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Nigeria during the Abacha Years (1993-1998)

‘Kunle Amuwo
Daniel C. Bach
Yann Lebeau

Democracy in Nigeria: Concepts, representations and expectations

Attahiru M. Jega

Texte intégral


1In the Nigerian context, democracy is something much talked about — a set objective pursued with apparent vigour but not yet attained. For almost half a century, Nigerians have been searching for democracy through constitutional reforms and intricate political engineering and experimentation, spelt out in successive transition programmes. They have, however, been continuously disappointed. Many Third World countries in the 1990s, have been concerned with democratic consolidation, whereas the primary concern for Nigeria was, and still is, how to end military rule and bring about credible democratic rule.

2Analysts have proffered many reasons for the persistence of political crises in Nigeria, notable among which are: the concentration of power in the central government due to prolonged military rule; the erosion of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary or, at least, its being cowed into submission by military rulers; the absence of structures and institutions that can redress the mutual fears and suspicions of Nigeria’s diverse ethnic groups; reckless misrule by a corrupt and morally bankrupt political ruling class.

  • 1 see R. Joseph, Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria. The rise and fall of the Second Republ (...)

3Fascinating theoretical discourses have equally been put forward, attributing the Nigerian socio-economic and political-democratic crisis toprebendalism, predation, patrimonialism, the ‘rogue’ state, the dynamics of global capitalist expansion and class formation in the periphery.1 Our understanding of the Nigerian situation has certainly improved from the prolific output of dedicated scholars, but the burning issue of democracy has remained as confounding as ever.

4Except in highly speculative terms, scholars have not given adequate attention to the dynamic interaction of evolving conceptions of democracy, and the significant impact of this on the national democratic project in Nigeria. It seems that this is largely because, as Mamdani has observed,

  • 2 M. Mamdani, A critique of the state and civil society paradigm in Africanist studies. In: African (...)

... for most Africanist scholars democracy appears more as a prescription arbitrarily forced on the object of analysis than an outcome of a concrete analysis of actual social struggles.2

  • 3 R. Fatton Jr., Africa in the age of democratization. The civic limitations of civil society. Afric (...)

5Yet, it ought to be recognized that there are different, contending and, quite often, contradictory notions of democracy seeking expression in societies such as Nigeria. The character of the civil society is such that, to use Fatton’s phrase:3

... a disorganized plurality of mutually exclusive projects that are not necessarily democratic are quite often simultaneously pursued by hegemonic groups in the name of democracy.

6A proper assessment needs to be made on how these are contested by non-hegemonic groups, how they are articulated and how they impact on or affect the national democratic project as a whole. Particular conceptions of democracy and discourses have been globalized, but in reality these are not universally applicable. Only through a careful analysis and exposition, based on concrete situations, can it be appropriately perceived as to who has an interest and capacity to bring about what sort of democracy in a given context.

7This paper attempts to survey, describe and analyze democracy in Nigeria from the perspective of the dominant civil groups and their interactions with the state. It addresses how different groups of the Nigerian civil society have evolved or adapted conceptions of democracy, by looking at various representations, images and ‘debates’, especially in the context of Babangida’s and Abacha’s transition to civil rule programmes between 1985 and 1996. The groups on which the study is based are: the so-called political class, the business class; religious groups, traditional rulers, the pro-democracy movement, professional/occupational groups, women’s organizations, and the working class.

  • 4 L. Diamond, ed., Political Culture and Democracy in Developing Countries. (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, (...)
  • 5 N. Chazan, Between liberalism and statism. African political cultures and democracy. In: Political (...)
  • 6 ibid., 63.

8The Nigerian civil society is complex, and its historical evolution and socio-cultural diversity necessarily suggests an array of divergent political attitudes, views, perceptions and value-orientations. If we take the definition of political culture to be ‘a people’s predominant beliefs, attitudes, values, ideals, sentiments, and evaluations about the political system of its country, and the role of the self in that system,’4 then it can be said that there is a profound crisis of political culture in Nigeria. As Chazan5 noted, ‘African political cultures are marked by their proliferation and fragmentation’. This is certainly the case in Nigeria. Indeed, the Nigerian case is also illustrative of Chazan’s assertion6 that ‘Democracy has appeared in the African arena most frequently as the political culture of counter-hegemony’.

  • 7 C. Ake, Democracy and Development in Africa. (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institute, 1996): 139.

9The impact of these divergent political cultures may have an important bearing on conceptions of democracy. Diverse groups and individuals participating in the political, democratic processes must necessarily have different conceptions of democracy. We may perhaps begin to understand and explain the failure to bring about democracy in Nigeria by examining how Nigerians have conceived of, or perceived democracy from the perspective of the crisis of political culture. It has been argued with some justification that for the on-going democratization process to be meaningful to the people, and to be able to provide for their social and economic rights and basic needs, it must essentially ‘draw on African traditions to adapt democracy to the cultural and historical experience of ordinary people’.7

10Disagreements within the political culture on the appropriate concepts of democracy for Nigeria are not, however, the sole explanation for the failure of democratic rule. A fundamental explanation lies in the contradictions embedded in the processes of accumulation in the post-colonial political economy, characterized as it is by a military-controlled state and a rentier economy. The paper thus addresses several pertinent questions in its attempt to come to terms with and explain what democracy is about in Nigeria. Is the apparent failure to bring about lasting or sustainable democracy related to, or a function of, intrinsic values and processes embedded in the Nigerian civil society? Or, is it an inability to adapt democracy to cultural and traditional values, and historical experiences? How does the process of accumulation affect concepts of democracy? Are the contending and contradictory concepts of democracy the major obstacles to democratization in Nigeria?

  • 8 H. Garuba, Drama democracy and the discourse of apartheid. In: Understanding Democracy, Fasoro et (...)

11To study what democracy means in Nigeria and what the various concepts of democracy are, we have to rely on what these groups and/or their ideologues and representatives actually say and do, and draw inferences from the various images they present. For many groups, we cannot but apply deductive logic (in the absence of definitive statements) to interpret their conceptions of democracy. In doing this, however, there are obvious constraints. For example, unlike South Africa, Nigeria has few plays/dramas which depict the democratization process to enable the analyst to glean ideas from these dramatized images and representations.8 There are plays about the abuse of power, greed, corruption and moral bankruptcy of both the military rulers and the political class (eg, Fatunde’s No Food, No Country; Tomoloju’s Jankariwo, etc.). Such plays depict the various obstacles to democratization and the desire for positive political change, but most of them do not essentially address the substantive issue bordering on the conceptions of democracy.

Civil Society Grotups and the Meaning of Democracy

12In what follows, the eight selected groups are discussed. What stands out clearly as the recurring decimal in conceptions of democracy is the collective disenchantment with military rule and the desire for a return to civil rule. On what democratic criteria should civil rule be based? There are as many contending democratic options being bandied about as there are labels to categorize them.

The political class

  • 9 O. Maduekwe, A nation on the brink. African Concord – Special Edition, (October 1993): 21.
  • 10 Mamdani, 1995, 11.

13The majority of the so-called political class in Nigeria can be aptly described9 as ‘anti-democracy politicians who like the proverbial dog will chase every bone no matter how humiliatingly presented’. Many are simply interested in the acquisition of power by any means. Rather than facilitate democracy, members of this class do no more than ‘dam the waters of democratic and social reform’.10

14For most of the members of the Nigerian political class, democracy means no more than transition from military to civilian rule, with the politicians in charge of the federal purse. There are no credible theoreticians or political philosophers among this class, however, they have many self-appointed tacticians and strategists whose main preoccupation is to design winning coalitions through ingenious schemes such as zoning and electoral rigging.

  • 11 S. Othman and G. Williams, Politics, power and democracy. Oxford, (mimeo) 1996, 4.
  • 12 Joseph, 1987, 53.

