Nigeria -Democracy on trial

Dr. Cyril Obi, a Senior Research Fellow at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos was introduced by chairman Lennart Wohlgemuth.

Since Nigeria returned to democracy in May 1999, after almost three decades of military rule and almost two decades of economic crises, the country has been faced with the complex challenges of national reconciliation, national reconstruction and economic reform, and democratic consolidation. Even after holding the post-transition general elections in 2003, Nigeria continues to grapple with these challenges and the citizenry is still anxious to see and enjoy the benefits of “democracy dividends” – social welfare, justice, equity, and equal access to resources and power.

Also watching with keen interest is the international community that is highly expectant that a democratic Nigeria would realise the country’s immense potential and play a leadership role particularly in the areas of regional conflict resolution, peace building and development in Africa. Apart from the role of Nigeria as a pivotal state or the African Giant, its huge population of an estimated 120-130 million people is Africa’s largest market and reservoir of highly skilled professionals. Nigeria is also the largest producer of petroleum and gas in Africa, and is critical to the energy security calculations of the West, particularly the United States that is increasingly looking towards West Africa and Nigeria as a source of diversifying oil supplies from total dependence on the volatile Middle East.

It would appear that since the return of democracy, Nigeria has witnessed an escalation of violent conflict. The struggles as noted earlier are driven by the quest to fill the power vacuum left by the retreating military, but more fundamentally, the contestations between various groups in a context of rising demands relative to shrinking scarce resources. These conflicts have largely been identity driven: communal, ethnic and religious. The “we” against “them”, “indigenes” versus “settlers” and “insiders” versus “outsiders” relations of inclusion/exclusion have been continuously mobilized and deployed in the rivalries and violent struggles for access to power and resources. The whole issue of political space in the sense of exclusive control and rights within a claimed territory, to the exclusion of “others”, has been a distinct feature of the unfolding crises. The process of discriminating against or excluding “other” Nigerian citizens on the basis of their being “non-indigenes” or belonging to “other” religions or “other” communities can be gleaned from conflicts that have ravaged the Northern and Central parts of Nigeria, as well as the oil-rich Niger Delta region where violence has reached alarming levels.

In spite of having passed the post-transition election test, Nigeria’s democracy is still on trial. This trial, started long ago, but the attention of this lecture is on the most recent phase of the quest for democracy in Nigeria. The emphasis is also on the content of democratic politics rather than its form, and the reality that democracy in Nigeria is still a contested terrain rather than a settled matter.

The legacy of three decades of military (mis)rule, a squandered oil boom, the nature of the Nigerian Petro-state, the nature of the Nigerian political elite and the subversion of national-social contract has turned full circle to come home to roost with a vengeance. How Nigeria would fare now, and in the future would depend on how the current challenges confronting the democratic project are engaged by the political forces jostling for power – their approach to politics either as war in which the winner takes all or as a bargain, based on give and take, and equity in the service of the Nigerian people and their well-being and freedom.

The Legacy of the Military in Politics
The military faction of the Nigerian ruling class have moved from determining its civilian successors, to self-succession by civilianising the position of the military head of state within a democratic framework. It is a legacy that cast democracy in the image of the military.

Given the fact that the military in Nigeria is a product of Nigerian history and in particular the colonial project, it reflected all the contradictions in the society. In its attempts to consolidate its hold on power and accumulate resources to become a class for itself, the military elite became politicised, but beyond that it militarised politics. The military as a more cohesive national institution in the absence of a counterweight in terms of nation cohesion in civil society, has been able through its capture of state power and resources to dictate its access to power. The logic of capturing state power and defending such power, meant that politics became a zero-sum game, and only those who could muster and unleash enough violence and also control the institutions of state could win the political wars for power.

Closely related to the foregoing, is the complete intolerance for opposition. The transfer of the chain of command from the military to the political sphere left no room for opposition politics that was translated to disloyalty.

The legacy of the military faction of the ruling elite to the political process was the paradoxical authorship of a democracy borne out of a dictatorship. At the very best it offered only part of an opportunity to advance a democratic project, but this was against the background of a tradition of the militarization of social life and politics, and the framing of the rules of the game to favour its long-term post-transition interests. The obsession with power, the use of violence in the struggle for access to resources and power, and the control of public institutions and resources to consolidate control over power, and the intolerance of opposition have outlived formal military rule in Nigeria.

Fortunately, there are signs that there are social forces albeit in an uncoordinated form that can begin to engage the transformation of the legacy of the military.

They have found the new democratic opening as a veritable framework to advance the agenda. Some of their victories include the registration of more political parties, more respect for human rights, and the formation of a broad-based opposition alliance – Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP). But a lot more has to be done to advance these modest gains is a sustained manner.

The Nature of the Nigerian Petro-State
As noted earlier, from the 1970’s Nigeria came to be entirely dependent on earnings from the production and export of crude oil. As such, it depends on oil as a source of national revenus and foreign exchange earnings.

