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Nigeria's crucial month.

October has always been an important month in Nigeria's political calendar. October 1 is the national day, having attained independence that day in 1960. Consequently, events of national importance and significance are often scheduled for that day. For instance, in 1979 it marked the birth of the Second Republic when General Olusegun Obasanjo handed over power to President Shehu Shagari (General Sani Abacha, Nigeria's current military dictator, has chosen the same date next year to give birth to the Third Republic). In 1996, Abacha proudly produced 36 states for Nigeria's 36th independence anniversary. Nigeria's 37th birthday would be no less momentous as it stands in the court of international opinion facing a real threat of expulsion from the Commonwealth, which will determine its fate at the next summit fixed for the end of October in Edinburgh, Scotland. This is an important stage in the roiling crisis facing Nigeria. The past 36 years have featured continuous disappointments, with long periods when Nigeria's leaders have seemed strangely out of tune with the changing times around them. October might be the day of reckoning.

As the promised handover date approaches, barely 12 months away, the picture appears to be muddled, at best. At the time the transition programme should be generating frenetic political activity, the controversy-laden process has effectively taken an undeserved holiday. The election timetable has been modified and craftily manipulated; the October 1998 deadline is the only thing that remains unchanged. Moreover, there are still no visible signs of any presidential candidate, while the campaign for Abacha's transformation into a civilian president continues unabated. This article would, in the process of reviewing the transition programme thus far, highlight these problem areas while examining the international connections, ranging from Nigeria's leading role in Sierra Leone's crisis to the international community's responses, focusing on the up-coming review of Nigeria's position in the Commonwealth.

That the transition programme has, so far, not been conducted in a free, fair and transparent manner, is no longer an issue. The absence of a constitution to guide the process speaks volumes. The draft constitution agreed in 1995 remains unpublished and might stay so until after October 1998. As a result, the junta has been conducting a process of political manipulation and machination, producing a policy of mass exclusion. The registration of political parties provided the junta the best opportunity yet to prepare the ground for what is now thought to be the ultimate con-trick: Abacha's self-succession. In the process of creating five parties, last September, the junta effectively banished numerous seasoned politicians to the political wilderness by not registering their parties. The registered parties, viz., the Democratic Party of Nigeria, the United Nigeria Congress Party, the National Centre Party of Nigeria, the Grassroots Democratic Movement and the Conference for National Consensus, have been variously christened 'Abacha's Quintuplets' and 'the five fingers of a leprous hand'. This is because the junta through its ministers played, and continues to play, prominent roles in the establishment and running of the parties.

The exclusion politics continued during the multi-party local elections held last March. (This had been postponed from December 1996 to allow the newly-registered parties time to prepare themselves.) The elections featured widespread eleventh-hour disqualification of candidates thought to be in league with opposition groups such as the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) in, precisely, a re-run of the non-party local elections held in March 1996 (the only item on the timetable that was held as scheduled). Other disturbing features included: doctored results, intimidation of 'opposition' candidates and the absence of a proper voters' register. This resulted in a questionable landslide victory for the UNCP, widely believed to be the vehicle that would convey Abacha to his presidential destination. There have been numerous electoral litigations, many of which have been upheld, forcing the National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) to hold runoff elections. In retaliation, the junta recently enacted a decree enabling Abacha to sack elected councillors or even dissolve a constituted council at will.

The election dust had hardly settled when, in a well-rehearsed move, the five party leaders met with NECON and government ministers in May to 'jointly request' a postponement of the remaining elections. They asked that all the elections should now be held along with the presidential elections. NECON chair, Chief Dagogo-Jack, claimed that the commission had no prior knowledge of, or input into, the decision. The reality is that NECON was sidelined in the process. The request was not unexpected, however. The transition programme was derailing progressively and this was the best way the junta could save face - ensuring that the initial move came from the politicians, with a little prodding.

Probably to show that the junta took the request seriously and that the decision was not taken lightly (this lethargic work ethic is typical of Abacha's regime), the modified programme was not unveiled until 2 July. In announcing the changes, Mamman Nasir, Transition Implementation Committee chairman, confirmed that they were necessary to save the transition programme from derailment. Nasir said that the junta could not but accede to the modification request, as long as the handover date was kept sacred. All elections will now be held in the last nine months of the programme. These changes beg a fundamental question which has been agitating many minds since the announcement of the three-year programme: why has Abacha decided to lead Nigeria down this long and torturous path to democracy (assuming that we eventually get there) when all the important elections could be held within one year? The answer might lie in Abacha's thinly disguised ambition to become the next civilian president, as will be discussed below.

