We are intoxicated with politics. The premium on political power is so high that we are prone to take the most extreme measures in order to win and maintain political power, our energy tends to be channelled into the struggle for power to the detriment of economically productive effort, and we habitually seek political solutions to virtually every problem. Such are the manifestations of the overpoliticization of social life in Nigeria.

-Professor Claude Ake

Once again, Nigeria is governed by the military. For the second time since Independence in 1960, a democratic constitution that was not working has been overthrown in a military coup. Like the first coup 18 years earlier, the action of the soldiers last December 31 has met with broad popular support. Yet it has been a stunning blow to those who had hoped to see democratic institutions prosper in this largest and most potentially powerful African nation, as a model for other African states.

Many early reactions in the West have portrayed the coupmakers as a bunch of power-hungry soldiers, with no appreciation for democracy, eager to dip their hands into the nation's coffers. This is a gross misreading of the coup. The new military government may, in the end, fail the expectations of the Nigerian people as badly as previous governments have, but it has swept into power on a deep tide of disillusionment and disgust with civilian politics. Its primary purpose appears overwhelmingly to have been national salvation, not personal aggrandizement. Its motivating spirit has been popular and redemptive, not authoritarian.


What caused the coup was not the ambitions of the soldiers but the decay of the country under four and a quarter years of civilian rule. This decay had three components: staggering corruption, crippling economic waste and mismanagement, and the vitiating of the electoral process through violence and fraud.

It is another misconception to argue, as many Western newspapers have, that corruption under the late Second Republic was no worse than it had been under previous regimes, and hence was only an excuse for the coup. In fact, corruption in Nigeria has grown more widespread and brazen with each regime, and was more out of control than ever under the last one. To some extent it is true that the civilians only applied more intensively and perfectly devices that had long been in operation, in particular the pervasive inflation of contracts to cover the costs of kickbacks to ministers and parties and of commissions to politically connected agents. The almost universal padding of these contracts by 50 to 100 percent meant that only half as many projects could be undertaken. And the payment of huge "mobilization fees" before the performance of any substantial work meant that many were never completed. The shells of unfinished hospitals and public housing, the treacherous craters of ungraded roads, the idle cranes and pumps and bulldozers, stood in virtually every state as vivid testimony to what was happening.

Continually, the newspapers published exposes of fantastic corruption, something much more than business as usual. In 1983 alone, these included the alleged mysterious exhaustion by June of the $2.5-billion annual allocation for import licenses, a press report from London of fraudulent import-export transactions exceeding $6 billion, and the arrest of several top officials of the Federal Capital Development Authority in Abuja over an alleged $20-million fraud in its accounts. One scandal followed another: the disappearance of millions of naira (one naira currently equals approximately $1.35) worth of building materials from the warehouse of the Nigeria National Supply Company; the acceptance of large bribes by legislators deliberating on the renewal of a monopoly contract to a Swiss firm; the rumored apprehension at customs in London of a Nigerian Governor trying to smuggle several million naira cash into Britain; the revelation by a Federal Minister that Nigeria was losing 50 million naira a month to ghost workers and other forms of payroll fraud. None of these charges was ever proven or punished in court, but this failure only deepened the sense that things were out of control.

Theft of public resources was not only rampant but destructive. Mysterious fires razed important government buildings that had become enmeshed in scandal, including the Ministry of External Affairs and the Development Authority in Abuja. In January of last year, fire broke out at the 37-story headquarters of the Nigerian External Telecommunications in Lagos. The building was the pride of Nigerian architecture and the fire, described by the government-owned New Nigerian as "a calculated act, planned and executed to cover up corruption and embezzlement in the company,"1 visibly quickened the pace of political decay. To both ordinary Nigerians and the country's intelligentsia-students, intellectuals, professionals, and military officers-it symbolized the rapaciousness of the ruling elite. Students quickly took to the streets in Lagos and several state capitals, chanting and carrying signs calling for the return of the military.

Even if the scale of corruption was no greater than before, it was more visible. In part this was because it was more brazen. But also, to the credit of Nigeria's rapidly maturing independent press, it was also more frequently and vigorously exposed. In addition, government was much larger and more complicated under a democratic construction. Cabinets had to be enlarged to accommodate all the allies and interests behind a governor or president. There were six political parties, spending at a furious pace, that had to be financed, and were dutifully supported with a percentage of every contract. And there were state and federal legislators-almost two thousand of them-who had not only voted themselves (in a lengthy preoccupation at the start of their terms) generous salaries and benefits and accommodations and staffs, but who were known to be receiving and exchanging huge sums of cash for their votes. For these reasons, democracy was even more expensive than it appeared, and the burden was on the politicians to show that it was worth the price.

What the people got was not performance but arrogance, displays of wealth that were stupidly insensitive to the economic realities of recession, scarcity and suffering. Naira were sprayed around at social functions and donated to political causes by ministers and legislators in amounts that exceeded and often dwarfed their legitimate annual incomes. Draped in gold and magnificent dress, they assumed the bearing of aristocracy, and became considerably more distant from the people than much of Nigeria's traditional royalty.

