African Outlook Online

George Ayittey

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

Awakening the Sleeping Giant:

Making Nigeria Work Again (V)



Welcome to Part five in this series of incisive analyses of the multi-facetted problems hampering progress within the Nigerian polity By George B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D.

A Nigerin farmer at work: Cowpea production and processing is really generating meaningful income to Nigerian farmers as their livelihood is fast improving - IITA

Summary So Far

“He who does not understand the cause of a problem cannot solve it” says an African proverb. The purpose of these series is to try and explain the source and causes of Nigeria’s problems, which are very similar to those plaguing other African countries.


Nigeria never really had much of a chance to fledge into a new fully-functioning nation after it gained its independence from Britain in 1960. Barely six years later, the first military coup came in 1966 – exactly the same year Ghana experienced its first coup. But since Nigeria suffered much longer under military regimes (29 years) than Ghana (21 years), the devastation wrought by military rule was far more catastrophic and extensive in Nigeria.


The destruction of Nigeria began during this period under military rule: 1966 to 1999 – a period where there were no Constitutions. Military rulers simply suspended them and ruled by decree. As such, there was no rule of law. The importance of a Constitution was explained in Part I of these series. A Constitution is like a yarn that weaves the fabric of a society or nation together. It comes before tribe or religion and it is that which stands between law, order and progress on one hand and chaos, carnage and destruction on the other. The Constitution is like traffic law, which ALL – regardless of tribe, religion, gender, or creed — must follow and obey; otherwise, there will be carnage, deaths and destruction on the roads.


During this period under military rule, there was no “traffic law” in Nigeria. Military governments spent recklessly as oil revenues flowed into their coffers. Their priorities were grotesquely misaligned, borrowing heavily and resorting to money creation to finance their profligacy. Nobody could hold them accountable. When inflation reared its ugly head, they changed the currency, the naira, in 1984 shattering confidence in the currency. Its value plummeted from one Naira to one Dollar in the early 1980s to one Naira to 100 Dollars in 1990. This triggered a banking crisis that pushed the banking system to the verge of collapse – Part II of the series.


It was also during this period that state organs and institutions – the judiciary, law enforcement, ministries, NEPA, NNPC — began to decay and crumble (Part III of series). Corruption spiraled out of control, as kamikaze military bandits plundered Nigeria’s wealth with impunity. In pre-dawn raids, Abacha for example sent trucks to cart away millions of dollars from the vaults of the Central Bank of Nigeria. Infrastructure – schools, roads, telecommunications, ports, harbors, airports, water supply, etc. – also began to deteriorate and fracture during this period – Part IV.


Intellectual Leadership Failure

Since there was no Constitution and rule of law, no one could be held accountable for anything. There was no value system; it was a dog-eat-dog world. “Government,” as generally known, ceased to exist. Stratocracy (rule by military men) transformed government into a predatory vampire state – a government hijacked by a phalanx of uniformed bandits, who used the machinery of the state to enrich themselves, their cronies and tribesmen. The vampire state recognized no obligations toward the people and did little for them — no health care for the people, no clean water nor electricity. Military rulers rather regarded the people as lambs to be fleeced.


Total government dysfunction, coupled with catastrophic failure of leadership, alienated the people from the state. People no longer trusted the government, regarding it not as a partner in development but as an “enemy” to be defeated. Pious statements by the government were greeted with derision and cynicism. Nigerians dismissed Abacha’s war on corruption as a crude oil joke.


The moral and social fabric of Nigeria became thoroughly shredded during this era. There were no laws to follow; even the military governments followed no laws. When people could no longer look up to the government for guidance on what is right and wrong, they retreated into their tribal and religious cocoons for safety by following tribal (customary) and religious laws.


However, the sad part about the ruination of Nigeria by its military rulers was the active support and collaboration they received from the most unlikely source: Nigeria’s intellectuals – the professors, scholars, teachers, etc. There was no concerted intellectual effort to challenge the military brutes and provide better leadership. Rather, so many of the intellectuals — some with Ph.D.s and who ought to have known better — sold out their conscience, integrity and principles to serve as errand-boys of military despots with half their intelligence. The allure of a Mercedes Benz, a diplomatic posting, and ministerial post often proved too irresistible. Hordes of highly “educated” Nigerian intellectuals hopped into bed with barbarous military regimes and accorded them the legitimacy and respectability they craved. Even Sani Abacha could always find intellectual prostitutes to abuse. Then, after being raped and defiled, they were discarded.


Intellectual Collaboration and Prostitution

This kind of intellectual prostitution made no sense whatsoever because in country after country in Africa, where military rule was entrenched, the educational institutions (especially of the tertiary level – universities, and colleges) all decayed — starved of funds by the military. Although the official excuse is always lack of funds, the military predators always found the money to purchase shiny new pieces of bazookas for their thugs. But the real reason? “It was not in the best interest of these military governments to educate their people,” said Wale Deyemi, then a doctoral student at the University of Lagos. “They do not want people to be able to challenge them” (The Washington Post, 6 October 1995, A30).


