Democracy in Nigeria
Jean Herskovits is Professor of History at the State University of New York at Purchase and spent 18 months of the transition in Nigeria. She is the author of A Preface to Modern Nigeria, editor of the "Subsaharan Africa" volume in Dynamics of World Power: Documentary History of U.S. Foreign Policy, 1945-1973, and currently at work on a political history of contemporary Nigeria.See more by this author
On October 1 Nigeria added to its list of vital statistics a new status as the world's fourth largest democracy. The list was already impressive. One African in four is a Nigerian; with a population of 80 million or more, Nigeria is larger than any country in Europe. It is also the world's eighth largest producer of crude oil and has been the United States' second largest supplier for six years, neither joining in the Arab boycott of 1973-74, nor cutting exports for policy reasons subsequently.
Any voluntary handover of government from military to civilian rulers is unusual. Nigeria's was, arguably, unique. Meticulously planned, and including civilians at all stages of the four-year process, it culminated in a change of government as smooth as in a Western democracy. Further, Nigerians set a precedent in breaking from their colonial constitutional heritage. Rejecting Britain's parliamentary form of democracy, which they had continued after their independence in 1960, they chose, in their first wholly Nigerian-made constitution, to follow the American model instead.
They made that choice with characteristic pragmatism: Nigeria, like the United States, is large, complex, heterogeneous; as one of Nigeria's constitution-makers said simply, "What works for you may work for us." Americans, unaccustomed these days to being seen as exemplary, even historically, need to consider the statement Nigerians have made, however indirectly.
Nigeria's new government looks remarkably familiar to an American. The newly elected President has ahead of him a four-year term, with the possibility of a second term thereafter. The national assembly is bicameral, with a Senate of 95-five from each of the 19 states-and a House of Representatives of 449 members, distributed among the states by population. The independent judiciary has at the apex of its federal structure a Supreme Court of up to 15 justices. Each state has a governor (and, parallel to the vice-president, a deputy-governor), a unicameral House of Assembly and an independent judiciary.
Certain procedures are also familiar. For example, appointments to the cabinet, the Supreme Court, and ambassadorial posts require Senate confirmation. Americans should feel comfortable looking at Nigeria's new form of government-more comfortable than Britons, certainly, and even than many Nigerians, who are having to unlearn the Westminster model.