Reviewing the past, facing tomorrow

By Edwin Madunagu. 

From The Guardian, 17 May 2007. (www.ngrguardiannews.com)

WHEN General Olusegun Obasanjo assumed office in May 1999 as executive President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, many Nigerians described his regime as a transitional one. While some elaborated on this description others simply assumed that it was self-evident and required no elaboration. I was one of those who attempted an elaboration. By the term, transitional, as applied to that regime, I meant that its foundations being weak, the administration would be an unstable regime which would move more or less rapidly towards either popular democracy, neoliberal democracy, fascism (or neofascism, if you wish), or anarchy.

I provided two grounds for this projection: the way the regime was enthroned, and the nature of the constitution under which it was expected to operate. Checking through the articles I wrote in the early months of that regime, there was no suggestion that President Obasanjo would lose power. However, several social forces, including some which did not support his election, rallied around him in those early months – as if a coup was imminent. My projection was that the removal of President Obasanjo-constitutionally or otherwise – could lead to a civil war, an eventuality which neither the power blocs nor the “international community” would desire. My thesis was that the incumbent president would preside over the transition. What would happen thereafter, I could not say.

Back to the grounds for considering the regime a transitional one. When General Sani Abacha died suddenly in June 1998, Alhaji Moshood Abiola, who won the June 1993 presidential election, has been in detention for about four years, many Nigerians thought he would be released and installed as Head of State, perhaps an interim one. When this did not happen, these Nigerians started an advocacy in that direction. Frustration however set in when each high-profile international visit to the imprisoned man ended without his release. Rather, he was being pressured to renounce his claim to the presidency. Then the man died during a visit by America’s State Department officials.

It was after this that the name of General Obasanjo who had just been released from Abacha’s jail was thrown up. He was anointed President even before political parties were formed, and long before the general had declared for any of them. Unless the deaths of Abacha and Abiola were planned – as part of a grand political strategy – it was reasonable to conclude that the choice of Obasanjo as an interim arrangement was quickly agreed upon – to prevent a civil war or anarchy – by powerful internal political forces and the “international community”. Obasanjo came into office and power, without a “political base”.

Now, to my second ground. The 1999 general elections were conducted without a constitution. Some people may raise an objection and argue, for instance, that the 1979 elections were also conducted without a constitution. That would be incorrect. There was a constitution, awaiting promulgation. There also existed a constitution that of 1989, during the series of elections conducted between 1991 and 1993 under General Babangida’s transition. Another constitution was published in 1995. It was under that constitution that General Abacha planned to hold elections in August 1998. But he died two months earlier and the entire plan was abandoned.

But in 1999, there was nothing. A committee appointed by the Military Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar to review the 1979 Constitution was still working when the elections of February 1999 took place. And when the document came out it was found to contain so many errors – some lawyers said there were more than 300 of them. Many Nigerians, including myself, regarded the 1999 Constitution as a transitional one.

We may go back a little and recall that following Abacha’s death, most of those who called for the installation of Abiola as President were, in practical terms, calling for an interim government to be headed by Abiola. Everyone knew that so many things had happened in the five years since June 1993 that it was impossible for Abiola to simply reclaim his mandate. A coup d’etat had taken place; Abiola’s party and that of his defeated opponent had been dissolved; the National Assembly had been dissolved; and state governments – both executive and legislative branches – had been dissolved. Beyond all these, dissatisfaction with the geopolitical structure of the country had grown. When Abiola died a month after Abacha’s death, the case for an interim government was strengthened.

We now know that some personages, including General Obasanjo, were proposed to head such a government. But Abdulsalami Abubakar’s regime rejected the call for an interim government, and went ahead to construct a new transition programme. Many Nigerians, including myself, regarded Obasanjo’s regime produced by Abdulsalami’s programme, as an interim regime – whether those who designed it, and enthroned it, believed it to be so or not. It was a monumental error. The projection – of popular democracy, neoliberal democracy, fascism or anarchy – still held, but the notion of transitional regime was a strategic error.

That error is clearly shown by the situation today, towards the end of President Obasanjo’s eight-year tenure and on the eve of the inauguration of a new presidency. The 1999 Constitution has remained in force; Obasanjo has transcended the internal coalition of forces that brought him to power and has constructed a new political base (call it ‘power bloc’ if you like); the “international community” is with him; and, above all, he has reproduced his regime. As for my 1999 prediction: the country is today not moving towards popular democracy; it is not moving to liberal democracy – either in the economy or in politics or in governance; I can also not see any advance to generalised anarchy. That leaves us with fascism or neofascism.

All the ingredients for fascism or neofascism are here. Some, in fact, have been with us for some time. The ingredients include increasing inability to govern by the law; increasing political intolerance, harassment, and intimidation of even senior state functionaries; militarisation of civil institutions such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC); behaviour of the police like political thugs; increasing visibility and employment of the secret police; employment of armed thugs; unexplained political crimes, including murders; and, increasing mass immiseration and desperation. And now is added the April 2007 rigged elections through which the ruling party is claiming popular acceptance.

Before this was the abortive “third-term” campaign. And beyond all these is the likely appearance of personages whose offices are not in the constitution, but who will play powerful roles in the politics, governance and “security” (or “discipline”) of the land. Not to be forgotten is the increasing integration of the country into the periphery of the “international community” economically and militarily, the latter being explained and justified by the “global war against terror”. All the ingredients of fascism are therefore here. What is needed for the appearance of unambiguous fascist rule is an event that provides a credible excuse of threat to “national security”.

The critical question is this: Why and how was Obasanjo’s regime able to move from a generally perceived and indeed, almost obvious status of a “transitionality” to that of “permanence”? This was done by reversing precisely those factors that made it, or made look like a transitional regime. These factors included as earlier listed, the contradictory, evasive, and hence, incoherent nature of the 1999 Constitution; and the absence of a political “base”. Obasanjo was not part of the formation of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – or any party for that matter – at any stage. He was simply invited to stand on the party’s platform.

What Obasanjo’s regime did – systematically, but over eight years – was to construct a new power bloc through the maximum use of state power. The regime embarked on a progamme of destabilisation of the existing power blocs and the incorporation of some non-power bloc political forces. Obasanjo’s power bloc is the third power bloc in the country – the older two being what I had called the Northern and South-Western power blocs. Obasanjo’s power bloc, which is now in power, is more national than the older two, and is on the ascendancy. But the three blocs subscribe to the same economic principles and philosophically opposed to egalitarianism and popular democracy.

As for the 1999 Constitution: It was clear, right from the beginning, that President Obasanjo was not enthusiastic about a Constitution review. But many Nigerians believed that he would be compelled to carry out a review whether to like it or not. They were mistaken. The President became even less enthusiastic when the question of Constitution review became tied, in some vocal quarters, to the convening of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC). His argument was that a sovereignty could not exist within a sovereignty. When, eventually, he “bought” the idea, he decided to do it his own way. There were several false starts, and each of them collapsed. The result is that the hurriedly coupled 1999 Constitution is still with us.

Barring unforeseen developments, the second regime of the Third Republic (or is it the Fourth) will be inaugurated on May 29, 2007. For the ruling classes and power blocs (together with the “international community”) it will be a mere continuation. For us, and the toiling but suffering masses of Nigeria, it will be a new beginning. We must face tomorrow, while reviewing the past.

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