In Nigeria, the sciences were hardest hit. Science teachers were vanishing with such alarming frequency that Professor Peter Okebukola, the president of the National Science Teachers Association of Nigeria, lamented at the association’s thirty-sixth annual conference at Maiduguri that “good science teachers were increasingly becoming an endangered species” (African News Weekly, 13 October 1995, 17). But despite all this evidence, some Nigerian intellectuals still vociferously defended military regimes while their own institutions — the very places where they taught or obtained their education — deteriorated right under their very noses. One would have thought that these professors and intellectuals would have protected their own institutions, just as the soldiers jealously protected their barracks and kept them in top shape. But no! For a pittance, the intellectuals were willing to help supervise the destruction of their very own university system.


One such intellectual was Baba Gana Kingibe, a career diplomat, was the vice-presidential candidate of Moshood K. O. Abiola in the 12 June 1993 presidential elections. Abiola won the election fair and square, but the result was annulled by the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida. Baba Kingibe then accepted the post of foreign minister from that same military regime. Nor did he raise a whiff of protest or resign when his running mate, Abiola, was thrown into jail. Neither did Chief Tony Anenih, the chairman of the defunct Social Democratic Party, on whose ticket Abiola contested the 12 June election. In fact, Chief Anenih was part of a five-man delegation, sent by General Abacha to the United States in October 1995 to “educate and seek the support of Nigerians about the transition program.” At an October 22, 1995 forum organized by the Schiller Institute in Washington, “Chief Anenih and Colonel (rtd) Emeka O. Ojukwu took turns ripping apart the reputation of Abiola. Anenih took pains to discredit Chief Abiola, whom he said was being presented by the Western media as the victimized President-elect. Some of the Nigerians in the audience denounced the delegation as `paid stooges’ of Abacha” (African News Weekly, 3 November 1995, 3).


More pathetic was the case of Alex Ibru, the publisher of The Guardian Group of newspapers in Lagos who became the internal affairs minister. On 14 August 1994, his own newspaper was raided and shut down by the same military government under which he was serving. He did not protest or resign. After six months as interior minister, he too was tossed aside. In October 1995, his two newspapers, shut down by the military government for more than a year, were allowed to reopen after Ibru apologized to the authorities for any offensive reports they may have carried.


After the annulment of Nigeria’s 12 June elections, General Babangida was eased aside by the military top brass and Ernest Shonekan became the 89-day interim civilian president until he too was removed by the military despot, General Sani Abacha. On 19 September, Shonekan accompanied Nigeria’s foreign minister, Tom Ikimi, to London to deliver a “confidential message” to British Prime Minister John Major. Nigeria’s military junta told Westminster that it would pardon the 40 convicted coup plotters if British would help with the rescheduling Nigeria’s $35 billion debt, and support its transition program to democratic rule, its bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, and its attempt to gain U.S. recognition of its effort to fight drug trafficking.


First of all, how could Ernest Shonekan act as an emissary for the same barbarous military regime that overthrew him? Not only that, he accepted an appointment from Abacha to a committee of experts to plan for “Vision 2010.” Second, who thought that 35 years after “independence” from British colonial rule, Nigeria’s government would be holding its own citizens as hostages, demanding ransom from the former colonial power? It did not occur to any of the “educated” emissaries that their mission sank the concept of “independence from colonial rule” to new depths of depravity.


Dr. Tom Ikimi was the activist, who, in 1989, formed the Liberal Convention party to campaign for democracy in Nigeria. In June 1989 he launched a branch in the United Kingdom, where he made glorious speeches about participatory democracy and denouncing military regimes. Suddenly in 1994 he became Nigeria’s Foreign minister under the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha and joined Shonekan as emissary on the mission to UK. He even appeared on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, on 3 August 1995, and strenuously defended Nigerian military government’s record on democratization, calling General Abacha “humane.”


Mercifully, the British refused to capitulate to the terroristic demands. Humiliated, Nigeria’s military government began snatching more hostages. Prominent human-rights lawyer, Gani Fawehinmi and his wife were arrested on Sept 22, 1993. He had repeatedly been arrested and detained so often that he kept a bag packed on hand, just in case. Earlier in March, supporters of his “illegal” National Conscience Party were arrested for distributing leaflets in Lagos, denouncing the lack of food, electricity, transportation and the general state of the nation. To convey the accused to court, police had to borrow his vehicles. And during the proceeding, Fawehinmi drew the magistrate’s attention to the fact that there was no electricity in the court room!


