Democratic consolidation in Nigeria: Looking between the mirage and the mirror


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Democratic consolidation in Nigeria: Looking between the mirage and the mirror

  1. 1. DEMOCRATIC CONSOLIDATION IN NIGERIA: LOOKING BETWEEN THE MIRAGE AND THE MIRROR J. ‘Kayode Fayemi, PhD, Centre for Democracy & DevelopmentIntroductionAfter fifteen years of military and authoritarian rule, great expectations accompaniedthe resumption of civilian rule in Nigeria in May 1999. For a country that had sufferedsevere deterioration in its economy and politics over the thirty years of military rule,the assumption that civilian rule would herald a dawn of peace and a deepening ofdemocratic values and norms in society was understandable. However, thisassumption did not take into account the deep-seated divisions inherent in Nigeria’sbody politic. These were not the products of military rule even if it had exacerbatedthem.The scale, scope and intensity of conflict in Nigeria since the end of military rulechallenges the assumed teleological link between military disengagement frompolitics, demilitarisation of Nigerian society and consolidation of our democracy inthat order. With over 10,000 dead in communal conflicts and an exponential increasein societal violence, many will argue that it is too early to talk of democraticconsolidation in Nigeria. Indeed, the fact that the public still casts doubt on thestate’s capacity to manage domestic crises and to protect the security of life andproperty underscores primarily the depth of disenchantment with the state of things.As Nigeria drifts down the path of increasing violent conflict, perhaps we should firstmove away from current disappointment and ask if anything could really have beendifferent from the current situation, given the provenance of civilian rule. Withoutbeing complacent about consolidation in the context of a democratising polity, I thinkit is important to first interrogate the notion of democratic consolidation in its1
  2. 2. variegated forms – especially in the context of transition societies. The notion ascurrently conceived gives the impression of a pre-conceived destination – a model towhich we all should aspire in the world. This model parades a uni-dimensional listthat concentrates on the promotion of the dominant neo-liberal paradigm with anumber of mantras: Have elections, and every other thing shall follow! Private good,public bad, the market is God! Deny the importance of Ideas, contestation andstruggles and focus on the external. In short, imitation democracy works, period!Nigeria has become a debilitating example of this uncritical regurgitation of theconsolidation dogma in the current leadership’s search for endorsement andacceptance by the outside world. So, in trying to address the topic of my paper, Iask for some conceptual clarifications: what does it really mean to be a consolidateddemocracy? Is there any known consolidated democracy in the world and moreimportantly, is democratic consolidation achievable in a country with a prolongedhistory of authoritarian rule, and in which the ethos, values and practise of militarismhave become systemic, rather than ad-hoc. Can we understand consolidationoutside a historical context that traces the roots of the democratic project?Political reform, governance and democratisationThe nature of General Abachas exit and the ascension to power of GeneralAbubakar arguably determined the outcome of the democratisation project in 1999.However one may view the eventual outcome of the rushed transition programme,the fact that the military elite was not responding to a full defeat by the populationcan hardly be discounted in understanding the pacted nature of the democratisationproject and the compromised outcome that is reflected in today’s bad governance.There is no doubt that the dominance of the political party hierarchy by retiredmilitary officers and civilians closely connected to the military elite set the tone for aparty formation that pays little attention to ideology.This compromised political settlement was therefore perceived in several sectors(especially in the civil society) as a reason why military disengagement ought to be2
  3. 3. viewed with a great deal of scepticism and not a sine-qua non of demilitarisation ofthe polity and the deepening of democracy. Indeed for many, the secretive nature ofthe transition, which saw a government elected with no public access to theConstitution, was seen as a major problem. At a time when the Constitution is nolonger seen merely as a set of rules and laws regulating the state and society butalso as a social contract and an expression of the general will of the nation, manyobjected to an imposed Constitution and predicted it was bound to contain traps forthe new democracy.In spite of the vociferous campaign for an open debate on the Constitution, the ideaof a people-driven governance arrangement was largely ignored by the military.Instead, the Abubakar government established the Justice Niki Tobi ledConstitutional Debate Co-ordinating Committee (CDCC) to collate public commentson the draft 1995 Constitution produced by General Abacha. However, the CDCChad only two months