The timetable shift affected the governors' election in particular. This had been fixed for the fourth quarter of 1997 (between October and December). The amended programme has now scheduled both the presidential and governorship elections for the same day, August 1, 1998 (the original date for the former). It can be argued that this particular alteration is essentially to preempt a probable mass boycott of the presidential election by the Yorubas in western Nigeria who are still smarting from the cancellation of the 1993 elections that Moshood Abiola, a Yoruba Muslim businessman, was poised to win which resulted in the current political crisis. (Abiola is spending his fourth year in detention after declaring himself president in July 1994.) Abacha's strategists reason that there would not be a boycott of the governorship ballot because its results would be directly felt by voters. People certainly feel more passionate about who governs their state than the person who rules the country. On this basis, the expected high voter turnout would give the presidential election much needed credibility without overt coercion from government agents. Thus if, as anticipated, Abacha runs, electoral observers would report an election that was free and fair, devoid of a boycott by any part of the country. The numbers game is also of great importance here. If this new fixture brings out more than the 14 million voters who participated in the last inconclusive presidential election, the junta would be able to boast that Abiola's electoral mandate had effectively been buried.

Apart from the governors' election, the other affected election is that for the states' assemblies. Initially fixed to be held between July and September 1997, it will now be held on December 6, 1997. The National Assembly (now scheduled for next April 28) and the presidential elections are both unaffected by the changes. Much devious thought appears to have gone into the current process of political engineering, leaving much to be desired. The most curious aspect about this modified agenda is the inauguration of the various elected arms of government. A case in point, States' legislators elected in December would not be sworn in until September 21, 1998 - a staggering nine months of idleness, eerily reminiscent of Babangida's failed transition. Then it was the national lawmakers that were gainfully under-employed for several months. Now federal legislators, elected next April, will be sworn in on October 1, 1998 alongside the president, while governors (elected in August, like the president) will be inaugurated alongside state legislators. Abacha's strategists probably want to avoid Babangida's experience in 1993, when the Senate refused to consider his address on the political situation, following the House of Representatives' vote of no confidence in the government. The valuable lesson learned is that a gang-up of military governors is easier to handle than that of elected politicians.

Curiously enough, at this stage of the political process, no presidential candidate has emerged from any of the five parties. The air of fear and intimidation is palpable. Without doubt, the registration exercise killed off the ambitions of many notable politicians, while those foolhardy enough to raise their head above the parapet have been decapitated. For example, the ambitious NCPN leader, Chief Dan Etiebet, a former petroleum minister and Abacha confidant, recanted his presidential aspirations on national television after a three-day ordeal at the hands of Abacha's security services during the last local elections; he has since dropped out of sight. (Following this a discerning politician announced that he will limit his ambitions to the Senate because the presidency is not vacant.) This has prompted the mushrooming of numerous groups calling for Abacha to stay on as civilian president, identical to the situation that obtained during the last year of Babangida's reign. Even military state administrators have stage-managed 'solidarity' rallies, while top government officials, including ministers and Abacha's Press Secretary have joined the call. Abacha has been characteristically silent as mixed signals continue to emanate from the government.

The main conundrum of the two-year old transition programme is whether Abacha really intends to succeed himself, just as his military predecessor, Babangida tried in 1993. In recent times there have been many indications of Abacha's intentions. The speculation began with the suggestion by a former federal chief justice saying that Nigerian laws do not prevent Abacha from running for president. There followed an avalanche of speeches by public figures supporting this transformation. They enumerated his 'qualifications': Abacha has been in government in one form or the other over the past 20 years - he has been a minister and General Officer Commanding, Chief of Army Staff, chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chief of Defence Staff and Defence Minister - 'who else has such qualifications in present day Nigeria?' they ask, arguing that continuity is the important factor. Even his wife, Maryam got in on the act, saying in a press interview, that if it is the will of God, Abacha will be president and that she supported her husband's decision, because he is well qualified for the job. Then there was the now famous Abacha interview with the Washington Times in April (Abacha is not known for granting media interviews - the last one was with CNN in 1995), which was heavily laden with innuendoes about the possibility of his transformation. Abacha claimed that he saw nothing wrong in running for the presidency, giving examples of other African states that have gone down that route. He, however, maintained that he had not given the option a thought, concluding by saying that his participation will depend on consultation with his 'constituency'. One wonders who his constituency consists of or how the consultation would be implemented.

