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If Nigeria successfully holds local and federal elections on 14 and 21 April, it will be the first time that an elected civilian government will hand power over to another. Will the elections hold? Will clear winners emerge? Will alleged losers accept their defeat with good grace, actuated by the larger national interest? Ike Okonta places Nigeria’s forthcoming elections in historical and political context.

Given the country’s turbulent political history, the choice confronting Nigerians in these difficult times is between democracy and national disintegration. Some analysts would like to add a third into the mix: a military coup d’etat. But I have firmly ruled this out. Ambitious officers might well attempt a takeover, but Nigerians’ current deep aversion to military rule will see to it that they will not last in office.

In times past the army always stepped into the breach when the politicians failed to abide by the rules of the game, using the coup to truncate the party-political process, abolish the constitution, and govern the country from their barracks. The armed forces had a modicum of respectability in the 1970s, fresh from a bitter civil war. They were viewed – at least in the western and northern parts of the country – as the nation’s saviour.

But the Babangida and Abacha regimes (1985-1998) exploded the myth of the Nigerian military as guarantors of peace and drivers of national progress. The campaign for democratic rule that seeded in the late 1980s was deeply-rooted, popular and enduring for the simple reason that ordinary Nigerians had by this time seen through the mask of the soldiers. Now they clearly recognised that their very survival depended on them winning back the right to govern themselves or elect their representatives as they saw fit.

Ordinary Nigerians are still struggling to consolidate the democratic government they won at such high cost in 1999 when their protests finally forced the General Abubakar-led junta to hold elections. It is not likely that they will tolerate another military adventurer, no matter how well-meaning, in the corridors of power.

If the mass of Nigerians prefer to live in a united country rather than go their separate ways – and all available research points to the former – and if they are firmly set against renewed military rule – as indeed they have – then it stands to reason to argue that they will work strenuously to ensure that the elections are duly held.

After all, multi-ethnic nations are best held together by dialogue and consensus. They will also likely engage the electoral process with great care knowing as they do now that inconclusive or chaotic elections could throw Nigeria on to the path of disintegration along the ever present fault-lines of religion and narrow ethnic nationalism.

They will want the elections to be peaceful, transparent and the results fair and credible. They will want the victors to demonstrate humility in their triumph, and the losers to accept that democratic elections are not a one-off event but an on-going process, holding out the hope of their own triumph in the next electoral round. Above all, Nigerians will want the out-going Obasanjo government to display statesmanship; and with an eye on history, to ensure that all conceivable obstacles to a smooth transfer of power to its successor are removed.

All evidence supports the contention that the majority of Nigerians are working hard to achieve this outcome. But there are also worrying signs on democracy’s road, as the country approaches the elections. Some of these danger signals are born of residual structural problems in the polity; the rest are largely attitudinal, driven by the personal quirks of certain political actors. It is important that we highlight these danger signs, separate those that can be remedied from the intractable, and urge well-meaning Nigerian political actors to channel their energies towards those that can be remedied. The point of political diagnosis is to identify and remove elements that impede the healthy functioning of the polity.

Three danger signs

Nigeria’s current political regime is a very young electoral system struggling to achieve democratic consolidation. Thirty years of military rule foisted a culture of impunity, authoritarianism, and disempowered citizenship on the people. The vital institutions that support representative government – a free and robust press, an independent and impartial judiciary, and political parties driven by policy issues and buoyed up by a freely associating and enlightened citizenry – that began to emerge in the 1940s when the struggle for independence really commenced, were stifled following the first military coup in January 1966.

Efforts of progressive politicians and civil society leaders since the end of the civil war in January 1970 have been directed largely towards winning back the open civic space in which these crucial institutions can thrive and prosper again. The Second Republic of 1979-1983 was too short a period for these supportive institutions of representative rule to re-embed in the wider society. Generals Babangida and Abacha’s unrelenting and all-encompassing attacks on the civic-political space killed off the tender shoots that began to bud during that brief spring. In a real sense therefore, the advent of the Third Republic in 1999, for all its imperfections, offered the first real opportunity, after the demise of the First Republic in 1966 and the bloody civil war which followed in its wake eighteen months later, for the institutional ramparts of democratic government to take root again.