to undertake this exercise and in spite of its members’determination to do a good job, they were already hobbled by some of the centralprinciples that guided their work - in particular, its lack of transparency, opennessand credibility. More importantly, even when the CDCC managed to produce a draftof the views gathered, they later discovered that the ruling military elite, which wasintent on its own agenda and wanted to avoid any issue that might return to haunt itsleaders after their exit from power, chose to ignore many of their recommendations.This led to the eventual marginalisation of civil society voices that cautioned againsta rushed transition programme and an exclusive focus on electoralism. It also pavedthe way for the low quality of the elected representatives, the majority of whomemerged from the shadows of the military parties created during General Abacha’srule. Since many of the protagonists of those parties controlled resources throughvarious rent-seeking activities undertaken while they were still in office, they wereable to transfer these resources to the newly registered parties.Civil-Military Relations in the context of DemocratisationGiven the above context of the military hangover, the election of an ex-military3
  4. 4. general with significant support from the military constituency, was seen (in civilsociety) as an extension of a continued military rule of sorts. The administrationsagenda for military re-professionalisation has followed the traditional patternembraced in countries moving from prolonged military and authoritarian statestructures to civilian, democratic structures. The focus has been more on the de-politicisation and subordination of the military to civil authority. Other efforts atimproving civil-military relations through the demilitarisation of public order and thepromotion of civil policing as well as balancing the demands of defence with theneed for development have been little or non-existent.While administration gained the confidence of sceptics by tackling the immediatechallenge of choosing military chiefs to lead the restructuring and re--professionalisation project in the armed forces, its sackings of ‘Politicised’ militaryofficers on 10 June 1999 — two weeks after the government was sworn in was evenmore popular. The retirement exercise which saw the exit of 93 officers (53 from thearmy, 20 from the navy, 16 from the air-force and 4 from the police was welcome incivil society). The government’s third move that saw the immediate termination ofseveral contracts awarded by the previous military administration as well as theestablishment of a judicial commission to investigate human rights violations undermilitary rule also won the approval of a hitherto sceptical civil society.Popular as these measures were, the government’s attention still appeared to befocussed on the superficial and the personal, not the deep seated institutional andstructural problems that plagued civil-military relations. The government assumed asis common with the dominant model of civil–military relations that there is a levelplaying field in which ‘autonomous military professionalism’ can be predicated on‘objective civilian control’. This model espouses the entrenchment of an ‘independentmilitary sphere’ that does not ‘interfere in political matters’. In reality however, thisperspective treats civilian control as an event, a fact of political life, not a processthat has to be negotiated within a continuum, especially in a state emerging fromprolonged authoritarian rule in which the military has become entrenched in everyfacet of Nigerian life. In a previous piece (Fayemi, 1999), I cautioned against thedanger of entrenched militarism and argued that civilian control should not be seen4
  5. 5. as a set of technical and administrative arrangements that automatically flow fromevery post-military transition, but rather as part of complex political processes, whichmust address the root causes of militarism in society, beyond the formal removal ofthe military from political power or the retirement of politically tainted officers. Threeyears after, events in Nigeria underscore why there is a need to redefine the notionof the a-political military — a notion that has been central to the discourse of thedominant literature on civil–military relations.In Nigeria where the military has become entrenched in all facets of civic andeconomic life and where politics has featured a reconfiguration rather than atransformation of power, anchoring the need for objective civilian control to thenotion of an a-political military underestimates the seriousness of the issues at stake.While formal mechanisms for control are not in themselves wrong, the realityunderpinning Nigerias crisis of governance is that subordinating the armed forces tocivil control can only be achieved when civil control is seen as part of a complexdemocratic struggle that goes beyond elections and beyond subordination to thepresident and his Defence Minister.