There are persistent signs that strategies for Abacha's transformation are being put in place and fine-tuned. Initially talk was about a straightforward case of Abacha running under the banner of one of his political creations (most likely, UNCP). However, it was difficult to envisage him on the hustings, not only because of the security implications, but because the uncharismatic and taciturn Abacha would be a liability on the soap box. This option has thus been jettisoned. A more ingenious plan now appears to be in the works. His strategists are seeking a constitutional arrangement that will make it possible for the five parties to adopt Abacha as a consensus candidate, thereby negating the election. The modification of the timetable fits into this strategy - it would give all involved more time to tie loose ends. The absence of any presidential candidate as well as the non-publication of the constitution also support this view. The fear of being branded saboteurs appears to be compelling many politicians to accept Abacha as the sole presidential candidate. There are cynical moves afoot to retire some trusted military officers, such as General Jerry Useni, a close confidant and Federal Capital Territory Minister, who will then be co-opted into a civilian cabinet before 1997 ends to show some commitment to the democratic process. Recently, the government raised the retirement age of public officers from 55 years to 60. This is seen as another ploy to accommodate Abacha, who at the age of 54, has served in the army since 1962 (normally, public officers retire after 35 years of service). Abacha has made no attempt to begin the disengagement of the military from politics. More importantly, there is no plan to convert the numerous decrees enacted by the junta into statutes so that they can be integrated into the country's jurisprudence - Obasanjo completed the process in 1978 and Babangida, who did not even hand over power, went through the motions in 1989.

Speculation is rife that Abacha has contingency plans very similar to that of his erstwhile mentor, Babangida, should his mutation be thwarted next year. According to this scenario, it is expected that Abacha will try to install another stop-gap administration, like the Interim National Government he toppled in 1993. This contraption will be headed by a loyal civilian - the names of Chief Michael Ani, the finance minister and the combative foreign minister, Ikimi are being mentioned - until a trusted military officer could be found by Abacha to take over. This scenario seems far fetched in view of Nigeria's current action in Sierra Leone, which will be examined briefly below. However, Abacha has been known to buck trends. For one, he is said to have cultivated the habit of not handing back state property he had made use of. A case in point, Abacha has yet to hand back Flag House, the official residence of the Chief of Army Staff, which he renamed Defence House when he was appointed Chief of Defence Staff in 1991. It can thus be said that what Abacha gets, he keeps. It is not improbable that come October 1998, Abacha might defy internal and international pressure and cling to power.

Abacha's imminent switch has invariably polarised the armed forces. Military brass in support of the grand plan argue that Abacha's presence in government would be a stabilising factor, which will allow democracy to germinate. This argument is predicated on the belief that because Abacha is a coup specialist (having been a key player in the last three successful coups and helping to foil others), power-hungry young officers would be dissuaded from plotting coups. This view overlooks the fact that should Abacha pursue his ambition, his control of the armed forces would be entirely different from what it presently is. Opposed military voices argue that Abacha must do the honourable thing and hand over power as promised to an elected civilian president. This would enhance the credibility of the military establishment as a corrective regime and also help rehabilitate its badly dented image engendered by the failed Babangida programme. They argue that Nigeria should lead by example and not follow the paths trod by smaller African states in this respect and also that Abacha would be in the venerable company of General Obasanjo, the only military leader to have left office as promised. Obasanjo is currently serving a 15-year jail term for his alleged role in the 1995 'rumour' coup.

With the amendment of the political timetable and the continuous campaign for Abacha to stay on, it appears that the hawks in the junta have the upper hand. The doves insist that the programme modification was bound to send the wrong signals to the international community about the junta's sincerity. In fact, the postponement was not unexpected, it only confirmed Abacha's pervasive dictatorial authority: an absolute one-man rule where it is fool-hardy to be in opposition. Since his palace coup in 1993 Abacha has increasingly drawn more power to himself, progressively weakening the cohesion of the military by continuous mass purges and constantly consolidating his own position. He has effectively frustrated political action to stop the achievement of his ambition by dividing the opposition - Abacha has jailed or detained more people than any other Nigerian dictator. His tenure has also featured mysterious and brutal murders and a growing exile population. Abacha has grown more powerful and feared as each part of his grand plan falls into place.

