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  • Nigeria: An End to the Permanent Transition?
  • Peter M. Lewis (bio)

As democratic pressures swept Africa in the early 1990s, Nigeria appeared poised for its own passage from authoritarian rule. Rather than joining the “third wave” democracies, however, Nigeria’s military rulers annulled a broadly popular presidential election in 1993, giving rise to a harsh new dictatorship. The ensuing crisis accelerated a downward spiral of political disorder, social division, and economic decline.

The death of military dictator Sani Abacha on 8 June 1998 ended a dismal chapter in Nigeria’s political life. Although his successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, has charted an encouraging new direction, the country confronts formidable challenges of reconciliation and renewal.

In late July, General Abubakar unveiled his government’s political agenda. In a televised address, the general pledged to lead the military back to the barracks, and permanently out of political life, in May 1999. He outlined a plan for the country’s return to democratic rule through a series of elections and political reforms. This included promises for the release of political prisoners, the promulgation of a constitution, and an open arena for political parties. An independent electoral commission would supervise the program. The ten-month schedule of party registration, conventions, campaigns, and phased elections would conclude with the handover to civilian government.

The general’s statement was met with guarded approval from [End Page 141] foreign and domestic audiences. For most Nigerians, however, this was a familiar refrain that sparked more suspicion than enthusiasm. Over Nigeria’s 38 years of independence, the armed forces have ruled for all but ten. Generals have held power continuously over the last 15 years. Most of the country’s eight military leaders have vowed a return to democracy; so far, only one has delivered. To observers of Nigeria’s predicament, the “permanent transition” has become a virtual strategy of military control. 1

The political situation in Nigeria did not always seem so bleak. The nation’s course of decay was not inevitable, although it did reflect deeper historical currents. In the decades since independence, Nigerians have grappled with the management of cultural pluralism, the development of democratic institutions, the terms of civil-military relations, and the oversight of a centralized petroleum economy.

Like most African states, Nigeria was an artificial creation of colonialism. The boundaries established by the British encompassed some 250 ethnic and linguistic groups, among whom the northwestern Hausa-Fulani, the southwestern Yoruba, and the southeastern Igbo became dominant rivals. The arena of communal competition has become more complex as a number of ethnic minorities have asserted themselves politically. During the first decade of independence, the stresses of ethnic and regional contention led to military coups, mass violence, attempted secession, and civil war. Nigeria’s existence as a federal state has been preserved, yet sectional tensions have continued to destabilize the nation’s politics.

The quest for democratic governance has occupied many leaders since 1966, when the first parliamentary government was overthrown by the military. Since that time, despite an oft-stated commitment to democracy, military rulers have governed for all but four years. The ill-fated civilian Second Republic, modeled on the American presidential system, lasted only from 1979 to 1983. As the armed forces have become habituated to ruling, it has become increasingly difficult to lead ambitious officers back to the barracks. Political entanglements have exacerbated factionalism, corruption, and insecurity within the military.

Economic management constitutes another challenge. The country’s emergence as a leading global oil producer in the 1970s gave rise to a centralized, state-dominated economy, in which the allocation of mineral rents is a principal source of growth, class formation, and political control. The vast resources concentrated in Nigeria’s rentier state have made the central government a focus of competition and influence. Rivalries among ethnic and regional communities and contention between civilian and military elites have been animated by the struggle for access to state resources.

These dilemmas have converged over the past decade to produce a [End Page 142] crisis of governance and civic order. Military dominance has eroded the foundations of democratic rule and weakened civil society. The political hegemony of northern elites has produced growing restiveness among...