This is the reason why Nigerians will go into the April 2007 elections without the benefit of real political parties and politicians to represent their views and interests. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the ruling party, has since 1998 when it came into being, transformed into a bloated, vote-rigging machine intolerant of opposition within or from rival parties. Run along highly authoritarian lines and dependent on the president for funds and policy, the PDP has been reduced to a branch of the government. The latter is also subject to the whims and commands of President Obasanjo.

The leading opposition parties – All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) and Action Congress (AC) - are run along more consensual lines. But they are hampered by a lack of experienced and trained personnel; a narrow and opportunistic membership base; perennial shortage of funds; and a domineering presidency which has not hesitated to use government largesse and paid agents provocateurs to undermine them.

The judiciary, after the battering it endured at the hands of the soldiers, is still struggling to find a credible role for itself in the new civilian dispensation. The Nigerian press is fiercely combative and fearless, but journalists are yet to make the transition from being guerrillas fighting off military dictatorship to cool-headed analysts nudging politicians and public discourse towards policy issues.

To correct these structural problems will require time and a great deal of political skill. Because they will endure into the coming 2007 electoral cycle, the gaps they will open up in the political system could be exploited by a ruling party anxious to retain power at the centre and in the states. Having rigged the 1999 and 2003 elections with impunity, the PDP will be sorely tempted to enact a repeat performance this April, taking advantage of the weakened opposition, a cowed judiciary, and a still tactically-challenged press. This is the first danger sign on the road to the elections.

Whilst Olusegun Obasanjo is still the head of the federal government, he is no longer in power. This might sound paradoxical; but the architecture of power in Nigeria is as multilayered as it is complex. Obasanjo rose to prominence in the Nigerian armed forces in the late 1960s riding on the coat tails of the northern coup-makers of July 1966, most notably General Yakubu Danjuma.

Burdened with his close friendship with Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, leader of the abortive January 1966 putsch in the north, and with his own role in that event still shrouded in mystery, Obasanjo had necessarily to demonstrate his loyalty to the new power elite – led by Col. Yakubu Gowon, Col. Murtala Muhammed, and Major Danjuma. It was on the rump of this group that he relied when Muhammed was assassinated in February 1976, after he had replaced Gowon as head of state the previous year and he (Obasanjo) was asked to step into the breach. He reigned; but real power lay with chief of army staff General Danjuma and chief of staff, supreme headquarters, General Shehu Yar’Adua. Obasanjo’s pay-back was his strident defence of ‘Nigerian unity’; and along with this, a pro-northern political stance when the time came to hand over power to politicians in 1979.

This pact, forged in the turbulent period of military rule in the 1970s, was to be replayed in 1999 when the northern military and political elite, reeling from attacks from pro-democracy elements in the wake of General Babangida and Abacha’s excesses, looked for a safe pair of hands to cede power. This was meant to be a tactical manoeuvre, designed to placate frayed nerves in the progressive camp in southern Nigeria. Babangida, acting on behalf of a loose coalition of northern elites, though by no means all northern interests, again sought out Obasanjo and finessed the politics that took him to Abuja as President in May 1999.

Throughout his military and later political career, Obasanjo never took any risks that could put his life or career on the line. He was content to let others take the risks, including dangerous military putsch. He would emerge from the shadow when the gun smoke had cleared and scout for rich pickings. Obasanjo’s sole attempt to make a bid for real power on his own behalf was the ill-fated attempt to get his minions in the PDP to tinker with the constitution that he might stay on as President beyond the two terms stipulated by the constitution. The powerful coalition of Babangida, Danjuma, and Vice President Atiku Abubakar – all northerners - united with pro-democracy elements in the press and civil society and promptly slapped down Obasanjo in May 2006.