15For the Nigerian political class, democracy is hardly desirable if it means popular empowerment of the masses. Democracy is desirable to them only if it can facilitate access to power, create avenues for looting the public treasury and keep the people in check and at their mercy. If and when such an opening is perceived, then the political class strives to negotiate the exit of the military from power. Otherwise, it does not matter if the military retains power and keeps shifting the democratization goal-post, so long as they can be in the game. Indeed, there is a sense in which, as Othman and Williams11 have noted, ‘Nigeria’s political class, like their supporters, may like democracy; but they like power and office and their spoils even more’. Similarly, in analyzing the utterances and the conduct of the political class, it is difficult not to see that they relate, to use Joseph’s phrase,12 ‘notions of democracy to the private appropriation of publicly defined economic advantages’.

16This disposition goes a long way to explain the kind of contradictory role they have played in the country’s political processes, especially under the various transition to civil rule programmes of successive military regimes.

17Over ten years of continuous, reckless, military rule, characterized by the vandalization of national resources, has created a situation in which the military has exhausted the patience and good will of Nigerians who have suffered tremendously under the impact of an intense socio-economic crisis. Disenchanted factions of the political class have been forced to adjust their interests in line with growing popular discontent with military rule. They have taken care, however, to adjust their activities to the requirements of the military’s transition programmes. Thus, their conceptions of democracy are conditioned by enlightened self-interest and the contradictory dynamics of state-based accumulation.

18Whatever government replaces military rule, it should have a framework and safeguards that would secure the inclusion of minority groups in the processes of governance in the event of their being unable to capture and secure power for themselves. Ethnic apprehensions based on the damaging impact of a historical ethno-regional imbalance and the marginalization of certain groups in the national power equation provide a legitimate launching board for the aspirations of the political class.

19Thus, in the context of Abacha’s transition programme, especially from the proceedings of the Constitutional Conference and the draft constitution, a sort of consensual or consociational notion of democracy seems to have emerged, with such constitutional provisions as rotating the presidency and other key offices, devolution of powers from the federal to state governments, federal character commission, multi-party system, and so on. One key participant has argued that,

  • 13 West Africa (19-25 June 1995): 960.

... participatory democracy and not the winner-takes-all model had been recommended in the [1995] draft constitution.13

  • 14 L. Jakande, The military is on the right track. Tell (15 April 1996): 17.

20A clearer articulation of the preference of the political class for a loosely defined sort of consociational democracy has been offered by Jakande,14

... we should look forward to a government in which all political parties will participate and all political tendencies will be accommodated like in Malaysia... There was a time when it was fashionable to be in opposition... Nigeria has gone far beyond that now, we are at a state where for economic and political reasons, opposition is not in anybody’s interest... For the sake of the country let us have 10 years of all party government.

21The advocacy of a consociational-cum-liberal democratic framework obviously aims at enabling the political class to gloss over the infested sore created by Babangida’s aborted transition programme, and the growing counter-hegemonic alternative views of what democracy should be. It also enables the political class to capitalize on the small opening created by the Abacha regime to continue to scheme for privileged access to the State. They also seek to stabilize the process of competition for power and the mode of access to state resources by lessening mutual fears and suspicions about ethno-regional domination and exploitation among the elite, which has been the basis of their political brinkmanship.

22The sort of democracy to which the political class aspires, will be characterized by elite competition through a multi-party electoral system mediated by the rotation of offices, ethno-regional balancing and a slightly improved federalism. Can it resolve the perennial problems related to the national question in Nigeria? Can it redress the real and perceived injustices which the annulment of the June 12 presidential elections symbolizes? Even more significantly, can it satisfy the yearnings of the Nigerian people for political emancipation and socio-economic liberation? Evidently many within the popular organizations in the civil society groups think otherwise.

The business class

  • 15 T. Forrest, Politics and the Economic Development in Nigeria. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, (...)
  • 16 African Concord (1 March 1993): 4.
  • 17 O. Olashore, What democracy for Africa? African Concord (14 March 1994): 8-9.

23Forrest15 has argued that Nigerian businessmen, together with the politicians, offer the ‘main ground swell of opposition to military rule’, partly because military rule has been bad for business, especially from the ways in which successive regimes have mismanaged the Nigerian economy and vandalized state resources. Some of the statements credited to leading business tycoons, however, suggest that even if they do not like military rule, they fear civilian rule even more. For example, Ernest Shonekan16 said that the Nigerian economy must be buoyant for the third attempt at democratic governance to succeed, adding that ‘democracy without a strong economy is nothing but an invitation to chaos’ — implying that until the economy improves, there is hardly any alternative to military rule. Similarly, Oladele Olashore,17 a prominent banker, claims to like the idea of popular democracy but believes that it cannot be smooth, as prevailing economic conditions do not provide a conducive climate for democratization.

The whole gamut of socioeconomic democratization is a hoax, a wishful order and an inevitable disorder in global politics ... The pressure to democratize from outside is ethnocentric in nature and could lead to alien and unworkable forms of democracy.

  • 18 W. Soyinka, Power and the democratic ethos. In: Understanding Democracy. A. Fasoro, D. Haastrup, F (...)

24Soyinka18 captured the situation with respect to the Nigerian business class when he remarked that:

An opinion poll among the wealthier business class and top government functionaries would reveal that they are generally content with the very system of military rule, that they indeed dread the return of what one of them once described as a ‘predictable civilian democratic chaos’.

25The primary interest of capital, foreign and domestic, is systemic stability, in whatever way it is provided. Military authoritarian regimes have proven capable of stabilizing economic growth and minimizing political conflicts in many Third World countries. The argument about the inverse nature of the relationship between development and democracy in many peripheral societies seems to appeal to businessmen. Although the Nigerian military rulers have a poor record of economic management, they have somehow managed to keep Nigeria intact, in spite of the antics of ethno-regional warlords, and the economy limping along with a decent return to investment in several sectors. Herein may lie the logic of the majority of businessmen not being favourably disposed to a return to civilian democratic rule. Those who genuinely desire a return to democracy may be few indeed. Even these are likely to prefer the type that would facilitate access to state-based accumulation.

Religious groups

  • 19 R. Marshall, Power in the name of Jesus. ROAPE(no. 52, 1991): 21-37; idem, God is not a democrat. (...)

26The intensity of the Nigerian economic crisis and the role of the state in it, as well as the dynamics of social relations mediated by the state during this period have combined to heighten religious differences, among others, resulting in an increased incidence of conflicts. Even more significant, in the context of changing power relations, is the disenchantment of the populace with the socioeconomic situation and the seeming duplicity or complacency of the clergy of the two established religions, in the face of excesses by the ruling class, have created a process of popular religious revivalism. Christian pentecostals and Muslim fundamentalist and reformist groups have proliferated.19 Their ideas about spiritual salvation and socio-economic and political liberation have an important bearing on the democratization process.

  • 20 Marshall, 1991.

27There is a fundamental sense in which the resurgence of these popular religious groups against the backdrop of economic crisis and adjustment of the 1980s and 1990s, represents a counterhegemonic attempt to expand democratic space and contest the power of monopolies.20 Clearly their activities symbolize anger and rejection of the prevailing socio-economic and political situation. The failure of the state and those associated with it to cater for fundamental needs and aspirations translates into material deprivation and alienation especially in the urban and semi-urban centres, leading many to begin to question prevailing ideas and institutions that directly affect them.

28In the view of some of the clergy of the established Christian churches, to borrow Marshall’s phraseology, ‘God is not a democrat’ and ‘Power [is] in the name of Jesus.’ Internal democracy in the churches could create unnecessary arguments and discussions which could erode the authority of the clergy. In the context of national politics, however, democracy and full participation are desirable in order to elect leaders who could redress perceived injustice and imbalances. In this context, democracy is also seen as a system which, if used to advantage, can protect and advance the cause of the Lord, and guard against the domineering influence of other contending religions. Thus, the clergy pursues a contradictory policy of standing for democracy nationally and occasionally lashing out at the excesses of the state while internally running the flock very undemocratically and indulging in its own excesses.

  • 21 R. Marshall, Power in the name of Jesus. Social transformation and pentecostalism in western Niger (...)

