Military's man takes over Nigeria


By Norm Dixon

Nigeria's corrupt and brutal military — which has ruled Africa's most populous country with an iron fist almost continuously since independence — has succeeded in placing its favoured candidate, former military dictator Olusegun Obasanjo, in the president's post.

The February 27 presidential election was the last stage of the military dictatorship's tightly managed "transition to democracy", which began with voter registration in September and elections for local governments, state assemblies and state governors between December and January. National parliamentary elections were held on February 20. Dictator General Abdulsalami Abubakar has pledged to hand power to the elected president on May 29.

Nigeria's ruling class — which is dominated by fabulously rich serving and former military officers and their business associates, mainly from the Hausa-Fulani people of the north — has called the shots throughout.

The rulers' wealth has been accumulated from decades of corruption, kickbacks and the embezzlement of the country's US$12 billion annual oil revenue. The last thing the military tops were going to allow was a genuinely democratic government that might stop their access to the state coffers, investigate past corruption or launch prosecutions against high-level perpetrators of gross human rights violations.

The pace of the "transition" meant that only those parties with access to wealth could participate. The two main rivals — the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and the coalition of the northern-based All People's Party (APP) and the southern-based Alliance for Democracy (AD) — courted the rich and powerful. To the extent that the parties attempted to attract the masses, they emphasised ethnicity and regionalism, but gave few details of policy differences.

Presidential candidates were not allowed to be selected until 10 days before the poll, and the presidential campaign was limited to seven days. The PDP and Obasanjo, the clear choice of the dominant faction of the Nigerian military, easily won the local, state and national contests, which were marked by low turn-outs and blatant ballot-box stuffing.

The western media and Obasanjo's admirers in Washington and London have made much of his "democratic" credentials, which rest on his 1979 decision to hand power to a civilian government and on his imprisonment by dictator General Sani Abacha in 1995.

For years, Obasanjo's dined out on the international diplomatic circuit on his reputation as "the only Nigerian ruler to ever give up power voluntarily". He was co-chair of the Eminent Persons' Group sent to South Africa by the Commonwealth in 1985 to put pressure on the apartheid regime. In 1990, he was in the running to be the United Nations' secretary-general.

However, a closer look at Obasanjo's record shows him to be far from a democrat. The fact that Obasanjo was Nigeria's military dictator for three years before he agreed to step down is not dwelt upon in western media reports. He was the military's choice for president following the assassination of the dictator who preceded him, General Murtala Mohammed.

During his reign, Obasanjo cracked down on the workers' movement and purged "communists" from the trade unions. His troops violently suppressed student protests over increased fees and in 1977, Obasanjo's soldiers burned down radical musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's home and murdered his mother. Fela's famous album, Coffin for Head of State, refers to his attempt to present his mother's coffin to Obasanjo.

In the 1960s, Obasanjo led a commando unit which helped crush the secessionist rebellion by the ethnic minorities in the oil-rich Niger delta (better known as the Biafra War), something that does not bode well for the Niger delta peoples who are again demanding their rights. In 1978, Obasanjo's Land Use Decree deprived the Niger delta peoples of their land rights.

Obasanjo's military record and his close collaboration with the northern military establishment explains why he has little support within his own ethnic group, the Yoruba of the south-west (the Yoruba account for about 25 million of Nigeria's 120 million people, the largest ethnic group).

It also explains why at a fundraising extravaganza in the capital, Abuja, on February 22, Nigeria's super-rich and powerful gathered to throw money at Obasanjo. In less than 30 minutes more than 300 million naira (US$33 million) was raised. "If you want good governance, bring out your cheque book", master of ceremonies Chief Ojo Maduekwe urged the well-heeled audience. Obasanjo added: "We believe that those who want democracy must also be ready to pay for it."

Obasanjo went out of his way to reassure the military that they would be safe from retribution: "Every Nigerian has a stake in the survival and prosperity of the country. This stake should be recognised. No section or group should be made to feel disenfranchised or alienated. The military has to understand their role, but shouting and bashing the military will not augur well. The military should not be pampered but [it] should not be bashed [either]."

The key backer of Obasanjo is the powerful military faction led by former dictator General Ibrahim Babangida. The French weekly L'Evenement du Jeudi in 1997 estimated Babangida's personal wealth at N450 billion.

Babangida overthrew General Buhari in a palace coup in 1985. It was Buhari who, in 1983, overthrew the civilian government that Obasanjo had allowed to take office. In 1993, Babangida prevented the late Moshood Abiola from taking office after he unexpectedly defeated the military-sponsored northern candidate in the presidential race.

Alarmed by the popular reaction to the annulment, Babangida "stepped aside" and installed an interim government to organise a new stage-managed election to secure the result favoured by the northern elite. But before this could happen, Abacha seized power, marginalised the Babangida military faction and jailed Abiola for his refusal to relinquish his claim to the presidency.

When the brutal Abacha died suddenly on June 8, Abubakar was selected by the military and the Babangida faction again gained the upper hand. With a war chest estimated at N500 million and massive ballot box-stuffing and other election irregularities just to make sure, Obasanjo easily defeated his APP-AD opponent Olu Falae.

The vote rigging seems to have be aimed at inflating both Obasanjo's vote (63%) and overall voter turn-out (60%) to give the result greater credibility. The US, Britain and France welcomed Obasanjo's election.

Falae called the election a "farce". But while he dominated the results in his Yoruba heartland, it is unlikely he would have won a fair election. There was little enthusiasm for his candidacy.

Most Nigerians remember Falae as the finance minister in Babangida's regime who oversaw and defended the structural adjustment program that devastated Nigerian's living standards at the behest of the International Monetary Fund. During the current campaign, Falae advocated the privatisation of the government's stake in the oil industry as the solution to Nigeria's problems.

As if to underline fact that the military still runs Nigeria, on February 5 it was announced that the regime had begun interviewing 48 potential "strategic investors" interested in buying state assets that include telecommunications utilities, power plants, the National Fertiliser Company, a paper plant and a sugar factory.