All of this fed the disillusionment, the steady and perceptible erosion of the legitimacy of the Second Republic. Well before the elections last summer, a national consensus was emerging that greed was destroying democracy in Nigeria. It was expressed in a thousand different ways and contexts. In a trenchant editorial on the eve of last summer's elections, the privately owned National Concord (the country's most widely read newspaper) bitterly declared that the view of "politics as a means of self-enrichment" had brought "a cynical practice of democracy; government by the rich, for the rich and in the name of the people."2 One month later, a Lagos magistrate, exposing an accused person who had promised him two plots of land in exchange for acquittal, warned that corruption had "ruined democracy in Nigeria" and was threatening to destroy the society.3 Such warnings and lamentations began early in the new civilian government, with the looting and the self-absorption of the politicians.

Precisely how much government revenue was embezzled or misappropriated during civilian rule will never be known, but the amount is believed to have been in the billions. If the former minister's estimate of payroll fraud is even broadly accurate, several billion dollars were lost by this one device. Leading figures in Nigerian government are known to have accumulated breathtaking fortunes abroad in bank accounts, mansions and staggering precious assets, including, The New York Times reported, a solid gold bathtub appraised at $5 million. Western diplomats and economists have unofficially estimated the private wealth exported by top government officials in the Second Republic at $5-$7 billion.4 Soldiers have recently found millions in cash in the homes of arrested politicians.


Whether or not corruption was on a greater scale than it had been in the most freewheeling days of the military, its effects were certainly more devastating. For it came at a time when the country was manifestly less able to afford it, when the disastrous decline in Nigeria's oil income meant that every naira stolen or wasted sank the country further into debt and depression. During the slightly more than four years of civilian rule, foreign currency reserves plunged from $8 billion to less than $1 billion. External debt spiralled from roughly $4 billion to $15 billion. By the time of the coup, Nigeria was believed to be more than six months and $5 billion in arrears on short-term payments to creditors and suppliers. What was smuggled abroad probably equalled or exceeded those arrears. What the government paid to ghost workers may have represented a third or more of the debt it accumulated under civilian rule.

One can hardly overstate the devastating effect on Nigeria's economy of the precipitous decline in oil income, from a peak of $24 billion in 1980 to $10 billion in 1983. But it is seriously misleading to suggest, as many Western commentators have, that this decline was, in itself, or in the form of President Shehu Shagari's austerity budgets, the cause of the coup. With so much of the oil wealth going into capital spending, and corruption and waste, the impact of the recession on daily life could have been substantially cushioned by policies that sought to spread the burdens of adjustment fairly across classes and segments of society. Disciplined execution of the President's austerity plans and emergency measures could have made a real difference. But as Nigeria's new head of state, General Muhammed Buhari, related in a recent interview, "We were convinced that the former regime did not have the discipline or will to arrest the deterioration of the economy."5

The second basic cause of the coup was that the civilians grossly and callously mismanaged the economy, and so heightened considerably the burden of the recession on people's lives. The decline in oil income caused a sharp decline in imports, especially of basic commodities and industrial raw materials. As a result, factories retrenched to fractions of their capacity, laying off tens of thousands of workers, and-partly also as a result of ruthless hoarding-prices of staple foods and basic commodities skyrocketed.

In such a situation, the urgent need was to allocate scarce foreign exchange to the importation of raw materials and basic consumer goods on a priority basis. This the Shagari government promised but failed to do. Foreign exchange continued to be drained by the elite for luxury imports and foreign travel. Illicit sales of import licenses seemed to increase. To legitimate businesses in desperate need, they remained unobtainable (except perhaps for an exorbitant premium). Rice continued to be hoarded in profiteering by the powerful and well-connected. Those assigned to break up the bottlenecks were frequently the worst offenders. Shortly after the coup, more than 500,000 tons of rice allocated by the Presidential Task Force, along with 200,000 bags of sugar and hoards of other commodities, were found in a warehouse on the outskirts of Lagos.6

At the state level, things were even worse. In a large number of the 19 states, teachers went on strike in 1983 after going four to six months or more without pay. Strikes by unpaid civil servants temporarily shut down some state governments. With emergency loans from the federal government, released after a threatened national strike on the eve of the elections, state governments started operating again, but many school systems remained shut down. By the time the soldiers took over, some areas had gone for more than a year with no schooling. Hospitals were without drugs, and cities suffered ever longer and more frequent breakdowns of water and electricity. Incensed at the growing gap between the suffering of ordinary people and the high living of the elite, trade unions were becoming newly restive. Everywhere one turned, there was evidence of an economy on the edge of collapse.


Disaffected Nigerians pondered two avenues of hope. One was to change the incumbents of power in the five weeks of national and state elections in August and September 1983. The other was to change the political system altogether, to displace the politicians of all the parties and bring back the only alternative, the military.

A large proportion of the Nigerian electorate had come to favor the latter option. My own pre-election survey in Kano state, the largest and most politically volatile in the country, showed a majority of the state's electorate and two-thirds of voters in the city of Kano favoring a military government.7 The survey revealed what astute observers knew to be true: that a great many Nigerians not only preferred the military but were actively praying for its return to power. They were disgusted with the corruption and waste of civilian rule. They were angry about the shortages and high prices of basic commodities, especially food. They felt that most of the politicians were selfish and deceitful, and responsible for the country's economic distress. And they were frightened, especially in the cities, by the rising levels of thuggery and political violence as the elections approached. After hundreds of deaths and thousands of casualties in clashes between parties and party factions, this weariness of political violence, and fear for the safety of one's self and family, was an important current in the growing disaffection with civilian rule.

With the approach of the elections, a growing proportion of the counter-elite among the intelligentsia, including, one can safely speculate, much of the junior officer corps in the military, had also come to favor the more systemic change, feeling that the politicians were all pretty much the same and that the system was irretrievably rotten. This group waited to see if serious change was possible within the system, by constitutional means. They saw the elections as the last chance for the Second Republic to redeem itself.

