The hope of unbroken Nigeria
History teaches that when it gets (nearly) as bad as it is in the country today, a political consensus to take the country out of the brink would be manufactured.
President Muhammadu Buhari has driven Nigeria to the edge of the cliff. But we have been here, time after time. On the previous occasions that the country had arrived at the precipice, it did not tip over. The power establishment prevented the country from falling off the cliff.
Since the civil war in 1967 – 1970, Nigeria has been resilient to the worst effects of political headwinds. This is fundamentally because the headwind is always generated by some members of the political class. But when it gets too stormy, the wider membership always manages to fudge the necessary consensus to stabilise the country. This is partly informed by the brutal lessons of the civil war.
The country’s resilience is also grounded in the interrelationship between its diverse people. Moreover, whereas the Nigerian political officeholders are essentially motivated by self-interest and serve narrow group-interests, the political class is more broadminded and patriotic. Curiously, a Nigerian political officeholder acts differently when he is out of office and functioning as a statesman.
In the First Republic, the youthful and inexperienced ruling class, consisting politicians and the military top brass, led the country into the civil war. After the war, but still in the first two decades of the country’s independence from Great Britain, the emergent leaders demonstrated limited knowledge of statecraft. Instead of focusing on building the young independent country, they took upon themselves the struggles of other African countries for political independence, black majority rule, and deployed the country’s military for peacekeeping efforts around the world. Without prejudice to the modest achievements in post-war reconstruction, the leaders failed at home to institute a credible democratic system and the policies and institutional pillars for long-term economic performance.
By the time President Shehu Shagari was re-elected through an election that was marred by widespread violence and rigging in 1983, the economy had all but collapsed. Even middle-class Nigerians could not access “essential” commodities.
Incidentally, it was the military intervention that produced General Muhammadu Buhari as head of state that ended the Second Republic, during which the same kind of politicians that could not deliver in a Westminster system of the First Republic, also failed with the American-style presidential system. However, Buhari only succeeded in extending maladministration. His military regime was overthrown in a palace coup in 1985.
The next major crisis came with the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. General Ibrahim Babangida, who had adopted the civilian title of “President”, instead of military “Head of State,” wanted to perpetuate himself in office – perhaps for life. His annulment of the watershed election, drove the country to a political knife-edge. But the political class found the leeway to ease him out of power.
The country ultimately only replicated its leadership crisis again with the emergence of General Sani Abacha as military head of state in 1993. Although much more vilified than any dead or living Nigerian leader, Abacha did what Nigerian leaders do to varying degrees: damage the political fabric of the country, accumulate ill-gotten wealth, and enrich family and friends.
Abacha tried to succeed himself, most brazenly, by becoming the sole presidential candidate of the then-existing five political parties. He wanted to take on the political class he was only one of its members. It proved mission impossible. He died in office in strange circumstances and the country returned to civilian administration in 1999.
President Goodluck Jonathan wreaked the next major crisis. The Fourth Republic had been birthed with a national consensus that power should “shift” to the South, precisely to the Southwest of the country, because the presumed winner of the annulled June 12, 1993 election, who died in detention, hailed from the region. With the emergence of General Olusegun Obasanjo as democratically-elected President in 1999, the ruling party – People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – reached an internal consensus on power rotation between the South and the North, presumably every two presidential terms of four years each. As part of the power-sharing arrangement, which was essentially a delicate geopolitical balancing act, the presidential and vice-presidential candidates of the party would come from different sides of the North-South divide.
On this basis, Goodluck Jonathan, who hails from the South-south was elected vice president with President Umaru Yar’Adua, who hailed from the Northwest, in 2007 after President Obasanjo had served for the two terms limit set in the constitution. Presidential power expectedly shifted to the North. When President Yar’Adua died in office in 2010, Jonathan succeeded him and served out the remaining 13 months of his first term. President Jonathan then used his incumbency factor to get elected in 2011, against his party’s “power rotation” arrangement. He also sought re-election in 2015.
But apart from dangerously upsetting the power rotation arrangement, which the current ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) appears to have also adopted for its pragmatism, President Jonathan acquiesced to the plundering of the federal fiscal savings and his administration became blighted by widespread corruption. Even worse, he was injudicious in responding to the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram, which underlined his administration’s poor response to the threat of the Islamist terrorists. These factors added to the vices of the previous PDP governments since 1999, and ultimately accounted for the loss of the 2015 election by President Jonathan.
President Buhari has now led the country to a new critical juncture that is characterised by the collapse of security of lives and property, prolonged economic downturn, and questionable political authority. As Nigerians across the country are being killed or taken captive for ransom payment by various criminal elements on a daily basis, it remains debatable whether the government is incapable or unwilling to stem the tide of insecurity.
But, certainly, the Buhari administration has been relying more on propaganda than honest efforts to solve the security and economic challenges. Not surprising, his newly-appointed ministers are a roll call of politicians that are tainted by corruption allegations and lacklustre past record in public offices.
History teaches that when it gets (nearly) as bad as it is in the country today, a political consensus to take the country out of the brink would be manufactured. When Nigeria faces a make-or-break situation, it finds the consensus to “make” as opposed to “break”. Instead of the country going down, it is the extant bad leadership that gives way. Therefore, President Buhari can save his administration by saving Nigeria; but Nigeria will be saved anyway. The APC ruling class will continue to ignore the wider political class and the stability of the country to its own detriment.
However, what we also glean from history, unfortunately, is that a new inadequate leadership is what takes over from the one displaced. This is the reason the country has been in perpetual crisis and lacking in development. What the country has always needed for long-term stability and progress are visionary and competent leaders.
There is a caveat, though, to this historical framework. History is not always a reliable guide for the future. Even if the chances are marginal, the administration of President Buhari can still take Nigeria back from the brink. As the commander-in-chief, he can help restore security in the country. Although he has announced a cabinet that is uninspiring, he can yet appoint competent advisers and demand that the ministers must meet performance benchmark that could be drawn for his government by expert advisors.
A democratic change can also happen if the election tribunal, and ultimately the Supreme Court, restore to former vice president Atiku Abubakar the mandate he believes he secured in the February presidential election, but which he alleges the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) fraudulently awarded to President Buhari. An Atiku Abubakar’s presidency would then have to form a broad-based government, with technocrats helping him to roll back the gale of insecurity and poverty that has been sweeping across the country.
Jide Akintunde is the Managing Editor, Financial Nigeria; he is also Director, Nigeria Development and Finance Forum.
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