes where only 754,00 voters were registered. Ironically, Niger State’s most illustrious son is none other than General Babangida.
On the other hand, Falae’s campaign scarcely inspired confidence. I tried to join his campaign team in the week leading up to the election. He promised me a place on his 16-seater aircraft when I saw him at his party headquarters in Lagos, but when I arrived in Abuja, the centre of operations, I spent two frustrating days being pushed and shoved by assorted hangers-on who clearly weren’t going to let ‘Mr President’ out of their sight. The first day I never even made it up the steps. I got into the aircraft on the second day, having been reassured by Mr President that this time I was definitely among the chosen, only to be confronted by two elderly men – northerners both – squabbling over who was senior and therefore entitled to the one remaining seat. It was clearly beyond the powers of Mr President to call them to order, although he did mutter something about hiring a second aircraft but this, too, turned out to be beyond him. There were no other journalists in his entourage: they were all with Obasanjo, who was treating them well, judging by the column inches devoted to him – and this was a man who once put up a notice at the entrance to his farm banning journalists, along with women and dogs.
I was disappointed, and not only because I wanted to see a good fight. Falae carried the hopes of all Nigerians unhappy with what his own party had identified as the attempt to foist a ‘militarised democracy’ on the nation in order to maintain the status quo. At bottom, the war in Nigeria is between those who prefer the present ‘army arrangement’ which concentrates power in the centre for the purpose of stealing what belongs to others, and those who want devolution of power, with each region deciding how to use its resources.
For the AD, any proper restructuring must be preceded by a Sovereign National Conference with full constituent powers. Such a conference would unite all the minority ethnic groups in the north and south, who between them comprise roughly half the estimated population of 110 million. They include the increasingly restive minorities in the oil-producing Niger Delta, many of whom are no longer willing to accept ‘our enslavement in the fraudulent contraption called Nigeria’. The words are taken from a communiqué issued by the Ijaw Youth Conference which met in the town of Kaiama in Bayelsa State last December. In the communiqué, they reject the so-called ‘derivation principle’ allowing communities control of only 3 per cent of their resources (down from 100 per cent in 1953, 45 per cent in 1971 and 20 per cent in 1975) in favour of self-government within ‘a federation of nationalities’. The declaration also demanded ‘the immediate withdrawal from Ijawland of all military forces of occupation and repression by the Nigerian state’, and the complete cessation of ‘all exploration activities’ by the oil companies, who were warned to desist from employing ‘the services of the Armed Forces of the Nigerian state’ to protect their operations or run the risk of being seen as ‘an enemy’. The deadline they gave was 31 December 1998. Predictably enough, ‘the Armed Forces of the Nigerian state’ were deployed on the day before the deadline expired, when soldiers opened fire on a peaceful demonstration, killing seven. The demonstrators, who merely wanted to present a petition to the state military governor, had already been cleared by the State Police Commissioner, who ordered his men to leave them be. Twelve other demonstrators were arrested and taken to Bori military camp in Port Harcourt, the place where Saro-Wiwa was tortured because he thought his people ought to have something – clean water, electricity, schools, clinics – to show for the estimated 30 billion dollars that the crude oil from his community had contributed to the national coffers since 1958. By 3 January, the death toll had risen to 26 because, the military administrator said, ‘various groups ... threatened the basic existence of the Federal Republic of Nigeria’ – in particular, he added, those behind the Kaiama communiqué.
The sentiments contained in the Kaiama Declaration, as the Ijaw Youth Conference called it, were repeated again and again at a Conference of Nationalities also convened by opposition groups in Lagos in December. The key-note address was delivered on behalf of Chief Anthony Enahoro, the celebrated nationalist who first moved the motion for Nigerian independence in 1953 but who, in old age, was harried into exile by General Abacha for refusing to remain silent in the face of tyranny. In his address, Enahoro simply asked why the PRC ruled out a Sovereign National Conference in favour of a speedy transition programme: were they afraid of the ‘democratic decision-making process’ that would underpin such a Conference? Obasanjo’s victory has scuppered any chance of that, although he has promised to form a government of national unity, which is another way of saying that not very much is going to happen.
In the meantime, Chief Olu Falae has taken his case to court, accusing INEC and Obasanjo of impropriety. He says he owes it to his conscience and to the Nigerian people to ensure that justice prevails: ‘we must not have a government based on falsehood, fraud and unrighteousness.’ But even among those who believe he was cheated of victory, there is little support for his decision. People know that any confusion resulting from the case would provide an excuse for the PRC to postpone the handover to the ‘militarised democracy’ they have engineered and cling onto outright military rule. According to the latest rumour some service chiefs in the PRC are already clamouring to remain behind after 29 May in order to ‘stabilise’ the incoming regime. Fear of the military is the beginning of political wisdom in Nigeria.