Obasanjo and Democracy
Text of paper titled The Viability of Democracy in Nigeria: Issues of the Moment to be presented tomorrow, Saturday 23 March 2002 at CDRAT, Mambayya House, Kano. Text of endnotes not included here.
This paper attempts to discuss current issues regarding the viability of democracy in Nigeria in light of the performance of the present administration. The topic is chosen as a result of recent disturbing development in the political landscape of the nation as 2003 election approaches. After coming out of fifteen years of military rule, Nigerians would not like to see democracy derailed, hence the need to ensure the viability through adherence to democratic principles. The performance of the present administration has been reviewed in light of fundamental objectives of the constitution. The disturbing trend towards 2003 has also been discussed. Finally, suggestions are given that will guarantee the viability of the republic.
Nigerians would first like to measure the success of their democracy by the performance of their elected governments. There is no better yardstick for such performance than the provisions of the constitution that defines the official obligations of public servants.
The first obligation of any government official is to conform to, observe and apply the provisions of the constitution.1
The constitution states that government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria will be based on the principles of democracy and social justice2 with sovereignty belonging to the people3 whose security and welfare shall be the primary purpose of government.4 The composition of government in particular should be “in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also command national loyalty…”5 The constitution also charges the state with abolishing “all corrupt practices and abuse of power.”6
On economic objectives of government the constitution states that the state shall, among other things, “harness the resources of the nation and promote national prosperity and an efficient, a dynamic and self-reliant economy; control the national economy in such manner as to secure the maximum welfare, freedom and happiness of every citizen on the basis of social justice and opportunity.”7 The economy shall be run for the common good of Nigerians and not “operated in such a manner as to permit the concentration of wealth or the means of production and exchange in the hands of few individuals or of a group8 while “exploitation of human or natural resources in any form whatsoever for reasons, other than the good of the community shall be prevented.”9
These are the major points forming what the constitution calls “the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy.”
There has been conflicting evaluations of the performance of the Obasanjo administration. His aides, as expected, are particularly emphatic on his success. One of them even recently justified the ambition of the President to seek a second term solely on his successful tenure in office.10
The overwhelming opinion, however, is that President Obasanjo has performed far below expectations. In the following illustrations, there is very little to show that the President has acted according to the objectives of the constitutions mentioned above.
Beginning with security of lives and properties which according to the constitution is the primary responsibility of government, the performance has been exceptionally dismal. At no time, since the civil war, were so many lives and property lost than during the tenure of this administration. Ethnic and religious unrests have caused the death of thousands of Nigerians. The fact that in some cases they occurred many times in one city, like Lagos, Kaduna, Kano and Enugu shows the reluctance of the government or its incompetence to actively stop the menace. Worst still, as we once mentioned11, the perpetrators are left to go free.
Obasanjo has also failed to keep the delicate balance between different sections of the society in composition of his cabinet and other federal appointments. The security sector of the government for example is dominated by people of his ethnic group; appointments into command positions in the armed forces and the leadership of the ruling party which he determined substantially were both in favor of members of his religion. At a point, even the Federal Character Commission had cause to voice out its objections12 which was quietly ignored by the President. Though his apologetics have tried to put up a defense13, three years into his tenure, the facts asserting disregard to constitutional provisions cannot be disputed.
Neither is the polity more stable now than before. There is a renewal of secessionist agitations either in the form of old Biafra14 or the clever calls for restructuring that is championed by intellectuals of the southwest15 which has given rise to terrorist organizations like the OPC and MOSSOP.
The prevalence of poverty is something that the administration inherited from previous regimes. As far back as 1993, the percentage of Nigerians living under the poverty line has reached 50% and in states like Kano and Bauchi, it was already over 60%.16 The situation has continued to deteriorate in spite of democracy and the pledges of the President. In a recent interview over the BBC, the President admitted that poverty has sharply increased during his tenure but explained that, were it not for his effort, it would have been worse17.