That chance was ruined by grave and massive electoral fraud. Ballots were obtained in advance of the polling days and thumb-printed in assembly-line operations for candidates of the ruling party. Electoral officials at virtually every level were bribed to falsify election returns. Hired agents carrying fraudulently accumulated voter registration cards were sent or driven about town to vote ten or 20 times in a single election. Elsewhere, whole communities were disenfranchised by administrative ineptitude or deliberate sabotage.

Malpractices were engaged in by all the parties, but they were employed most systematically and on the most reckless scale by President Shagari's ruling National Party of Nigeria. Most disturbingly, in many of the less developed northern states, NPN agents collaborated with electoral officials and police, and in some instances traditional rulers, to prevent opposition party agents from exercising their legal right to observe the polling and vote-counting from beginning to end. In the absence of this most basic and crucial check on electoral fraud, unbelievable results were reported and announced.

Overall, the NPN not only reclaimed the presidency with a decisive first-ballot victory, but increased its governorships from seven to 13, and its standing in the National Assembly from a very shaky plurality to two-thirds. Some of Nigeria's most corrupt and unpopular politicians were reported reelected. Few of the results were overturned in court. All but one of the incredible gubernatorial outcomes were upheld. In that lone case, a defeated governor of an opposition party was found to have been reelected by more than a million votes.

Because the first round of voting, for the presidency, was impressively peaceful and orderly, the foreign press pronounced it a success and President Reagan, in an unfortunate remark that was widely resented in Nigeria, hailed the voting as a "triumph for democracy." Western governments and newspapers have clung to this view, despite reports from diverse areas of the country, indicating, with impressive consistency and often elaborate documentation, the various devices by which the elections were rigged and the will of the electorate hopelessly obscured and thwarted.

The elections were a sham, and a disaster for the country. More than 100 people were killed and $100 million in property destroyed in rioting that followed the announcement of the gubernatorial elections in a few of the states. Approximately 300 million naira (more than ten percent of the federal government's recurrent budget last year) was invested in this disaster. It can hardly be wondered why the military decided that the country could not afford this kind of "democracy."

From the soldiers' own words, it is clear that the rigging of the 1983 elections was a major reason for the coup. The return to power by fraud of the very politicians who had bled and mismanaged the economy was probably the final development that set in motion the dynamics that led to the coup. When the reinaugurated President Shagari moved, impressively in the view of some observers, to upgrade the quality of his ministers and advisers and launch new austerity measures, it was too little, too late, and no longer credible to the country, or the military.


With the failure of Nigeria's second attempt at democratic government since independence, many observers will conclude that democracy is dead in that country. This will be the latest in the long series of Western myths about Nigeria. The apparent motives, popular reception, and initial posture of the military strongly suggest that this takeover was undertaken for democratic, rather than authoritarian, reasons. Significantly, the independence of the press and the judiciary have so far been preserved. Certainly, the public would react to their curtailment. Philosophically, the country remains deeply committed to democratic principles. The people continue to aspire for authentic representative government. Nigeria remains in search of democracy.

In the coming months and years, as the new military government addresses itself to the current economic emergency and seeks to repair the damage of the past, Nigeria will be searching for a political formula and a set of structural reforms that will permit the development of a more genuinely democratic government, one which will be responsive to the country's needs, one which will endure.

Many lessons must be drawn from the failure of Nigeria's Second Republic. Three appear especially important to the future of democracy in Nigeria. First, Nigeria must deal effectively with the problem of corruption. The root of the problem is not simply greed. There can be no doubt that greed has run wild in Nigeria, but this is only the symptom of a social structural failure. Hence, attacking the deterioration in values by an "ethical revolution" (which President Shagari pronounced, but made no tangible progress toward) will not dramatically reduce corruption, any more than moral appeals alone have been able to end structural racism in the United States. Structural problems require structural solutions. A growing consensus of public opinion in Nigeria intuitively recognizes this point: that Nigeria will not be able to control corruption and develop responsive and accountable government until the conduct of its public servants is vigorously monitored and the criminals among them are regularly prosecuted and punished.

In fact, the necessary laws and structures already exist on paper, and one of the most hopeful signals for the future is General Buhari's indication that his government intends to take them seriously (he gave his new ministers six weeks to declare their assets). The 1979 Constitution contained, in its Fifth Schedule, a Code of Conduct for Public Officers. If it had been respected and permitted to function as envisioned, the Second Republic might have survived. The Code requires every public officer to declare all his assets at regular intervals to the Code of Conduct Bureau, a body designed to monitor compliance with the Code's strict anti-corruption regulations. Initially, only the President and Vice-President complied. By 1983, most public officials had still not done so, many refusing even after the Bureau finally released their names to the press. Nigerians knew that it was absurd for the President to be talking about an ethical revolution when he failed to dismiss ministers who refused to honor this most elementary principle of public probity.

The Code of Conduct also provided for a Code of Conduct Tribunal, a quasi-judicial body empowered to hear charges of corruption, and to impose serious penalties, including vacation of office, seizure of assets, and disqualification from office for ten years. But neither the Bureau nor the Tribunal ever worked as envisioned because the National Assembly, upon whose action the Constitution unfortunately made their coming to life dependent, buried the enabling legislation. Without this legislation, the Bureau was unable to hire any permanent officers, or to investigate suspicions or complaints. The Bureau never really functioned. The Tribunal never sat.

