John Campbell Got It Wrong On Nigeria

campbell-2Anyone who read a preview of John Campbell’s (former US Ambassador) soon-to-be published book, ‘Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink,’ would begin to entertain serious anxieties over the future of Nigeria, due to the doomsday scenario he painted of what to expect during and after the 2011 elections. His prophesy of chaos rests on three legs; one, that there is no consensus amongst Nigeria’s power elite on who to support for the position of President; two, that there is no “Obasanjo-like figure strong enough to impose one”. And three, that even though the North believes it is still it’s turn to rule, there is no clear consensus amongst them as to who would be their candidate.

I believe that Mr Campbell is wrong in his predictions of doom and that he is not basing his prognosis on any experiential knowledge of what is on the ground. Rather, he has come to his conclusion from projections and analysis based on media reports that are deliberately exaggerated by interested parties in the Nigerian project to manipulate foreign governments and by his now stale experience when he was ambassador to Nigeria between 2004 and 2007.

He says that unlike in every election since 1999, there has been no consensus amongst Nigeria’s political power elite on a candidate to support for 2011 and this portends doom. How true is this? It actually depends on who Mr Campbell refers to as Nigeria’s political power elite. In 1999, there was a consensus, but that consensus was not amongst Nigeria’s political elite. It was a consensus amongst the military administration in power and those retired military officers who had participated in bringing the current regime into power. At the Oputa Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission, Hamza Al Mustapha (late Sani Abacha’s Chief Security Officer) gave testimony on the role played by Ibrahim Babangida in ensuring that his friend and kinsman Abdulsalami Abubakar emerged as Head of State after the demise of Mr Abacha in controversial circumstances.

Having played this role as king maker, Mr Babangida who had been forced to “step aside” in 1993, began to scheme his way back to power. He knew that Nigeria could not have a return to civil rule without first compensating the people of the Southwest from where MKO Abiola, whose election he had annulled in 1993, came from. Thus, with his own ambition to return to power being the end he had in mind, Mr Babangida influenced the government of Mr Abdulsalami to come up with an exit strategy for a transition to civil rule and handover to someone from Mr Abiola’s southwest whom the North felt comfortable with.

Military consensus

Mr Babangida was able to convince the powerful group of retired military generals from the North, who had facilitated Mr Abdulsalami’s emergence, that the only person who would fit this bill was Olusegun Obasanjo, who was then in jail. He began to float this idea in the Nigerian media and the international community, especially the Western countries, were sold on this idea. I know this because in July of 1998, I met with the Dutch Ambassador to Nigeria, Bastian Korner, in Lagos and he spent time trying to convince me as to why Nigeria needed Mr Obasanjo. The suspicion amongst some in the civil rights community, which I belonged to then, was that the idea of having an Obasanjo presidency may have in fact not emanated from Babangida but from outside the shores of Nigeria; but that is a story for another day.

However, working with what we know, we can safely say that Mr Babangida was able to forge a consensus amongst Aliyu Gusau (the National Security Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan), T.Y. Danjuma (who became Mr Obasanjo’s minister of defence and who famously vowed to go on exile if Mr Obasanjo did not win the 1999 presidential elections) and Abdulsalami Abubakar, the then Head of state. Other than this military power elite, it is on record that every other political elite in Nigeria, including the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) of the late Shehu Musa Yar’adua, the Afenifere (the council of elders in the Southwest) who controlled the Southwest as at 1998-99, the Ohaneze Ndigbo (council of elders in the Southeast), the Northern Elders Forum (who were the predecessors of today’s Arewa Consultative Forum) and the G-34 who were the group of politicians who stood up to challenge Mr Abacha’s self-succession plot and who would later be the nucleus of the PDP, all resisted the emergence of Mr Obasanjo in 1998-99 and only relented when it was obvious that the deck was stacked in favour of Mr Obasanjo and there was not much else they could do to resist it without prolonging military rule.

So what Mr Campbell considers as a consensus of Nigeria’s political elite in the 1999 election was not so much a consensus as the fact that a few oligarchic clique of serving and retired military officers had made up their minds to back Mr Obasanjo. And even within that clique, there was resistance to him. Again, testimony from Mr Al Mustapha at the ‘Oputa Panel’ showed that the then Chief of Army Staff, Ishaya Bamaiyi (whom I personally met in kirikiri prison in January of 2000) resisted the imposition of Mr Obasanjo.

Now moving on to the 2003 elections. It is on record that Mr Obasanjo had alienated much of the military clique that ensured his rise to power. He had fallen out with Mr Babangida, who was indifferent to his reelection bid and had even been reported to have asked him to consider the Mandela option. Also, his relationship with Mr Danjuma was strained and the former General would later leave the government and publicly accuse Mr Obasanjo of running a government that was a “cult”. But despite the above and despite the fact that he had alienated most of the governors of his own party, who had queued up behind his Vice, Atiku Abubakar, Obasanjo was STILL able to win his party’s presidential primary as well as getting reelected in the general elections of 2003.

