- Nigeria'S Search for a New Political Order
For the third time in just over 30 years, Nigeria finds itself in the midst of a transition to democratic rule. Like previous transitions—first under the auspices of British colonial rule in the 1950s, and then under the Nigerian military in the late 1970s—this one is unfolding gradually, according to an elaborate timetable devised with the help of civilian intellectuals and opinion leaders. Indeed, the current six-year program, due to culminate in October 1992, must rank as one of the most carefully staged and imaginatively designed transitions from military to civilian rule anywhere in recent history.
There are many reasons to hope that, after two false starts, democracy will finally take hold in Nigeria's Third Republic. The transition itself is a bold experiment in political and cultural engineering. Concurrently with the political transition, the military government of President Ibrahim Babangida has been implementing an ambitious structural adjustment program—probably the most far-reaching in Africa—designed to reduce the state's massive role in the economy and build a market-oriented foundation for sustainable economic growth.
Strong cultural factors also favor democracy. While the country boasts a wide array of cultural traditions, Nigerians generally tend to be outspoken and assertive; they will not abide authoritarian rule for long. The nine-year rule of General Yakubu Gowon was toppled in a popular countercoup in 1975 after he indefinitely postponed a promised democratic transition. General Babangida himself rode to power in [End Page 54] August 1985 on a wave of popular revulsion over the unprecedented repression unleashed by his military colleague, General Muhammadu Buhari. The country's very ethnic complexity—there are three dominant ethnic groups (the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo, collectively about two-thirds of the population) and more than 200 ethnic "minorities"—defies successful management through any but democratic and rigorously federalist principles. Nigeria has been a pioneer in designing and applying such principles; while ethnicity remains the most basic plane of social and political cleavage, its divisive potential has been mitigated in ways that make a reprise of the 1967-70 civil war most unlikely. Moreover, since the dawn of the anticolonial movement in the 1940s and 1950s, an increasingly pluralistic, vocal, and confident civil society has grown up to demand protection for basic freedoms of expression, association, and due process.
If democracy is to take hold in the Africa of the 1990s, it must succeed in Nigeria. It is the continent's most populous country, with over 100 million people—more than a fifth of all Africans south of the Sahara; its largest oil producer—almost two million barrels a day; its richest sub-Saharan economy (excluding South Africa). No other black African country boasts so many daily newspapers (more than 20), so many magazines (more than 50), so many universities (some two dozen), and so many multi-millionaires.
There is, however, a tragic underside to Nigeria's persistent aura of promise and expectation, hope and re?iewal. This tragedy is by now deeply (and an increasing number of Nigerians are inclined to feel, unalterably) rooted in history. The military ended both previous attempts at democracy when it became clear that they were not working and had forfeited their claim to popular legitimacy. The First Republic (1960-66) was burdened by the British colonial authorities with an unworkable federal system that reified cleavages among the three largest ethnic groups, each of which then dominated one of the country's three regions. It was further plagued by a profound contradiction between the socioeconomically preeminent southern ethnic groups (especially Yoruba and Igbo), who were greatly advantaged in trade and education by their earlier and fuller contact with the British, and the politically dominant north with its more conservative Hausa-Fulani elite. Nigeria also suffered at the hands of its own politicians, whose corruption, intolerance, distrust, and brutality turned elections into desperate, fraud-ridden, zero-sum struggles for power.
With its 19-state federal system and more fluid multiethnic parties and alliances, the Second Republic (1979-83) made impressive strides in dispersing and containing ethnic and regional conflict. Yet history repeated itself anyway, with brazenly...