Association of 
Nigerian Scholars 
for Dialogue
                    Opinion and Analysis  

Peter P. Ekeh
State University of New York at Buffalo

Abubakar's Difficult Charge of
Reversing Bad Faith of Predecessors

In three decades of military rule, notable for patent misrepresentation of truth by military rulers, Nigerians have largely grown cynical about fresh promises by the military to "return Nigeria to democracy." The predictable cycle has been that upon seizing power, following the treachery and mendacity that accompany military putsches in Nigerian history, a new military regime releases political prisoners, sacks elected offices of a previous regime, makes lavish promises about democratic prospects, and then quickly turns around to arrest its own batch of "trouble-makers," thus moving away from democratic reforms. Military regimes successfully concocted their deceit in large part because Nigerians were trusting of the uniformed men. However, in recent years they have been far less gullible.

It is therefore not surprising that the international community will express greater faith in the promise by General Abdulsam Abubakar to revive Nigeria's flagging transition program than Nigerians will ever do. The caution with which responsible Nigerians have received Abubakar's proposals is fully understandable in view of a bizarre record of broken promises by Abubakar's predecessors. Yet, there appears to be good grounds for suggesting that things may be different this time around. The difference may well have something to do with Abubakar's alleged character trait of being a "moderate." His rare admission "that mistakes have been made" is certainly refreshing. But the goodness of rulers never suffices in guaranteeing good governance. Other factors may help to make a difference in our present circumstances.

First, Nigerians have grown weary of military rule. They are less likely to accept another excuse for prolonging military dictatorship. Second, there is a world-wide delegitimation of military rule, with democracy breaking out in several regions of the world, following the collapse of the Cold War. The banning of visits by Nigerian military officers, and their civilian surrogates, to the United States and Western Europe has raised the cost of military rule in the country and diminished the stature of military rulers.

Pitfalls in Abubakar's Transition Program

Abdulsalam Abubakar is no stranger to military rule. He has witnessed the mischief and the chicanery involved in military politics at close quarters. Therefore, he is not likely to underrate the problems that he will confront in carrying forward his proposals for returning Nigeria to civil rule. The Nigerian experience is that those military regimes preparing the country for civil rule tend to be overwhelmed by problems arising from the incongruity between their civil duties and their military methods of doing things. Typically, they react poorly to such problems, leading to other fractions of the military establishment taking over in coups d'etat. This has been repeated time and again since 1983. No matter how well-intentioned he may be at this time, Abubakar's regime will be tested by problems that he cannot foresee now and he may be confronted by illegitimate attempts by a fraction in the Nigerian military establishment to supersede him in another military putsch. His promise to run an open government, if carried out, will stand him in a good stead in such a case, because he will need the friendship of Nigerians in rebuffing such attempts to obstruct the construction of a new civilian regime.

Abubakar's announced package, which includes the release of prisoners and detainees from Abacha's troubled regime, appears impressive. Other aspects of his announcement on the promise of a fairer share of offices will obviously tempt many politicians to embrace this program. The promise to let exiles return home, if kept, is also uplifting. Yet, there are hidden pitfalls that touch on fundamental and nagging problems in the Nigerian crisis of governance in Abubakar's package. These deserve to be highlighted. Such an exercise is without prejudice to the good intentions that Abubakar may bring to his determination to succeed in his endeavor to revive Nigeria's failing transition program. I will highlight four of these hidden dangers.

Reforming the Nigerian Military

As General Olusegun Obasanjo recently intimated, the organization of the Nigerian military is in trouble. The men of the armed forces do not trust themselves. Comradeship is weak among officers because there is a great deal of fear that their colleagues will misrepresent their views, resulting in their downfall. Units of "officers' mess" that were famous in Nigerian military quarters for their rambunctious friendship and esprit de corps are said to be a thing of the past. All of these are indications of disorganization and indiscipline, resulting in frequent coup attempts. There is an urgent need for major repairs and reforms in the organization of the military in preparation for democratic and constitutional rule. In other words, if the Nigerian military forces remain as disorganized as they are currently said to be, they would constitute a threat to a new constitutional civil order. What greater service can General Abubakar perform for the welfare of Nigeria than to undertake such reforms in the military? We must establish a new relationship between a military order, which will be subordinate to civil rule, and a new civil rulership that will not receive its mandate from the military.

Does General Abubakar accept the point of view that democracy requires that the military is subordinate to civil rule? Nigerians must be assured that reforms are under way in the armed forces which will ensure that the military forces understand and accept the democratic principle of a military order that is subordinate to civil rule. Reforming Nigerian civil politics without paying attention to disorder and indiscipline in the armed forces is unwise and inadequate.

Structure and Sovereignty of the Nigerian Constitution

General Abubakar rejected, wisely in the view of quite a few responsible Nigerians, the call for a Sovereign National Conference whose primary purpose would be to draw up a new Constitution for Nigeria. But then he says that he will publish and circulate the 1995 draft constitution for reactions "prior to consideration and approval by the Provisional Ruling Council." Here we go again. For Nigeria's sake, no, not again! We all must persuade the good General that the "Provisional Ruling Council" has no authority to approve Nigerians' Constitution. The whole point of the Sovereign National Council was to avoid the idea that the nation will receive its Constitutional mandate from the military. We experienced that outrage in the Muhammed/Obasanjo regime in 1976-1979. It was wrong then and it would be wrong now. We should not do it again. We may try a national referendum for approving the Constitution. Alternatively, and preferably, the military may leave the matter of the Constitution to civilians to resolve themselves after the departure of the military from its governance of Nigerian affairs.

