African Outlook Online

George Ayittey

Awakening the Sleeping Giant: Making Nigeria Work Again (IV)


Making Nigeria Work Again (VI)


By George B. N. Ayittey, Ph.D


This is Part IV of Prof. George Ayittey's analysis of Nigeria's many-sided issues.  African Outlook now continues the series.  Enjoy reading:

Photo courtesy African Textiles: Nupe woman weaving in her home in the central Nigerian town of Bida, 1995

Sham Transitions to Democratic Rule

Without a Constitution, the yarn that weaves a nation together unravels as there is no rule of law, no value system, etc. Everything depends on the whims of the dictator at the top and the weather forecast. For 29 years under military rule, Nigerians had no constitution. Despite the vaunted rhetoric about efficiency, accumulated evidence shows that the military has been the most egregiously incompetent institution to manage a transition to democracy – not just in Africa but elsewhere as well. Witness the military-orchestrated transitions in Tunisia, Egypt or Myanmar (Burma). It was worse in Nigeria.


After seizing power in a military coup in 1985, General Ibrahim Babangida (“The Maradona” – The Dribbler) began a 5-year transition program, which turned out to be a sham odyssey. The program was stretched out with frequent interruptions, devious maneuvers and broken promises (at least four missed handover dates — Oct 1990, Oct 1992, Jan 1993 and June 1993). Just because the U.S. has two major parties, Babangida created exactly two political parties for Nigeria: “one a little to the left and the other a little to the right.” To add insult to injury, he wrote the manifestoes for the two parties too. And when he did not like the June 1993 presidential election results, he promptly annulled them!


Next to shepherd the transition to democracy was General Sani Abacha (“The Butcher of Abuja”), always in Ray-Ban dark goggles. After shoving Ernest Shonekan aside in Nov 1993, Abacha announced preparations for a Constitutional Conference, which also turned out to be a farce. He twice postponed its opening and a day after the conference finally began on June 27, 1994, it was abruptly adjourned for two weeks. The official reason? The delegates’ accommodations were not ready.


Moreover, the 396 delegates, who were to deliberate on the future of democracy, congregated at
Abuja as “guests of the military.” A fourth of their number (96) was nominated by General Abacha himself and the rest “elected” under suspiciously complex rules. Delegates were chosen by “people’s representatives” who were themselves elected by popular vote on 23 May, 1994 postponed from 21 May. Candidates under 35 years of age were ineligible to run. In addition, they must not be “an ex-convict, must be sane, must be a fit and proper person and must not have been declared bankrupt by a court of law” — requirements that most of the ruling military elites themselves would fail to meet.


Logistical problems, inadequate publicity, and apathy bedeviled the electoral exercise. There was no campaigning; no voters register or cards. Confusion reigned. Voters did not even know whom they were voting for and for what purpose. And stunned by the annulment of June 12, 1993 elections, many chose to stay home. The general voter turnout across the country was scandalously low.


More suspiciously, the Constitutional Conference was not sovereign. That is, General Abacha reserved for himself the right to reject or accept its recommendations. If his regime rejected them, the entire exercise would be a colossal waste and started anew. If the recommendations were accepted, the military regime would then draw up a timetable, perhaps another transition period for “civic education,” voter registration, local, state and regional elections with still the possibility of interruptions midstream.


Compared to South Africa’s 1991 Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), the differences were glaring. Nigeria’s conference was a meretricious charade that should have been dissolved. Political parties did not take part in the constitutional conference. Imagine de Klerk of South Africa banning the ANC and all political parties, arresting political leaders, clamping down on the news media, nominating 25 percent of the delegates to CODESA, and declaring that its resolutions would not be binding on the white minority government. Eventually, General Abacha abandoned the constitutional conference and allowed just 5 political parties to be registered in 1997. Immediately, they all adopted him as their presidential candidate!


Fake Constitutional Rule

After the timely death of Abacha in 1998, the next to manage the transition to democracy was General Abdulsalam Abubakar. Note the frequency of the title “Generals” in managing the transition. General Abubakar authorized two constitutions to be written for the March 1999 elections but the military brass held the two constitutions closely to their chest — which one to release depended on the election results. In other words, if the election results went this way, they would release Constitution A; it they went the other way, they would release Constitution B. Thus, Nigerians went to vote for General (rtd)) Obasanjo without knowing what the country’s Constitution was.


The entire transition process was a scam. And how real was Nigeria’s transition to democratic rule? Said Rev. Matthew Hassan Kuka, a member of the Oputa Commission set up to investigate past human rights abuses:


“You have a president who is a retired military man, a director of national security who is a retired military man, a defense minister who is a retired military man and a director of the State Security Service (SSS) or national intelligence, who is an ex-military man. Apart from the president and all the key office-holders in the land being of military background, we don’t have enough elbow room to begin to talk about subordinating this system to civilian control” (The Washington Times, Nov 1, 2001; p.A18).


