Out of Nigeria

Is Africa Finally Ready for Democracy?

© Jesse Alan Gordon, 1992

As the cold war winds down, East-West political differences will be overshadowed by North-South economic differences. U.S. foreign policy problems will focus less on places like Moscow and more on places like Lagos. The U.S. press is filled with accounts of the emerging democracy in the Soviet Union, but doesn't report much on the transition to democracy which is currently occuring in Nigeria.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation, with about 120 million people, 20% of Africa's population. Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, and since then has endured six military coups and the Biafran Civil War. Civilian government has ruled for two periods: one period of five years immediately following independence, and a second period of four years following the 1970's oil boom. The current president, General Ibrahim Babangida, has led Nigeria since a coup against the previous military dictator in 1985. The Transition to Civil Rule Programme was begun in 1987, a new constitution was completed in 1989, gubernatorial elections will take place this December, and an elected president is scheduled to take office in October 1992.

The slow and orderly transition from military dictatorship to democracy is intended to strengthen civilian rule in a part of the world where coups are more common than elections. The new government will be faced with an enormous foreign debt, widespread poverty, ethnic and religious divisiveness, and endemic bureaucratic corruption. But if civilian rule survives to create political stability, Nigeria has the potential to convert from an agrarian to an industrial economy; it would be the world's third largest democracy (after India and the U.S.), and could lead black Africa in democratization.

Political Transition

The upcoming elections mark a new start in Nigeria: a new constitution, new political parties, new politicians, a new capital, and new states, all intended to create a break with the short-lived governments of the past.

The new constitution was written by the military government which thereby legislates itself out of power. When Babangida, the military leader, first announced the constitution, the populace was skeptical, but as the Transition Programme progresses, the skepticism is fading. The constitution is influenced by the U.S. Constitution, correcting for many of our mistakes over the intervening 200 years. It establishes a bicameral legislature (a Senate and a House of Representatives, like ours), defines "fundamental rights" more strongly than our Bill of Rights (they have an explicit right to privacy, for example), and confronts extensively the modern problems of ethnicity, corruption, succession, etc. (our constitution leaves issues like those to judicial or executive interpretation). It also defines state and local governments and delineates the separation of power between the federal and state governments (we fought our Civil War over that issue).

Political parties are explicitly defined in the new constitution as well. To avoid ethnic confrontation, parties are required to be nationwide and cannot restrict membership by geography, religion, etc. Earlier in the Transition Programme, the government allowed the free formation of political parties, and thirteen parties were established. But many represented only regional interests, and the government was concerned that that would foster regional divisiveness, so all the parties were banned. In their place, the government created just two parties, "one a little to the left and one a little to the right." The Social Democratic Party (SDP) is the one to the left, and the National Republican Convention (NRC) is the one to the right; cynics contend that the "S" in "SDP" stands for "South", and the "N" in "NRC" stands for "North", where the pareties have their respective popularity bases. Both parties have established branches in even the smallest Nigerian villages, hoping to gain office before incumbency defines electoral power. The constitution initially precludes the establishment of more parties, but is written in such a way that a less restrictive party system could take over later.

The present capital, Lagos, is to be replaced by a new capital, Abuja. Lagos is in the Christian south, which made the Moslem north feel like they were under southern domination. Abuja is in the geographical center of the country, in a newly created Federal Capital Territory (like our District of Columbia). The construction of the capital city was begun with funds from the oil windfall in the 1970's; progress slowed considerably with falling oil revenue, and not all government agencies and embassies have moved yet. The Babangida government is committed to moving all federal functions to Abuja before the civilian takeover in 1992.

Ethnic Divisions

In addition to the Federal Capital Territory, eleven new states will have been created before the federal elections, making a new total of 30 states. The creation of new states (by splitting existing states into smaller parts and establishing new state capitals) was a compromise to placate ethnic rivalries. There are four large ethnic groups in Nigeria: Hausa and Fulani in the Moslem north, Yoruba in the urban Christian south, and Ibo in the southeast, where Biafran secession occurred. In addition, there are dozens of smaller ethnic groups, all of whom want representation in the federal government (in the new Senate, each state has three representatives). Each ethnic group's desire for a political voice is weighed against the additional bureaucracy (and source of corruption) inherent in more states. The Babangida government declared last year that the "New Nigeria" would remain at 21 states, but relented under ethnic pressure to create an additional 9 states beginning this August. State creation is wasteful, but is necessary to insure federal unity in a multi-ethnic nation.

