Nigeria: Ten years of transition

By Tony Iyare in Lagos ?and Richard Synge in London

Posted on Monday, 27 July 2009 00:00

Nigeria may have managed to break the habit of military rule for a full ten years, but there is discontent with missed opportunities

This year marks a turning point both for President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s government and for Nigeria’s wider transition from a military government towards the goal of running a fully functioning multi-party democracy. It is now a decade since the country’s near miraculous return to civil rule in 1999 following the death of military leader General Sani Abacha. And the critics and the defenders of the country’s record are out in force stating their cases in Nigeria’s rumbustious newspapers.


Segun Onakyoa
Lawyer, former exeutive member
of the Nigerian Bar Association

The ten years have shown Nigerians that
nothing is comparable to democracy in terms
of peace, governance, rule of law, justice and
the articulation of the wishes of the people
by the political parties. However, those operating
the democratic system are either military boys
disguised in civilian outfits or military apologists
who went through the ‘milito-political’ institution
of a zero-party system. The result is that these
so-called operators of our democracy still think
‘military’, ‘violence’ and ‘usurpation of power’.
The person who should be the epitome of Nigeria’s
modern democracy, who went from Dodan Barracks
to retirement, retirement to prison and from prison
to Aso Rock – with much expectation from the
populace – was a disaster.

Much of the criticism has focused on the Presidency of retired general Olusegun Obasanjo who held office for two four-year terms from 1999 and on whom huge hopes of political and economic reform rested. The critics ask awkward questions about the fate of some $16 billion allocated for the regeneration of the country’s power sector.

US President Barack Obama’s decision to make his first state visit in Sub-Saharan Africa to Ghana and not Nigeria infuriated some members of President Yar’Adua’s government. Leading political scientist and an enthusiastic member of the Obama campaign’s team of foreign policy advisors, Dr. Richard Joseph, lamented the sidelining of Nigeria in US policy in recent years.

“Nigeria is fifth on the list of oil exporters to the United States,” said Joseph, who takes a more optimistic view of developments in Africa’s most populous country. “As a democratic federation with near equal numbers of Muslims and Christians, Nigeria can be an important American ally in helping bridge this global religious schism.”?

Joseph also talks approvingly of political change in Nigeria at state level: “Despite governance deficiencies, reformist governments are emerging among Nigeria’s 36 states. One of them, led by Governor Fashola of the economic powerhouse, Lagos State, is Obama-like in promoting transparency, dramatically-improved public services and a fairer and more efficient tax system.”

For now the spotlight is on President Yar’Adua, who is just two years into the job. He’s committed to pushing through reforms in three critical areas: the oil and gas reforms which will restructure the state energy company NNPC and make it accountable to the market for its funding; stabilising the currency, bringing down inflation and the deficit under finance minister Mansur Muktar; and lastly, several tough banking reforms under the newly appointed governor of the Central Bank, Lamido Sanusi.

Much will depend on their success. Rilwanu Lukman, the minister of petroleum resources, Muktar and Sanusi are regarded as some of the country’s most talented technocrats. If they fail, it will damage the government’s reputation hugely; if they succeed, they could promote transparency and accountability in the Nigerian administration.

More than that, success in holding officials and government structures to account is a vital part of a credible solution to the rumbling crisis in the Niger Delta which has escalated as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has stepped up its attacks causing huge cutbacks in oil production. Although Nigeria has an installed capacity of some 2.5 million barrels a day, average production last year dipped well below 2 million b/d and this year has been falling lower still.

Yar’Adua has offered amnesty to all militants, and the Niger Delta Minister Ufot Ekaette told The Africa Report that they will keep the amnesty open until 4 October, after which those who give themselves up will benefit from a programme of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration.

Critics say the government is too focused on the Delta as a law and order issue. According to the Nigeria Bar Council President, Olurotimi Akeredolu: “To subsume the fundamental issue of the criminal neglect of the region under the need to create a conducive atmosphere for the exigent and continual expropriation of the place will set off a chain of events which no one can really predict.”?

One such event was an attack by militants on a Lagos oil dock on 13 July, the same day on which the government released MEND official Henry Okah under the terms of its amnesty. Following his release MEND announced its own 60-day ceasefire, though Nnamdi Obasi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, said it was more of a respite and that lasting peace would come only when the region’s issues of “mass poverty and infrastructure” were addressed.

Nigerian diplomats downplay the significance of the Delta crisis and urge a longer view. Abuja’s High Commissioner to London, Dalhatu Tafida, said, “democracy is a long and tortuous journey”, and urged a “greater understanding of the matrix and complexities of the challenges we face.” ?


Tive Denedo
Executive director of
Media Rights Agenda
(a Lagos-based NGO)

The mantra in political circles is that
we have had ten years of uninterrupted
democracy. The urge now is to roll out
the carpet, pull out the drums and celebrate.
Nothing could be more fraudulent than
giving in to this sentiment. We did not have
ten years of democracy; it should be described
as ten years of a civilian administration.
Democracy has its universally-accepted
characteristics, like the right to choose your
leaders, freedom of expression, transparency
in governance, which apparently are lacking
here. We did not meet these benchmarks.
There has been too much violence, bloodletting,
corruption in the electoral system and
disenfranchisement of voters for anyone to
indulge in self-congratulation of any sort that
we have been on course democratically. The
leaders are not prepared to learn, with all the
unresolved election cases in courts across the
nation. We can sum all of these cases up with
the mayhem in the election re-run in Ekiti State.