That episode, more than anything else, demonstrated where real power in Nigeria lay. It also pointed to Obasanjo’s fragile position in the country’s nascent democratic game. He would, ideally, like to retire as a king-maker now that he can no longer extend his stay in office. But he has never had a secure power base to call his own: neither in the armed forces; nor in his Yoruba region home where he is distrusted by a populace who still see him as a northern ‘stooge’; nor in civil society; nor amongst the intelligentsia who regard him with a mix of loathing and disdain.

Nevertheless, Obasanjo has made it clear that come April he is determined to steamroll his chosen presidential candidate, Umar Yar’Adua, younger brother of the late Shehu Yar’Adua, into State House. The northern political elite is equally determined to demonstrate that Obasanjo has neither the right nor the political clout to appoint a new political leader for them. They see the April polls as the proving ground.

Obasanjo and his unpopular party will go into the elections with the full backing of the PDP state governors who are anxious to ensure continuity and thus shield themselves from later prosecution for corrupt enrichment and a supine police force with armed elements drawn from the army and paid thugs that Nigerian cities now have in abundance. This group will have to confront a vengeful Northern elite and their allies in the south, grouped around General Muhammadu Buhari, presidential candidate of the ANPP, and Atiku Abubakar, Obasanjo’s vice president, whose bid for the top job under the Action Congress is still under a cloud.

Were the supporting institutions of Nigeria’s young democracy autonomous and functioning, all eyes would have turned to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the courts to ensure free and credible polls; thus removing the prospect of a free for all between these two bitterly opposed political factions. But INEC, following its recent pronouncement banning Vice President Abubakar, a noted critic of Obasanjo, from contesting the presidential election even though the electoral act does not accord it such power, has demonstrated that it is an interested party, on the side of President Obasanjo and the PDP government.

The Buhari and Atiku groups have stated that they view INEC as a partial entity that will work on Obasanjo’s behalf during the elections. This means that they will put into place their own independent machinery to police the electoral process and ensure that neither the INEC nor PDP’s agents rig the polls. Obasanjo, who was recently quoted in the press as saying that the election would be a ‘do or die’ affair for him will be expected to use the machinery and financial resources of the government to ensure that his will prevails. The inevitable clash between these juggernauts will reverberate in wider Nigerian political and civil society, already stretched to breaking point. This is the second danger sign on Nigeria’s democracy road.

Then there is a third danger sign, as ominous as the first two. This is the international politics of oil and the extent to which the major oil-consuming nations in Western Europe and North America seeking to secure their strategic interests will attempt to shape the political outcome in Nigeria to their advantage. At the heart of this realpolitik is the growing armed insurrection in the Niger Delta, fed and sustained by five decades of economic exploitation and political marginalisation that the local communities have suffered at such terrible cost.

The United States and the European Union backed the Obasanjo government in 1999 and again in 2003 even though there was abundant evidence that those elections had been marked by rigging and violence. Obasanjo was seen as friendly to their interests. He was also seen as a competent general who could be counted on to rein in the youth activists in the Delta region and ensure that Western oil companies continue to extract oil undisturbed.

Local democracy and corporate social responsibility were thus sacrificed for cheap oil. This democratic deficit is at the heart of the present crisis in the Niger Delta. Continued backing for Obasanjo’s political agenda in April will certainly escalate this crisis, which in turn could spill out into other regions of the country igniting a political cyclone.

These then are the three major danger signs on the road to the April general elections. So far, ordinary Nigerians in their millions have remained spectators in this great game, even as their economic and social condition continues to deteriorate. They are waiting anxiously for the April elections to settle accounts with those whom they see as having betrayed them, leaving them worse off than they were in 1999. If they are denied their day in the voting booth, the three danger signs will meld with popular anger and frustration. There is no knowing whether Nigeria will still be there on the map when the storm settles.

Alternatively, Nigeria’s ruling elites can elect to head off this storm by insisting on fair elections. But how might the end game play out?

Endgame of a defeated General

President Olusegun Obasanjo will quit power in May. There is no getting around it. The current power constellation is firmly against him despite his strenuous efforts since he assumed office in 1999 to build an independent power base of his own. The question now is the manner of Obasanjo’s going, and how to ensure that Nigeria as a corporate entity remains after the storm has quietened.

