Nigeria: Security, Development and National Transformation – By Jibrin Ibrahim

Jibrin Ibrahim, PhD

Centre for Democracy and Development

Text of Discussant’s Comments responding to 52nd Independence Anniversary Lecture by President John Kufour, 18th September 2012, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abuja


Your Excellencies, the President and Vice President

Your Excellency. Former President of Ghana, John Kufour

Excellencies and fellow citizens

It is a real privilege and honour for me to be invited to share my comments on this important occasion and I am humbled by the gesture of the invitation especially as I am often on the rostrum criticising the government of the day. That in a sense is central to my role as a civil society activist. Our main lecturer, John Kufour, is one of Africa’s most respected leaders who has contributed greatly to the consolidation of Ghanaian democracy and is today playing a positive role all over Africa as an elder statesman. I would like to start with a few words on an incident in which President Kufour and my humble self set out to explore Nigeria’s greatness.

Nollywood and Nigeria’s Greatness

The occasion was the 2009 Malawi Elections where President Kufour was the Head of the Commonwealth Election Observer Group and I was observers. I had arrived in Lilongwe airport with a letter from the Commonwealth requesting I be given a visa on arrival. I was worried about the usual airport humiliation Nigerians suffer. I handed my passport and waited with trepidation. The question from the immigration officer threw me off guard – “did you travel with Rita Dominic?” I asked who Rita was and he responded that as a Nigerian, how I could ask him who Rita was. You surely know that we all love Rita in this country and she arrives today, he smiled and waved me through. In my mind, I thanked Rita the Nigerian, who ever she was, for making my entry into Malawi so easy.

On entering the country, I realised the visit of Rita Dominic was causing as much frenzy as the elections we had come to observe. She is known as the lady with the silky skin and the whole country was so emotionally charged to see the silky skin from Nigeria. Indeed, the highlight of late President Bingu wa Mutharika’s re-election campaign was the unveiling of a mausoleum in honour of the late dictator, Kamuzu Banda and Rita was the star attraction that had been invited to launch it. That evening, a major concert was to be organised in Blantyre to present Rita to the people of Malawi. Intrigued by the role Rita was playing in advancing Malawian democracy, I told President John Kufour that our observations cannot be complete without seeing Rita. To my surprise, he accepted and off we went to the sports centre where I quickly contacted protocol and we were led through the crowded VIP entrance to the lounge. Two hours later, the show had not started and the general manager of DSTV Malawi, organisers of the concert, came to explain that the hall was full, the crowd outside was larger than the one inside and the crowd had massed round the VIP entrance so they do not know how to bring Rita in.

I told him President Kufour and I walked through the crowd so why can’t Rita do the same. He looked at me as if I was an idiot. Rita, he explained, was a mega star and her security is very important. They cannot afford to take a risk. Knowing our place vis-a-vis a Nollywood mega star from Nigeria, President Kufour and I quietly walked through the crowd and left. The manager was right; no one took a second glance at us. The issue was that Nigerian creative talent tells Africans narratives that they find meaningful and inspiring and so many on the continent respect our dear country for our skills. Indeed, on an earlier occasion while checking into a hotel at Jinja, the source of the River Nile in Uganda, the receptionists doubted the authenticity of my Nigerianess when I could not tell them the latest update on Aki and Pawpaw. These days, to prove my Nigerianess, I do Nollywood movies and make an effort to know the names of key mega stars. I even know that Aki married recently and the rights to the wedding photos have been sold for purposes of mega branding. I must confess however that I am unconformable with this aspect of Nigerian greatness in my moments of lucidity. I know that it is indeed true that Nollywood is the institution branding my dear country Nigeria, but I sometimes doubt its content, but that’s the story for another day.

Dismantling Nigeria is No Easy Task

Nigeria is of course today confronting a number of critical political challenges that are raising serious questions about its identity and survival as a democratic federal republic. First, there is a significant rise and expansion of sectarian conflicts, both ethnic and religious. The recent expansion of violence by insurgent groups, particular Boko Haram, leading to the killings of thousands of people has been particularly unsettling. Secondly, the federal character clause in the Constitution has been used to discriminate against millions of Nigerian citizens labelled as settlers. Jos has become an epicentre of this phenomenon and this hitherto land of peace has been turned into killing fields. Thirdly, the insurgency in the producing Niger Delta has calmed down but there are fears and threats of its flaring up again. In this context, there have been numerous fears expressed over the past few months about the demise of Nigeria. I believe however that dismantling Nigeria is no easy task. The younger generation in particular should know that talks about dismantling Nigeria have been on for almost a hundred years and we are still together.

