Nigeria in Transition

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Sylvester Odion Akhaine, a political scientist, takes a critical look at Reluctant Transitions, Nigeria’s Democratic Struggles Since Independence, jointly written by Walter Osadebe and Tunde Oseni

|  By Sylvester Odion Akhaine  |  Dec. 10, 2012 @ 01:00 GMT

Book Title: Reluctant Transitions, Nigeria’s Democratic Struggles Since Independence

Reviewer: Sylvester Odion Akhaine

Authors: Walter Osadebe and Tunde Oseni

Reluctant Transitions, Nigeria’s Democratic Struggles Since Independence jointly authored by Walter Osadebe and Tunde Oseni is about Nigeria’s political annals. It captures vividly the trajectory of that history, the interplay of social forces and their manifest functions. That history has a thread of falsehood, noble intentions and missed opportunities to build a great nation by the post-colonial elite. Besides, it evinces misery, doubts and hopes. The synthesisation of these contradictions has engendered a national psyche of skepticism, where both the common man and the state actors see the country as an estate owned by nobody and therefore to be plundered.

It explains why the country exhibits various pathologies—Dutch disease, rentiership, godfatherism/clientilism.   In a shared reflection, the authors of this work take the reader through the turbulent sixties, the coups and counter-coups, pre-war brinkmanship and memories of the civil war and the post-war experiments in democratization and their corresponding truncation, to borrow from Samuel Finer’s title, by the man on the horse back.  The canvas of this history reveals infatuation with power underlining the eternal truth in Lord Acton’s saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

General Yakubu Gowon pledged to take the country to democratic rule and reneged because he and the military hierarchy genuinely believed that after the events of the civil war that Nigerians, especially the political entrepreneurs (not class), would have learnt sufficient lessons to privilege the interest of the country rather than self-aggrandizement by the manipulation of sectional sentiments. Therefore, “a precipitate withdrawal” would amount to irresponsibility on their part. As the general puts it:

…after careful deliberation and full consultation with the hierarchy of the Armed forces and the Police, I have decided that the target date of 1976 is  in the circumstances, unrealistic and that it would, indeed, amount to a betrayal of trust to adhere rigidly to that target date (p.19).

Years later, General Ibrahim Babangida whose acolytes called the ‘Prince of the Niger’, in a misplaced ascription of the values of Machiavelli’s The Prince, re-echoed the same argument:

Those who raised the question about periodic intervention in the transition programme are not aware of the philosophy and logic implicit in the transition programme. The logic of the transition programme has in-built learning process that creates room for making critical assessment of the immediate past events and instituting measures where necessary for the greater good of the nation (p.81).

Just recently, General Gowon at a Book launch in Honour of Late Joe Garba humourously  said that Brigadier Garba prevented him from doing a third term. In his words:

He only stopped me from doing a third term since I had spent nine years of two terms of four years plus one year. He was an embodiment of a complete soldier with passion for his profession. I knew that he did not plan the 1975 coup against me. I knew that if the coup had not taken place, the coming one might have been violent and might affect my life.

This retrospection may well be the latent function of the 1976 volte face.

At the point of exit from the corridor of power, General Babangida denied the fact that he wanted to perpetuate himself in power: “…it is uncharitable and unwarranted speculations to claim that this administration was bent on staying put or sitting tight, or as someone once put it—‘BABANGIDA WANTS TO SUCCEED BABANGIDA” (p.112).

Beyond, the manipulation and reluctance to leave power, Reluctant Transitions points to the unresolved question of an appropriate political unit. In September 1966, Nigerians were challenged by the Gowon military regime to engross: 1) a federal system with a weak central government. 2) A federal system with a strong central government. 3) Confederation or 4) an entirely new arrangement peculiar to Nigeria. In the 1966 meeting, most of the no-go-areas today, especially the right to self determination in absolute terms, were agreeable to the four regions except the mid-west that argued for a one Nigeria. They were all at one on regional force. That in 2012, we are still searching for the ‘rightfulness of the unit’ shows our level of degeneration. It is perhaps a symptom of a rogue state, without order and legitimacy.

Nigeria’s political process is not just a history of reluctant transitions, Nigeria’s political history exhibits one of the features of transitions in African politics, the trend  known to political scientists as self-transmutation. Yomi Durotoye and Robert J. Griffiths, in their “Civilianising military Rule: Conditions and Processes of Political Transmutation in Ghana and Nigeria”, describe transmutation as a type of transition where a military ruler creates the objective conditions which allow him to ‘civilianise’ his regime. Often, it is an authoritarian exercise and the army is the most critical element of self-transmutation and the aspirant must control the hegemonic faction of the military. There were abundant indications that it was the destination of General Babangida who self-styled himself military president of Nigeria. Indeed, President Jerry Rawlings of Ghana had successfully experimented with it through a multiparty process while General Abacha was headed for the same destination until death surprised him. His chosen route was consensual.

Reluctant Transitions comes across as a piece of history and not a quintessential political text though the subject is. Well, political science has its source in history as a discipline.  The authors raised a number of questions at the beginning of this work: “What future is there for the new democratic regimes in Africa? Are the changes real and sustainable or are they just another way of ensuring that desperate political leaders continue to cling to power?” (p.6). This appears the central problem of this work and I am not sure if it is resolved.

 The consequence is that one is consigned to the turf of assumption, and I assume that our democratic dispensation in the fourth republic does not represent a change. It is a phase represented by the most reactionary and backward of the Nigerian political elite noted for primitive accumulation and dishonour. Their impunity is legendary and without regards for the institutions of state. Nigeria for this class is a fiefdom, unguarded and unprotected, even for the purpose of continuous exploitation. Such is the epochal irresponsibility of the elite.

The second part of the work which catalogues the heroes and martyrs of democracy in Nigeria is arbitrary. What qualifies Justice Bassey Ikpeme as a heroine or martyr of democracy? Is it the night judgment which sought to truncate the holding of the June 12, presidential election? Also, what qualifies Michael Agbamuche as a hero or martyr of democracy? Is it the sundry decrees that he authored for General Abacha.

Nevertheless, the amount of decisional information that it contains is its wealth. It will, no doubt, be invaluable to politicians and people in the academia. It is a bold effort at looking at the last half a century of Nigeria’s post independence existence from a political prism. As Adebayo William rightly noted in his essay, ‘Literature in the time of tyranny: African Writers and the Crisis of governance,’ “The crisis of governance and democratisation in Africa has left a profound mark on its literature. This is just as it should be. African writers have played a crucial role in the political evolution of the continent, particularly in influencing the turbulent trajectory of political evolution of the post-colonial state in Africa.” It may be added, that African writers, whether academic or literary, have helped a great deal in recording political events in ways that capture the travails of the oppressed in the hands of the backward post-colonial African elite. To be sure, Walter Osadebe and Tunde Oseni rank among them.

Dr. Sylvester Odion Akhaine, Senior Lecturer, teaches political science at the Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos.

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