The fact is that there is little on the ground to show that the federal government is serious about poverty alleviation. Budgetary allocations indicate a progressive decline in interest. The Presidency voted N10billion for poverty alleviation in 2000 budget. This figure, insufficient as it was, was reduced to N6billion in 2001 and further down to N1billion in 2002. 18 The World Bank has faulted the poverty alleviation program of the government, which at the grassroots level is nothing more than distribution of monthly rations to party loyalists and thugs and attendance of seminars.19
It might be that the government does not like alleviating poverty by direct intervention. Then indirectly, agriculture would have been the sector to improve for maximum effect, it employs over 70% of the population. However, agriculture is among the sectors that suffers the worst setbacks since the debut of this administration. It stopped virtually all interventions, including the food supply program under the defunct Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF)20 and the scrapping of bodies like National Agricultural Land Development Agency21, an organization committed to new farmland preparation. In addition, it withdrew subsidy on fertilizer and consistently allocated ridiculous amounts to the sector,22 amidst public protests.23
The government also failed to make any impact in areas that are technically easy. Rehabilitation of roads is a good example. It revoked contracts of roads rehabilitation awarded in the second phase the PTF’s roads rehabilitation program. After one and half years, it awarded them to contractors that lack the technical ability to execute them. In spite of the contracts awarded at rates much higher than that of the PTF24, after one and half years some of the jobs are going at snail speed causing the deaths of many Nigerians;25 some were started and immediately abandoned;26 many have not commenced at all, a year after their award; and very few have been completed.27 There is even a case of double awards where the federal Ministry of Works claimed to have awarded the construction of a road that was earlier completed by a state government at half the price awarded by the Federal government.28
Let us come down to simple civil service matters, like the payment of salaries to workers and pensioners. So ineffective are the disbursements that even the Police went on strike;29 the army too threatened to embark on one, an action interpreted by government as mutiny.30 Never in the history of the country was government so incompetent and insensitive.
The administration is not without its innovations and promises though. The most pronounced promise was that on electricity. The then Minister promised six months to register a substantial improvement in electricity generation and distribution in the country. Nothing was achieved, and the task had to be assigned to a presidential committee. In the aftermath of that failure, which saw the sacking of the management of National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), it was realized that the N3billion allocated to the organization for the improvement did not reach NEPA at all. A committee of the senate has alleged that the money was deposited in a private account for months.31 Then the President last year promised Nigerians uninterrupted power supply by the end of 2001. Three months into 2002 the promise has not been fulfilled.32 He has conceded failure and has set another date, June 2005(!), for generating 10,000 MW.33
The President also launched the Universal Basic Education program amidst accusations of marginalization by the North. A year lapsed after the launching without any blueprint at hand; two years later, today, no teacher or education administrator can convincingly explain what the program means or what it has achieved so far.
While it was ready to abolish all welfare programs it inherited from previous administrations without even following the due process of law34, the Obasanjo administration was very willing to retain privatization and pursue it with all vigor. The exercise is carried out with haste,35 without any regard to national interest, regardless of public protest even by the National Assembly.36 The reasons given for the privatization are invalid in most cases and the goal of attracting foreign capital has not been realized in many. Finally, there are strong allegations that the exercise is perturbed with corruption,37 which the Director General heading the exercise was unable to satisfactorily rebut.38
The President has promised to fight against corruption. After a long delay, a tribunal was promulgated and constituted39. However, no government official has been brought before it in spite of the abundance of such cases.40
Finally, the government is poor in its resource allocation. In a country perverted by the President could buy a jet of over N50 or N80billion (the exact figures are not known to the public) and build a stadium of over $300million dollars in a city whose sewage is flowing freely on roads.
We cannot exhaust the failures of this government. Its performance is nowhere close to that of the Second Republic or even the Abacha administration. We only wanted to prove, albeit briefly, that contrary to its assertions, the administration has failed to fulfill its promise and abide by the oath of office to pursue public policies in consonance with the fundamental objectives of the constitution as quoted earlier. We do not also intend to delve into the performance of governors and local government chairmen, many of whom have been publicly castigated by the President as corrupt.
Yet, one other thing needs to be mentioned. It is the commitment of this regime to democracy. The government has taken an undue advantage of the widespread poverty in the country and the concentration of wealth in its hands to play its version of politics that violates fundamental principles of democracy. This is what we shall discuss in the section that follows.
The failure of a government to live up to the expectations of its people is not new in the history of democracy. In such cases, the constitution has made provisions for the changing it. Such provisions include the formation of new parties,41 recalling of members of the legislature42, impeachment of the President43, and elections.44 The problem with the Obasanjo administration is how it immobilized these provisions in quest of political dominance and re-election in 2003.
First was the immobilization of opposition parties through federal appointments and contract awards. This started even before the presidential elections of 1999 when the leadership of All Peoples Party (APP) was lured into giving up the idea of fielding any presidential candidate. There was little wonder when immediately after assuming office the President appointed its leader as his adviser on inter-party affairs. He immediately abandoned the party, never to be heard again. It is likely that the same game will be played in 2003, where efforts will be made to ensure that the APP presidential candidate cannot match Obasanjo in personality and resources. The other party, Alliance for Democracy (AD), given its ethnic background, will support the second term of Obasanjo. So the PDP may likely go into alliance with it to ensure that it has defeated the APP during the next election.