Ethnic differences are such a divisive issue that a census has not been conducted for 30 years, to avoid any one group claiming dominance. The new government's House of Representatives, which has proportional representation based on population, requires an accurate census. To avoid ethnic conflict, the census, which will be completed this year, does not ask about ethnicity nor religion, but only about each citizen's place of residence. Despite that, in the preliminary census earlier this year, all 21 states grossly exaggerated their populations, and a major task of the final census is to sort out the "irregularities."

Nigeria's international borders were arbitrarily drawn during the European colonial period, when Britain and France carved up that part of Africa for their convenience. Historically, Nigeria consisted of three nations, (the Moslem north, the Christian south, and the Ibo east) which did not follow the British-assigned borders. English is the official language and is the only common language between the different parts of the country. Nigeria's neighbors in post-colonial French Africa consist of many mini-states; Nigeria recognizes the relative powerlessness of such an arrangement and on that basis has an incentive to maintain a large multi-ethnic federation despite the inherent difficulties. One of the reasons for General Babangida's success as President is that he is a Moslem ruling in the Christian south. As recently as last winter, people were killed in ethnic clashes; the problem, as in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, will not fade any time soon.

Ethnic differences were the primary cause of the Nigerian Civil War, in which the Ibo east seceded from the federation to form Biafra. The secession was precipitated by violence against Ibos elsewhere in the country; millions were killed during the ensuing two-and-a-half years of war. The federal army defeated the Biafran rebels and the country has been united since 1970. The tensions have been largely forgotten since then, because the oil boom in the 1970's produced enormous income for Nigeria, whose oil fields are located primarily in Biafra.

Battling Corruption

Official corruption is rampant in Nigeria; even the casual tourist must pay bribes to enter and exit the country, to change money, to purchase goods, to park cars, ad infinitum. Corruption is such a way of life that the word Nigerians use, "dash", does not distinguish between a bribe and a tip. On a personal level, bribery and a pervasive black market are condoned, and are a major source of income for many Nigerians. On a governmental level, bribery causes untold waste, and is a severe deterrent to foreign investment. Official corruption was a major cause of the failures of past governments, both civilian and military; the public views corruption as more of a threat to the new government than ethnic and religious problems, poverty, or economic difficulties.

The new constitution addresses the problem by explicitly detailing a "Code of Conduct for Public Officers." The oaths of office for all high officials include clauses swearing against personal interest and favoritism. The move of the capital to Abuja is in part to avoid the corruption inherent in the Lagos civil service structure. More concretely, anyone who held a previous political office, and any military personnel, are precluded from running for office in the new government. Civil servants may not join political parties or discuss politics publicly (U.S. federal employees have the same restriction, via the Hatch Act). The intent is to exclude from the new government anyone involved in the corrupt government systems of the past. The result is that every new officeholder will have no political experience whatsoever. The current candidates are called "the New Breed" because all of them are new to politics; the question for next year is whether the New Breed will remain new and clean, or will they quickly become as dirty as the old breed.

Benevolent Dictatorship

The advantage of a military dictatorship is that the government is not accountable to any constituency and hence can do difficult tasks without regard for political sensitivities. The Babangida government evidently recognizes their responsibility to complete their political chores. The move of the capital to Abuja goes against a multitude of special interests in Lagos, so it's important to complete the move before the civilian government takes power. The new constitution commences, by military decree, on October 1st, 1992, without any further ratification. The two political parties were also established by decree, and their manifestos were written by the military government. Nigeria this year is establishing diplomatic ties to Israel, and has loosened sanctions against South Africa, thus presenting the civilian government a fait accompli instead of a political boondoggle.

General Babangida, like most military dictators, promised early to transfer authority to a civilian government; unlike most dictators, however, he actually is relinquishing power. Babangida is popular enough; (he can't run for election, by his own rules) though some Nigerians accuse him of benefitting personally from his office. He remains popular despite his harsh economic reforms because he simultaneously reformed the authoritarian rules of his predecessor, who kept the press tightly controlled and filled jails with political prisoners. The general was instrumental in two previous coups before the one in which he took power; if the civilian government falters, few doubt that Babangida will reappear in one form or another. The General's wife, Maryam Babangida, enjoys great popularity, and last month received international acclaim for her "Better Life for Rural Women Programme." The programme introduced women's issues to Nigerian politics, another sensitive topic in many of Nigeria's traditional cultures.

