Courtesy Reuters

Nigeria in Search of Democracy

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.

II

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

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