Conditioning the functioning of these bodies on the politicians they were to regulate was one of the few basic flaws in the 1979 Constitution, but it was of fatal proportions. The same could be said for the Federal Electoral Commission, whose disastrous administration of the 1983 elections was another major cause of the coup. Like the members of the Code of Conduct Bureau, the members of the Federal Electoral Commission (and other federal commissions, such as those overseeing the judiciary, the civil service, the police and the census) were to be appointed by the President, subject to Senate confirmation. And of course their funding as well was dependent on appropriations by the National Assembly. In effect, the politicians were expected to regulate themselves. The fox was asked to find the guards and locks for the chicken coop.

Implicit in this is a second crucial lesson. Nigeria is not yet at a point in its development when politicians can be expected or trusted to regulate themselves. Nor is the separation of power between executive, legislature and judiciary sufficient to limit the abuse of power. In the Western mindset, this is tantamount to saying that democracy is not possible. This conclusion does not logically follow. If the crucial functions of regulating conduct and administering elections cannot be entrusted to the ultimate authority of the politicians, there is in Nigeria an alternative authority, the military. There is no inherent reason why it cannot be employed to check the abuse of power by civilians while they are governing, rather than having continually to put an end to their abuses and clean up their mess by overthrowing them. This as well reflects a growing sentiment in Nigeria.

This by no means assumes that the Nigerian military is incorruptible; during the oil boom, corruption grew to serious levels under military rule. But in Nigeria's 23-year history, the military has been the only institution that has shown the disposition and capacity to combat the problem. Spanning the country's deep ethnic cleavages better than any other major institution (if still uneasily), the armed forces constitute, not only in their self-conception but in the public mind, the ultimate guarantor of the national welfare. Unlike the military "guarantors" of many other Third World nations, they have ruled without systematically abusing human rights, and continue to show a sensitivity to basic liberal concerns.

The brief seven-month rule of General Murtala Muhammed, assassinated in a failed coup attempt early in 1976, still symbolizes for most Nigerians the capacity of the military to strike boldly against government corruption and waste, and to impose discipline and purpose in public life. The new Buhari government has identified openly with this legacy, and this identification appears to be even more intensely felt among the ranks of the junior officer corps. These junior officers-reflecting an increasingly intense idealism and anger among younger Nigerians and junior bureaucrats and professionals-will be closely watching the conduct of their senior officers for some time to come. They should constitute an important check on those military officers chosen to regulate the conduct of a civilian government.

After hundreds more deaths and thousands more casualties in political combat, and billions lost to political corruption, there is a third lesson. Something is fundamentally wrong with politics in Nigeria: it has come to matter too much, to weigh too heavily on social life.

The primary source of economic crisis and political decay in Nigeria today is the lengthening shadow of the state over every other realm of society. Since independence, the state has been the chief arena for the accumulation of wealth and the acquisition of resources, and has been becoming so ever more decisively. Too much of the country's wealth is mediated through government contracts, jobs, import licenses, development projects and so on. Too little is accessible through any activity substantially independent of the state. As a result, power has replaced effort as the basis of social reward. Hence, "a desperate struggle to win control of state power ensues since this control means for all practical purpose being all powerful and owning everything. Politics becomes warfare, a matter of life and death."8

The lesson is not limited to the political structure. For many years Nigeria's economic system has not been working. A false confidence was bred by the global oil boom, which obscured and accentuated the deep structural problems of the economy. The collapse of the world oil market finally exposed the reality of an economy that had developed no other significant sources for generating new wealth-and in fact had allowed to atrophy the one it had traditionally relied on: agriculture. In the midst of Nigeria's current depression, the source of its economic troubles is now more clearly visible: a system of state socialism without any socialist commitment to justice, or distribution, or even growth. Lacking such commitments, state socialism reduces to state gigantism, and state control becomes its own justification. Lacking both productive state investments and significant private enterprise, the economy reduces to the swollen state, feeding voraciously on oil.9

Effective social control can reduce corruption and political thuggery and chicanery by punishing them. But law and punishment are not enough. It is unlikely that Nigeria can sustain democratic government or achieve self-sustaining growth so long as the state looms so large in social and economic life. This is a difficult and painful lesson: the size of the state must be reduced. Many of the tentacles that have lifted the privileged to fantastic wealth must be cut off.


Despite the disillusionment with the Second Republic and the outpouring of relief and joy over the coup, Nigerians have never wanted permanent military rule. As it has during previous military regimes, public opinion will eventually demand the installation of some kind of civilian, democratic government. There are no adequate precedents for the kind of political structure that might meet Nigeria's unique needs. But such a system could be based on three principles common both to democratic theory and to Nigeria's current aspirations: (1) accountability of rulers to the ruled; (2) pluralism in social, political and economic life, involving dispersal of resources and competition between ideas and preferences; and (3) checks and balances to prevent the accumulation and abuse of power.

None of these principles is incompatible with a political system that makes a place for the military in the regulation of political competition and conduct. Each of them is reflected, in one way or another, in the cultural traditions of Nigeria's many peoples.

It is now a fact of political life in Nigeria that accountability cannot be assured, and abuse of power contained, by conventional checks and balances alone. Over the past two decades, the most crucial balance has been not between executive and legislature, or between these and the judiciary, but between military and civilians. The path to political stability in Nigeria requires institutionalization of a role for the military as a fourth branch of government.