(Fayemi, 1998). These processes areexpressions of institutional relationships that are inherently political, subjective andpsychological. Only when the political and psychological issues arising out of militaryinvolvement in politics are grasped can we begin to look at objective controlmechanisms.Given the burden of Nigeria’s authoritarian past and the military’s loss of credibility, itwas thought that elected civilians and civil society would be allowed to play a keyrole in military restructuring and in the redefinition of roles and missions to helprestore confidence in the institution within the general public. However, there is aconflict between those who feel that legislative and popular oversight should becentral to democratic, civilian control and others who think that the president and hisdefence minister, as ex-military leaders, should have the freedom to restructure themilitary without checks and balances simply because ‘they know what they aredoing’.As a result the legislature has largely functioned as a rubber stamp as far as military5
  6. 6. matters are concerned. Not only are parliamentarians often unaware ofdevelopments, their role in terms of determining policy on the size and character ofthe armed forces, overseeing their activities and approving actions taken by theexecutive, has been short-changed by an overbearing executive branch. Even themilitary, at least that part of it that wants professionalism restored has become whollydisenchanted with the performance of the government and become opposed to itsdependence on foreign assistance in the reform of the institution, rather thanimproving governance. (Fayemi, 2002) No issue has brought this disenchantmentinto clearer focus than the recent bomb blast in the Ikeja military barracks which ledto a loss of over one thousand lives, a clearly avoidable tragedy given the warningsthe government had received from the military and the legislature on the neglect ofmilitary facilities. It is not surprising therefore that there is a huge clamour in civilsociety for a review of the constitutional dimension of military matters aimed atclarifying the role of the executive, the legislative branch and wider society inensuring stable civil–military relations.Beyond the constitutional gaps on the role of the military, perhaps the most sensitiveissue in civil society has been its role in maintaining internal security. Given thethreats posed to internal security by the militarised (dis)order since the newgovernment assumed office, the role of policing has been the subject of widespreaddebate in the country, especially against the backdrop of opposition to the use ofmilitary power in the ‘aid to civil authority’, the rise of ethnic militias, and publicperceptions of police inefficiency and collusion with agents of crime and insecurity.Whilst the United Nations suggests a police to citizen ratio of 1:400 the ratio inNigeria is currently 1:1,000. Added to the severe personnel shortages areinadequate accommodation and transportation, poor communication networks;poorly funded training institutions; and an insufficient crime intelligence-gatheringcapacity.The Obasanjo government has shown some determination to:• Demilitarise the responsibility for internal security by giving the police the sole responsibility for maintaining internal security and public order6
  7. 7. • Strengthen the efficiency of the police force by reforming its doctrines, giving it a new mission statement, codifying its procedures, improving training and standards especially to prevent the recurrence of human rights abuses;• Increase the resources available to the police, reducing the ‘dead wood’ in its ranks, expanding its role in intelligence and security information gathering and injecting new blood into the force• Increase the size of the police force and the pay of its members.In spite of the governments declared commitment to the above and the extensiveceremony surrounding a new mission statement for the police, there is evidence tosuggest that the government still has serious doubts about excluding the militarycompletely from internal security issues. This is especially so given the recurrence ofsituations where the police have found it difficult to cope with the provision of basicsecurity. Yet, many continue to argue that the inability of the police to perform itsfunction well is not just a technical one of achieving professionalism, but also one ofreluctance on the part of the government to address the larger issue of localaccountability of security institutions and law enforcement bodies.The question of engaging civil policing for democratic governance is central to theissue of returning security to the community, ensuring democratic accountability andrevisiting the structure of federalism in the country. The question regarding thedecentralising of the police organisation, structure and operations has been centralto this discourse given the problems that have attended the centralised control of thepolice force and the uses to which it has been put under previous regimes. To createa service culture, and not a regimented force arrangement, accountability must becentral to public order and the police cannot be trusted within the community if theyretain a structure that is only accountable to the centre and not the communities theyseek to serve. While others especially in government circles have expressedconcern about the possible negative uses of decentralised policing especially giventhe nature of the inter-ethnic squabbles and community clashes that are prevalent inthe country today, the search for basic security by the ordinary people has led to therise of vigilantism in places where the police is seen as an ‘agency of insecurity’.7
