Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Friday, 29 May 2009 11:27 UK

African viewpoint: Nigeria's freedom

A woman voting in Nigeria

In our weekly viewpoint from an African journalist, Sola Odunfa considers Nigeria's democracy as the West African nation marks 10 years since the end of military rule:

Under the military rule of Sani Abacha, no-one could talk about democracy without coming under the jackboot of the general.

There were a number of civil liberties organisations, and lawyers like Gani Fawehinmi and Femi Falana, who kept democracy on the front burner.

You can't really celebrate freedom on an empty stomach

And the more Sani Abacha oppressed them, the more people were convinced that the worst democracy would be much better than any dictatorship.

But now we do live in a supposed democracy, no-one I know celebrates it.

We all appreciate the sense of personal liberty that comes with the removal of military government, but you can't really celebrate freedom on an empty stomach.

Sani Abacha (left), Abdulsalami Abubakar (middle), Olusegun Obasanjo (right)
Military lineup: After Sani Abacha died (left), Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar (m) took over for a year until Olusegun Obasanjo (r) won elections in 1999

When Gen Abacha died unexpectedly, the military conclave which sat in June 1998 at State House in Abuja and selected General Abdulsalami Abubakar as head of state with a mandate to hand over to an elected president within one year did not think seriously of returning Nigeria to full democracy.

One can summarily say the worst of democracy is better than the best of military
Steve in Akure

History has shown since then that what they wanted was a continuation of military rule by retired officers who could be trusted to protect the military interest as defined by the military's political elite.

General Abubakar executed his brief within 11 months.

In May 1999 he handed over the power baton to General Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military ruler who was jailed for treason by Abacha but was released purposely to contest and win the presidential election of that year.

Mr Obasanjo's person and politics have since dominated the first 10 years of this democratic regime - first as president for eight years and later as chairman of the board of trustees of the ruling party, a position he enhanced to give himself broad powers over the formulation of government policies.

Democratic rule

President Obasanjo had no pretension with democracy.

He was a military ruler out of uniform and his word was law.

A militant in the Niger Delta
Problems in the Niger Delta escalated into an insurgency under Mr Obasanjo

He was forced only occasionally by civil society pressure to acknowledge the constitutional role of the legislature in law-making and over-sight over executive functions, but he was not one to be bothered by legislative decisions which he did not like, especially decisions on financial matters.

He used the military to the fullest to knock sense into the heads of communities which stepped out of line with the law, with several hundred people being killed and some towns and villages destroyed.

The problems in the swamps of the oil-rich Niger Delta escalated to an insurrection in his eight years and it remains intractable.

Human life was grossly devalued by unsolved political assassinations and armed criminals.

More high-profile politicians died in questionable circumstances during his tenure than at any comparable period in Nigeria.

Among them was Bola Ige, the democracy activist-turned-justice minister, gunned down in Ibadan in 2000.

Ghana's former leader Jerry Rawlings, who led two coups and became president in democratic elections, has become a kind of folk hero here

And then there was Harry Marshall, the former chairman of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) in Rivers State, killed in his home during the 2003 elections, after Mr Marshall had switched to the opposition All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP).

Three years later there was the assassination of Funso Williams, the mild-mannered PDP gubernatorial candidate in Lagos State, and the gruesome killing of Ayo Daramola his counterpart in Ekiti.

On the credit side, President Obasanjo launched a battle against corruption, although many saw it as an instrument of political coercion.


At the end of his tenure he hand-picked his preferred successor, President Umaru Yar'Adua.

Umaru Yar'Adua waving
President Umaru Yar'Adua was a chemistry teacher

Perhaps this was an expression of military esprit-de-corps - the new president is younger brother to the number two man in Obasanjo's former military regime.

General Shehu Yar'Adua was known to be very loyal to his commander-in-chief.

He was co-accused with Obasanjo in the infamous treason trial by Abacha. They were both convicted in 1995.

He died in prison before their tormentor took the deep sleep, hence he could not benefit from the general amnesty which freed his boss.

President Yar'Adua did not have to suffer the rigours of true presidential election campaign. Obasanjo did it all for him.

Nigerians knew it was all a charade because the results of "democratic elections" in this part were believed to be fixed long before elections.

Votes did not count - and as it was in the beginning is now. So, Yar'Adua won comfortably.

The past two years of Umaru Yar'Adua presidency is regarded by many Nigerians as a period of barest minimum governance.

The former university lecturer's performance is such that Nigerians say he went to sleep immediately after his inauguration.

In any case, he did not present any clear manifesto during the campaigns and, so, cannot be held to have failed to deliver any promise.

'Demon crazy'

But there is another thing, you find people saying that democracy is good, but as corruption has pervaded what is needed is some kind of leader like Jerry Rawlings to come and let some blood.

The former leader of Ghana, who led two coups and became president in democratic elections, has become a kind of folk hero here.

But I hear that and think - people like Rawlings are rare, especially in Nigeria where nobody risks executing a coup, only to hand over the spoils of war a few weeks later.

So 10 years after "democracy" came, some are nostalgic for the rigour and discipline of military rule.

Nigerian democracy is best described in the words of the late music star Fela Anikulapo-Kuti: "demon crazy".

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