Nigeria’s democracy at risk

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The ripples from growing uncertainty about the future of Nigeria’s democracy are spreading far beyond the country’s borders. A briefing by John Campbell (who served as the United States Ambassador to Nigeria between May 2004 and January 2007) and published Wednesday by the US Council on Foreign Relations predicts that President Umaru Yar’Adua’s will soon be forced to abdicate power, and that a succession crisis is likely to follow. Highlighting Nigeria’s crucial position as “the United States’ most important strategic partner in Africa and one of its largest suppliers of oil”, it also warns of the “political and constitutional crisis” that could arise if President Yar’Adua is forced to leave office.

Mr. Campbell acknowledged the existence of “king makers” waiting in the wings to effect a change of presidential powers “because the ailing president can no longer exercise them” but also pointed out the challenges the kingmakers will have in reaching a consensus because of wildly differing interests and desires. In addition, he expressed fears of the growing possibility of the military cashing in on the confusion to seize power.

‘Presidential decision’

Concerns about the fate of Nigeria have been further exacerbated with the botched Christmas Day bombing incident involving a Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The glaring vacancy in the presidential seat, and the attendant confusion caused by the nature of the vacancy, have raised concern about the capability of the country to effectively fight terrorism. Campbell argues that this incident is a watershed moment in the current impasse. According to him the incident “appears to have forced Jonathan’s hand” and that Mr. Jonathan’s order to Nigerian security agencies to cooperate with the US is “in effect a presidential decision.”

He added that the worst case scenario following Mr. Yar’Adua’s removal is that “the competing factions will struggle among themselves without resolution, and the army will step in and establish a military government, though with a civilian façade,” and the most hopeful one is that “the country will limp toward national elections scheduled for 2011.”

Mr. Campbell also believes that the Mutallab incident will further arm the growing camp of those who harbour deep suspicions about Northern Nigeria. “Power brokers from other parts of Nigeria now have a rationale for assuming a harder line on the continued reservation of the presidency for the North.”

It is not only the civilian power brokers who believe they have a stake in the increasing power play. “Nigeria’s military, though much weakened, continues to regard itself as the ultimate custodian of the state. If the current crisis spins out of control, the Nigerian military is likely to intervene, possibly with a nominal civilian head,” he stated, citing the high stakes involved in power play at the highest levels of Nigerian government.

“Capture of the state means access to oil revenue, which the Nigerian press is estimating at up to $100 billion a year.” One clear fallout of the leadership vacuum is the decline in Nigeria’s “diplomatic activism, leaving a void that will be hard to fill.”

Failed states listing

For three years running (2007 – 2009), Nigeria has been ranked amongst the Top 20 countries on the annual Failed States List, released by The Fund for Peace, “an independent, nonpartisan research and educational organisation that works to prevent war and alleviate the conditions that cause conflict”

Year 2007 – the year President Yar’Adua became President, following elections massively fraught with irregularities – was the first year in which Nigeria crossed into the top 20.

The 12-month old Obama administration has also done little to veil its lack of enthusiasm about the current Nigerian government and the country’s situation. Mr. Obama did not include a Nigerian stop in his six-city African tour in July. Shortly after, the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton said in Abuja, during an African tour, that “Nigeria is at a crossroads.” Barely two months later, at the U.S.-Africa Business Summit organised by the Corporate Council on Africa in Washington, she described the Nigerian situation as “a heartbreaking scene.” She added that “the consequences of being a large energy producer has not been translated into positive changes for the Nigerian people.”

War games

The US Central Intelligence Agency is the least optimistic of foreign observers regarding the Nigerian situation. The CIA factbook on its own part describes Nigeria as “a transit point for heroin and cocaine intended for European, East Asian, and North American markets.” In 2001, in the wake of the September 11 bombings, the agency released a report, “Global Trends 2015: A CIA look into the future” that predicted that “South Africa and Nigeria, the continent’s largest economies, will remain the dominant powers in the region through 2015.”

Four years later, the CIA significantly revised its outlook and predicted that Nigeria faced the likelihood of a break up by 2015. With this in mind, the United States military in 2008 embarked on a war simulation (an “Army war game”), code-named Unified Quest 08, which imagines that it is 2013, and that “the Nigerian government is near collapse and rival factions are vying for power in that troubled part of the world.”

The Campbell briefing concluded by outlining respect for the constitution, the rule of law, and electoral reform (in the light of approaching elections in 2011) as measures that need to be taken urgently to prevent crises in Nigeria, and that “Washington and Nigeria’s other friends” need to keep the pressure on Nigeria’s leadership, and its restless military.

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