In fact, the idea is not as alien to Nigerians as it may seem to many Westerners. In other Third World nations, military regimes have experimented with partial withdrawals, typically permitting, however, less democratic control than Nigerians demand. But the idea of "diarchy"-sharing of power between civilians and soldiers-has also been advanced within a strongly democratic framework by one of the founding fathers and leading figures of Nigerian politics, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. During Nigeria's first military government, which ruled from 1966 to 1975, Azikiwe proposed that the "armed and security forces" constitute a "fourth arm" of government in Nigeria's next civilian constitution. The corruption and abuses of power from 1960 to 1966 under the civilian First Republic (of which Azikiwe himself was President), and the military coup which overthrew it, demonstrated, said Azikiwe, "not . . . that the military caste is perfect or that civilians are imperfect," but that "civil rule depends upon the military establishment as a sanction for the maintenance and enforcement of the law." Until developing nations "have had sufficient experience and maturity in handling human problems with reason and finesse, and until they have become disciplined in their personal lives, community living, and the exercise of political rights and privileges," he proposed "incorporating the military hierarchy on a more active basis in a civilian-based administration, to make it stable."10

Specifically, Dr. Azikiwe proposed ex officio membership in the Council of Ministers for the heads of the army, navy, air force and police, and a collective veto by them over any policy "affecting the rule of law, the democratic process, individual freedom" and so on. This may, however, be too diffuse and too limited a formula to ensure democracy and stability. The need is not to incorporate soldiers into the policy formation process, but to have them stand as watchdogs over the conduct of politics and public life: to insulate from partisan pressures and abuse those institutions that must remain above party conflict and independent of party control if the democratic process is to work.

The experience of the Second Republic points to several institutions that should be removed from the direct or indirect control of elected officials and entrusted to the supervision of the military:

-The Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal. As the key to monitoring and punishing corruption, these bodies, as described above, must remain free of political manipulation and control.

-The Federal and State Electoral Commissions. However elections are structured and timed, they must be perceived as substantially free and fair. It is unlikely that electoral commissions appointed and funded by elected officials will be able to achieve such a result in the foreseeable future. The experience of the 1979 elections suggests, by contrast, that military supervision of electoral administration is far more likely to limit electoral fraud and malpractice.

-The Police Service Commission. As the hands-on regulators of political campaigns and demonstrations, the police are instrumental to the democratic process in Nigeria. Partly to discourage political manipulation and abuse of the police, state police forces have been banned since the First Republic. The best way, however, to ensure the political independence of the police under a new civilian regime would be to entrust the military with the appointment and supervision of the Police Service Commission, which appoints and exercises disciplinary control over all police officers.

-The Judicial Service Commissions. Although the courts made some courageous decisions under the Second Republic, limiting executive power and upholding individual freedom (especially that of the press), their image suffered in the bitter legal wrangling over the disputed 1983 election returns, few of which the courts reversed. Military control over the Judicial Service Commissions, which recommend judicial appointments, would enhance public confidence in the independence of the judiciary and might better insulate it from partisan politics.

-The National Population Commission. Though purely administrative on its face, the collection of government statistics and population figures plays a crucial role in the distribution of government power and resources in a society where virtually everything of value seems to flow from the state. Since independence, no reliable Nigerian census has been taken; both the census of the First Republic and that of General Yakubu Gowon's government were subjected to widespread inflation and then bitter sectional conflict. Fraud and controversy in this area may never be entirely eliminated. But even if supervision by the more disciplined military could not produce a more reliable accounting, it would at least insulate the census process from partisan politics, and so limit the damage the controversy might do to the democratic system.

A constitutional formula like that above would be innovative, but not anti-democratic. It would leave the formation and execution of policy entirely to civilians. It need not encroach on a single substantive area of government-not even the funding and deployment of the military itself. It would assign to the military only those regulatory and administrative functions vital to democratic stability and highly vulnerable to political abuse at Nigeria's current stage of political and economic development.

In what Dr. Azikiwe called "democracy with military vigilance," the supervisory tasks assigned to the military could be performed by a Supreme Military Council (SMC), the type of body which now governs Nigeria and did in previous military regimes. This Supreme Military Council could be constituted, as it is now, primarily or entirely of soldiers chosen by the military and balanced in ethnic and regional composition to "reflect the federal character."

A crucial problem would concern the nature of reciprocal control between the military and the civilians. Clearly, the SMC itself would have to be independent of civilian manipulation. On the other hand, this would not mean that civilian control could not be exercised over the military itself, including its promotion and deployment. Under a system of civilian control over the military, the independence of the SMC would probably be maximized if its members, upon election, took leave or retired from active military duty, and if their salaries were constitutionally pegged to those of the civilian officials. The SMC would then be empowered to fix the salaries and budgets of the five commissions under its supervision, which the civilian legislature might have the constitutional power to query and review, but not to refuse to allocate. This would be the most serious compromise of democratic control in the system, but it is difficult to imagine how the independence of these bodies can be otherwise ensured.


A system of diarchy along the lines outlined above can provide the structural supports, the integrity for crucial regulatory institutions, that the Second Republic needed and lacked. It can make the difference between democratic success and failure in Nigeria, until such time as Nigeria has developed the "maturity" and "experience" and "discipline" to be able to dispense with military vigilance. There will probably be a need for such vigilance for at least ten years, and probably a generation. As Dr. Azikiwe proposed, the military role in government could be constitutionally mandated for a fixed period of time, after which its future existence would be put to the people in a national referendum, and continued until they voted to end it.