Economic Hegemony

Although widespread poverty has not been an issue for policy discussion in the current electoral campaigns, it underlies many of Nigeria's long term problems. Half of all Nigerians are subsistence farmers, living in villages of grass and mud huts. The government this year introduced a minimum wage of $30 per month, and the typical family income is well below $1,000 (in the U.S., the average family income in 1985 was $24,000). While that kind of income is sufficient to live on in Nigeria, it precludes the vast majority of Nigerians from ever leaving the country, because they must purchase high-priced foreign goods with low incomes.

Part of the reason for the low income level is that the country's currency, the Naira, until recently was fixed at an artificially high exchange rate. Before Babangida's economic reforms, the Naira traded at $1 to 0.70 Naira; now the official rate is $1 to 8.50 Naira, and the black market rate is $1 to 14 Naira. The Naira continues to fall against the dollar as a floating exchange rate is introduced. The artificially fixed rate had been high enough to encourage food imports at the expense of domestic production. The floating rate strongly fosters foreign investment, which would provide Nigeria with much needed hard currency.

Nigeria has a national debt of $32 billion, compared with a Gross Domestic Product of $21 billion (i.e., every single Nigerian would have to work for a year and a half just to pay off the debt, which is a little worse than the atrocious situation in the U.S.). The Nigerian debt came when the price of oil plummeted in the 1980's. Nigeria is reliant on oil exports for 95% of its foreign exchange. The price of oil skyrocketed in the 1970's, and Nigeria embarked on immense infrastructure improvements (that's when the Abuja construction began, for example, and when a paved road network was built). When the price of oil fell, Nigeria still had the immense projects without the immense income, so now they have their immense debt. The Babangida government has privatized many of the projects, and has introduced numerous free-market reforms to keep the debt under control.

The devaluation of the Naira is the least popular of the economic reforms. It's great for tourists: before the devaluation, Lagos was often listed as one of the world's most expensive cities; now it's cheap. But for the average Nigerian, the devalued Naira means they cannot buy Western goods, (like cars, refrigerators, power equipment for farms, etc., which are not manufactured in Nigeria) because they must pay in highly valued dollars. The low Naira hinders industrialization, too, because factories must purchase most of their equipment from the West. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recommended the devaluation; some Nigerians thus believe that the devalued Naira is a Western conspiracy to keep Africans in their place (because the IMF is sponsored by the Western industrial nations). In the post-colonial era, one entrepeneur says, "the West can no longer extend political hegemony over Africa, so they extend economic hegemony in its place."

North-South Relations

As further testimony to the Western conspiracy against the Third World, the Nigerian press points to the current BCCI controversy. BCCI, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, is a Pakistani-founded bank, and was committed to pursuing the financial advancement of the Third World. BCCI is now closed pending investigations of laundering drug money and financing terrorist operations. While the Western press portrays the BCCI scandal as an indictment of a corrupt bank, the non-Western press portrays it as an attack on the only promising Third World bank. "It is an international conspiracy by the West to liquidate the only Third World institution that is effectively competing with its counterparts in the industrialized countries," states a senior BCCI-Nigeria official, as reported in Platform, a Nigerian news magazine.

The recent G-7 summit, viewed as a success in the Western press, was viewed as a failure in the Third World. The G-7 is a meeting of the Western industrialized leaders (from the U.S., Canada, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy) to discuss economic issues and coordinate solutions. This year's meeting focused heavily on issues concerning the U.S.S.R. and its Eastern European satellites: Mikhail Gorbachev met with each of the leaders and the summit was dubbed the "G-7+1". The leader of Britain's Liberal Democrat Party said, "Africa was so forgotten at the G-7 summit meeting that one would have thought it was a far away place that we don't know of." If next year's G-7 includes the U.S.S.R. as a participant, it will no longer be a Western summit, but a Northern one; will Southern (meaning, Third World) issues continue to be ignored?

The stalled GATT talks also focus on Northern issues instead of Southern. GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, is intended to improve international trade between all countries; the current round of discussions, called the Uruguay round, has been bogged down for years. "Any concern being shown by the leaders of the industrialized world on the issue of GATT is focused on the areas that concern the north," states West Africa, another Nigerian news magazine. "Unfortunately for the people of the south, while the big seven casually adopt tactics of 'wait and see,' the economic realities for the south continue to spell hardship and death."