This has had far reaching implications for the nature of the state and its policies. It is however important to note that, the oil on which the state is dependent is actually produced by foreign oil multinationals that have the monopoly of the technology of oil extraction. This implies several things: these oil companies occupy a central place in Nigeria’s political economy and therefore have leverage over the State. Therefore it is difficult for the state institutions to effectively regulate them. This means that the state is strong by virtue of the petrodollars that flow into its coffers, but weak by virtue of the fact that it depends on oil whose international price it does not determine, and whose production it does not control.

Several issues arise from this relationship between state and oil. Firstly, is that power is often centralised in the state, but more fundamentally, the state is captured by those who can forcefully organise a takeover. The prize of capturing such a state is access to fabulous wealth. Also such a state has limited autonomy and cannot therefore act in the interest of all, but rather in the interests of a few. In a recent study on Bottom of the Barrel: Africa’s Oil Boom and the Poor, by Ian Gary and Terry Karl it is estimated that that Nigeria has earned about $340 billion dollars in the past forty years, yet today about 70 per cent of Nigerians are poor. Such a system offers no real incentive for the decentralisation of state power, accountability or development.

Politics is highly personalised and factionalised, and institutions are weak. Thus making it difficult for a coherent national ruling class to emerge, and for a developmental ethos to take root within the state. This provides a context for the use of violence to contest for access to power and resources, but it also leads to instability.

The very nature of oil as a commodity of power, fuelling patrimonial networks that are neither transparent nor accountable makes democracy more of an appearance than a reality. In such a context the temptation to wilfully manipulate state institutions and oil resources to satisfy the interests of a hegemonic faction of the ruling class is overwhelming.

The Nature of the Nigerian Political Elite
It is impossible to discuss the democratic project in Nigeria without considering the role of the Nigerian political elite.

When it became clear that independence was imminent this elite mobilised ethnicity to canvass for support for its ascension to power. This laid the foundation for the politicisation of ethnicity and religion, and the intense rivalry (and division) between ethnic groups and geo-political regions (later states) in Nigeria.

Two issues are however fundamental, the deep divisions within the elite along personal, ethnic, religious, and factional lines, and the lack of a clear vision or common ideology for a broad social project. The first suggests an incoherence of the elite leading it to engage in acrimonious internal rivalry and conflict, and the second promotes political opportunism, lack of principles and poor leadership. These explain why certain elements and forces within the political elite colluded with the military faction to subvert the democratic ethos for selfish gain, and why the political class cannot reach a consensus on how it will define a national basis for Nigeria’s democratic project.

The implication of the nature of the dominant faction of the political elite is that it sees democracy more as a means to an end, rather than an end itself. This creates problems in relation to its capacity to truly represent the broad interests of the Nigerian people, or even play by the rules, when its grip on power is threatened.

Many will argue that the political elite only takes care of its interests by manipulating the emotions of the masses. This may be true. But such definite answers tend to gloss over the reality that the political elite is not homogenous or united.

The key is to rekindle a sense of belonging and purpose in the people, and reach a new social contract in which government pursues policies that are inclusive, and truly serve the people.

The economical and international dimensions
Clearly there is a lot of effort in sanitising the investment environment as a way of strengthening the economic foundations of Nigeria’s new democracy. These however raise some issues. The first is what Robinson in her book, Disciplining Democracy, refers to as “Exclusionary Democracy”, in which economic reforms are not subjected to any thorough going national debate, and actually exclude, disempower and impoverish the people, dashing their hopes for a better quality of life. Conforming to the global “ideological moment” the ruling elite has imposed economic and political projects from above directed more at satisfying the conditions laid down by external constituencies: the International Financial Institutions and the Donor community.

It is pertinent to note that in spite of the reforms, very little development has taken place outside the oil and service sectors leading to high rates of unemployment, social misery, violence and crime.

At a fundamental level, the interest of the world’s powers in Nigeria’s oil appears to favour centralised political forms that make oil business less complex and highly profitable. Reactions to the Niger Delta crisis clearly show an international preference for strong measures to guarantee uninterrupted supplied of cheap high quality Nigerian crude to the world market. It is not unusual for profit and energy security calculations to be placed before the people that pay such a heavy price for oil production in their land. This hardly considers the democratic option.

Seminar discussion
Dr. Cyril Obi believes that democracy will thrive in Nigeria. But the real issue and fundamental question is Whose Democracy? At what cost?

A petrol state drains all other production within the country. Because too many relay too much on the large amount of money that the oil brings, there is no need to produce something else. In the Petrol State there is a correlation between the easiness to extract money and the low production of other things.

Most people want fast solutions, but democracy is a continuos struggle. Democracy is an opportunity and possibility for the people.

Under the forces of economic globalisation, two decades of implementation of a new social contract, have failed to deliver development to the people. What perhaps is needed is less, not more of the same. A new democracy from below, rooted in the people and a developmental state, representing and reflecting their quest for dignity, equity, welfare and freedom. Such a grassroot-funded democracy offers brighter prospects.

Summary: Åsa Elfving

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