29Pentecostalism, according to Marshall21 represents a challenge to state power as well as a critique of power elites and, most significantly, is primarily,

... involved in articulating, at the symbolic and practical levels, new forms of power in response to the ever-changing difficulties, demands and constraints (economic and social as well as from the state) of everyday urban life.

30Thus, the pentecostals tend to create their own little enclaves and hierarchical pecking order. By and large, however, they seem to remain indifferent to the national political processes from which they have been excluded.

31A process similar to the phenomenon of pentecostalism in Western Nigeria, characterized by disempowerment, exclusion and attempts to create autonomous alternative democratic spaces, is discernible among Muslim reformist and Islamist groups that have emerged and have become prominent, especially in the urban areas of northern Nigeria. The activities of these groups are not only indicative of how socio-economic deprivation alienates disempowered groups, but how they can create a basis for mobilizing adherents to establish alternative forms of democratic conduct and challenge the political hegemony of the elite and the authority of the state. In places like Sokoto, Zaria, Katsina and Kano, the heart of the emirates of the pre-colonial Sokoto Caliphate, moderate revivalist groups such as the Izala movement, as well as the more extremist Shi’ite groups have posed a challenge to the traditional authorities (emirs and chiefs) and Ulama (Muslim clerics) who have been representing the State, promoting its unpopular policies, condoning the excesses of its functionaries, and conducting themselves in ways that these groups see as unlslamic.

  • 22 A. Jega, Islam and democratization, notes for discussion at the comparative democratization semina (...)

32In some areas, such as Kano, these groups are becoming well established, cornering their own political space and more or less operating their own miniature democratic republics with little regard to the larger secular political community.22 Apart from preaching against perceived unlslamic activities and occasionally clashing with the state and those defined as having committed unpardonable acts, they are mostly preoccupied with developing local organizational structures and business enterprises, which are quite remarkable in their communitarian nature and processes of internal democracy. They address themselves as brother and sister, run their own schools and organize community services. The potential implication of their enhanced exclusion from the national democratic project itself cannot be ignored. On the contrary, it must be taken seriously.

33In contrast to the symbolic conceptions and representations of democracy by popular religious groups, organized religious bodies representing mostly the established conservative religious leaders, such as the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA), have been active in the military regime’s transition politics, playing contradictory, often mutually antagonistic roles, but almost invariably compliant to the state. For example, these organizations are known to have expressed views which have been generally supportive of the military’s transition programmes, calling for restraint by members of the political class and the pro-democracy groups, and urging all to give the programme a chance. They are consulted and patronized by the state and they often readily assist in mobilizing public acceptance and support of the regime’s policies and programmes.

  • 23 West Africa (30 June - 5 July 1993): 960.

34There are very few instances when they can be said to have advocated popular democratic causes. Such a case was over the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections. Both the Catholic Bishops and the SC1A called upon the Babangida regime to reverse the annulment of the results of the June 12 election.23

Traditional rulers

35Nigeria’s traditional political authorities, as represented by the institutions of the obas, obis and emirs, are essentially patriarchal and authoritarian, embedded in relatively undemocratic traditional political cultures. Whatever democratic content these traditional institutions may have possessed has been distorted, first by colonial policies of indirect rule and, secondly, by post-colonial state policies especially under military rule. Although the powers of these institutions may have declined over time, their undemocratic disposition has remained in tact, if not actually strengthened.

36Thus, traditional rulers in Nigeria have been all too willing to accept the military’s agenda for and perspective of democracy. They have seized upon any opportunity to demand an increase in their eroded powers and spheres of influence, as can be seen in their various memoranda and contributions to the Political Bureau, the constituent assemblies, and the more recent Constitutional Conference.

  • 24 West Africa (11-17 Sept. 1995): 1426.
  • 25 West Africa (23 Sept. 1995): 1626.

37Whenever these regimes faced a serious challenge to their transition programmes, the traditional rulers have come out in force to support them. For example, at a time when the Abacha regime came under intense international pressure, 16 northern traditional rulers met and categorically declared that they were ‘committed to ensuring that General Abacha’s administration succeeded in bringing about a peaceful transition to democracy’.24 The operative word seemed not to be democracy per se but peaceful transition. Similarly, traditional rulers in Ondo State were reported to have ‘appealed to Nigerians to put the June 12 issue behind them and face the new march towards democracy’, in a communique they issued after a meeting in Akure.25

38Traditional rulers have mouthed official positions, served in promoting official views, and accepted representation in government commissions and assemblies charged with the responsibility of crafting democratic transitions. For example, some of the most prominent traditional rulers have been appointed as members of the group called Leaders of Thought, constituted by the Abacha regime to advise it on its transition programme. Four of the five committees of this group are led by traditional rulers. It is clear then that rather than have any definite commitment to intrinsic democratic values, traditional rulers merely share with the military a desire for ‘peace and stability’, a preoccupation that seems to take precedence over both transition to civil rule and genuine democratization. They may in fact prefer military rule and its patronage to the uncertainties of civilian rule with its partisan politics.

39Some of the prominent traditional rulers, like the religious leaders (in fact in some areas they double as both), called upon Babangida to hand over to Abiola. Although they later beat a fast retreat. For example, the Emir of Zaria was reported to have vehemently warned the Babangida regime of the danger of denying Abiola his victory. The Sultan of Sokoto was also reported to have urged that Abiola’s election be upheld ‘to avoid bloodshed’. He even wrote to General Babangida, arguing, among others, that:

  • 26 Sultan of Sokoto, 1993, 14-15.

Since the whole world has given a verdict that the election was free and fair and it was the most peaceful in the history of the country, there is no other route away from national catastrophe than the swearing-in of Alhaji Moshood Abiola come 27 August, 1993.26

  • 27 West Africa (7-13 March 1994): 402.

40Similarly, some obas insisted that the June 12 election should be upheld. They sent a memorandum to the Abacha created Constitutional Conference, through the Oyo State Military Administrator on 23 February 1994.27 It seems, however, that such actions are predicated on notions of injustice and the need to redress it, or the political need to be seen to be standing for a good cause, rather than on a belief in democracy.

The Pro-democracy Movement

41From about 1986, an extensive popular democratic movement has emerged in Nigeria, which has been engaged, as Ihonvbere and Vaughan have noted, not only in

  • 28 Ihonvbere and Vaughan, 1995, 71.

... opposition to military rule, but also [in seeking] in redefining the meaning of democratic engagement in a nation where élite behaviour is characterized by endemic corruption and a flagrant assault on human dignity.’28

42More than they have acknowledged, the struggles of the pro-democracy movement have shifted away from the traditional conception of democracy by the political class as the mere transfer of power to civilian politicians through elitist democratic processes, to conceptions of democracy which include popular participation, empowerment, accountability and good governance, social democracy and social provisioning, and permanent removal of the military from the Nigerian political scene. This development has been facilitated and conditioned by rapid changes in economic and social opportunities, relations and structures which have occurred in the period of economic crises and the structural adjustment programme of the 1980s and 1990s. During this period, contrary to neo-liberal assumptions:

  • 29 Gibbon et al., 1992,30.

... the tendency has been to accelerate both pilfering of existing state resources and the diversification of the state bureaucracy into ‘private’ activity, as formally ‘gray’ areas of economic life have become legitimate and as the state bureaucracy itself perceives new limits to purely state-based accumulation.29

43As access to state power became increasingly personalized and used to facilitate accumulation, the state itself, presided over by a military cabal, resorted to suppression to cover up its gross mismanagement and corruption and its inability to satisfy the basic needs and aspirations of the people. Consequently, human rights and pro-democracy groups proliferated, establishing broad links with other popular organizations and intensifying their struggles with new additional items on the agenda of the national democratic project.

44At another level, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the accompanying crisis of socialism in Eastern Europe and globally, which coincided with the period of crisis and adjustment in Nigeria, suddenly released the energies of a large number of Nigerian socialists and other radical left elements into the struggle for democracy. As the prospects of a socialist revolution in Nigeria became increasingly elusive, radical graduates of Nigerian universities, unemployed or unemployable from the perspective of the regime because they were perceived as ‘extremists’, (many of whom were activists in student movements), came to play crucial roles in the emergent pro-democracy movement. In addition to these, other professionals, faced with a crisis of rising unfulfilled expectations in congested professions with rapidly declining opportunities, joined the human rights and pro-democracy movement.