Secondly, the present administration successfully moved to dominate the ruling party by planting loyalists of the President in key positions. The nation will hardly forget the corruption that pervaded the 1999 national convention of the party in Abuja. It was so brazen that senior party officials like Mal. Adamu Ciroma and Alh. Bello Kirfi – both members of the Federal Cabinet – had to draw the attention of the President. He ignored them. Later on, Okadigbo, who was opposed to Obasanjo, was impeached from the leadership of the senate. Ghali narrowly escaped after conceding a compromise with the Presidency.
Thirdly, the party was also glad that opposition groups within it became impatient about the non-performance of the President. They were expelled, immediately it became clear that they were contemplating forming new parties. Then the party held another convention in which no election took place. Party posts were shared between nominees loyal to the President and presented only for ratification by delegates.
Fourthly, new parties have not been registered and the 2001 Electoral Act was itself tampered with by the President. Stringent conditions were imposed on the new parties and the sequence of election reversed. The tenure of local government chairmen was also extended in violation of the constitutional provisions.45
Fifthly, the PDP is deliberately delaying the promulgation of a new electoral act after repealing that of 2001. The delay, as rightly observed by the National Chairman of the APP46, will make matters worse for any new party, while the ruling PDP has long ago given Obasanjo a mandate for a second term. The doors have been slammed on other party members, like Alhaji Abubakar Rimi, to contest the primaries with him. When finally the new Act is passed by the Assembly and signed to law by the President later this year, time will be too late for the new parties to make any impact during the election.
Sixthly, how are we sure that there will even be elections in 2003? That is a question that many people would not rush to answer in affirmative. That is because, given how the Presidency and the PDP emasculated other parties and gradually built a culture of ‘consensus’ candidature, it could use all resources at its disposal to make other parties give up any contest. Already, last year, a leading campaigner for Obasanjo and an influential figure in the Arewa Consultative Forum, Malam Liman Ciroma, has voiced his approval of zero election in 2003. All elected office holders should be allowed a second term unconditionally. There are also strong indications that in some states the three registered parties are negotiating how the present governors will return unopposed.47
Finally, more apprehensions grew with the sacking of resident electoral commissioners by the President without even the knowledge of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC)48 and their replacement with members and loyalists of the ruling PDP in all states of the federation. According to one of the governors, nominations were done secretly by PDP governors.49 Earlier, the governors, like the President, also did not show fairness as required by the constitution50 in the appointments of their state INEC commissioners. Most of them constituted the body to their advantage with little or no regard to membership from other parties.
As a result of the foregoing, the emotions as well as reason of Nigerians, once again, have returned to their erstwhile position of frustration with the overwhelming present and anxiety over an uncertain future. The PDP and the President, like the NPN and UNCP of the past, have effectively dominated the political landscape of the country. They are empowered, not by popular support, but by their access to the resources of the nation which they have shown enough readiness to employ for achieving their political goals. They also have the upper hand of incumbency where they dictate, by using the constitution unfairly, to put any opposition at a disadvantage. Once more, people have suddenly awakened to the reality that characterizes the political history of independent Nigeria is characterized: the impossibility of civilians conducting free and fair elections.51 The viability of the democracy seems pretty low.
By way of conclusion, the following are measures required for continuity of democratic governance in the country.
1. The issue of viability rests largely on the President and the ruling party. If the two are ready to keep the constitutional trust reposed in them, contrary to what their steps are now indicating, then crossing 2003 would be almost certain. To do so, they have to show fairness and due regard to other parties. They also need to drastically withdraw the privilege they accorded themselves of using state resources at their disposal to buy over opponents and direct the political culture to a monolithic conclusion. They must resist the temptation of exploiting the economic weakness of their opponents to deny the country a viable opposition. To do otherwise will lead us from the present state of dictatorship to that of despotism which, as Alexis de Tocqueville once warned, “would degrade men rather than torment them.”52
2. There is a need for a viable opposition. Its members must be intellectually sound enough to enable them furnish the nation with alternatives of candidates and policies. They must endeavor to be economically independent of government, or acquire the endurance to hold on to their views regardless of economic hardships or overtures.
3. There is a need for a return to ideology. It is a deception for any serious politician to buy the imperialistic idea that we are living in a post-ideological era while capitalism is here dominating the world through globalization and the so-called free market. Fortunately, the constitution has made democracy and social justice its cardinal principles of governance, a point I consider sufficient enough for convergence of all progressive forces.
4. The present political environment is replete with elements that lack integrity. There is a need, as I argued last week,53 for people bent on improving the governance of this country to join politics. Hardly would a society progress without a leadership of sufficient integrity.
Unless these measures are taken, we should not be surprised to wake up one day and find that the democracy we so much cherish is gone, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.