  8. 8. Indeed, emboldened by their citizens’ campaigns for basic security, many states areresponding by employing the services of ethnic militias for internal security duties.For example, in Anambra, Rivers, Enugu, Oyo, Osun, and Lagos states, ‘BakassiBoys’ and Odua People’s Congress operatives have taken charge of some policingfunctions such as traffic management and are confronting armed robbers with theoften tacit approval of the state executives and even endorsement of the federalpolice authorities. The problems of policing cannot be seen in isolation from thecriminal justice system and the overall quest for proper governance in the country.Reforms to the judicial system have been much slower than reforms to the militaryand the police. Until there is a comprehensive approach to access to justice and lawenforcement, even the resolution of the technical and administrative issues that thegovernment is concentrating on will not bring about the desperately needed changein the sector.Another issue central to fraught civil-military relations has been the challenge posedby the management of security expenditure. The debate on how much is enough tomaintain defence remains a realistic issue on the agenda and civil society has beenvery interested in this. Government also recognises that strengthening the militaryprofessionally without the corresponding provision of adequate resources andpolitical support may lead to frustration and possibly to unfulfilled and exaggeratedexpectations on the part of the soldiers. On the other hand, civil society clamours fordownsizing, right-sizing and sectoral reform without the corresponding realisationthat this may lead to an increase in military expenditure, at least in the interim – interms of demobilisation and re-integration costs. Indeed, one of the major problemsfaced by the current government is how to manage military pensions and save ex-service people the trouble of receiving their pensions promptly.Yet the major concern in civil society is that government seems to be ignoringconcerns about the need to attend to social and developmental spending and areworried that this may threaten the overall goal of stability, human security anddemocratic consolidation. In a country where people living below the poverty linehas risen from fifty percent in 1999 to over seventy percent now, this is clearly a realthreat which the government does not appear to be seriously getting to grips with as8
  9. 9. any analysis of sectoral allocations in the annual budget shows if this can be taken atleast in theory as an indicator of government intention on poverty eradication. Theworry in civil society is that the situation is going to deteriorate as the country movestowards the 2003 election with the attendant pressure to spend on pork-barrelledprojects that are neither regenerative nor poverty reducing.Electoral politics and the Future of the nationIf there is one issue that threatens to undermine the little gains that have been madesince the return to civilian rule in 1999, it is the conduct of electoral politics and theimplications of the 2003 elections on the polity. Ironically, one of the criticalpathways for resolving Nigeria’s over-centralised politics and consolidatingdemocracy is the institutionalisation of electoral politics beyond the routine ballot boxrun every four or five years.A key path to ensuring that this happens is in the institutionalisation of political partydevelopment that can then argue and ensure acceptable rules for the operation andconduct of electoral politics. Again, there is very little one can say about the state ofelectoral politics without reference to the nature of political transition in 1999. Therushed transition provided the template for the entrenched dictatorial tendenciesinherent in today’s political system. First, in its denial of the constitutional provisionof freedom of association through the limitation placed on political party formationand annulment of independent candidacy, the 1999 electoral law succeeded inousting the politics of ideas, contestation and dialogue from Nigeria’s body politic,leaving the terrain open to agglomeration of opportunistic interests.Three years down the line, the irony is not lost on most Nigerians that the mainopposition to the current excesses of the PDP government remains within the PDPparty structure, especially its legislative wing. The other two parties have abandonedtheir role. The evidence is clear that the parties have never been the battleground ofcontestation and ideas, but a crucible for plotting electoral agenda in 2003, one thatseeks to entrench the grip of those currently in office whilst excluding others. Whilethe idea of remaining in power is not really unique in politics, what is most worrying9