There are other unsavory aspects of the 1995 Constitution that we must highlight. General Abubakar said in his address: "It is our belief that the Constitutional Conference that took place between 1994 and 1995 has produced a good draft constitution." Sadly, that constitution, as all other military-supervised constitutions in our history, has features that have been dictated by the military and that Nigerians were forced to accept. First, the 1995 draft constitution is unnecessarily centralized. The civilian constitutions of the 1950s-60s were built from the bottom upwards. Each region, the equivalent of our modern-day state, had its own constitution. The federal constitution was negotiated from the demands of the regions. In contrast, the military constitutions of the 1970s, 1980s, and the 1990s ignored the need for state constitutions, preferring a single central constitutional document imposed from above. Most Nigerians believe that we must go back to the federal imperatives of the 1960s. Each state needs its own constitution that will be compatible with the articles of a federal constitution. But such a federal constitution should be respectful of the views from the states.

Second, like all other military-supervised constitutions, the 1995 draft constitution had "no-go areas." Chief among these is the military's refusal to allow the perennial attempt by civilian constitution-makers to specifically ban coups d'etat. In Nigeria's present circumstances, there may be a need for a Nigerian Constitution to authorize international bodies to impose sanctions on military personnel who violate Nigeria's Constitution by overthrowing its government. There are other "no-go areas." Why should Nigerians be forbidden by the military to include any item in their own Constitution?

We urge General Abubakar to leave the issue of the Constitution to a civilian government to formulate. This would be a good compromise. In this case, the military can operate a provisional Constitution which a civilian regime can hang on to until a full-fledged Constitution is approved by the people, nationalities, and states of Nigeria. Whatever government emerges from the Abubakar transition program should be regarded as a transitional government whose responsibilities should include supervising a new Federal Constitution that respects the federal spirit of the 1960/63 Constitution which was crafted by civilian politicians.

Maximum Federalism as the Goal
of New Constitutional Arrangements

It is remarkable that the word "federalism" did not appear in General Abubakar's carefully crafted speech. The failure of military rule is that it has impaired Nigeria's federal arrangements. Any new constitution should retreat to the spirit and principles of the 1963 Constitution, with the new states as its units of operation. It should avoid the centralization that has been the hallmark of military rule. I believe that most Nigerians agree that maximum federalism should be the key to progress in the future Nigeria. That means that there will be a new fiscal arrangement that leaves enough funds at the center to operate federal services, but no more. Such subjects as religion, education (elementary, secondary, and university), etc., should be left to the states, as they were in the 1960s. It is Nigerians' hope that the task of a new constitutional arrangement is to inaugurate such a revamped federal system that will enhance the resources and powers of the states.

Clearly, the military establishment cannot bring itself to entertain such a viewpoint. The result of any constitutional deliberations over which the military's Provisional Ruling Council presides, and will be the final judge of, will further distort the balance of powers between the central government and the states. It is unfair to ask a military General, whose understanding of government is central command, to undertake the task of redressing the imbalance in favor of the states whose status has been eviscerated under military rule. General Abubakar should leave that constitutional task to civilians.

The Dangers of "Registering" Political Parties

General Abubakar's speech went back to a theme of enforced national unity on whose temple military rule in Nigeria was originally justified in 1966. His words deserve to be cited here. He said, "Under the new dispensation, every Nigerian citizen has equal opportunity to form or join any political party of his or her choice, in accordance with the guidelines to be issued by the electoral commission on the registration of political parties." If this is part of the "political re-engineering" to which the General referred, we must plead for some rethinking.

"Registration" of parties has been the code word for their licensing and authorization by the Nigerian Federal Government. This is all the more scary when General Abubakar rehashed a theme stressed by all his predecessors. He said, "While this administration wants to remove all restrictions on the freedom of association and undue controls. . . . our diversity, if allowed to manifest itself in the proliferation of political parties with parochial orientation may lead to disunity and instability. This is a luxury we cannot afford and, indeed, a danger that we must avoid. We urge all politicians to narrow their differences and work together towards the formation of parties with national following."

I must plead with General Abubakar and all Nigerians not to return to this path of licensing political parties and of limiting associations and political parties to those "with national following." It is not true that regional parties, with interest in local issues, will detract from nationhood. After three decades of enforced "national unity," if there are Nigerians to whom "parochial" parties have more meaning, allow them to form and join them. They may discover that they need to work with other associations. I suspect that the Ogonis and other disadvantaged ethnic groups in the much-abused Niger Delta may want to form associations and political parties that will protect their own interests. It is not the business of government to disallow local parties that appeal to small groups of people. If these parties break any laws they should be accountable to the legal process. But all Nigerians should be allowed to form associations that should be free to operate openly in electoral politics.

It will be wrong to go back to the bad old days when FEDECO was used to harass associations. The only way that politics will be above board is to give all Nigerians the opportunity to form associations in order to protect their own interests, no matter however narrow or parochial they may be. Within ten years, many of them will wane and there will be realignments. Let registration mean a list of parties, rather than the authorization or licensing of associations by the government. We should respect individual freedom and ethnic groups' desire for self-government. That is the core meaning of civil society whose key motto is individual freedom of association.

July 30, 1998


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