Among the 40 “convicted” coup plotters Shonekan and Ikimi tried to trade for British concessions was General Olusegun Obasanjo, the former head of state of Nigeria and the first military ruler to hand over power to a democratically-elected government in 1979. He was found “guilty” at the secret military trial. When his lawyer called a press conference to deny that his client was guilty, he was promptly arrested himself! Even more bizarre, Nigeria’s own military intelligence had no fore knowledge of any impending coup. It was rather reported by the private press — the same medium that the military had brutally attacked and closed. Acting upon this published information, military police sprang into action, indiscriminately arresting people, including Gen. Obasanjo.


I met General Obasanjo in Sept 1994 at a small private gathering in Montana-Crans, a village town nestled in the Swiss Alps. The gathering was sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Center For Applied Studies in International Negotiations (based in Geneva) and the Sasakawa Foundation of Tokyo. The object was to bring together a group of “African experts and specialists” to deliberate on African agriculture. The end product was the document, Forging The Road Ahead For African Agriculture.


Among the 14 of us were Gen. Obasanjo and Gen. Amadou Toumani Toure, who overthrew Mali’s long-standing tyrant, Gen. Moussa Traore, and stepped down within a year to usher in Mali’s first democratically-elected government in 1993. I must confess that I have never had any affection — zero — for military regimes or dictators in Africa. So at that gathering, I made a conscious, though futile, effort to avoid the company of the former military rulers.


One evening, however, Gen. Obasanjo invited me to join his dinner table. I indicated that there was no room at his table. “I will make one for you,” came the quick reply. To my utter astonishment, the general rose, moved his chair aside, grabbed a plate, silverware and a chair from the adjoining table, and made a place for me. I was stunned. I never thought I would meet a former African head of state who was so affable, down-to-earth, and jovial.


Gen. Obasanjo was quite loquacious, gushing profusely about his mediating role in African political feuds. He related to me his successful mediation of the quarrel between President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Joshua Nkomo, the Ndebele rebel leader. He agreed that the military had become “Africa’s headache.” On Nigeria’s political crisis, he told me he was working to get traditional rulers of Nigeria to persuade Gen. Abacha to release Chief Moshood Abiola. On African governance, he affirmed his beliefs in institutions, rather than leaders or personalities.


He impressed me a lot – back then. He was a true African nationalist, proud of his heritage. He deplored the large-scale importation of unworkable foreign models into Africa. He believed in building upon Africa’s traditional institutions and in development at the grass-roots level. More importantly, he practiced what he preached and bought a farm in Abeokuta when he handed over power in 1979.


I am relating this encounter with Gen (rtd) Obasanjo because he was harshly critical of Africa’s intellectuals. That won my heart. He claimed the intellectuals let Mathieu Kerekou of Benin down. “Sycophancy,” Gen Obasanjo bellowed with eyes ablaze, “is Africa’s greatest problem.” The intellectuals, he complained with palpable contempt, would sell their body and soul to win jobs and favors from corrupt African governments. He distrusted his own sycophantic ministers and relied more on his unofficial sources for information to keep in better touch with the people.


After we left Switzerland, I paid little attention to Gen. Obasanjo’s ruminations until he was arrested in March 1994 and charged with plotting, with others, to overthrow the Abacha regime in Nigeria. A false charge by an increasingly desperate and paranoid regime, I concluded. But his railings against “sycophancy” hit me hard in August when Tom Ikimi appeared on the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour to defend the Abacha regime. He even called Abacha a “humane” person.


Sycophancy, lack of integrity, and susceptibility to graft had so infected the Nigerian intellectual community that few could be trusted, as Obasanjo said. Even Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate, knew that “several of his officers would desert [the pro-democracy crusade] tomorrow for a lucrative government post,” said The Economist (Sept 30, 1995; p.47).


At that time in the U.S., there were least 35 pro-democracy Nigerian organizations but many were “419″ (fake) organizations, sponsored and funded by Nigeria’s military junta to counter-act the “negative publicity” engendered by the activities of Trans-Africa. According to Randall Echols, Chief Abiola’s spokesman in the U.S., Nigeria’s military government spent $10 million in 1995 in a desperate public-relations effort to spruce up its battered international image. Paid ads were place in major U.S. newspapers, denouncing the call for sanctions and various Nigerian organizations staged pro-government demonstrations in the U.S.


One such organization, the Coalition for Peaceful Democracy led by Ben Igwe, marched on Sept 22 1995 in front of the White House. Another organization, the Nigerian National Leadership Forum, held a conference on Aug 12, 1995 in Nashville with the lofty aim of tackling “Nigeria’s problem.” The coordinator of the conference was Prof. David Muruako, president of the Organization of Nigerian Professionals (ONP). Now, there were two such organizations with exactly the same name (ONP) in exactly the same city (New Orleans). The other was headed by Prof. Gibson Chigbu. The two were embroiled in an 8-year legal battle to determine which should keep the name, ONP. But Muruako’s ONP was among the names of Nigerian organizations that condemned TransAfrica’s crusade in a paid advertisement in The Washington Times (May 25, 1995).


