Nigeria and Democracy: Third Time Lucky?

By Onadipe, Abiodun | Contemporary Review, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Nigeria and Democracy: Third Time Lucky?


Onadipe, Abiodun, Contemporary Review


May 29, 1999, marked an important milestone in Nigeria's political development as the country turned full circle. After fifteen years of oppressive rule by three military juntas, Nigeria renewed its march towards democracy. A civilian government was inaugurated. The military handed over power to one of their own - retired general Olusegun Aremu Matthew Okikiolakan Obasanjo - in what the late Afro-beat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti calls 'Army Arrangement'. Indeed, the newly-elected People's Democratic Party (PDP) government, led by Obasanjo, has been characterised as a continuation of military rule in disguise. Regardless, Obasanjo became Nigeria's second elected president, after a three-year stint as military ruler two decades ago and an unwarranted three-year jail term in 1995. This turn of events could not have been predicted a year ago - a dream come true.

Despite the high expectations and hopes generated by the dawning of this day, the pessimism evident throughout the ten-month transition programme refused to lift: a consequence of the deep-seated uncertainty that has accompanied the democratisation process engineered by successive juntas over the past twelve years. Basically, the success of Nigeria's transition to democracy is far from assured. Beset by long-standing political, social and economic crises, it will require effort, imagination, goodwill and patience to build structures and cultivate attitudes that will sustain and support a peaceful and progressive democracy. How the coup-prone military will react to the assertion of civilian control is perhaps the most fraught issue on the horizon.

Since gaining independence from the British in 1960, Nigeria has made two major attempts at democratic civilian rule. The first experiment was supervised by the departing colonial authorities and was fashioned after the British Westminster parliamentary system, involving the wholesale adoption of British political models and institutions. Elections were held, a prime minister was elected, and a parliament was established. Things appeared to be working well until a crisis broke out between the political groups in 1964 leading to military intervention and a bitter civil war between 1967 and 1970. After a decade of military dictatorship, Nigeria tried another democratic experiment. This time the American presidential system was adopted. A new constitution was drawn up, elections were held and a president was elected. The new arrangement lasted for only four years before the military intervened again.

The old question: what is Nigeria doing wrong? has elicited many responses. The central issue comes from the limitations of politicians and military rulers who have not managed the democratic system properly. But the suitability of the adopted systems and their relevance to the peculiar circumstances of the country has also been problematic. In both experiments, little effort was made to create a democratic culture with local content. Rather, the systems have been imported wholesale from Britain and America without being adapted to suit local needs.

The result of the imposition for Nigeria has been the superficial observance of democracy and human rights values without grassroots legitimacy. When the country began yet another transition programme in 1994, the old debate as to what appropriate system to adopt re-emerged. Some suggested the French model, a mixture of the British and American, while others asked why a Nigerian model cannot be fashioned. This agitation found expression in the phrase 'home-grown democracy' during the repressive reign of General Sani Abacha, who died suddenly in June 1998, while attempting to transform himself into a civilian president. He was succeeded by General Abdulsalami Abubakar who paved the way for general elections and a return to democracy. Abubakar won praise at home and abroad for political reforms and restoring democracy.

However, Abubakar's transition programme was littered with land-mines and as the hand-over date approached the anxiety of Nigerians heightened not just because Abubakar's regime was passing on a poisoned chalice to a civilian government but because the out-going junta was leaving the country in a worse shape than when it assumed power, confirming the suspicion of many that the Abubakar government was a continuation of Abacha's. …

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