The Nigerian Way of Dying

Article excerpt

Byline: Wole Soyinka; Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986.

As elections get underway in Africa's most populous nation, there's both hope and blood.

The ongoing Nigerian electioneering perversely calls to mind the title of a work I read decades ago--Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death. What she would have written on Nigeria's democratic culture, especially of its rapacious consumption, one can only conjecture. The present Nigerian democratic system is supposedly modeled on the American, where the cost of electioneering is also astronomical. There, however, all similarities end. In the U.S., for a start, funding is regulated and monitored. Infringements are punished.

Most pertinent, however, is that the U.S. does not appear to give any sign of dying through the ballot box. Casualties are hardly reported, and each exercise appears to strengthen that nation's democratic culture. In Nigeria's distorted version of America's expensive electoral system, more than just the national treasury is bled to death. Contenders die--their supporters also--in droves. Their relations are not exempted. Some are kidnapped to exert pressure on their ambitious kin to step down. Ultimately, the democratic project also dies, as does the sense of nationhood, casualties of the manipulation of economic, ethnic, religious, and economic disparities.

A hopeful feature of the 2011 elections, however, is the entry of a new electoral commissioner, Attahiru Jega. A professor and former academic trade unionist, he is a different cut, most Nigerians agree, from his corrupt predecessor. Threatening to overwhelm this plus is that, perhaps for the very same reason, the current elections are looking more and more like a contest for body counts. The explanation is straightforward: even as democracy does not begin and end with elections, the seeds for its demise are sown long before an electoral exercise. In the Nigerian case, one can actually assign a date to the current harvest from those seeds.

We must travel back in time. The nation endured military dictatorships for more than three fifths of its independence. After the death of the sadistic dictator Gen. Sanni Abacha in 1998, Nigeria underwent a one-year transitional military administration headed by Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, who uncharacteristically bowed out precisely on the promised date for military disengagement. Did the military truly disengage, however? No. Not only did that unregistered political party, the armed forces, impose a constitution on the nation, it ensured that its entrenched "party" members and obliging civilian partners were inserted into a large number of political offices--governorships, state and national legislatures, and--the jewel in the crown--the presidency itself.

The 1999 presidential election was a farce, but Nigerians chose to go along--anything to be rid of the disastrous, violently corrupt rule of soldiers. Three years into his presidency, the Army nominee, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, became entirely preoccupied not only with his reelection in 2003, but also with obtaining an unconstitutional third term in office. As I wrote when his maneuvers had become undeniable, the nation was headed for a West African Mugabe scenario. Its failure took years, however--all of his second tenure--and the consequences of that abortive effort are very much what now threaten the democratic survival of the Nigerian nation as it looks over its shoulder at Zimbabwe and the Ivory Coast of Laurent Gbagbo.

Determined to consolidate his hold on power, General Obasanjo began an onslaught on democratic structures--the judiciary included--with military ruthlessness. If the 1999 election was tolerated as the price of military disengagement, the election in 2003 was seen as its consolidation under a change of clothing. …