45There are a number of issues which form the constitutive elements of the Nigerian pro-democracy groups’ conception of democracy. First, they are opposed to military rule which they see as inherently undemocratic and as the major obstacle to the quest for democracy in the country. For them, as Barrett has noted:

  • 30 Barrett, 1994, 1033.

the key issue of dissent remains the desire for a democratic, or rather a representative, form of government to be established through the instrument of choice rather than through the instrument of seizure by coercion.30

46In this context, the military’s transition programmes are perceived as diversionary and incapable of creating a democratic order. The Campaign for Democracy (CD), has said, for example, that it is committed to the forging of a United Popular Front for the termination of military dictatorship (African Concord, 5 July 1995: 16). Similarly, the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) stated that:

  • 31 NADECO, 1996, 2.

... the military has no honorable role to play in government in Nigeria and the civilian political class should stop collaborating with the military regimes by either taking part in their government or participating in their dubious transition programme.31

47Organizations such as the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), the Constitutional Rights Project (CRP), Campaign for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADL), and the Democratic Alternative (DA) have all articulated positions similar to the ones cited above.

48Secondly, they all seem to agree that civilian rule does not necessarily mean democratic rule, contrary to the prevailing perception among the political class, which they see as tending to confuse issues. For example, this point has been made explicitly in a communique issued by 41 human rights and pro-democracy groups at the end of a summit they held in Jos. Their communique stated among others:

  • 32 CLO, 1996, 1.

That civilian rule is not necessarily the same thing as democracy. Consequently, any struggle for democracy that does not recognize the need for the people to take part in all structures of decision-making and decision-implementation will be fruitless.32

49Indeed, the pro-democracy movement sees the Nigerian political class as the major culprit in the entrenchment of military rule, through its collaboration with successive regimes, its accumulation strategies, and its neglect of popular socioeconomic needs and aspirations. Another joint statement by seven pro-democracy groups is quite revealing in this respect and in terms of their conception of democracy:

  • 33 Abuja-Based Pro-Democracy Groups (ABPDG), 1996.

... there was no marked difference between the civilian and military elite as both their rule have been characterized by dictatorship and abuse of human rights. To rout out the military from power and install full and genuine democracy ... pro-democracy forces must be interested in those who replace the military in power. The process of purging the military from power ... should equally select and groom those to take over, so as to avoid the fate of countries like Zambia and Niger Republic. This can only take place if the thrust of the pro-democracy struggle is grounded in popular democratic empowerment of the masses.33 [author’s emphasis]

  • 34 CLO, 1996, 1.

50Thirdly, they all favour the mobilization of the underprivileged and disempowered urban and rural Nigerians, and their empowerment through popular participation and representation, as the basis for desirable and credible democratization in Nigeria. They are all supportive of institutional frameworks such as the multi-party system (in contrast to Babangida’s rigid two-party system), an independent judiciary, legislative checks and balances, as a desirable institutional basis of democratic governance.34

51There are, however, a few significant areas of divergence on what democracy means within the pro-democracy movement. Most of these relate to the strategies and tactics of democratic struggles. For example, there is no common position on the actualization of Abiola’s mandate, although his continued incarceration by the Abacha regime is strongly condemned, and all are agreed that the annulment of the June 12 election by the Babangida regime was unfair, unjust and a serious setback to the democratic aspirations of Nigerians.

52For NADECO, under the present circumstances, democracy begins with the actualization of Abiola’s mandate and the resolution of the national question. NADECO came into being in May 1994 in the wake of heightened opposition to the annulment of the June 12 election. This broad coalition aims at actualizing the said election and getting the regime to organize a national conference to resolve what has been perceived as the crisis of Nigerian federalism. The core of its leadership emanates from within the political class, with some retired military officers representing the relatively more principled faction of that class. Their democratic agenda is, therefore, only slightly different from the elitist conception prevailing within the political class, in comparison to the broad spectrum of the pro-democracy movements and other popular organizations.

53For the Nigerian Democratic Movement (NDM), an externally based pro-democracy group of Nigerian professionals resident in Europe and America, democracy means, first and foremost, the actualization of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections.

54The Campaign for Democracy (CD) sees democracy as beginning with the actualization of June 12, 1993 presidential elections and the subsequent convening of a Sovereign National Conference which would settle, once and for all, the ‘national question’ believed to be responsible for ethno-regional, religious and political tensions in the country. It also means empowerment and active participation of the underprivileged, apparently based on the mobilization of urban-based groups.

55In contrast, the Democratic Alternative (DA) is calling for much more than the Nigerian political class, the CD and the other pro-democracy groups. The DA goes beyond the mere transition to civilian rule and the actualization of Abiola’s mandate, enshrined in the June 12 elections. For example, the DA has stated that:

  • 35 Democratic Alternative (DA), 19969, 5.

Our position on the June 12 mandate is that it is undemocratic being a product of an undemocratic transition process; it suffered moral bankruptcy when its exponents including Abiola compromised the pro-democracy movement and opted for silver-lined military road to power; it lacks the promise of fulfilling the people’s wishes and aspirations because its exponents were some of the staunchest supporters and executioners of anti-people measures of the military junta and have no plan for the upliftment of the masses. Consequently, the enforcement of the June 12 mandate cannot be the basis for mobilizing the widest section of our people to oust the military dictatorship and bring about popular democracy which the people yearn for.35

  • 36 ibid., 8.
  • 37 Ya'u, 1996.

56The DA argued further that ‘June 12th no longer has the capacity to rally the nation forward ... We must go beyond it if we want the military out of power in the foreseeable future’.36 The DA takes a longer term view of what democratization should be about, and has gone a bit further than other groups to popularize its own conceptions of democracy at the grassroots level in many parts of the nation. For example, its perspectives find expression through one of its key affiliates, Community Action for Popular Participation (CAPP), which has been organizing discussions with community leaders at the local government area (LGA) levels, on issues ranging from how to bring about active popular participation, accountability and good governance to how to lessen the impact of undemocratic institutions and practices rooted in culture and tradition at the community level. It has a community drama project which has organized a drama festival for local drama groups, with presentations centering on the need for participation in the political and decision-making processes, as well as conflict resolution at the community level.37

  • 38 CAPP, 1996.

57The DA has also hosted and/or sponsored workshops and seminars which bring together representatives of NGOs to discuss strategies and devise joint programmes of mobilization at the local level. In addition, it has commenced publication of a news organ titled Community.38 These efforts seem to have gone much further than those by other pro-democracy groups in popularizing their conceptions of democracy, and they have the potential of nurturing a political culture on the basis of which a democratic system, which would be critical in terms of satisfying popular yearnings and expectations can be hinged. For now, they are competing with, and possibly check-mating, the military regime’s local mobilization efforts through branches of the National Orientation Agency (NOA) (a successor to Babangida’s mass mobilization organ, MAMSER), and a substantially militarized ‘Civil Defence Corps’ (a sort of state-sponsored vigilante group), all of which have been busy selling the regime’s version of democracy represented by its transition to civil rule programme.

58Other groups in the pro-democracy movement such as the CLO and CRP- have concentrated attention on the promotion of civil liberties and fundamental rights. These represent the central elements in their conceptions of democracy and define the agenda for their involvement in democratic struggles. They have challenged and exposed the military’s executive lawlessness through research, documentation and legal advocacy and have got several court declarations against illegalities committed by the Babangida and Abacha regimes. They have condemned the illegalities and injustices associated with the annulment of the June 12 elections and the detention of Abiola. They have also generally offered moral and material support to those seeking to actualize the June 12 mandate. It is, however, clear from their expressed positions that they do not take the actualization of the June 12 mandate as the central element of the democratization process as much as NADECO, CD and others have done.

  • 39 Abuja-Based Pro-Democracy Groups (ABPDG), 1996.