The Obasanjo consensus

Now coming to the 2007 elections. Even Mr Campbell himself must know that other than a consensus that the presidency should be zoned to the North, just as today, there was no elite consensus as to who the Northern candidate would be.

In fact, a strong member of Mr Obasanjo’s second term kitchen cabinet, Nasir El Rufai, had told me and also said same in public that Mr Obasanjo encouraged every Northern governor to vie for the Presidency. In addition to the Northern governors, several Southern governors who had finished their constitutionally allowed two terms threw their hats into the ring. Mr Babangida and Mr Gusau also joined the fray . And what is more, Mr Atiku Abubakar, himself a formidable politician, joined the race for President.

However, when in November 2006 Obasanjo showed his hands and openly supported a reluctant governor, Umaru Musa Yar’adua, all those who had previously indicated interest began to withdraw except those who had moved out of the PDP. The elections came, and very predictably the PDP candidate won and the opposition went to court and nothing came out of it after a 24 month long legal battle.

So what does this all prove?

It proves that rather than a consensus of the political elite being responsible for picking the country’s leader and avoiding post-election conflict since 1999, as Ambassador Campbell posits, it is the support of the incumbent and the machinery of government that determines who wins an election in Nigeria.

And why is this? It is because even though Nigeria operates in name a federal system of government, in practice she operates a massively unitary system of government with almost all executive powers concentrated in the person of the President. The person controls almost all the funds accruing to the country from oil and therefore has an enormous ability to dish out patronage – the carrot. The President also controls the law enforcement bodies, especially the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission which in Nigeria is very potent in fighting governmental corruption and can unleash them on whomever he so desires – the stick.

An example may suffice on how this works. In June of 2005, the Obasanjo administration found Mustapha Jokolo, the then emir of Gwandu, to be a thorn in its flesh. A decision was made to dethrone him and this decision was supported by his home state government of Kebbi which effected his dethronement and sent him on exile. However, after his exile, no emir or traditional ruler was willing to accept him. And then the government made it known that they had budgeted a juicy sum of money to be given as upkeep allowance for whoever agreed to take Mr Jokolo into his domain. Well, the rest is now history but my point is made.

Also, one of Mr Campbell’s reasons for predicting post-election doom for Nigeria is the fact that there is no “Obasanjo-like” figure to impose a consensus candidate on Nigeria. This leads me to doubt that Mr Campbell is still up to date with Nigeria’s current affairs. There is no absence of an Obasanjo like character for the simple reason that Mr Obasanjo still exists and is in many ways as powerful (some say even more powerful) as when he was in office as president.

Even more telling is the fact that in the drama that held Nigeria captive, when Nigerians did not know the state of Mr Yar’adua or his physical location, the political elite were fiddling like Emperor Nero while Rome burnt. Yes, the G-57 (of which I was a signatory) wrote open letters giving ultimatum to the Federal Executive Council and the Save Nigeria Group took to the streets. But it was not until Obasanjo gave his now famous speech at the Daily Trust Lecture in January 2010, calling on Yar’adua to follow the ‘path of morality’ and ‘honour,’ that the political elite swung into action and voila, the Doctrine of Necessity came into being! Mr Obasanjo’s utterances were the catalyst that brought about that action.

New northern leaders

The truth is that the Obasanjo-like figure referred to by Mr Campbell still dey kampe (a slang popularly used by the former president to indicate that he was still standing) in Obasanjo, the ex-President. The final reason given by Mr Campbell to justify his doomsday scenario is that there is no clear consensus in the North as to who will be their candidate. If Mr Campbell knows Nigeria as he claims to do, he would know that rather than this being a source for worry, it is actually a good thing because if the North is to rally behind a candidate, it would lead to a bipolar race which is not good for Nigeria. It is better that the North have a multiplicity of candidates for the simple reason that competition amongst Northern power brokers would weaken the old guard and would strengthen the young Turks such as former FCT minister, Nasir El Rufai and former Economic and Financial Crimes Commission Chairman, Nuhu Ribadu – both of whom are wildly popular in the South (almost to the point of being cult heroes) and place them in good stead to run and win in 2015 and completely consign the old Northern guard (who many blame for Nigeria’s underdevelopment) to history.

I would advise the international community to take Mr Campbell’s thesis with a pinch of salt and consult more with Robin Sanders, who is fresh from the Nigerian fields and who was very hands on as U.S Ambassador to Nigeria and who very recently gave a very optimistic report about the readiness and ability of Nigeria to conduct an even better election than any she has had since 1999.

Miss Sanders is of course in tune with the current mood in Nigeria and of Nigerians and is more competent than Mr Campbell to give an informed analysis and expectation of what 2011 holds for Nigeria and Nigerians.


Mr Omokri is Vice President, Africa, at Joe Trippi and Associates, the Washington DC political consultancy.

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