Nigeria was amalgamated into a single political community in 1914 for economic, not political reasons. That act of 1914 had limited objectives – the amalgamation of administration and finance to the system balance the books. In 1939, regional autonomy was reinforced with the division of the country into three regions. Since then, Nigerian politics has had a very strong ethno-regional character and the political elites have always sought to exploit it for their political ends. At every point when the political classes felt their interests were at stake, they have not hesitated to play the trump card of secession.

In the 1950s, virtually all Nigerian parties saw themselves as political expressions of ethno-regional associations with the Action Group (AG) in the West evolving from a Yoruba cultural association – Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) emerging from the northern cultural association, Jamiyar Mutanen Arewa and the National Congress of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) which started as a national party but later narrowed its social base to a cultural association, the Igbo State Union. These ethno-regional elite blocs struggled against each other in seeking to configure federalism to their advantage using the secession threat. The reasons for the calls for separation, Professor Tamuno correctly argues, have been self-interest of elite groups rather than the national interest. It was the Sardauna of Sokoto who first referred to the amalgamation of the Nigerian provinces as “the mistake of 1914”. That was in the early 1950’s, when he flagged the secession banner, because he felt that Southern politicians were unwilling to understand the attitudes of the Northern elite towards independence. The Sardauna’s position was that the Northern elite would not rush for independence if it meant replacing European domination with Southern domination.

In the 1950 Ibadan Constitutional Conference to review the Richards Constitution, a representational ratio of 45:33:33 for the North, West and East was proposed. Northern politicians felt threatened by this arrangement and the then Emir of Zaria articulated their position clearly – the North must have 50% of the seats or secede from the country. In May 1953, after Northern politicians had been ridiculed in Lagos for opposing the AG motion for Self Government in 1956, the Northern House of Assembly and the Northern House of Chiefs met and passed an eight point resolution that amounted to a call for confederation and separation.

In the 1954 Lagos Constitutional Conference, it was the turn of the AG to demand that a secession clause be inserted in the Constitution. The move was opposed by the NPC and NCNC. In 1964, following the census and election crises, Southern politicians was getting disenchanted with their future in Nigeria. Michael Okpara, Premier of the Eastern Region directly threatened in December 1964 that the East would secede.  Okpara went ahead to establish a committee under his Attorney General to work out the modalities for a declaration of secession by Eastern Nigeria. When Ojukwu finally decided to embark on the course of secession three years later, he had ready-made plan waiting for him.

The transition from threats to an actual attempt at secession emerged from the Niger Delta. On 23rd February 1966, Isaac Boro decided that he was not ready to live in a Nigeria that was ruled by Igbos. He therefore declared the Independence of the Niger Delta Peoples Republic following the first coup and the establishment of the Ironsi Regime. Boro had become very disturbed about perceived Igbo domination of Eastern Minorities since his days as a student activist at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His Republic lasted for only twelve days, the time it took the police to round-up his rag-tag army of 159 volunteers. Isaac Boro and two of his colleagues were charged for treason in March and condemned to death in June 1966. Boro was eventually released at the on-set of the Nigerian civil war when he joined the Federal side and was killed in battle in 1968, fighting for the liberation of Rivers state from the Igbo, on the platform of the Federal Government of Nigeria.

The civil war of 1967 to 1970 was of course the most serious threat to the existence of Nigeria as a country and it led to the loss of over a million lives. In my view, the present problems confronting the polity are far less intense than the crisis engendered by the census, elections and coup d’état of the 1960s.

The second most intense period of political crisis followed the annulations of the June 12th 1993 elections and the determination of the Abacha dictatorship to continue in power as the sole candidate for the five “leprous” political parties. To address the concerns, General Abacha had announced in his 1995 independence address the introduction of a modified Presidential system in which six key executive and legislative offices will be zoned and rotated between six identifiable geographical groupings; North-West, North-East, Middle-Belt, South-West, East-Central and Southern-Minority. The formalisation of this arrangement in law was dropped in the transition from the 1995 to the 1999 Constitutions. The political classes were however worried that the principle which they all accepted would be lost so the People’s Democratic Party adopted it. Of course the Northern political class was livid with anger when President Goodluck Jonathan denied the pact existed.

The reality of Nigerian politics is that fears of domination of one zone over the others played a central role in convincing politicians of the necessity of a federal solution. The First Republic which operated essentially as equilibrium of regional tyrannies was however characterised by the domination of each region by a majority ethnic group and the repression of regional minorities. Indeed, the central problem that has been generating the steady rise of ethno-regional tensions and conflicts has been the supplanting of Nigeria’s federal tradition by a virtual Jacobin unitary state that emerged under a long period of military rule. The problem is that the Nigerian state is no longer seen as a neutral arbiter and ethno-regional political actors have been taking maximalist positions and treating compromise with disdain. This is the attitude that to change. Nigeria has lived on political brinkmanship for long and built resilience to system collapse. Living on the brink continues but the severity of the current political crisis is calling on Nigerians to rise and defend our nationhood.