Forecasting the ramifications of Nigeria’s coming general elections is now a booming industry in the United States and Western Europe. These forecasts and analyses run the gamut from the sober to the downright loony. Most centre on the rising armed conflict in the oil-bearing Niger Delta, and how the elections might likely impact the flow of oil to the Western countries.

But for Nigerians and other Africans, the stakes are higher. A conflict-ridden Nigeria in the wake of inconclusive or rigged elections will trigger powerful waves of chaos and anarchy throughout West Africa, suspend the ambitions of ECOWAS to transform the region into a belt of economic prosperity, and open up west and central Africa to natural resource hunters intent on fomenting war and pave the way for easy pickings.

It is therefore important that Nigerian political thinkers step out to combat the muddled, self-serving analyses of those who have put themselves forward as ‘interpreters’ of political trends in their country. Indeed, they are challenged to articulate a clear road map to fair, peaceful and conclusive elections: to an electoral outcome that will provide a framework in which the task of repairing the damage Obasanjo and his lieutenants have wrought these past eight years can commence.

The Washington based Eurasia Group had this to say about the coming elections: ‘An election delay and the constitutional crisis which will likely follow could tempt the country’s military and influential ex-military establishment – which ruled Nigeria for four decades – to consider re-entering politics...Obasanjo’s relationship with key figures within the ex-military establishment, such as former head of state General Ibrahim Babangida, former long-time National Security Adviser Mohammed Gusau and former Defense Minister Theophilus Danjuma, is currently strained. In any political crisis it is not clear that these powerful figures, and many others within the ex-military establishment, would back Obasanjo rather than someone else to replace him.’

Underpinning this controversial analysis is nostalgia for a return to military rule in Nigeria. This nostalgia is to be found mainly in neoconservative political and business circles in Europe and the United States whose favourite business model in Africa is using corrupt dictators to repress the ordinary people, thus paving the way for them to pillage the continent’s natural resources undisturbed. General Ibrahim Babangida, Mobutu Sese Seko and others of their ilk were feted in London and Paris and Washington for precisely this reason. There are many in the power corridors of these three cities that still yearn for the return of the ‘good old days’ of Babangida in Nigeria.

While it is true that the likes of Babangida and Danjuma are still powerful, due to the stupendous wealth they illegally amassed following the end of the Nigerian civil war in 1970, it would be a mistake to see power as influence in the country today. The generals have virtually no political influence in a country where the ordinary people view soldiers with a mix of contempt and loathing, and are determined to protect the right to vote they won back in 1999. Obasanjo was able to deny Babangida and Gusau the presidential ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party not because he himself is powerful, but because he was canny enough to recognise that Nigerians would not shed a tear for Babangida and Gusau when they were fed with a dose of their own medicine.

Likewise, Babangida, working in partnership with Vice President Atiku Abubakar, was able to frustrate Obasanjo’s plot to remain in office. Not because Babangida himself is overwhelmingly politically influential, but because he too recognised that the majority of Nigerians detest the President’s authoritarian pretensions and want to see the back of him in May 2007. Babangida tapped into this powerful current and Obasanjo’s third term ambitions bit the dust.

What the foregoing tells us clearly is that ordinary Nigerians and their desire for representative and accountable government are now firmly in the saddle and will ultimately determine the direction in which the country will go in May – democratic rule or a return to dictatorship. The wind, I hazard to say, is blowing in the direction of democratic consolidation.

The prospects of a successful military coup in the wake of chaotic elections this April are not very bright. It does not even register on the political radar of the Nigerian street. Nor are there signs among the rank and file in the armed forces that they are yet again beginning to see themselves as the nation’s saviour. The army’s sense of self-worth took a battering in the 1990s as Babangida and his successor General Sani Abacha systematically destroyed all hopes of social and economic progress in the country. Ordinary soldiers, who were deployed in the cities to shoot and maim democracy activists, and students have since those tragic events been lumped together with their commanders as destroyers of the nation. This unflattering image, still powerful and enduring, is one which officers and the other ranks are yet to live down.