  10. 10. for civil society is the fraud that has attended this and the threat that election nowposes to the exacerbation of conflict in the country.Perhaps the most worrying of these developments is the controversy that hasattended the electoral bill and the role played by the executive and legislativebranches of government in this plot to undermine the tender fabrics of the nation’sdemocracy. From the way the various players have conducted themselves, it is ofcourse evident that public good has not been uppermost in their minds. The fact thatthe Supreme Court has thrown out the bulk of this Electoral Act is positive but wehave to see how this actually translates into electoral sanity in the country.Civil society on its part has been working with the legislature to ensure that there is alevel playing filed, which is looking increasingly unlikely for the 2003 election.Through the Electoral Reform Network, a coalition of several civil society bodies, ithas argued for locating the reform of the electoral law within the context ofconstitutional reform. In particular, it has campaigned for the de-linking of theElectoral Commission from the state if it is to be seen as the independent arbiter thatit ought to be in the conduct of elections. Civil society has also campaigned for theliberalisation of the conditions for party formation as a mechanism for strengtheningpolitical party structures. It rejects the argument that having more political parties willautomatically result in instability. The inevitability of instability thesis is of course onethat government and its institutions have promoted in order to retain the current partyframework, and one supported at first by the three political parties. The divisionswithin the ranks of the ruling party, PDP is also ensuring that a significant section ofthe party in parliament is now keen to see additional political parties whose platformcan be used – in case they get thrown out of the party. Whilst this may work infavour of those who have campaigned for political parties in the context of freedomof association, it will still leave the field severely in favour of entrenched politicalparty machines not in the least interested in the transformation of the polity.Many in civil society are now contesting what is seen as a false dichotomy betweenpolitical society and civil society in addressing the danger of electoral politics. Thelimitation of these efforts however is in the use of the ‘masters’ tools to destroy his10
  11. 11. house. Some civil society leaders have embarked on various campaigns tochange from within, through current political parties. Whilst this is a tactic that mayadvance their electoral chances, it is bound to do very little to change the practice ofpolitics. If anything, it is likely to deepen the influence of those who currently considerthemselves as kingmakers in the polity.Ultimately, if electoral politics is to have any impact on democratic consolidation, wecannot divorce ideas from pragmatism. There is no alternative to the hardworknecessary in building political movements with a long-term agenda to win power forthe good of the polity. This requires determination, hard-work and directengagement with a populace that has become totally disenchanted with politicians.But this is not a 2003, nor even a 2007 or 2011 project. It is not a time-boundproject, although it is useful to have in sight some stages in this development of thisproject and benchmarks for measuring progress. In my view, what is needed now isa local Porto Alegre movement with an intellectual wing that concentrates on firingthe imagination of the people on the alternatives to the current politics ofopportunism. Some may even say that what I am calling for amounts to a return tothe barricades. Indeed, I see some room for some selective return to the politics ofthe barricades, but this must be backed by well thought through initiatives thatconnect deeply with the people. Constitutionalism and the place of rules basedgovernance offers us the best chance in civil society to do this and experience inother parts of Africa has shown that it is possible to build a civil society movementaround this – using it to address issues of relevance to the people. This leads me tothe last issue I was asked to address by the organisers of this meeting –constitutional reform.Civil society perspectives on Constitutional ReformThe Nigerian civil society has been consistent in exploring the linkages betweenconstitutionalism and governance and constitutionalism and democraticconsolidation. In a country where institutions are weak and government has becomeone where ‘anything is possible’ because of the lack of respect for the rule of law,civil society was very insistent that the country was going to be saddled with a11