59One notable feature of the evolution of conceptions of democracy in, and its meaning to, the Nigerian pro-democracy movement is the adoption of what is called ‘critical engagement’ with Abacha’s transition programme, in contrast to the posture they had assumed under the Babangida transition programme. According to its proponents, critical engagement means using ‘all the opportunities that the programme would provide to mobilize and empower the masses while attacking all its undemocratic and fraudulent aspects’.39 This, they say, is derived from the lesson of the past in which ‘the pro-democracy movement boycotted the political processes of the military only to opportunistically accept the outcome as in the cases of June 12 and the Constitutional Conference’.

60Pro-democracy groups have, in general, expressed popular democratic views and aspirations in contrast to the profoundly exclusivist and elitist notions prevalent among the political class, the business community, and the traditional elite. They have also struggled strenuously to achieve their objectives against odds posed by notoriously suppressive if not brutal military regimes. They project the disappointment of the majority of Nigerians with prolonged military rule, the squandering of the nation’s resources as well as their desires for change. They have been grossly constrained, however, in advancing these objectives and making them acceptable to a majority of Nigerians as alternatives to official and elitist perspectives on the national agenda. These groups have been few and structurally weak, without the resources required to organize on a national scale. The activities and actual impact of many of them are limited to a few cities and urban areas. Their efforts have also frequently been obstructed, not only by factional in-fighting over inconsequential tactical considerations but also by conventional, deep-seated ethno-regional fears and suspicions. They have not been free of the petty squabbles and sectionalist politics that frequently characterize the Nigerian political scene to the pleasure, if not at the instance of the ruling junta. All of these weaken the leadership that the movement could give to popular democratic struggles in the democratization process. By far the most formidable obstacle to their organization and activities, however, has been the authoritarian disposition of the regime, leading to constant harassment by security services, closure of offices, seizure of publications, and detention of leaders.

Professional Groups

  • 40 Jega, 1993.

61Nigerian professional associations have been active in democratic struggles in Nigeria, although few have a well-articulated conception of democracy. This may be largely because their involvement has essentially been compelled by changing fortunes and circumstances, occasioned by the economic crisis which engulfed the country in the early 1980s, and the subsequent introduction of the structural adjustment programme in 1986, with its devastating impact on their members.40 During this period, the income and most of the privileges of the middle class were eroded. As they struggled to improve their conditions, they had to face an increasingly authoritarian state, and were compelled to link their demands, aspirations and struggles with those of the ordinary people. The intensity of state suppression and the damaging impact of military rule on the living conditions of the majority of Nigerians led to increased agitation against ‘executive lawlessness’, and for the rule of law, fundamental rights, good government; in short, in the recognition of democracy as the best alternative form of government. Hence, they came to adopt democracy as a rallying cry. The character of the Babangida regime created apprehension about its ability or willingness to bring about genuine democratization through its transition programme. Hence, many of these groups helped to found a common, broad-based organizational platform for the agitation of an alternative framework of economic reform as well as democratization.

  • 41 Anyakora, 1995.

62The Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), for example, became an active participant in a broad coalition of labour, scholars (ie, students and academics), human rights organizations and other ‘progressive’ groups, which made efforts to organize an alternative-to-SAP seminar and a national conference, in 1989 and 1990, all of which were prevented from holding by the Babangida regime. It was a foundation member of the Campaign for Democracy (CD), which came into being in 1991 and became famous for its consistent opposition and pro-democracy agitation against the Babangida regime. The NUJ opposed the introduction of structural adjustment. It perceived military rule to be a major factor hampering the evolution of a viable democracy in Nigeria and also opposed the NLC’s joining of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) because of the belief that ‘by joining any of the Babangida Parties our integrity as a trade union and a professional body is under question’.41

  • 42 ibid.

63Under the military’s politics of transition, the NUJ has continued to be active in the defence of press freedom, and in campaigning for popular democratic ideals by organizing seminars and conferences (sometimes in collaboration with other organizations) on topics such as ‘media participation and involvement in setting an agenda for public discourse’, ‘the human rights situation in the country’, ‘press freedom’, and ‘freedom of information’. Focus on public enlightenment and on media related issues was predicated on the belief that ‘an oppressed media obviously translates into an oppressed society [and] that unless the media is free from the shackles of military dictatorship, the members of the society cannot be educated and enlightened enough towards Fighting injustice and exploitation’. The NUJ opposed the annulment of the June 12 election and demanded that the winner be sworn-in. This, according to the NUJ secretary-general, is because ‘Nigerians were tired of military rule and were yearning for democracy’. The NUJ wanted ‘the military to quit the scene, so that Nigerians could organize under a democratic environment’.42

64Although the NUJ still supports the idea of a sovereign national conference being promoted by the CD and some other pro-democracy groups as the best way for redressing the national question and introducing genuine democracy in the country, and also share(s) the same aspirations with these groups in fighting for equal opportunity, freedom, popular participation and an end to military rule, and the establishment of viable democracy in Nigeria, it has nonetheless disaffiliated itself from the CD in the wake of the June 12 crisis. Furthermore, it has become less active on the pro-democracy scene, largely because it has been weakened considerably by internal squabbles probably engineered by the state.

  • 43 West Africa (6-12 December 1993): 2209.

65Another professional organization, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), like the NUJ, became an active participant in the democratic struggle in the mid-1980s, championing the promotion and defence of the rule of law in the face of violations by the military controlled state, and joining in collaborative efforts with other groups in broader popular democratic struggles. Between 1987 and 1990, the NBA was very active in promoting pro-democracy causes. Then the Babangida regime moved in and engineered a leadership crisis which led to its reduced effectiveness. Although terribly battered, weakened and split by the machinations of the regime, the NBA joined forces with other pro-democracy groups to oppose Babangida’s cancellation of the June 12th 1993 presidential election. The Nigerian Bar Association also issued a statement when Abacha came to power condemning the take-over and the dismantling of the existing democratic structures which were already in place before the take-over.43

  • 44 Oyediran, 1993, 228.
  • 45 Jega, 1992.

66Oyediran has observed that amongst Nigerian intellectuals, there are varying conceptions about democracy and the best type of democracy for Nigeria.44 This is because the Nigerian Intelligentsia do not represent a homogeneous social category. Rather, they serve as a fountain of knowledge from which hegemonic classes draw out their ideologies.45

  • 46 ASUU, 1986.

67However, the organized forum of Nigerian academia (the major segment of the Nigerian intellectual community), the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has an articulated position about the kind of democracy it deems best for Nigeria. Indeed, it has more or less turned itself into an ideologue of the non-hegemonic classes. ASUU’s contribution to the political debate initiated by the Political Bureau in 1986, advanced a notion of democracy opposed to the prevailing one of liberal democracy which it criticized as elitist and bourgeois, and in its stead, ‘advocated for corporate representation’ of interest groups. By this ASUU meant the involvement of representatives of various interest groups in the process of governance, particularly those of workers, peasants, and other disempowered civil society groups. In this way, groups that ordinarily do not stand a chance of being represented and having their views accommodated in policy formation and implementation through the conventional electoral party politics of liberal democracy, would have a sort of guaranteed and mandatory participation. Also, a process of popular empowerment of the marginalized groups would be initiated with a view to bringing about responsible, accountable and responsive governance.46 The dynamics of translating this conception into reality have not been specified by ASUU. Nonetheless, it is a conception of democracy with a popular, if not populist tinge, based as it were on expectations of bringing about a mode of government that can meet the basic needs and guarantee the economic and political rights of the ordinary people in a way that liberal democracy seems incapable of doing. Also, as can be seen from its various press releases and communiques, ASUU views other critical elements of democracy to be responsible and responsive leadership; good governance; transparency and accountability; guarantees of basic rights; popular participation; and socio-economic empowerment of the people.