We are thus left with a charged political arena in which the ex-military gladiators will have to slug it out among themselves, while an impoverished populace look on from the sideline, waiting for yet another breach in the rampart to claw back more of their purloined freedom. Olusegun Obasanjo had an easy ride in 1979 when, as military head of state, he worked in concert with his fellow generals to shape the general elections and handed power to their preferred candidate. Indeed, Obasanjo had declared a few months before those elections that victory would not necessarily go to the most qualified candidate, a clear indication that the likes of Malam Aminu Kanu, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, still widely venerated in the country, would not be allowed to take power.

Shehu Shagari, presidential candidate of the National Party of Nigeria, was the least qualified in a field bristling with intellectual and political giants, tempered and burnished in the furnace of the independence struggles of the 1940s and 1950s. Obasanjo, notorious for his envy of intellectuals and political figures more accomplished than himself, chose to put personal interest above the national imperative of supporting a politician and statesman able to guide Nigeria seamlessly from unaccountable military rule to a democracy delivering the essentials of life to a still hopeful and expectant populace.

The depredations of the Shagari years and punitive IMF-sanctioned structural adjustment, shortly after the return of military dictatorship, were Obasanjo’s parting gift to Nigerians in September 1979. The present challenge, insist Nigerian democratic activists, is to ensure that he will not have the opportunity to give the people a similar gift this coming May.

‘Popular’ political analysis led by the BBC presents Umar Yar’Adua, presidential candidate of the PDP, as the favourite to win the election. The argument is that a candidate has to have an enormous war chest and a powerful election-rigging machine – which the Obasanjo government has in abundance - to win. This analysis not only forecloses the democratic option - i.e. the choice of the majority of ordinary Nigerians freely expressed in the polling booth - it also subtly encourages the belief that there will be no credible challenge to the PDP machine this April.

This, then, is the area in which Nigerian democrats have been channelling their energies: to prove that free elections, without which any talk of democratic government is just much hot air, are possible in Nigeria. They are also looking ahead. In the eventuality that they are unable to ensure free elections, they plan to make the cost of rigging so expensive that the perpetrators will be forced into an untenable position, making it impossible for them to form a government.

Obasanjo’s critics say the PDP government can only point to an abysmal record in office these eight years. The fundamental challenges that confronted Nigerian state and society in May 1999 are still staring Nigerians in the face: a new constitution that addresses the terms of association between the federating units and thus ensures political order; a home-grown economic strategy capable of tackling the scourge of mass unemployment and deepening poverty; and a social compact led by a visionary political elite restoring hope and love of country in a battered and increasingly cynical populace.

PDP candidates cannot therefore rely on their ‘performance’ in office to win the argument on the campaign ground. True, the campaign strategies of the other presidential candidates have been rather short on concrete alternative policies – the exception being Prof. Pat Utomi, presidential candidate of the African Democratic Party (ADP), and to a lesser extent, General Muhammadu Buhari of the ANPP. But these two candidates are in a powerful position to reap bountifully from the widespread distrust of the PDP and its politics of plunder and incompetence. In a free and fair context, Buhari and Utomi could easily emerge as hot favourites for president. The task, say those desirous of easing the PDP out of office, is to build a nation-wide coalition of vote-watchers capable of counting the vote and making the vote count.

Power at all costs?

The Obasanjo government has fired the first salvo in its ‘war’ to retain power at all costs. All manner of obstacles, including police harassment, were put in the path of Buhari’s campaign team as they went about canvassing votes in the northern part of the country in March. Desperate PDP officials, faced with the awful prospect of a long Harmattan out of government, and being made to account for the billions of dollars they frittered away on the altar of corruption and indolence, are likely to resort to even worse tactics as the electoral battle is joined.