There remains the very large question of what the civilian component of a new democratic system in Nigeria might look like. When the national debate comes, it will probably center on whether the system should take a parliamentary or presidential or some altogether new form, and whether the system should be based on competing parties or ban them altogether.

When the Supreme Military Council established the Constitutional Drafting Committee in 1976, it instructed it to find ways to limit the proliferation of parties and even consider means of forming the government without parties. The CDC was able to do the former successfully, but was unable to do the latter. It concluded that political parties were indispensable for articulating and aggregating competing political preferences in a modern, large-scale democratic system. In a recent interview, General Buhari expressed the view that there was nothing wrong with Nigeria's recent democratic system as such, that the problem was with "those who operated it, and the way they operated it."11

There is likely to be considerable sentiment for crafting an entirely original political structure that borrows more heavily from Nigeria's traditional political cultures. Some will argue for a more explicit role for Nigeria's traditional rulers, both those of the larger and more centralized traditional kingdoms-the Emirs of the Hausa-Fulani, the Shehu of Borno, the Obas of the Yoruba, and the levels of authority below them-and the chiefs of the more decentralized political structures of the Ibo and many minority peoples. Though their formal powers of taxation, adjudication and administration were largely dismantled during the previous period of military rule, these traditional rulers remain, in turbulent times, a significant (and to many Western observers, surprisingly tenacious) source of cultural continuity and conflict mediation.

Others will oppose the restoration of their formal authority, partly from concern that drawing traditional rulers too directly into politics and government will threaten their effectiveness as healers of conflict and guardians of overarching cultural values. In any event, much more serious thought than before will probably be given to the need for meaningful participation at the local level, where traditional systems of communal assembly and decision-making are most directly applicable.

Whatever system the Nigerians devise, they are almost certain to seek a structure that is less expensive and cumbersome than the Second Republic, which allocated hundreds of millions of naira each year to the pay and perquisites and offices and staffs of 95 senators, 449 representatives and 1,347 state legislators. Nigerians will likely demand a smaller, leaner legislative branch-perhaps including a unicameral national assembly, able to dispose of legislation more quickly-and limits on the direct and indirect remuneration of members. Ways will also be sought to limit the size and costs of administering the executive branch; under the Second Republic, the office of the President alone claimed ten percent of the 1983 recurrent budget.12

What will certainly remain in place in Nigeria is a federal system of multiple states. Despite the pressures for creation of new states, and the continuing debate over the proper balance between the center and the states, Nigerian federalism has been reasonably (even remarkably) effective in breaking up the hegemony of Nigeria's largest ethnic groups, decentralizing ethnic conflict, dispersing development, fostering cross-cutting cleavage, and in general containing the powerful centrifugal forces inherent in Nigeria's ethnic composition. Though it is expensive to operate-with 19 state governments and a requirement that federal appointments and resources be evenly and fairly distributed across the states-this federalism was one dimension in which the Second Republic achieved decided progress over the First.


Major structural reforms are also needed in the Nigerian economy, not simply to promote more balanced and self-sustaining growth, but also to relieve the destructive pressure of economic aspirations on politics and government.

The size of the state-the range of its economic activities and especially its direct ownership and control of production and distribution-must be reduced. Ironically, this appeared to be developing as a major policy thrust in President Shagari's post-election administration, which, when it was overthrown, was preparing to announce a plan for divesting itself of certain public enterprises.

The goal, if not the plan, should be retained. There is hardly a dimension of economic life in which the Nigerian state is not actively engaged today. Obviously, the size of the oil sector-which accounts for more than 90 percent of export earnings and more than 80 percent of government revenue-sets sharp limits to how far and how fast a reduction of state involvement can proceed. Certainly there is no sentiment in Nigeria for any privatization of the petroleum industry. But private enterprise in other sectors can be fostered, and state intervention reduced in both scope and degree. Statutory corporations at both the federal and state levels are involved in mining, agriculture, printing, banking, insurance, shipping, supplying, hotels, electricity, construction, telecommunications, radio and television. Some perform strategic functions; most do not. Some make profits; many operate at large and continuous losses.

The state should divest itself of those corporations for which state ownership cannot be justified by explicit criteria, such as importance to the national economy (e.g., public utilities and mining), the huge capital outlays required (steel), or importance to national security (mining, weapons production and external telecommunications).13 A large number of government companies meet none of these tests. These should be sold, even where an initial period of tax relief and subsidized credit is necessary to induce local entrepreneurs to assume the risk of operating them for profit. Because they have been especially prone to abuse, overseas procurement and bulk purchasing and distribution should also be phased out as state activities. This would require dismantling such bodies as the Nigerian National Supply Company and the Presidential Task Force on Rice, which the Shagari Government was also said to be planning.14

One area where a reduction in state ownership might make particular sense is the mass media. Government newspapers, particularly those owned by state governments, have been losing readership at a striking pace to the rapidly growing private papers. The latter have been demonstrably freer to criticize policies and expose the corruption and abuse of power. Partly for this reason, they have been livelier and more interesting to read, and have been attracting the nation's best journalists and editors. There is an understandable desire for a national government in a developing country to want some semi-official organ of expression, but Nigerians are showing by their purchasing decisions a preference to see many of the state government newspapers terminated or sold.