68Throughout the Babangida regime, ASUU was one of the organizations that suspected a ‘hidden agenda’, and consistently voiced the fear that the regime’s transition programme could not bring about desired democratic rule in Nigeria. It indicted the political class for collaborating with the military to subvert the democratic aspirations of the Nigerian people, and for being too willing to submit itself to repeated humiliation by the military regime. When, in 1993, the Babangida regime ran its transition programme to a dead-end, annulled the presidential elections, and plunged the nation into a profound political crisis, ASUU issued a position paper on the crisis and how it could be appropriately addressed. The paper speaks volumes for ASUU’s conception of democracy:

  • 47 ASUU, 1993, 4.

June 12 represents the acme of popular sovereignty ... the acceptance of June 12, and its sanctification, would be tantamount to the triumph of the general will over autocratic rule. The principle of popular sovereignty lies at the very heart of democratic rule. The mandate of the majority of the people as expressed in an election is generally regarded, in liberal democracies, as the manifestation of popular will. Therefore, to negate the popular will by arbitrarily denying the bearer of a popular mandate the right and chance to carry through that sacred trust is to undermine the very basis of democratic rule.
June 12 also represents a rejection of the continuation of military rule in Nigeria ... Although civilian rule is not necessarily synonymous with democratic rule, it offers a greater chance that a transition to democracy could be commenced and sustained... When Nigerians voted in their millions, on June 12, 1993 for a civilian president, therefore, they were sending out two related messages: one that they rejected military dictatorship; two that they wanted to make a new beginning in their interrupted journey to the land of democracy...47

69For ASUU, the termination of military rule is a precondition for the march towards democracy given the appalling record of successive military regimes. The crisis following the annulment of the June 12th 1993 presidential elections was seen as another milestone in that inglorious record. While seeing and affirming the potential of June 12 in commencing the march towards democratic rule, ASUU had no illusions about the actual democratic content of a government run by the winner of that election had the regime declared any. According to ASUU:

  • 48 ASUU, 1993, 7-8

Declaring the winner of the June 12 election will not end the agenda for democracy in Nigeria. It will only enlarge the confidence of Nigerians to struggle for democracy as a fundamental principle, as we have explained it. If, as is possible the winner of that election fails to cope with the aspirations of the popular masses, the very democratic process through which he came into power will have enough capacity to work for an alternative. In short, the democratic process has its own inner dynamics which nobody should be allowed to interfere with!
... After all, neither Abiola, Tofa, nor the set of people in the interim government have [sic] a history of commitment to the struggles of the working and oppressed classes. Yet, in a special way, by proving that the ultimate decisive role in the struggle against tyranny lies in the hands of the popular masses, the current crisis has shown that given a fiercely loyal labour leadership and a determination to exercise their own freedom to political self-organization, the working and oppressed classes will yet determine the future of democracy in Nigeria ...48

  • 49 see Jega, 1994, Beckman and Jega, 1995.

70It is significant to note that ASUU’s conception of democracy and its role in the democratic struggles is predicated on its self-defined role as a sort of ‘peoples’ tribune’. Since the late 1970s, the organization has seen itself as politically relevant to the struggles of the Nigerian people against reckless misrule by an apparently bankrupt ruling class. It has striven to be a credible advocate of popular causes and expectations, putting to good use the intellectual resources at its disposal, and it has done this while also struggling to save the Nigerian university system from collapse.49

Women’s Groups

  • 50 Shettima, 1995, 61-68.
  • 51 ibid., 67-8.

71A number of women’s groups in Nigeria have articulated positions which illustrate their conceptions of democracy. For example, Women in Nigeria (WIN) described by one analyst as ‘a feminist research, advocacy and action organization with branches in most states of the federation’, participated in the political debate initiated by the Political Bureau set up by the Babangida regime in 1986, and put up demands which questioned conventional notions of democracy and gender. It identified the gender bias in conventional liberal democracy, and linked the question of democracy in Nigeria with the democratization of gender relations in the family and in society.50 Recognizing the magnitude of obstacles to democratization at the level of the family and the civil society, and seeing the family as the basic ‘school for democracy’, as Shettima has noted, they advocated a ‘redefinition of relations at the family level as the first step towards democratization of society’.51 In an intensely patriarchal and gender exploitative society, this position hits at the core of undemocratic values and practices embedded in society. Beyond that, WIN also shares the conceptions of democracy by other radical and populist pro-democracy groups as mass-oriented, with the critical elements of guaranteed rights, equality of opportunities and empowerment. Women in Nigeria has a populist inclination which gives it a common ground for joint advocacy and struggles with other popular organizations. It has been fairly active in the pro-democracy movement.

72In contrast, elitist women’s groups with links to the state and the political class, have focused attention primarily on demands for the allocation of offices to women in legislatures, cabinets, and the bureaucracy at state and federal levels. Notable in this regard is the position of the National Council of Women Societies (NCWS) and the Jam’iyyar Matan Arewa (JMA – Northern Women’s Association). These are basically organizations of elitist women incorporating networks of their patron-client relationships.

  • 52 Abdallah, 1991; Mama, 1995.
  • 53 Ayoade et al., 1992; Alarape, 1992.

73At some point under the Babangida and Abacha transition programmes, the political agendas of these groups merged appropriately with those of organizations founded by the First Ladies, namely, Maryam Babangida’s Better Life for Rural Women Programme (popularly called ‘Better Life for Ruler Women’) and Maryam Abacha’s Family Support Programme. Their conception of democracy is rooted in femocracy with very limited, elitist notions of participation and representation.52 They define their roles in terms of mobilizing women to vote in elections and to hold government positions.53 They operate within the ambit, but on the periphery, of transition politics. By and large, their political positions, when they are articulated, generally complement those of the various factions of the political class. A majority of Nigerian women have remained uncaptured and unaffected by these groups. Nonetheless, their notions of democracy can be taken as representative of the contending and contradictory ideas and dynamics of what democracy means to the womenfolk in Nigeria.

Workers and Peasants

74The role of organized labour in the Nigerian democratization process presents interesting features and contradictions. Its impact has been on the whole minimal, on the one hand suggesting that workers responses to, and involvement in, democratic struggles are not necessarily accounted for by pressures within the economic sphere and on the other, pointing to the significance of the character of leadership and the impact of the state on it.

  • 54 Valenzuela, 1989, p. 447.
  • 55 Enahoro, quoted in Bagu, 1995.

75Valenzuela has noted that in transitions to democracy, ‘labour occupies a special place among the forces of civil society’ and so ‘authoritarian regimes devote a great deal of attention to it’.54 They employ either repression or co-optation to neutralize the impact of the labour movement, often going through ‘circles of repression and liberalization’. In Nigeria, successive regimes have employed such strategies to contain organized labor, but the Babangida regime proved highly successful with its carrot-and-stick tactics. It first tried to suppress a credible leadership of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) between 1985 and 1987. When this failed, it schemed to remove the leadership by sponsoring its favoured candidate at the 1988 elections. This created a crisis which they capitalized on to dissolve the executive, appoint a sole administrator, organize elections and install an inept and corrupt leadership through which it effectively neutralized and controlled the NLC. The regime retained control of the situation by pumping over three hundred million naira into the coffers of the Congress in the form of packages of assistance for various dubious projects. This kept the leaders busy sharing the loot and dispensing patronage, leading one critic to accuse them of succumbing to ’ the warm embrace of subversive generosity which has destroyed labour’s freedom of independence, its dedication and virility’.55

76Thus, the NLC could only play a very marginal role in advancing popular conceptions of democracy. Its leadership distanced the labour movement from the pro-democracy movement, and helped to subvert the latter’s programmes, such as the alternative to SAP conference in 1989 and the National Conference in 1990. The NLC became actively engaged in the politics of transition under the Babangida regime. For example, it sponsored a labour party. When that was not registered, and the regime created its two parties, the NLC endorsed these and, in-tango with a faction of the political class, joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The NLC president struggled very hard, albeit unsuccessfully, to be Abiola’s running mate. When, eventually, the regime annulled the June 12th 1993 presidential elections, the NLC leadership played a very contradictory and dubious role. First, it supported Abiola and called for his swearing-in, then it worked hard to prevent workers from going on strike to actualize the mandate when some defiant industrial unions bypassed it and declared a strike in support of Abiola in 1994.