Advocates of political liberty and fair play at the polls are preparing themselves for the bruising context ahead. They argue that given past performance, it would be foolhardy, even suicidal, to look to the Independent National Electoral Commission to conduct fair elections, and the police to maintain order. Recent actions and pronouncements of ranking INEC officials have made it clear that they are riding on Obasanjo’s PDP wagon. The use of the police to prevent rival politicians from campaigning is also a signpost pointing to close PDP-police collaboration during the elections.

Political parties working to replace the PDP government are increasingly looking elsewhere for countervailing civic machinery able to secure peaceful and orderly elections. Faith leaders, the independent media, labour unions, women’s organisations, ethnic associations and town unions, progressive student groups and democracy activists, among other non-violent civic organisations, are being actively courted, mobilised, and empowered to perform this function.

But they also recognise that it is not enough to focus only on policing the vote on election day. Leaders of these political parties and their allies in civil society say they are already thinking ahead and have factored in the possibility that their forces could be overwhelmed by the PDP juggernaut, as the vote tally stacks up against them. If that day comes, they could borrow a leaf from the recent elections in Mexico and peacefully mobilise their followers and sundry Nigerians desirous of fair elections to demand a recount or another round of elections.

They have also put the National Assembly and the judiciary on notice, for these institutions to stand ready to do their duty if the government in power proves beyond reasonable doubt that it is no longer capable of governing a fair and orderly transfer of power. There are strong speculations in the media that pressure could be brought to bear on Ken Nnamani, President of the Senate and third in line as President, to commence impeachment proceedings against Obasanjo and Vice President Abubakar, using a recent Senate report indicting both of fraud.

Continuing speculations concerning the health of PDP presidential candidate Umaru Yar’Adua, and Obasanjo’s strident assurances that all is well with him only point up the vulnerable position of both, even as ordinary Nigerians continue to yearn for a paradigm shift in the politics of the country. A recent meeting between Muhammadu Buhari and the leadership of the influential Christian Association of Nigeria during which the ANPP candidate gave firm assurances that he would not tamper with secular provisions of the constitution and favour his fellow Muslims unduly indicate that inter-ethnic and inter-faith coalition-building in pursuit of a broad-based response to the PDP is emerging. Likewise, the positive nation-wide response to Prof. Utomi’s visit to Oloibiri, the Niger Delta village where oil was first struck in 1956, points to burgeoning civic support for political leaders with a record of service and integrity.

It is these powerful supporting pillars of the dawning democratic moment that Obasanjo’s desperate end game is up against. The resort to election rigging and strong-arm tactics will not be an effective response to this moment. To rig the vote is one thing; to form a government based on rigged polls is quite a different ball game.

Presently Nigeria stands at a crossroads – to follow the path of democratic consolidation and its attendant fruits of stable, orderly and accountable government and prosperity; or to return to authoritarian rule and its diet of poverty, corruption, and ethnic conflict.

This drama is unfolding in a new international arena in which the peaceful rise of China and India as major economic powers are changing the balance of power, re-ordering the traditional flow of raw materials from Africa to the Western industrialised countries, and reshaping the way in which powerful corporations think about and do business on the continent. The present presents threats. But it also presents opportunities for resource-rich but technology and capital-poor countries such as Nigeria.

The proliferation of international terror networks, the resurgent scramble for nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction, and rising ethnic wars on a mass scale make a compelling case for arenas of stable and peaceful government in resource-rich areas such as Africa.

Nigeria is one of the most important players on the continent, perhaps the most important. A peaceful, stable and democratic Nigeria can function as an agent of world peace, in a continent that has come up on the foreign policy radar of established and rising powers as crucial to their future economic health.

But a Nigeria in thrall to an incompetent and authoritarian government will open up this vast country to vendors of terror and pillage, further pushing the global order towards cataclysm. Fair elections are therefore as important to ordinary Nigerians as they are to those among the global powers anxious to navigate the new order into calmer waters.

* Ike Okonta is currently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, UK. His book, When Citizens Revolt: Nigerian Elites, Big Oil, and the Ogoni Struggle for Self-determination (Africa World Press, Trenton, 2007) is forthcoming.

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