It seems such understanding is in short supply. A broad critique of the country’s condition is given by the president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Olurotimi Akeredolu, who says: “Service delivery in the health sector is laughable. Our roads continue to be a major source of unpardonable mortality after the appropriations of trillions of naira. The issue of security weighs down Nigerians as they are forced to provide their own security. Brazen acts of criminality in various shades thrive, and the response of the state has been fitful and grossly inadequate.”?

Many in the business sector are also feeling uncomfortable about the outlook. The group chairman of marketing communications company STB-McCann, Steve Omojafor, puts it bluntly: “The business environment is most unhealthy. Infrastructure is not there, electricity is epileptic, and multiple taxation is burdensome, making the survival of businesses critical.” Anyone familiar with Nigeria will know that such statements are not new and could have been made ten, 20 or 30 years ago. And so the government headed by President Umaru Yar’Adua – although Akeredolu accuses it of “tardiness” – cannot be held solely to blame. The blame for Nigeria’s all-too-visible everyday difficulties goes either to Obasanjo or else to Yar’Adua. For the former governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu, there is no contest: he claims that Obasanjo started out like South Africa’s Mandela, a revered elder statesman released from jail, and ended up like Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, managing a once-promising economy torn to shreds. The case against Obasanjo is built on the perception that he ruled during the years which most analysts now like to call a ‘golden era’ in terms of high inflows from oil receipts and taxes. There is a widespread view that he missed his chances to transform the economy and build the basis of an efficient social infrastructure.

Corruption fighters??

The case against Yar’Adua’s administration, on the other hand, flows from the perception that any steps Obasanjo took to attack the Nigerian system’s severe problem of corruption have now been comprehensively negated. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was Obasanjo’s brainchild, and it was just beginning to address the financial shenanigans of some prominent public officials when the 2007 change of administration put many of its investigations into reverse. As a result, despite a highly promising start made under its first chairman, Nuhu Ribadu, the EFCC has to date succeeded in convicting only a very few offenders.


Bright Simons
Ghanaian entrepreneur,
strategist with mPedigree

If you live in Ghana, Nigeria is always on your nerves.

You marvel at the hyper-entrepreneurship, the vigour,
the ersatz and the carefree, swinging, pidgin-spewing
go-get-it and the cheek! You watch in fascinated alarm
as newcomers spawn new industries along the cracked
pavements of Accra with a level of unrestrained
enthusiasm easily construed as a sense of entitlement –
the type historians typically associate with colonial
merchants – and you wonder what the coming years will
bring. Ghana and Nigeria have in the past half-century
played a kind of historical ring-a-roses in which one
country sets the pace for the other in one sphere, relapses
and then waits for the other to set the pace in a new context.
Persistent energy shortfalls were once considered a Nigerian
disease. So were urban rupture and the collapse of agriculture.
Today, Ghana grapples with these problems nearly to the
same extent. Spectators are probably carefully surveying
Ghanaian banks as they mature and examining the
north-south and east-west ethnic faultlines in Ghana closely,
in case some Nigerian lessons may be apt.

In 2006 and 2007, the EFCC became entangled in the web of disagreement between Obasanjo and his vice-president, Atiku Abubakar – a row that overshadowed the outgoing president’s last year in office. And in the EFCC’s more high-profile efforts to arrest corrupt officials, Ribadu made some dangerous enemies; his unceremonious ousting from his job in late 2007 is attributed to a cabal of former state governors who are thought to be the main backers of the current government.

Ribadu’s successor, Farida Waziri, is accused of soft-pedalling the EFCC with the tacit consent of the attorney general and justice minister, Michael Aondoakaa. Although some former state governors indicted for graft are undergoing trials, there is a widespread belief that any sentences handed down will be more of a slap on the wrist, like the small fine of 3m naira ($22,200) imposed on former Edo State governor Lucky Igbinedion. The common thread running through Nigeria’s decade of democracy has been the dominance of the ruling PDP, whose chairman, Vincent Ogbulafor, who not only likes to describe it as Africa’s biggest political party but also to boast it will be in power for at least 60 more years. In spite of the existence of over 50 registered parties, the movement towards one-party rule is real. As in many countries in Africa, thriving outside state power is tough for an elite largely dependent on government contracts and commissions for survival. The opposition parties have almost been extinguished by the gravitational pull of state resources and the PDP’s highly-effective tactics of frustrating its rivals. The main opposition party, the All Nigeria People’s Party, is in tatters, as nearly all its one-time state governors have now decamped to the PDP. The Action Congress, for its part, now controls only two states, and the governor of Plateau State, Joshua Dariye, has also been busy moving back to the PDP. Most Nigerians not only see little to choose between the PDP and the others, but they are sceptical about the ability of the main election agency and the police to exercise any genuine independence in the next round of elections, due in 2011.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options