In attendance were Nigeria’s Ambassador, Alhaji Zubair Kazaure and other officials from the Nigerian Embassy. Opening the conference, Prof. Muruako insisted that Nigeria’s greatest problem was tribalism. Naturally. Participants, one after another identified corruption, poverty, lack of rule of law and foreign meddling. None pointed at the depredations of the military regime itself. In his keynote address, Ambassador Kazaure asked the audience not to blame the problem of ethnicity on the military government but to blame the British colonialists. Naturally. “It is not fair to blame this present (Abacha) government or any Nigerian government for the problems of ethnicity in Nigeria, he added. In a sense, the Ambassador was right that Nigeria’s military rulers were not to blame for the ruination of the country. His blame however was misplaced. He should have looked at himself and the class of Nigeria’s intellectuals, professionals or elites — both at home and abroad.


Vile opportunism, unflappable sycophancy, and trenchant collaboration on the part of Nigeria’s intellectuals allowed tyranny to become entrenched. Babangida, Abacha and other military dictators legitimized and perpetuated their rule by buying off and co-opting Nigeria’s academics for a pittance. And when they fall out of favor, they are beaten up, tossed aside or worse. In Nov 1994, Gen. Abacha tossed all of them out of his cabinet. Remember Alex Ibru? On Feb 2, 1996, unidentified gunmen in a deep-blue Peugeot 504 trailed him and sprayed his car with machine-gun fire. The editor-in-chief, Femi Kusa, said that the car was bullet-ridden and Ibru was injured. He was flown to Britain for treatment.


The Lost Generation

The saddest and greatest casualty of decades military misrule, mismanagement and the corruption frenzy was the generation of Nigerians born in the 1980s. Nigeria’s military governments could not provide them with basic social services such as education, health care, sanitation, etc. Governments were towering edifices of ineptitude, corruption, and waste. The educational system has been a shambles. University degrees were openly bought. The electricity supply was intermittent; only 30 percent of Nigerians – even today — have access to a reliable supply of electricity. The clean water supply has been spasmodic. Nigeria is an oil-producing country but must import refined petroleum products from abroad.


In the absence of a constitution, law and order, the youth grew up without knowing the principles and values that serve as a glue holding the nation together. They had no role models with moral stature; the military rulers were autocratic bandits and the intellectuals were servicing their needs. In that “dog-eat-dog” environment, the youth didn’t know what was right or wrong; the value system had collapsed. Hard work and entrepreneurship no longer assured success and wealth because there was no rule of law; political connections mattered more. The youth became increasingly confused, disenchanted, lost, and restless. They were poorly educated and faced a dire job market.


Abandoned by their own governments, the youth began to drift, becoming susceptible to radical ideas and religious extremism. Some sought escape in rickety boats to Europe. Others turn to crime (drug trafficking, Internet scams) and prostitution. Still others joined extremist groups that sought violent change. One of them is Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 25-year old Nigerian serving a prison term in the U.S.


His foiled attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day in 2009 baffled many Africans and sent them scrambling for an explanation. This was not the stereotypical poor and desperate young man usually associated with violence on the continent. For one, Abdulmutallab was the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker and former government minister. His father even tipped off the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to his son’s growing radicalism. Second, neither Islam nor Christianity is indigenous to Africa, and the idea of dying on behalf of a foreign religion is absurd to most Africans. Third, the United States was never a colonial power in Africa and, therefore, it seemed an odd target. In fact, it has always been a popular destination for many young Nigerians looking to emigrate. He was raised in the rip-roaring 1980s during military rule in free-wheeling corruption ridden environment with no constitutional rule of law.


To be fair, the Buhari regime (1984 – 1985) attempted to clean up the political culture with a focus on discipline and accountability. The regime set out to recover stolen state assets and ill-gotten wealth from politicians and other public officers through special military tribunals that were set up. It also launched “War Against lndiscipline”(WAI) campaign to fight laziness, lateness, disorderliness, hoarding and examination malpractices and to inculcate habits of cleanliness, order, patriotism and nationalism in the citizenry. In a large measure, these efforts won the hearts of many Nigerians and “WAI” became an important legacy of the Buhari Administration. However, an assortment of new decrees imposing long prison terms and the death penalty for “miscellaneous offenses” or “economic sabotage,” as well as examination malpractice, counterfeiting, drug and currency trafficking, drew much flak from some quarters as being too draconian.


Footnote: Obasanjo impressed me in Geneva in 1994 but his administration from 1999 to 2007 was scandalously ineffective. Never mind that he sought to change the Constitution to run for a third term.