  12. 12. ‘democracy without democrats’. Although this has been the clear position of civilsociety, there was a section of it that felt if was better to engage electoralism as atool for reversing the problems of an imposed constitution. Hence, civil societythrough the efforts of the coalition of mainstream NGOs, Transition MonitoringGroup, played a critical role in monitoring the 1999 elections.When the constitution was eventually unveiled to Nigerians in the aftermath of thepresidential elections, the fears in civil society were confirmed. All the pertinentissues that agitated the minds of Nigerians about the need for national restructuringhad been papered over in the constitution. The departing military junta significantlywatered down even the few issues that the CDCC had been bold to raise in theirown submissions. In short, the document had no standing with the people and thestate missed the opportunity of using the process of constitution making as a tool forbridge building between the civil society and state. In July 1999, a civil societycoalition, the Citizens’ Forum for Constitutional Reform was established( and the Forum with its extensive national network has sincechampioned the cause of using constitutionalism as an entry-point for ensuringdemocratic consolidation and gaining legitimacy. This campaign has focussed onextensive consultation and grass root mobilisation on the content of the constitutionwith specific focus on Federalism, Fiscal Federalism, Access to Justice, Citizenship,Independent Institutions of the Constitution, Electoral Law and Political Parties,Gender and Constitutionalism, Security Sector and the Constitution, Ethnicity &Religion. In addition to the work of the Forum, others like the United Action forDemocracy has produced a model constitution for debate. Also, no fewer thantwenty conferences had been held across the country on various aspects of theconstitution, reinforcing the widespread view that the constitution remains the singlemost important issue to address if Nigeria is to move down the path of consolidation.Even where constitutional and other legal provisions are badly trampled, theexistence of a people driven, process led legal framework to guide governance offersa starting point for a successful transformation processes.In response to this widespread civil society campaign, the government set up its owntechnical committee to review the constitution whilst the National Assembly12
  13. 13. proceeded to do the same. In spite of the various efforts which underscores theunpopularity of the body of law governing the country, it is also evident that theleadership in the executive and legislative branches of government have shown verylittle interest in restructuring the current nature of politics and openly opposes thecampaign for national dialogue even as the system overheats from the disaffectionthat is widespread within the state.The recent judicial action by the Supreme Court has proved to be one other methodutilised in civil society to pursue constitutional changes. Public interest litigation is onthe rise and the judiciary seems to be waking up to its responsibilities, but this is justone more tactic, which cannot constitute an overall strategy. In my view,constitutional reform remains a pivotal strategy to focus on and perhaps it may betime for civil society to selectively return to the barricades in order to get thegovernment to pay more attention to constitutional reform as a mechanism foraverting societal violence and promote developmental democracy.Prospects for reform and lessons for the futureIn conclusion, let me return to my analogy of the mirage and the mirror in addressingthe question whether Nigeria is going to consolidate its fledgling democracy. It iscertainly uncharitable to say that nothing has changed in Nigeria since May 1999. Alot certainly has changed and there is evidence to show that Nigerians do not want areturn to their pre-May 1999 situation. This is not merely conjectural as a recentsurvey of the Afrobarometer group on Nigeria recently reveals. The tolerance levelfor the military is still very low in the country, just about thirty percent if that survey isto be believed – although the survey also revealed that this has increased from theless than twenty percent tolerance level in February 2000.Yet even if this gives us an indication of a consolidation mirage which appearsbefore us but remains unattainable in its constant disappearance as we move closerto it, the reality of the Nigerian situation is also that consolidation of democracy is aprocess, a struggle which has to be waged at all levels – one that is bound to revealan ugly picture if we confront the truth by looking at ourselves in the mirror. The13
  14. 14. challenge is to recognise this true picture in the mirror and take effective steps toaddress the ugliness that confronts us. It is clear to even the young in Nigeria thatthe leadership remains in denial that the question of the national structure is thecentral issue that will not go away in our quest for democratic consolidation as anation. The question that many continue to pose will have to be answered with all itsattendant ramifications: What is this nation called Nigeria? What does it mean to beNigerian? This was the question we avoided in the events leading up to May 1999and it has come back to haunt us. Without resolving the issue of the nationalstructure on the basis of contestation and dialogue, it is difficult to see how we canattain consolidation on the basis of imitation democracy. But if we resolve thestructural dimension of the crisis of governance, we begin on a journey to attainingwhat Dick Sklar has referred to in his seminal writings as developmental democracyor ‘democracy in stages or parts. The question is: how long can we wait?References14