The Sahel

The Third World issues with the greatest world-wide significance are environmental: desertification, deforestation, and overpopulation are problems where North-South cooperation is urgently needed. Northern Nigeria is in the Sahel, the semi-desert immediately below of the Sahara Desert, and southern Nigeria is part of the central African rain forest. There are numerous U.N.-based and other international organizations working on environmental and population problems in Nigeria; concerted economic policy by the industrialized countries lags behind humanitarian relief efforts. I worked as a volunteer this summer for the Chad Basin Development Authority (CBDA), an organization working towards alleviating some of the problems of the Sahelian drought.

The Sahel stretches along the south of the Sahara across the entire African continent, from Mauritania in the west to Somalia in the east. The entire area has been plagued by drought for most of the 1980's. The best known problem area has been Ethiopia, because the civil strife there has disrupted supply lines to the Sahel region and caused wide-scale starvation. Population growth in the Sahel is the highest in the world, 2.8% per year, which causes doubling of the population every 25 years; the growth makes disruptions such as Ethiopia's increasingly likely in the future. The Sahel has also experienced a drought since the early 1980's, which has exacerbated the population problems and puts a strain on any efforts at modernization of the agrarian Sahelian economy.

One such effort, by the CBDA, manages the modernization of water resources in the Chad Basin, the area surrounding Lake Chad, in Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroun. Nigeria undertook the construction of a large irrigation canal system (using water from Lake Chad), during the early 1970's (with funds from the oil windfall). The canals were initially successful, but in recent years have not been used because Lake Chad has receded due to the drought. In addition, the CBDA modernized the well systems of the area, digging new wells in hundreds of villages which had previously been using surface water. Projects such as those by the CBDA are dependent on political stability for their continuation. Political instablility in the Sahel will lead to more disasters such as the Ethiopian famine; for that reason alone, African democratization is significant to the world at large.

Black Africa is entering a period of transition from dictatorships to democracy, affecting more people than Eastern European democratization. Benin, Togo, and the Congo this year deposed dictatorships; Mali, Niger, and Zaire are currently holding national conferences to determine their political future; Somalia and Ethiopia have installed interim governments en route to free elections; and the Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Zambia have taken their first steps towards democratization. In addition to political change, the Third World will increasingly pressure the industrialized world to discuss North-South issues, such as immigration policy, debt issues, free trade agreements, and environmental issues. Nigeria will be a leader in these discussions if they succeed at establishing a freely elected, stable government. The next year will determine if the elections create a new model for government in the Third World, or just another in a long series of failed experiments.

1999 Post Script

The political transition to democracy did not happen in Nigeria. The elections indeed occurred in 1993, but the winner, Mashood Abiola, was jailed, and a military leader, General Sani Abacha, claimed power. Nigeria has been simmering on the brink of civil war ever since. President-elect Abiola, the democratic "victor" is still imprisoned, demanding a re-election.

A coup attempt in March 1995 ended with the arrest of 40 plotters, including General Olusegun Obasanja, who was Nigeria's military president from 1976 to 1979. Abasanja is currently serving a 15 year prison term.

On December 21, 1997, Abiola's supporters again staged a coup attempt. The deputy head of state, two major generals, and nine others were arrested. Abacha, still in power, again vowed to return Nigeria to civilian rule in October 1998.

(NY Times 5/29/99): Nigeria teetered on the edge of collapse under the extremely repressive and corrupt government of Gen. Sani Abacha. But after five years in power, General Abacha died suddenly last June, setting off a series of political reforms that is culminating in the inauguration Saturday. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, President Clinton’s special envoy to Africa, is to lead the American delegation at the inauguration.

Elections finally occurred in 1999 and the handover of power from the military to President-elect Olusegun Obasanjo occurred on May 29, 1999.

EJSCK Reprinted from The Watch (Brandeis University), 1992.
All material copyright 1993 by The Watch and Jesse Gordon.
Reprinting by permission only.


Jesse Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630
Cambridge, MA 02140
Voice mail: (617) 354-2805
E-mail: jesse@webmerchants.com

Article Index About Instant Web Page About WebMerchants Next Article