Longing for a ‘strongman’ in Nigeria?

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NigeriaIn this opinion piece, Chris Akor explores the apparent desire for a ‘strongman’ leader in Nigeria. He analyses the pressure on Goodluck Jonathan to ‘rule like a lion or a tiger’ and the nostalgia for dictatorial leaders like General Mohammadu Buhari. Chris has recently completed an MSc at the University of Oxford.

Until the recent declaration of a state of emergency in some of the north-eastern states in which Boko Haram held sway, Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, faced intense criticism over his handling of issues of national security. Often described by the opposition and, sometimes, by those sympathetic to his regime as ‘clueless’, ‘soft’, ‘weak’, and a ‘coward’ with ‘weak biceps’ he was presented as being incapable of tackling the wide range of challenges faced by the country.

Jonathan was unfavourably compared with former President Obasanjo, who, during his rule, sent troops to kill and destroy entire communities in Odi (Rivers State) and Zaki-Biam (Benue State) after 19 security operatives were abducted and killed there. Although the killings were condemned by the international community as clear cases of extrajudicial executions by the Nigerian military, which contravened the country’s obligations under international law, Obasanjo had defended the killings as ‘legitimate’ actions of ‘self defence’ and was alleged to have presented this incident to Jonathan as an example of how to deal with insurgencies at their roots before they got the opportunity to blossom. Not a few Nigerians saw Obasanjo’s actions as a show of decisive leadership compared to Jonathan’s indecisiveness and conciliatory approach to the Boko Haram threat.  So stringent were the attacks against Jonathan that he recently declared he was the most criticized president in the world. He also revealed that he was increasingly under pressure from many Nigerians to govern like a dictator.

Despite an apparent preference for participatory, democratic governance such pressures reveal a deep yearning for a ‘strong-man’ ruler or what Guillermo ODonnell refers to as delegative democracy in the country. Being a vocal and assertive lot, Nigerians will criticize the authoritarian tendencies of their leaders, but they expect leaders to act swiftly or even brutally and bypass laws, if necessary, in pursuance of the common good. The tendency is to equate ‘effective’ or ‘good’ governance with dictatorship or authoritarianism.

Historically, many of the country’s intelligentsia and thought leaders have been at the forefront of voices urging leaders towards authoritarianism.  At independence, the British bequeathed to Nigeria a federal state and a Westminster parliamentary system of government in which the Prime-Minister was only ‘primus inter pares’ and not an ‘all-powerful’ President. But the military incursion into politics in 1966 changed all that. The military boys, inexperienced in the art of governance, relied heavily on civil servants, academics, lawyers and politicians for policies and advice on governance. These civilians, however, only encouraged the military’s tendency to cultivate a centralized system of government with less devolution of power.

Towards the end of the first phase of military rule in 1978, Nigerians got another opportunity to fashion a new constitution.  The constitutional drafting committee, nicknamed ‘49 Wise Men’, was made up of the ‘crème de la crème’ of Nigerian academics, lawyers and politicians. Crucially, the 1979 constitution jettisoned the Westminster parliamentary system for an American-style presidential system of government, and vested of disproportionate powers with the federal government in a context of weak institutional restraints.

The reasons given for the shift were quite revealing of the push for democratisation and strongman politics. On the one hand, the committee highlighted the structural elegance and deeper democratic character of the presidential system. On the other, they also agreed with Leopold Senghor that sharing power between a President and a Prime Minister was not feasible in Africa. Presidentialism, the committee argued, was more compatible with African indigenous kingship/chieftaincy traditions. It also had the capacity to overcome the conflict of authority, personality and ethno-political interest between the ceremonial President and the Prime Minister, which citizens had witnessed in Nigeria’s First Republic. What was more, they reasoned that a developing country like Nigeria needed a strong president who could serve as a symbol of national unity and a custodian of the national interest.

Thirty-five years on, some of the ‘49 Wise Men’ who drafted this constitution – which became a template for subsequent constitutions – have started to express regret for their decisions, describing them as naïve and misguided. However, the predisposition towards strongman leadership is not about to abate. As the supposed ‘cluelessness’ and ‘weakness’ of Jonathan is trumpeted across the country by the opposition and those who want him to ‘rule like a lion or tiger’, the yearning for a ‘no-nonsense’ leader who could possibly apply the ‘J.J. Rawlings medicine’ to Nigeria has intensified. Increasingly, many Nigerians seem to be turning to General Mohammadu Buhari, perhaps, the most tyrannical military ruler in the country’s history, for leadership and inspiration.  His tyrannical past has not just been forgiven, it seems to have actively enhanced his suitability for leadership in the future: Voices across the country have referred to him as ‘Nigeria’s saviour’ and the only credible person to govern the country.

Buhari led the group of military officers that overthrew a legitimately elected government in 1983, and proceeded, under the guise of fighting against corruption and indiscipline, to govern in such a tyrannical manner that journalists were forbidden from reporting anything that could embarrass the regime, even if it were true. Soldiers were sent out with whips to enforce order and discipline on the streets and ensure cleanliness in people’s homes. Special secret military tribunals were set up to try politicians accused of corruption despite protests and boycotts of the tribunals by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). The accused were all presumed guilty until they could prove their innocence, and few managed that task. Most were given ridiculously long sentences, some running into hundreds of years. Certain crimes like drug trafficking, smuggling, and oil bunkering were made to carry the death sentence and three Nigerians were retroactively executed under this law.  The most sensational example of the regime’s recklessness was the botched attempted kidnap and forced repatriation of the Nigerian Umaru Dikko, who was found drugged in a crate in a London airport that had been tagged as diplomatic baggage. This led to a break-up of diplomatic relations between Nigeria and the Britain.

Despite this track record, Buhari’s critics, with a few exceptions, are now part of the choir clamouring for his return to power. He is now expected to be on the presidential ticket of the All Progressive Congress (APC) – a merger of the main opposition parties in Nigeria – for the 2015 election. True, Buhari has contested and lost all presidential elections since 2003, but the reasons for his loses are not connected to his tyrannical past. Instead, they are explained by the fact that he has been labelled – correctly or incorrectly – as a religious fanatic and ethnic champion. The mantle of ‘great’, ‘popular’ and ‘visionary’ leader is still open to authoritarian rulers in Nigeria.


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