However, the voices calling for the return to June 12 (the date of the 1993 election) continue to be strident, both within and outside Nigeria. A new coalition of 27 human rights and pro-democracy groups, the United Alliance for Democracy, emerged recently to renew the struggle and ensure that Abacha's self-succession plans fail like Babangida's. Pro-democracy groups argue that Abacha should heal the wounds he has inflicted on Nigeria by taking the courage, which he does not lack, to release Abiola and negotiate some kind of deal which will ensure that he is not hounded after leaving power. The same is to be argued for Obasanjo and other political detainees. Externally, another umbrella body of exiled Nigerians - an embryo parliament-in-exile - the World Council of Free Nigerians, is agitating for tougher sanctions including oil embargo and a world-wide sporting ban. This could mean that Nigeria, the current Olympic soccer champion, would not be able to participate in the World Cup finals in France next June.

Three months to the October date for reviewing Nigeria's two-year suspension form the Commonwealth, the eight-strong Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) which was established following the execution of playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995 to monitor compliance with the 1991 Harare principles on good governance, took an unexpected step. The committee sought oral presentations from 10 non-government organisations (NGOs), both foreign and Nigerian - comprising four Nigerian, three pan-Commonwealth and three international groups - such as NADECO, Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and Amnesty International. The meeting gave Nigerian pro-democracy groups fresh impetus in the war of attrition against the Abacha regime following their disappointment at CMAG's visit to Nigeria last November. During this three-day visit (for which the Canadian delegation was denied visas by the junta) CMAG was precluded from meeting either Moshood Abiola or the pro-democracy groups, who could only send position papers to the committee, while government agencies and even party leaders were consulted. This, however, paved the way for the London meeting on July 10, with an infuriated junta protesting vehemently through its foreign minister.

At the consultation, the Nigerian groups advocated for the continuation and extension of Nigeria's suspension from the organisation; NADECO, whose leader was prevented from attending because the junta released his passport too late, preferred tougher action like expulsion, or at least the imposition of oil sanctions. The junta showed its anger at this meeting by declaring four prominent self-exiled pro-democracy activists wanted on July 31. Three were NADECO members - retired general Alani Akinrinade, Chief Anthony Enahoro and former senator Bola Tinubu - and the Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka. The junta believed that this would reinforce its requests for the extradition of these men from Britain and the United States. But it is doubtful that such a move would cut any ice with both countries as the diplomatic frostiness with Nigeria is yet to thaw.

A diplomatic row flared up in May between Nigeria and Britain, soon after the Labour Party election victory because of Labour's foreign policy commitment to the principles of human rights and democracy, which it said was 'inviolable and irrevocable'. The new government had promised to impose tougher sanctions on Nigeria because of the junta's poor human rights record and the slow pace of its democratic programme. A few days later Britain banned all Nigerian-registered aircraft from its airspace ostensibly on safety grounds. But Nigeria saw this as the first salvo in a diplomatic confrontation, and retaliated appropriately. The stalemate has endured since. Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary, in a recent statement raised the stakes even higher, maintaining that Nigeria had done little to justify the lifting of the Commonwealth suspension. 'I hope the CMAG will recommend this to the Summit,' he declared. He made it clear also that Britain would not tolerate an Abacha presidency in 1998.

The suspension and the continuing political crisis are exacting a high toll on Nigeria's economy: businesses are folding up in hundreds daily throwing many workers onto the already saturated job market (unemployment rate is estimated at around 30 per cent), increased capital flight bringing about a worsening depreciation of the Naira's value. Continued suspension or expulsion would push the already comatose economy over the precipice and isolate Nigeria even further, politically. For instance, since the crisis began, almost US $300 million worth of European Union funds have been withheld. Should the Commonwealth expel Nigeria in October, it will lose its main leverage over the junta in the current 'dialogue'. However, it is possible that the junta could decide to jump rather than wait to be pushed as many hard-liners in the junta have been advocating since the suspension.

This situation has not been helped by the aggressive and undiplomatic handling of Nigeria's foreign policy. Buffeted from different sides, Nigeria has been engaged in a desperate search for friends. It appears to have found succour with notable pariah states such as Iraq, North Korea and Libya; a search which is proving costly. In June, the 15-member UN sanctions committee began an investigation into the provocative visit to Niger and Nigeria by Libya's Muamar Gadaffi in blatant violation of a five-year old UN resolution banning Libyan flights to UN-member states. 'Libya is not a model in matters of democracy, human rights or good governance,' editorialised a Lagos-based daily This Day. 'Rather than being a diplomatic coup, the Gadaffi visit was a huge disaster which the Nigerian authorities may not be able to get over quickly.' Thus far no action has been taken against both Nigeria and Niger. However, Nigeria has continued to be condemned for its human rights abuses. At the 53rd session of the UN Commission of Human Rights, the junta was indicted on the basis of reports filed by the special rapporteurs whose visit to Nigeria was obstructed by the junta last February. Coming hard on the heels of the EU's renewal of the limited sanctions, the economic group of the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries appears to have targeted Nigeria by resolving to recognise only delegations from democratically governed countries.