Democracy, Development and the Transformation Agenda

As we all know, Nigeria is undergoing a transformation agenda under the leadership of President Goodluck Jonathan. Transformation is a word that is repeated in virtually every phrase pronounced by every ruling class politician and it’s a word worth exploring – what is being transformed and how? Indeed, transformation is a key word all over Africa and it refers first and foremost to the emerging positive trend in which the direction of movement is away from the usual story about the Africa of hunger, of disease, of war and of forms of identity that negates the rights of others. Today, all over Africa, there are liberal democratic Constitutions that have enshrined the rights of all citizens and that prioritise the welfare of the people as the purpose of government. It is true when you look at the state of economic development in Africa; it is not as true as the Constitution say. When one looks at the current Human Development Report, one is struck that at the very bottom of the list you find virtually only African countries. And that is why it poses a serious question to all of us about what is the relationship between this democracy we have now said we have all adopted and the reality of the economic life of most African countries that still remain characterised massively by underdevelopment.

The past three decades have been extremely active ones for Africa, and that there has been very profound and very rapid transformation that has been occurring. That transformation has been rooted in very intense conflict, often in civil war. But the pains of those conflicts, the pains of those wars are translated into something that would lead to a better and greater future. What then are the trends that one sees in Africa over the past three decades? I think the success is the involvement of citizens and civil society in putting up barricades to confront military dictatorship, civilian authoritarianism and fight against tyranny at a very high cost to their lives and liberties.

The second transformative trend that one can talk about is the construction of democracy as Africa’s principal agenda. It is true that the construction of democracy has not been unidirectional. However, the general direction of movement has been towards the deepening and entrenchment of democracy. There have been reverses but when they occur, societies in Africa have been able to reorganise, reenergise and come back to the path of democratic struggle and democratic construction. The message I get, therefore, out of transformative trends in Africa over the past three decades is that nobody ever gives you democracy, nobody gives you rights, and nobody gives you freedom. You get it when you stand up and when you fight for it.

The transformative trend towards the construction of democracy is cantered around the 1990 fall of the Berlin wall which was followed by a very rapid movement towards liberal democracy all over Africa. Indeed, between 1990 and 1994 forty-one African countries had said they were against liberal democracy and did not have liberal democratic Constitutions. But within those three years, thirty-one of those forty-one African countries, reversed their Constitutions, wrote up liberal democratic Constitutions and organised multiparty elections. There is a story told by multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The narrative tells us that throughout the 1970’s; African states began to live beyond their means. They borrowed massively from the West, their production was not at pace with their consumption, and a payments crisis developed, and in that context it became very important for the gendarmes of the world economy, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to impose discipline and austerity on African countries. In the period 1980-82, therefore, most African countries were called, told off and given directives to impose austerity measures in their societies. The form of these austerity measures was to cut public employment, to stop pension regimes, to reduce massively public expenditure on and health.

The imposition of austerity measures in Africa was something that was extremely traumatic for the continent and impacted on it in various ways. Within a period of 2-3 years, the middle classes in most African counties were pauperised. A massive brain drain occurred as professional groups in Africa started to move out of their countries and to search for better lives elsewhere. Within Africa itself, the impact of the devaluation of African currencies at the beginning of these austerity measures meant that there was massive inflation and that the livelihoods of Africans all over began to crumble in a very dramatic manner.

It was within the context of the implementation of these austerity measures, against the backdrop of the suffering of the African people that the transformation agenda came up. The reality of those massive changes was that life became unbearable for most people, and as life became unbearable, economic issues became transformed into political issues. In my view, the dynamics of this transformation, of the economic into the political is extremely important. The first dimension of that dynamic was a question of the conditionalities that were imposed by the Bretton Woods institutions on African countries.

Africa at that time had regimes that were tyrannical and authoritarian, in which citizens had no rights to question public policy. Africans were only supposed to obey the instructions they were given by their governments. And then all over Africa, within five years, thirty-six countries adopted these austerity measures imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. African presidents were directed by the new bosses in Washington D. C. that they must follow conditionalities, they were given policy measures to impose on their population and they were told they must do as they are told, if they do not, they must suffer for their disobedience. And then the question started making the rounds in the streets. The dictators have been given orders that they are meekly trying to obey. The Brits, the French and the Americans are in control and are giving all the directives and the dictators are following those directives obediently. These interrogations of the early 1980s posed new questions. How do we end this suffering? Why has survival on a daily basis become so difficult and why is hunger spreading all over the land? Why are Africans being told that there are no alternatives to austerity measures that are punishing the people?

