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An Opportunity for Democracy

Richard L. Sklar is a professor emeritus of political science at UCLA

The sudden death of Nigeria’s reclusive military dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, could prove to be a turning point in Africa’s most populous nation’s struggle for democracy and its relationship with the world.

Abacha had been a central figure in the conduct of several military coups d’etat and other, aborted military insurrections for two decades. He became head of state in November 1993, when he dislodged an interim government set up by the military after his predecessor annulled the result of a truly democratic election. The winner of that election, Moshood Abiola, supported Abacha’s seizure of power, but he and other democrats were destined to be bitterly disappointed. Abacha consolidated his own rule and imprisoned Abiola, who refused to abandon his claim to the presidency.

Eventually, Abacha and the military-controlled Provisional Ruling Council tried to abate the wrath of Nigerian democrats and their supporters by implementing a three-year transition to civilian rule based on elections at the local, state and federal levels. Abacha’s regime approved five political parties that competed for various elective offices. However, all five parties chose Abacha to be the presidential candidate. Hence the regime planned a referendum, Aug. 1, on the question of whether Abacha should be the incoming civilian president instead of holding a competitive election.

This was Nigeria’s predicament when Abacha died. Now there is a chance for his immediate successors, a military collective headed, presumably, by the widely respected chief of defense staff, Maj. Gen. Abdusalam Abubakar, to bolster national unity and repair Nigerian relations with Britain, the Commonwealth, the European Union and the United States. They all have imposed mild (mainly diplomatic rather than economic) sanctions against Nigeria as a result of its deviations from democracy and the rule of law. If this opportunity is missed, Nigeria’s slide toward disunity and internal conflict could accelerate, producing economic dislocation and political instability in neighboring countries, indeed throughout the entire West African region.

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One clear outcome of Abacha’s death is the removal of any pretense that a particular individual is indispensable for the maintenance of stability during the transition to an acceptable form of government. The junta might decide to suspend the transition indefinitely, but that is unlikely given its own factional composition. A second possibility would involve the release of Abiola from prison and his installation as head of a government of national unity that would convene a sovereign national conference, as demanded by the organized democratic movement. That would be a just outcome, but its realization would be resisted by the junta and the various interest groups that supported Abacha. Yet some kind of national convention or constitutional assembly, chosen by the people, is necessary to address the basic problems relating to the form of government.

A third possibility is a renewed mandate for the official political parties to nominate presidential candidates. This would revive political life in the country. However, it would not satisfy democrats who seek justice for Abiola and the Nigerian electorate. Furthermore, democrats are loath to accept the five official parties, which they scorn as five fingers of Abacha’s hand.

Clearly, the Nigerian factions will have to find a way to reach a compromise on their deeply held positions. A first step would be commutation of the sentences imposed by a military court in April on six persons, including the former chief deputy to Abacha, for allegedly plotting to overthrow him. All of them are Yoruba, from southwestern Nigeria, as is Abiola. The Yoruba grievance represents a dangerous deterioration of the conflict between militarists and democrats into one that could rupture the cohesion of democrats and force people to takes sides based on their ethno-sectional identities.

The dream and the challenge of Nigeria is to preserve its principle of multiethnic unity in a democratic country. Its failure would breed disillusionment throughout the continent of Africa.

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