77The NLC has an articulated concept of democracy and its role in it which clearly has popular democratic ideals and aspirations. For example, it has defined for itself ‘a stake in the broader democratization process in society’. It postulates its position thus:

  • 56 Ejiofor, 8.

The social issues that are important in this democratization process include social justice, freedom, enthronement of democratic institutions and culture as vehicles for the nation. Congress role in the democratization of the society will include encouraging the culture of tolerance and debate of problems, the respect and sanctity of the Nigerian constitution, etc.56

78However, the experience of the NLC shows that it is one thing to articulate popular democratic conceptions but quite another to actualize popular expectations. Through its actions, the NLC under the Bafyau leadership failed to work towards the implementation of its stated democratic objectives, both internally and at the level of national politics. The leadership became increasingly alienated from the workers which it represented. Many of the workers on their part lost faith in the NLC. Some of them channelled their energies and anger into other civil society groups which found expression in the 1989 anti-SAP riots, the 1993 ‘Babangida-must-go’ demonstrations, and the 1994 pro-June 12 strikes and riots.

79Under the Abacha regime, the NLC executive was dissolved, following the 1994 pro-June 12 strike which it did not even wholeheartedly support. The NLC had clearly outlived its usefulness, for the Abacha regime. Another sole administrator has since been busy trying to bring in another leadership.

80It can be said that through a combination of economic adjustment measures and the crisis of leadership, the majority of the Nigerian workers have been essentially alienated and disempowered, and many of them do not understand the well-packaged concepts of democracy formulated by their estranged leaders.

  • 57 Eleazu, 1994, 18-20.

81The illiterate peasantry in the rural areas, representing about 80 % of Nigeria’s population, is not sufficiently organized. If democracy means anything to them, it is that system in which all sorts of politicians come to them at periodic intervals to coax, cajole, entice, intimidate and/or harass them for their support and votes. It represents a situation in which all sorts of people make all sorts of promises, raising their hopes and, almost simultaneously, dashing their expectations and aspirations. Few can remember or point to any positive result from the brief periods of democratic rule. Some may recall a so-called ‘son of the soil’ who occupies an important post in some distant place, and occasionally visits home to make an ostentatious display of the wealth he has accumulated (CDS). The rural masses have, to quote one analyst, ‘for long been abused, confused and bemused by the money that floats around them during elections, such that they have become ‘so cynical about politics that all the talk about a solid foundation for democracy means little or nothing’ to them’.57 Few care whether the military goes or stays or whether their leaders are democratically elected or not. This apathy suits some of the traditional and religious leaders and the members of the political class who capitalize on it to present their own self-centered notions of democracy as being representative of the view of the rural folks. Virtually all the pro-democracy groups are urban-based and, until recently, somewhat remote from rural areas.

On the Meaning of Democracy:Concluding remarks and a tentative argument

82The preceding analysis suggests that within the Nigerian civil society groups, notions of democracy are many and varied, contending and contradictory. To describe these, all sorts of labels are applicable: there are variants of liberal democrats, popular democrats, social democrats, consociationalists, democratic-socialists, democratic humanists, Christian democrats, Muslim democrats, and traditional democrats (such as proponents of ‘Afrocracy’). There are also all shades of essentially anti-democracy elements, as well as those who are simply indifferent and oblivious to what is going on.

  • 58 Ake, 1996, 137-9; Beckman, 1989.

83The major contending forces in this transitional Nigerian political terrain, are composed of, on the one hand, forces representing shades of liberal democratic concepts with a consociational touch, and on the other, forces representing popular and social democratic notions. In other words, the dominant and contending concepts of democracy seem to be ‘elite-driven’ versus ‘people-driven’; or bourgeois versus mass-oriented or popular.58 ‘Elite-driven’ democracy is the prevailing notion advocated amongst the political class, with some endorsement from the business class, traditional and religious leaders, while ‘people-driven’ democracy is mainly championed by elements from amongst the pro-democracy movements, professional associations and women’s groups.

84Democracy, for some, is about selective participation and representation, about access to power through electoral competition. This often translates into a winner-takes-all situation and the utilization of power to acquire the spoils of office. Hence, it becomes a licence for the mobilization of communal sentiments (ethnic, regional, religious, etc.) as avenues for rapid upward mobility on the political ladder. Simply put, it is about the private consumption of the so-called national ‘cake’. For others, it is about representation and participation, but with the objective of equitable distribution of resources, fair play and justice, the institutionalization of the rule of law and empowerment. It is additionally about equitable social provisioning, judicious sharing of the national revenues and the effective mobilization and utilization of societal resources, with accountability and good governance, responsive and responsible leadership and, thus, an antidote to corruption. In this conception, popular empowerment is central to the issue of participation, involving not just casting votes in the choice of representatives and leaders but also input into the critical decisions which affect daily life and survival. Soyinka noted thus:

  • 59 Soyinka, 1991, 6.

... in its truly meaningful and affective relations, democracy means neither more nor less than — participation — real, as opposed to symbolic participation in the process of governing.59

85Some perceive democracy, in the way it has been defined and pursued by the military and the political class under successive military transition programmes as a convoluted, highly restrictive process characterized by excessive and unwholesome wheeling and dealing, political brinkmanship, eroding the peace and stability in the nation, more or less institutionalizing corruption and disempowering the majority of the people.

86There are also those who see democracy as a process of bringing about salvation from domination by a hegemonic ethno-religious group which is perceived to have cornered power and access to state resources for its own benefit to the detriment of other ethno-religious groups in the country. They see it as embodying respect for and guaranteeing the rights of minorities.

  • 60 Smith, 1996, 338.
  • 61 Diamond, 1993, 2-3.

87There is, in Nigeria, a significant crisis of political culture, not least in the sense of an evidently perpetual instability occasioned by conflicts and struggles for power between the elite of the dominant ethnic groups, which dominate politics60 and which are not regulated by ‘democratic rules and procedure’.61 This, undoubtedly, feeds into conceptions of democracy by different groups, as articulated by their leading elite, and also significantly affect the national democratic process. But even more significantly, the underlying social structures and power relations in the process of accumulation and the appropriation of national resources affect and condition conceptions of democracy which, in turn, condition what role individuals and groups play in the democratization process, as well as influence whether they play any role at all.

88To make sense of the contending concepts, representations, and expectations of democracy, we have to rely on deductions and extrapolations from an array of images and representations, in the context of individual and group interactions in the social processes of accumulation and their responses to the military regime’s transition projects.

  • 62 Jega, 1995.

89The military has consistently set the agenda and the tempo of the ‘debate’ on democracy, or whatever discussion there has been on the issue. These seem to revolve around constitution making, power sharing, duration of transition programmes, and hasty building of institutional frameworks for civilian governance, albeit without the necessary value-orientation which can serve as the foundation for the nurturing of the appropriate national democratic political culture. Hence, in no time at all, these institutions and processes become subverted and unworkable, resulting in civilian rule without a solid democratic base and substantive democratization (in the Second Republic, 1979-1983; and with Babangida’s elected state executives and legislatures between 1990 and 1993); and in the enthronement and perpetuation of authoritarian military rule.62

90There does not appear to be what can be termed as a public debate about democracy per se in Nigeria. What debate there was, took place in the general context of transition politics, and there is considerable disparity between civilian rule and democratic rule. We can glean what democracy means to different segments of the Nigerian populace, however, through their involvement in, or reactions to, official processes of transition to civil rule under successive military regimes. For example, transition programmes have provided avenues for political involvement in official processes, such as the ‘political debate’ initiated by the Political Bureau in 1986 under the Babangida regime, as well as the discussions in the Constituent Assembly of 1988/9 and the Constitutional Conference of 1994-96, respectively, under the Babangida and Abacha regimes. Then there is the involvement of the political class in the various aspects of and stages in the regimes transition programmes. From the dynamics of interactions of civil society groups in the context of the regimes’ coordinated political processes and transition programmes, we can appreciate how different groups have conceptualized and articulated their own views and expectations about democracy in Nigeria. Concepts of democracy are basically affected, shaped and conditioned by interests. As group (and for that matter, individual) interests differ, so do concepts of democracy. Hence democracy can be, indeed has been, perceived as a process for liberation; it has also been seen, paradoxically, as an instrument for domination. Professions of democracy do not necessarily result in democratic struggles; if they do, they do not necessarily result in a genuinely popular democratic outcome.