Another interesting innovation would be to break the state's monopoly on radio and television broadcast, entrenched in the 1979 Constitution, and permit private ownership. This would not only open one of the economy's most dynamic sectors to private entrepreneurship, but would also promote the pluralism of information and ideas that is an important condition of liberal democracy. Almost certainly, it would also improve the quality of radio and television news, which in the late regime degenerated into advertisements and apologies for the rulers of the day.

Beyond shrinking the state through divestment and retrenchment, the private sector must be stimulated. Selling existing public enterprises to private Nigerians will not be sufficient. Means have to be found to foster the element of capitalism which is most crucial to growth and yet has been most elusive in Nigeria-entrepreneurship. Nigerians who have wealth and ideas have to be encouraged to invest them at risk in the hope of profit. Nigerians are not irrational economic actors. By and large, they have not put their wealth at risk in productive new ventures because they have not had to. Easier, risk-free avenues of investment have been open to them in the form of inflated contracts from the swollen state, black-market currency manipulations and share purchases in transnational corporate affiliates. If the substantial capital that has accumulated in private hands in the past two decades is to be put to risk--and to work-these other avenues of investment must be closed off or made less attractive.

Two areas of reform appear promising. First, the award of government contracts in every sector and at every level must be reformed, establishing new performance incentives and imposing effective penalties for default. Most important, competitive bidding must become a serious requirement, with established procedures for contract review and managerial accountability.

Second, means have to be found of correcting the perverse effects of existing legislation regarding the investment behavior of private Nigerians. The Nigerian bourgeoisie now has the character primarily of a "comprador" elite. Its most significant investments are in the Nigerian affiliates of transnational corporations, where it has been able to achieve profitable returns with very little effort or risk. This development has been encouraged by the legislated "indigenization" requirements for Nigerian participation (at 40 or 60 percent, depending on the sector) in the equity of foreign investments in Nigeria.15 Little has been done to encourage Nigerian investment in new private ventures, particularly in production, rather than in the varieties of intermediary trade that now account for most of the enterprise of private Nigerians.

As other analysts have proposed, the government could tax (through withholding by the corporation) the dividends and other earnings of Nigerian shareholders in transnational corporations. These funds could then be used by the Nigerian shareholders as income tax credits and subsidies to finance new investment in those economic sectors and activities where the government determines that local capital investment will lead to accumulation. Thus, "the state could encourage reallocation of private sector investment away from comprador, intermediary activities toward productive investments with a potential for indigenous accumulation."16 In doing so, the state would encourage "the emergence of effective local competitors to foreign capital" and so, for the first time, an authentic, indigenous capitalism-and a more viable economic foundation for liberal democracy.17

Reforms such as these to reduce state intervention and foster private initiative need not-and must not-heighten Nigeria's already immense income inequality. In principle, they would probably diminish inequality by expanding the supply of jobs and reducing corrupt appropriation of the huge concentrations of wealth in the public sector. In any case, what Nigerians resent is not individual wealth per se, but the riches that have been garnered at the expense of society, and so have failed to improve the standard of living of ordinary people. Even spectacular entrepreneurial success is unlikely to be resented if it generates a surge of new income and jobs at the mass level.

To the extent that large-scale investments of private capital generate new, socially distressing inequalities, these can be moderated with a progressive income tax substantial enough to generate revenue (for meeting basic needs and perhaps for loans to small businesses and tax credits for the employment of new labor), but not so steep in its marginal rate as to discourage investment. Indeed, the development of the bureaucratic capacity to collect income taxes-now largely evaded outside the formal payroll-is one of the more urgently needed reforms. This is one dimension in which the state needs to become not smaller or larger but more effective.

In other areas as well, limited state intervention-such as making available subsidized credit, fertilizer, pesticides and simple technology to small farmers-can significantly reduce poverty and inequality. In any developing nation today, even one without oil, the state is bound to be a significant player in the process of economic growth. But the degree of state intervention matters; on both economic and political grounds, subsidies to small producers and incentives to indigenous private investors often make far more sense than direct state production.

The structural evolution envisioned here would be toward a Nigerian state that is leaner but also more effective. The state's direct role in production would be reduced, but its modern macroeconomic instruments of taxation and tax incentives would be developed. And revenue bases would be developed outside the central state, reducing the extraordinary dependence of state and local government on the center, and so generating a stronger system of federalism.


Nigeria stands now at a historic crossroad. It is well into its third decade of independence and its second as one of the world's major oil producers. Deep social contradictions fester-between the spectacular wealth of a narrow dominant class and the suffering of impoverished masses; between the oil boom's promise of a great leap forward in national development, and the reality of waste, indiscipline, stagnation and drift; between the expectations of an exploding young population for education and jobs and a chance to shape the future, and a system in which schools are collapsing, jobs disappearing and the future caving in.

These contradictions cannot be peacefully contained through another long period of corrupt and ineffective government-military or civilian. Anger and disillusionment are gathering among the young in Nigeria. They are expressed more coherently and analytically among educated young Nigerians in the universities, and the junior ranks of the bureaucracy and the military, but they are no less fierce among the poor and the dispossessed, especially in the cities. If genuine change and tangible progress are not soon forthcoming, sentiment for more radical and extreme alternatives, both secular and religious, will undoubtedly gather momentum.

