English common law
Politics in Brief
Nigeria is still recovering from 15 years of corrupt military rule under General Sani Abacha, who pillaged the country until his death in 1998. In May 1999, the democratically elected Olusegun Obasanjo, a civilian albeit an ex-general, became president. He set about eradicating Mr Abacha’s legacy, clearing out top military brass and inquiring into human-rights abuses.
But Nigeria's problems seem endless. Corruption endures, electricity is spotty and the economy is overly dependent on the yo-yoing price of oil. Tax-dodging is rife and harsh penalties imposed by Islamic courts in predominantly Muslim states have sparked sectarian riots (though enthusiasm for Islamic law has waned). Ethnic violence in the oil-rich Niger delta has also cost many lives. Controversially re-elected in April 2003, Mr Obasanjo must push through some unpopular reforms to put Nigeria right.
There are now 30 parties
Although politics is dominated by the three large parties, around 30 political parties participated in the general election following the registration of 27 new parties by the INEC in 2002. The new parties, which cover a wide range of interests from labor and human- rights groups to disaffected politicians from the main parties, were registered after a clamor for the relaxation of the strict rules that limited party registration. However, none of the new parties made a significant impact in the elections and only a few won any seats.
In addition to the existing political parties, a number of influential human- rights groups and cultural-ethnic associations have a relatively high political profile. However, the radical pro-democracy movement that led the opposition to military rule became divided and weakened following the deaths in mid-1998 of General Abacha and Chief Abiola, the two principal adversaries in the political imbroglio, and now have little to no real political role.
Few differences remain between the political parties
In the April 2003 elections the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) extended its grip on power at the federal and state levels of government (local council polls were not held, but are now scheduled for March 2004). The PDP is now strong in all regions of the country with commanding majorities in the National Assembly as well as controlling about three-quarters of the federal legislature and state governorships. Its dominance partly reflects the lack of ideological distinction between Nigeria’s three main political parties, which were formed in 1998, mostly as vehicles for alliances of prominent politicians to secure positions of power. The PDP brings together veteran politicians who played prominent roles in the Second Republic (1979–83) and the aborted Third Republic (1989–93), as well as some retired military officers. The All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), the second-largest party, is dominated by conservative politicians, and draws its support mainly from the far north. The Alliance for Democracy (AD), a predominantly Yoruba party that backed Mr Obasanjo's re-election, managed to retain only one of the six south-western states it previously controlled, losing the rest to the PDP.
The Generals' Democracy
Almost four years after handing back power to civilians, how much influence does the military still hold over Nigerian politics? The appearance of no less than four former army generals contesting the presidency in the 19 April elections is an indication that at a personal level at least, military men are still right at the forefront of power. This perhaps comes as little surpriseas Nigeria's post-independence history has been dominated by the military.
Apart from a brief period of civilian rule between 1979 and 1983, a succession of military governments ruled Nigeria from the mid-1960s right through until 1999 when a civilian government led by Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a former military head of state, was elected into office.
During this era dominated by the military, a small group of senior officers became both extremely wealthy and also very powerful in business and political circles. It was also widely recognized to have been a time in which massive high-level corruption and economic mismanagement severely undermined the country's development. Nigerians frequently express their tolerance of the presence of former military officers in politics by considering it as a "transitional" phase. What they mean by this is that over time, perhaps by the next election in 2007, the generals will have moved aside to allow the younger politicians through to high office. Even that timescale seems optimistic. For now, former military officers and their allies dominate politics not just at the level of the presidential candidates, but behind the scenes as well.
Few doubt the continuing influence Nigeria's longest serving military leader, General Ibrahim Babangida (1985-1993), holds in the election process. He is reputed to be one of Nigeria's best connected and wealthiest individuals in a country where money plays a central role in politics. In 1999 he backed the Obasanjo campaign both financially and by bringing his considerable influence to bear on northern political and business interests. This was despite Mr Obasanjo's origins as a southern, Yoruba-speaking Christian. Support from Mr Babangida, a northern Muslim, is a powerful indication of the strength of military ties over regional and ethnic issues, as well as a measure of how necessary it was felt to have a former army man in power. While it is less clear what role Mr Babangida played in the 2003 elections, his presence was felt throughout the campaign. Any mention of a meeting between one of the candidates and Mr Babangida brings a flurry of media interest. He is believed to be financially backing at least one of the smaller parties, but no-one considers this much more than a vehicle for launching any future political ambitions he might have.
Mr Obasanjo's closest rival for the presidency Muhammadu Buhari (1983-1985) would certainly like to have Mr Babangida's support. But there is little evidence of this, despite both men being northern Muslims. It cannot have helped their personal relationship for Mr Buhari to have been overthrown by Mr Babangida in 1985 and then locked up by him. All indications are that it suited Mr Babangida for Mr Obasanjo to win a second term of office, after which he will no doubt leave the pundits guessing whether he intends to stand for election himself in 2007.
The other two military men in the race are Ike Nwachukwu, a former foreign minister during Mr Babangida's rule, and Emeka Odumugwu-Ojukwu. For many Nigerians, the name Ojukwu is associated with just one thing - the attempted secession of eastern Nigeria from the rest of the federation and the subsequent bloody and deeply divisive civil war of 1967-1970. Then as now, Mr Ojukwu has no regrets about the war, seeing his role as one of saving the Igbo-speaking people of Nigeria from a brutal "genocide" by the country's other ethnic groups. He remembers the short-lived Biafran nation fondly as a place of sanctuary for the Igbo, not a break-away state as such. This interpretation of history will do little to persuade Nigeria's non-Igbo communities to vote for him. Nor is he likely to get sufficient support even within his own eastern Nigeria. This is one general for which time and Nigeria has moved on, leaving him well behind in the shadows.
All this boils down to one inescapable conclusion. Nigerian democracy is being dominated if not by the military itself, then by men who made their names during military rule. It will take many years yet for this "transitional" phase to end in a fully-fledged civilian democracy in which the backing of military men is no longer a significant factor in electoral victory.