Africa's Contradiction: Nigeria on the Path to Democracy. (World in Review)

By Tsai, Thomas | Harvard International Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Africa's Contradiction: Nigeria on the Path to Democracy. (World in Review)


Tsai, Thomas, Harvard International Review


Since Nigeria gained independence from Great Britain in 1960, democracy has had a difficult time taking root. The country's first post-colonial government was overthrown in January 1966 in a coup led by Major General Johnson Agiuyi Ironsi, who was later killed in a counter-coup in July of the same year by officers loyal to General Yakubu Gowon. More coups followed in July 1975 and February 1976 and the brief interlude of democracy between 1979 and 1985 was ended by another coup. In the 1990s, democracy finally seemed to be emerging during the presidency of Moshood Abiola only to be reversed by the despotic rule of General Sani Abacha.

With the death of Abacha in 1998, Nigeria finally seemed to be heading toward peace. Garnering 62 percent of the vote in February 1999, current president Olusegun Obasanjo has pledged to enact economic and political reforms. With over 120 million people and a position of leadership in African affairs, Nigeria has become Africa's contradiction. It offers the best opportunity for democracy in Africa, yet it is beset by several internal problems that, if not addressed, will make it one of Africa's greatest failures.

Ethnic Tensions

Nigeria's most daunting challenge lies in overcoming the severe divisions among its competing religious and ethnic groups. In January 2002, clashes between the Hausa and Yoruba ethnic groups killed over 300 civilians in the chaotic aftermath of a deadly explosion at the Ikeja military barracks in Lagos. In recent months the Tiv and the Jukun tribal groups of central Nigeria have engaged in genocidal tribal raids. Since the restoration of civilian rule in May 1999, a total of over 10,000 Nigerians have died in civil strife.

These ethnic flare-ups revolving around the Tiv tribal group further highlight the flaws in Nigeria's government. On October 22,2001, Nigerian soldiers drove into villages in the central Nigerian state of Benue, looting homes and murdering civilians. In that single episode more than 300 people were killed. Among the more prominent victims were relatives of a former army chief of staff, Victor Malu, whose house was also looted. The army attack was motivated by revenge; Tiv tribesmen had earlier ambushed and killed 19 soldiers. Instead of finding the murderers, the army launched indiscriminate reprisals, and underlying the army's actions was a strong undercurrent of ethnic tension. While Malu is a Tiv, many of the soldiers involved in the attack and the defense minister who dismissed Malu are Junkuns.

Perhaps due to Nigeria's history of coups, Obasanjo has remained silent regarding the abuses of the military. As shown by its involvement in the Tiv-Junkun massacres, the military is still very much motivated by ethnic loyalties, something that the government cannot erase by fiat alone. Many obstacles remain in the quest to construct a unified national identity.

Unstable Federalism

Further undermining national unity, Christian-Muslim antagonism runs deep in Nigeria, where the North is dominated by Muslims. The state of Zamfara in northwestern Nigeria overwhelmingly approved legislation extending the fundamentalist Islamic law code, Shari'a, to criminal cases. The Zamfara government established new Islamic courts and codes and justified the extension of Shari'a by pointing to section 277 of the 1999 constitution, which allows state level Shari'a courts to "exercise jurisdiction in civil proceedings involving questions of Islamic personal law." Christians and other critics in the South have argued that the extension was not legitimate because the constitution forbids a state religion. Although condemned by the federal government in Lagos, other northern states including Bauchi, Borno, Jigawa, Niger, Kano, Katsina, Sokoto, and Yobe have followed Zamfara's example.

The Islamization of the northern states highlights important failures of Nigeria's democracy. …

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