On the Barricades

It appeared very naturally at that point that the solution to economic hardship that Africans were suffering was to question the logic of the imposition of the austerity policy package by those who control the world economy. And it was in that context that massive riots started all over Africa, unions became very active, and churches started making political comments that the policy package was cruel and unacceptable. Prior to SAP, military governments acted as if they were above the law and reacted violently when their actions were questioned. When therefore they acceded to SAP and had to accept the principle of handling economic aid in line with the laid down conditionality, it became possible to start demanding accountability. In addition, the sudden upsurge in civil society activities aimed at combating the implementation of structural adjustment policies created synergy between the struggle against economic hardship and demands for democratisation. The logic on the part of the civil society therefore became that if the military could be held accountable by distant IMF and World Bank, why not by the citizens? It was in this context that strikes, popular revolts and uprisings became the order of the day in the 1980s and early 1990s in virtually all West African countries. I am proud that as an undergraduate, and subsequently, as a young lecturer in Ahmadu Bello University, I was in the streets demonstrating against SAP and suffered tear gas and beatings from security agencies. That is the source of the transformation President Jonathan is talking about.

We all recall that the response by the international community to our demonstrations was that the policy package was not open to discussion; it simply must be implemented completely and immediately. That is the context that the phrase (TINA) arose. For every riot or economic argument, the response from the bosses was that “There is no alternative (TINA) to structural adjustment and austerity measures.” There is no alternative to the economic path we are giving you – just obey, just follow. Thank God we said to hell with them. Today, the World Bank and IMF have changed their discourse. They have confessed blind austerity cannot solve our problems.

In January this year, I was thousands of Nigerians in the streets demonstrating against the removal of fuel subsidy by my beloved President Goodluck Jonathan. The leading intellectuals of the regime came out to criticise us for our lack of understanding of basic economics. We were told that the evidence is clear that the subsidy is unsustainable. We were dismissed as enemies of the transformation agenda who did not realise that the money for the transformation agenda was going into fuel subsidy rather than economic development so we were saboteurs. We stood our ground. We said there was nothing wrong is subsidising the people but the problem was that people were not being subsidised, the money was being stolen. Today, the jury is out. It was not a subsidy regime; it was a regime of mega looting. Without our demonstrations and protests, President Jonathan would have never understood that the spin he was given about abstract subsidy was the narratives of the mega thieves and not the patriots. All ministers genuinely committed to the transformation agenda are therefore invited to join the next demonstration to be organised by occupy Nigeria. Let me end with a few words about electoral democracy.

Last October, we noted the birth of the 7th billionth human being and Nigeria’s official population rising to 167.9 million. If all these Nigerians do not have democracy, then the future is bound to be bleak. Let me conclude with the following points. The struggle of the Nigerian people to break the cycle of electoral fraud which has deprived our people of their franchise for so long is a resolute one. As we all know, we have had three cycles of elections in the country: the elections of the First Republic, 1959 was relatively free and fair, the subsequent election organised by the incumbent in 1964 was a disaster and massively rigged. It was re-conducted in 1965 and that was even worse than that of 1964. The result was that we had a civil war and the military took over. The Second Republic commenced in 1979 with an election that was fairly credible. The second round organised by the incumbent government was massively rigged, and again the military took over. The third round of our elections started in 1999, again with fairly credible elections. The second round of election in 2003 was massively rigged. However, unlike in the First Republic and the Second Republic, where rigging of the second round of elections led to the return of the military, in 2003 Nigerians said: “We do not want the military, we will continue.” In 2007, we all worked hard to make sure the elections were free and fair. It did not happen; once again it was massively rigged. But, what is important about the Nigerian narrative is that, once again, the democratic system did not break down. In 2011, for the first time, we had an election organised by an incumbent government that was better than the previous one. This is a strong signal of the return of integrity into the electoral process. The message I get out of this improvement of our electoral fortunes is that there is now more patience in the struggle to develop democracy.

If indeed, there is more patience in the struggle for democracy, the explanation lies with the people. My final point is that over the past ten years, the keyword in Nigerian politics is protecting the people’s mandate. At each point that there were attempts to rig elections, there has been increased mobilization at the popular level to ensure that the quality of the democratic transition, the quality of the elections improved. And, I think, in a sense it is this determination of citizens to improve the situation that creates the basis to think the future of democracy and of development in Nigeria, and indeed in Africa can be optimistic. Thank you so much for your patience.


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