Nevertheless, at the recent Organisation for African Unity (OAU) summit in Zimbabwe, there was something to cheer Nigeria for: Nigeria was leading the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) attempt to force out the military junta in Sierra Leone, led by Major Johnny Koromah, which had ousted the democratic government of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah on May 25. The irony of this situation cannot be overstated: Abacha, who came to power through a coup is spearheading the battle to restore democracy in Sierra Leone. This has led many critics, including the Sierra Leone junta to wonder why democracy in other countries is more desirable for Abacha than on his own doorstep. The Abacha junta defends its action on the basis of an existing ECOWAS mandate to help repel cross-border insurgency from neighbouring Liberia. Nigerian military sources have also maintained that there was a bilateral defence pact between Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Apart from the OAU, there is support for the three-pronged strategy of diplomatic negotiation, sanctions/economic blockade and military action from both the UN and Commonwealth to ensure the return of the elected president.

Nigerian views on this military incursion are divided, as was the case when former dictator Babangida forced the establishment of the peacekeeping ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) to intervene in the Liberian civil war in order to save his friend President Doe from Charles Taylor, who has recently been sworn in as president after waging a destructive seven-year war. (At the July 19 elections in which Nigeria played a prominent role, Taylor won 75 per cent of the votes cast.) Supporters of Nigeria's new adventure argue that it is right for a military dictator to defend democracy because it shows an acknowledgement that democracy is the only way forward and by undertaking this course of action, Abacha is signifying his intention of relinquishing power as promised. This view believes that should Abacha renege on the promise, he would he leaving himself open to similar treatment since he has effectively drawn a line in the sand. Cynics argue that since Nigeria has been seen as the power behind coup plotters that seized power in Niger and Gambia and their subsequent transformation into civilian leaders, it appears to be saying, going by its actions in Sierra Leone, that coups in the region should stop. Or rather, it is telling the Koromah junta that coups can only succeed with Abacha's prior approval. No country has yet recognised the Sierra Leone government.

Nigeria's uncoordinated attempt to dislodge the putschists on June 2 went disastrously wrong and subsequent negotiation between the Sierra Leone junta and the ECOWAS Committee of Four (Guinea, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria) - a CMAG clone - foundered in Abidjan, Ivory Coast on July 30 when Koromah unveiled a four-year transition programme, longer than Abacha's own programme. Thus Nigeria, which is currently facing threats of more international economic sanctions, is leading a comprehensive air, land and sea blockade of Sierra Leone. Ironically, Sierra Leone has also joined Nigeria on the Commonwealth list of suspended member-countries. A pariah leading the fight against the new-kid-on-the-pariah-block. Nigerian newspapers report that there was no emergency meeting of the Provisional Ruling Council, the junta's decision-making body, neither were the military brass consulted, before the intervention order was given. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were effectively handed a fait accompli. This unilateral declaration of hostilities by Nigeria on the Sierra Leone junta can be seen as another example of Abacha's personal wishes becoming the national interest. It appears that Nigeria's leadership in ECOMOG's role in Liberia and now in Sierra Leone is one of the reasons why the UN finds it difficult to take any decisive action on its crisis situation. Also, many African States are reluctant to support punitive measures against Nigeria because Abacha's promised deadline is just around the corner. Recently, South Africa's President Nelson Mandela announced a truce in the cold war between the two countries, while disclosing Abacha's assistance to South Africa during the Zaire crisis.

There is little doubt that during Abacha's watch the problems facing Nigeria have persisted, without signs of improvement. For instance, Nigeria, a net producer of crude oil, has been in the throes of fuel shortages for many months. His naked self-interest must not be allowed to make matters worse for the erstwhile Giant of Africa. Abacha and his advisers should be made to see the wisdom of reaching a compromise with the ghost of June 12 which is still haunting the country. And the Commonwealth is well placed to ensure that this is its focus at the Edinburgh Summit in October.

Dr. Abiodun Onadipe, a specialist in International Relations and Conflict Analysis, is Programme Associate at Conciliation Resources, an international service for conflict prevention and resolution in London.
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Title Annotation:October 1998
Author:Onadipe, Abiodun
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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