91The Nigerian democratization process is a military conditioned, controlled and directed project, more a function of the ‘contagion’ effect of global and African processes and Euro-American ‘conditionality’ than a product of popular ‘consent’ with internalized democratic norms and value-orientations. But, while militarization has posed a big obstacle to the institutionalization of democracy, it has also profoundly affected conceptions of democracy. In other words, although this military-controlled process has constrained the potentiality for a credible national democratic project, it has also, paradoxically, placed popular notions of democracy seeking to end the powers of monopolies and hegemonic forces firmly on the agenda of democratic struggles.

  • 63 Bagu, 1995.

92Democracy, for the oppressed and suffering Nigerians and as projected by the struggles of the pro-democracy and other popularly based groups, is about survival and coping under intense deprivations caused by economic crisis and the mismanagement of state affairs. People want to improve their living conditions, they want to get rid of governments perceived to be a threat to their lives. Thus, as one activist noted, ‘they look up to democracy for a better deal’, for ‘economic development, social equality, political participation; end to poverty and corruption’.63

93The implication of the unfolding events in the democratization process in Nigeria is that those genuinely concerned with aiding the process ought to take into account the emergent popular conceptions of democracy which are increasingly being articulated and projected in the daily struggles of the prodemocracy movement, professional groups and other popular organizations of the civil society. The success of any attempt at democratization cannot be hinged on the restrictive and discredited notions still being pushed by the political class and the military. A longer term view should be taken through the active encouragement of the actualization of these popular notions. Similarly, pressure should be brought to bear on the military and the political class to come to terms with, and allow the unfettered expression of the emergent contending popular democratic conceptions, representations and expectations.

94A better future for Nigeria may well depend on the nurturing of ‘people-driven’ concepts of democracy and the institutionalization of a genuine democratization process. There has to be a fundamental shift from the prevailing situation in the dynamic of democratic struggles in Nigeria, as described in the preceding analysis, if the vicious circle of ‘permanent transition’ under military rule is to be terminated. To bring about this, Nigeria’s democratic forces, both credible persons and groups, would have to channel their energies in the construction of what can be termed as a Broad Coalition for Democracy (BCD). This should be a formation comprising all genuinely committed democrats united by a common, even if minimum, agenda of ending military rule and laying the concrete foundation for a good, accountable, responsive and responsible democratic mode of governance. In other words, the prevailing situation, graphically illustrated in diagram A, would have to give way to the desirable outcome, as in diagram B, for any fundamental change which can enable Nigerians to break away from the grip of authoritarian military rule and speedily move on to the path of credible civilian democratic governance to occur.



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1 see R. Joseph, Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria. The rise and fall of the Second Republic. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); idem., The dismal tunnel to rogue state in Nigeria, paper presented at conference on Dilemmas of Democracy in Nigeria, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1995; P. Lewis, From Prebendalism to sultanism. The political economy decline in Nigeria, Dilemmas of Democracy in Nigeria 1995; L. Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria. The failure of the First Republic. (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988); J. Ibrahim, The political debate and struggle for democracy in Nigeria. ROAPE (no. 37, 1986): 38-49; idem, The state, accumulation and democratic forces in Nigeria AKUT conference, Uppsala, 1989; Y. Bangura, Structural adjustment programme and the political question, conf. Nigerian Political Science Association, University of Lagos, 27 August, 1986; W. D. Graf, The Nigerian State. Political economy, state, class and political systems in Nigeria(London: Heinemann, 1998).

2 M. Mamdani, A critique of the state and civil society paradigm in Africanist studies. In: African Studies in Social Movements and Democracy, M. Mamdani and E. Wamba-dia-Wamba, eds. (Dakar: CODESRIA, 1995): 612.

3 R. Fatton Jr., Africa in the age of democratization. The civic limitations of civil society. African Studies Review (vol. 38, no. 2, September 1995): 77.

4 L. Diamond, ed., Political Culture and Democracy in Developing Countries. (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1993): 7-8.

5 N. Chazan, Between liberalism and statism. African political cultures and democracy. In: Political Culture and Democracy in Developing Countries. (Boulder Lynne Rienner, 1993): 68.

6 ibid., 63.

7 C. Ake, Democracy and Development in Africa. (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institute, 1996): 139.

8 H. Garuba, Drama democracy and the discourse of apartheid. In: Understanding Democracy, Fasoro et al., eds. (Ibadan: Bookcraft, 1992): 64-73.

9 O. Maduekwe, A nation on the brink. African Concord – Special Edition, (October 1993): 21.

10 Mamdani, 1995, 11.

11 S. Othman and G. Williams, Politics, power and democracy. Oxford, (mimeo) 1996, 4.

12 Joseph, 1987, 53.

13 West Africa (19-25 June 1995): 960.

14 L. Jakande, The military is on the right track. Tell (15 April 1996): 17.

15 T. Forrest, Politics and the Economic Development in Nigeria. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1993).

16 African Concord (1 March 1993): 4.

17 O. Olashore, What democracy for Africa? African Concord (14 March 1994): 8-9.

18 W. Soyinka, Power and the democratic ethos. In: Understanding Democracy. A. Fasoro, D. Haastrup, F. Otubanjo, eds. (Ibadan: Bookcraft, 1992): 5.

19 R. Marshall, Power in the name of Jesus. ROAPE(no. 52, 1991): 21-37; idem, God is not a democrat. Pentecostalism and democratization in Nigeria. In: The Christian Churches and Democratization in Africa. P. Gifford, ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1995); J. Ibrahim, 1989.

20 Marshall, 1991.

21 R. Marshall, Power in the name of Jesus. Social transformation and pentecostalism in western Nigeria revisited. In: Legitimacy and the State in Twentieth Century Africa. T. Ranger and O. Vaughan, eds. (Oxford: St. Anthony’s Macmillan Series, 1995): 215-216.

22 A. Jega, Islam and democratization, notes for discussion at the comparative democratization seminar, Nuffield College, Oxford (7 May 1996).

23 West Africa (30 June - 5 July 1993): 960.

24 West Africa (11-17 Sept. 1995): 1426.

25 West Africa (23 Sept. 1995): 1626.

26 Sultan of Sokoto, 1993, 14-15.

27 West Africa (7-13 March 1994): 402.

28 Ihonvbere and Vaughan, 1995, 71.

29 Gibbon et al., 1992,30.

30 Barrett, 1994, 1033.

31 NADECO, 1996, 2.

32 CLO, 1996, 1.

33 Abuja-Based Pro-Democracy Groups (ABPDG), 1996.

34 CLO, 1996, 1.

35 Democratic Alternative (DA), 19969, 5.

36 ibid., 8.

37 Ya'u, 1996.

38 CAPP, 1996.

39 Abuja-Based Pro-Democracy Groups (ABPDG), 1996.

40 Jega, 1993.

41 Anyakora, 1995.

42 ibid.

43 West Africa (6-12 December 1993): 2209.

44 Oyediran, 1993, 228.

45 Jega, 1992.

46 ASUU, 1986.

47 ASUU, 1993, 4.

48 ASUU, 1993, 7-8

49 see Jega, 1994, Beckman and Jega, 1995.

50 Shettima, 1995, 61-68.

51 ibid., 67-8.

52 Abdallah, 1991; Mama, 1995.

53 Ayoade et al., 1992; Alarape, 1992.

54 Valenzuela, 1989, p. 447.

55 Enahoro, quoted in Bagu, 1995.

56 Ejiofor, 8.

57 Eleazu, 1994, 18-20.

58 Ake, 1996, 137-9; Beckman, 1989.

59 Soyinka, 1991, 6.

60 Smith, 1996, 338.

61 Diamond, 1993, 2-3.

62 Jega, 1995.

63 Bagu, 1995.

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