Open Defiance of the Constitution

The first blow to Constitutional rule came just less than a year after President Obasanjo took office in 1999 by governors of the northern states. Many would agree that Islam is a fine religion but its cause has been increasingly hijacked and debauched by zealots and extremists. Nigeria is almost evenly split between northern Muslims (50 percent of the population) and southerners who practice Christianity (40 percent), with some traditional African religions. Religious and ethnic clashes have been a staple of Nigerian life and to avert religious conflict, Nigeria wisely adopted a secular constitution on May 4, 1999. Chapter I, part II, section 10 states: “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion”. The adoption of the sharia by any state is clearly unconstitutional, except in domestic matters. But several northern states, in defiance of the Constitution, went ahead and adopted the sharia as their state religion anyway. Zamfara first adopted the sharia on October 26, 2002, barely twelve months after President Obasanjo assumed office. It rapidly spread to 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states.


The adoption of the sharia accentuated religious strife and communal violence which claimed more than 10,000 lives by 2002. Christians, Muslims, and others were hacked to death with knives and swords, in conflicts precipitated by the new sharia laws. Churches and mosques were destroyed in Kano. Commenting on the rise of Muslim sharia law in parts of Nigeria, Professor Chinua Achebe lamented: “I am now not optimistic of the benefits that will come to Nigeria because of democracy. We have dug ourselves into sharia; into a situation where we have become a laughing stock of the world, because we are discussing things like stoning women to death in the 21st century” (BBC World News Service, Nov 22, 2002). Dismayed by what he termed “the tragedy of Nigeria”, Achebe reflected on the divisions apparent in modern Nigeria:


“Religious differences have not just been introduced. Muslims and others have always been there, but somehow they didn’t wipe each other out. What is happening today is that some people are using these differences to promote their ambition and this is an abuse of politics. That’s why the selfishness of the elite stands out so clearly” (BBC World News Service, Nov 22, 2002).


Chinua Achebe should have added that what was happening was unconstitutional since the Constitution recognizes no religion as state religion. President Obasanjo could have resolved the issue by having the Supreme Court rule on sharia law. But prevailing wisdom at that time held that he did not want to offend the powerful northern military chiefs or power-brokers who helped him win the presidency. But by not blocking sharia law in the northern states, he opened the door wide open to wholesale violations of the Constitution, which was rendered meaningless. To be sure, there was a Constitution but no one was obeying or following it – not even the government itself and its institutions.


Weak and Ineffective Obasanjo Administration

Upon assuming power on May 29, 1999, President Obasanjo found the country ungovernable. Confidence in the government was near zero; the people had no faith or trust in government. To them, the government was irrelevant and ignored what it said. Since the country had not had a Constitution for 29 years, it was not exactly clear what the functions of the various state institutions were to be. A near government paralysis resulted from wrangling over distribution of power between the executive and the legislative – an issue which should have been resolved by the Constitution. For 18 months (Feb 1999 to August 2000), Nigeria’s 109 senators and 360 representatives passed just five pieces of legislation, including a budget that was held up for five months. They shirked their Constitutional responsibilities and immediately upon taking office, the legislators voted for themselves hefty allowances, including a 5 billion naira ($50 million) furniture allowances for their official residences and offices. The impeached ex-chairman of the Senate from President Obasanjo’s own People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Chuba Okadigbo, was the most predatory:

“As Senate President, he controlled 24 official vehicles but ordered 8 more at a cost of $290,000. He was also found to have spent $225,000 on garden furniture for his government house, $340,000 on furniture for the house itself ($120,000 over the authorized budget); bought without authority a massive electricity generator whose price he had inflated to $135,000; and accepted a secret payment of $208,000 from public funds, whose purpose included the purchase of `Christmas gifts” (New African,, Sept 2000; p.9).


On Nigeria’s 41st Independence Day (Oct 1, 2001), The Vanguard newspaper carried a front-page cartoon showing Nigeria weighed down by foreign debt, corruption, a crashed economy, communal violence and incompetent leadership. In an “Independence Day” speech, President Olusegun Obasanjo spoke candidly:


“Far too many of our citizens still remain poor. Industry remains weak and inflation is a problem. After years of bad government under military regimes, everything, it seemed, had nearly collapsed: the economy, our physical infrastructure, the system of our social organization together with our values and morals” (The Washington Times, October 4, 2001; p.A17).


But earlier in March 2001, the same government had taken delivery of 9 Russian-made attack helicopters at a reported cost of $100 million – without approval of the National Assembly, which was clearly in violation of the Constitution. The 6 Mi-35 and 3 Mi-34 helicopters were expected to consolidate Nigeria’s position as West Africa’s unrivaled military leader (The New York Times, April 5, 2001; p.A6).


Upon assuming power on May 29, 1999, President Obasanjo vowed to recover the loot of former head of state, General Abacha. He established the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC. Never mind that his own Senate was riddled with graft and corruption. Much public fanfare was made of the sum of about $709 million and another 144 million pounds sterling recovered from the Abachas and his henchmen. But, as noted earlier in the series, this recovered loot itself was quickly re-looted. The Senate Public Accounts Committee found only $6.8 million and 2.8 million pounds sterling of the recovered booty in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) (The Post Express (July 10, 2000).


For all that talk about corruption, only one senior official was sacked for corruption and none jailed for the two years since the democratically elected Olusegun Obasanjo took office. On October 15, 2001, Transparency International, the Geneva-based business organization that tracks global corruption, ranked Nigeria as the second most corrupt country in the world after Bangladesh. “Government officials still demand gratification for performing their official duties, and cases of inflated contracts still continue” (New African, Dec 2001; p.22). All these criminal acts were in violation of the Constitution.