The new government of General Buhari appears, by its initial actions, to be acutely sensitive to what is at stake. Dominated by relatively young officers who played key leadership roles in the last military government of Generals Murtala Muhammed and Olusegun Obasanjo, and by civilians with extensive experience in government and public life, it has projected an early image of toughness, but also sobriety and deliberation. Many top officials in the civil service, the police, and the customs have been dismissed or retired. Symbols of the arrogance and extravagance of the Second Republic, such as official Mercedes Benz cars, have been removed. Imports and travel allowances have been slashed and a new system installed for allocating scarce foreign exchange to the economic sectors most in need. And a large number of politicians and public servants have been arrested. Initially, more than 650 were detained; several hundred remain in custody on suspicion of malfeasance in office.

How these former public officials are dealt with will profoundly affect Nigeria's future political stability and capacity to control corruption. With the possible exception of the price of staple foods, there is no issue in Nigeria today that more sharply focuses the accumulated public anger at the deteriorating state of the nation. Nigerians believe that the misappropriation of billions of naira in public funds-at a time when the country is stalled in economic recession and agonizing poverty, with one of every eight infants dying before the age of one-constitutes a serious crime for which the guilty must be held accountable. The demand for justice is in no way inconsistent with strict due process that guarantees all accused a fair trial. But it is felt with a striking intensity, not only by the junior elements of the intelligentsia, but also among some of the most sober quarters of the business, professional and journalistic communities. Failure to document and punish the corruption of the past four years could have explosive consequences.

The question of accountability strikes at the very heart of the problem of future Nigerian democracy. Chinua Achebe, a leading Nigerian novelist, cogently expressed this basic popular sense when he wrote recently that "with each succeeding regime, our public servants have become more reckless and blatant" in their corruption, at least in part because "there has not been one high public officer in the 23 years of our independence who has been made to face the music for official corruption."

Whether this issue is resolved depends in part on the West. A number of fugitive public officials have fled to Europe and the United States. Will they be extradited back to Nigeria by the appropriate treaty arrangements and due process, upon the request of the Buhari government? Enormous liquid and fixed assets are known to have been accumulated abroad through the corrupt transfer of public wealth by leading Nigerian officials. Will Western banks and governments cooperate in repatriating to Nigeria whatever wealth the Buhari government can demonstrate to have been stolen from the Nigerian public?

With respect to the economy, the Buhari regime's urgent priorities are apparent. Public spending must be sharply reduced, foreign exchange must be conserved for essential needs, and external debt-which will require roughly a third of Nigeria's expected $11 billion in oil revenue to service this year-needs to be refinanced. Crippled by a severe drought in the north that figures to increase her annual food import bill of $2 billion, Nigeria also needs to increase its oil revenue, and hence its 1.3-million barrel per day quota within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The Buhari government has been moving aggressively on all these fronts, but, unfortunately, new international credit and increased oil revenues depend on global circumstances and power centers beyond its control. The pragmatic interest of these international institutions in giving Nigeria more financial room for maneuver at this crucial moment of adjustment is compelling, but there is no clear evidence that it will be recognized. Here as well, Western nations, perhaps especially the United States, can make an important contribution to Nigeria's economic and political recovery.

One hardly needs to recount the stake of the United States in the future of Nigeria, which has been, over the past decade, not only one of our largest and most reliable foreign sources of petroleum, but also one of the best hopes in sub-Saharan Africa for moderate and broadly based government, sympathetic-or at least not hostile-to the West. During the Second Republic the United States was seen as closely linked with the Shagari government, despite mounting evidence of widespread corruption, abuse of power, and finally, electoral fraud. Some American individuals and businesses were known to have collaborated in private ventures and to have advised the election campaigns of Nigerian politicians whose integrity was widely doubted. For these reasons the United States has come, perhaps even dangerously, to be associated in the minds of young Nigerians with the rot and injustice that have overtaken their society.

A new approach can change that perception. It is in our national interest now to show not only flexibility and sympathy in assisting Nigeria to restructure its painful international financial obligations, but also real willingness to cooperate with the Nigerian nation as it struggles to establish the legacy of justice that is a precondition of accountability, and as it searches, in new ways, and on its own terms, for democracy.

1 New Nigerian (Kaduna), January 25, 1983.

2 National Concord (Lagos), July 16, 1983.

3 Daily Sketch (Ibadan), August 27, 1983.

4 The New York Times, January 20, 1984.

5 The New York Times, January 18, 1984.

6 West Africa, January 16, 1984, p. 135.

7 The survey was conducted among 880 adults of voting age, about half from the capital city of Kano, and half from towns and villages in the countryside. Respondents were randomly selected from all the major urban wards of Kano, and from roughly a third of the other Local Government Areas in Kano state.

9 For a related view, tracing economic stagnation to the absence of "growth impulses" outside the oil sector and "the utter predominance of government as a source of fortune," see Sayre P. Schatz, "The Inert Economy of Nigeria: From Nurture-Capitalism to Pirate Capitalism, "Journal of Modern African Studies, 22(1), March 1984.

10 "Democracy With Military Vigilance," reprinted in The Sunday Triumph, (Kano, Nigeria), August 28, 1983.

11 The New York Times, January 18, 1984.

13 Adeoye A. Akinsanya, "State Strategies Toward Nigerian and Foreign Business," in I. William Zartman ed., The Political Economy of Nigeria, New York: Praeger, 1983, p. 167.

14 Nigeria Newsletter, No. 129, December 19, 1983, p. 2.

16 Ibid, p. 204.

17 Ibid.



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  • Larry Diamond is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University, and was a Fulbright Visiting Lecturer at Bayero University, Kano, in Nigeria during the 1982-83 academic year. His research on Nigeria has been supported with grants from the Institute for the Study of World Politics and the Vanderbilt University Research Council.
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