Lessons From Nigeria’s Militarized Democratic Experiment By Wole Soyinka

Nigeria’s current Constitution, a parting gift from the military that ruled the nation for nearly four decades after its independence from Britain in 1960, was released to the public on May 29, 1999. The document was significant in one respect: Other than the conscripted drafting team, no one had previously set eyes on its contents. As Rotimi Williams, one of Nigeria’s most revered legal minds, once declared, even the Constitution’s preamble began with an egregious lie, with that ritual attribution “We the People …”

The Constitution marked the commencement of a political arrangement once proposed by Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of independent Nigeria and one of the country’s foremost nationalists, as a solution to the power struggles that had roiled Nigeria since its first military coup in January 1966. The military had mothballed the idea at the time, only to roll it out in 1999, camouflaged as democracy. The true name for this governing structure is “diarchy,” and it describes a government jointly ruled by military and civilian components, with or without the latter’s consent.

The current interim political arrangement in Sudan, a compromise between the former military dictatorship and the democratic opposition, provides us with a consensual model for diarchy. However, it is the protocols of “centralism” — with the military at the center — that characterizes the Nigerian variant. And centralized control is the true mission of diarchy, no matter how hard it pretends to govern through an equal partnership.

It is no surprise then that the Constitution bequeathed by the Nigerian military 20 years ago marked a total repudiation of the less-centralized federalist structure that was the driving principle, agreed to after tough negotiations, of prior constitutional conferences in Nigeria and Britain. Ironically, one of the proclaimed justifications for a countercoup in July 1966 was the aim of reversing the centralization decrees that had gathered the security arms, civil service, judiciary and other state structures under one command.

As an embedded force of internal colonialism with near-cultlike status, the Nigerian military will never quit the political stage. Military coups may no longer be fashionable in Africa, but that doesn’t mean that the military has removed its hands from the wheel. In the last couple of decades the managers of power in Nigeria’s “democratic” system have learned not only to secure approval for their political preferences but also to plant their enforcers in key positions before formally quitting the scene. These enforcers appear in the Senate, the House of Representatives and the security services, as well as in various committees, state assemblies, parastatal organizations and important economic agencies.

It is, however, at the very center of the government that the military has built and effectively garrisoned its control tower in Nigeria. From there it enacts variations on Britain’s own strategy of indirect rule.

As a result of all this, centralism has not merely been imposed on Nigeria, but made to percolate throughout its governing structures, even affecting the nation’s political consciousness. It was no accident that when the Nigerian Constitution was being drafted, preference was given to the American presidential system rather than the parliamentarian model inherited from the British. The former was more amenable to centralist manipulations.

While Nigerian diarchy operates mostly in covert fashion, the military does not hesitate, when required, to declare openly where the real power lies. For instance, during the second round of postmilitary elections in 2006, Ahmadu Ali, an ex-colonel and chairman of the ruling party’s National Working Committee, lectured the citizens of a “restless,” politically strategic state, saying that they should understand that they lived in a garrison state and should learn therefore to bow to the will of the garrison
That “commander” was none other than Lamidi Adedibu, a self-proclaimed thug and a politically spent one at that. Yet he was exhumed and refurbished, and then inserted into the British legacy of indirect rule. To confer further clout on this commander, then-President Olusegun Obasanjo, also formerly of the military, paid homage to Mr. Adedibu in his own home, while the latter returned the compliment like a feudal potentate, mounted on a royally caparisoned horse.

There have been other occasions when circumstances — such as a challenge to the ruling order — have mandated a more direct militarist approach. In 2006, under the guise of a reformist agenda against corruption, members of a state assembly were rounded up, commando-style, and taken to a different state, where they were kept in virtual house arrest and forced to impeach their own governor. Corrupt though he may have been, the governor was also a voluble opponent of the incumbent president.

Another example: In August 2018, a group of armed men under the direction of Lawal Musa Daura, the director general of the Department of State Services, set up a blockade at the entrance to the national legislature in an effort to prevent opposition lawmakers from entering. Mr. Daura acted on his own initiative while Nigeria’s current president, Muhammadu Buhari — a former general — was briefly out of the country. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, acting as president in Mr. Buhari’s absence, booted Mr. Daura out of office, first ensuring, however, that Mr. Buhari approved of the dismissal. The blockade of the legislature — a clear violation of the Constitution — shows once again how diarchy can occlude legitimate sources of democratic power.

As illustrated above, diarchy in Nigeria is mostly experienced in the form of explicit government actions. But the system is also propped up by a kind of denial. For example, Nigeria’s governors are constitutionally responsible for maintaining security in their states. However, with true power residing with the military in the center, they have essentially no way of performing this duty.

Consider the most critical issue that plagues the Nigerian polity at this moment, a devastating menace that threatens the very base of national existence: the deadly exploits of so-called nomadic horsemen, whose grisly clashes with farmers have claimed thousands of Nigerian lives in recent years. The nomadic horsemen are well organized, have articulate spokesmen and even openly endorse presidential candidates, as they did in the February elections that returned Mr. Buhari to power. The horsemen thunder ultimatums at state assemblies that dare to enact laws regulating their business practices, which include murder, kidnapping, rape and the destruction of farms. “Repeal the edict or face more of the same!” is the nomads’ mantra.

Last year a retired general, a veteran of more than one coup d’état, felt compelled to accuse the military of colluding with the nomads, who have lately traded their wooden cattle prods for AK-47s. Meanwhile, desperate state governors remind the center that they are security officers in name only, and that the instrument of law enforcement and protection lies with the center — but the center has gone nomadic!

Given Nigeria’s ongoing democratic ambiguity, where sustained calls for a constitutional review and the restructuring of the nation along less centralist lines of governance routinely draw dire warnings from military officials, it is wise to keep careful watch on diarchy’s military partners and their ready spouting of “patriotic” zealotry.