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Nigerian Politics - Background

The first-past-the-post electoral system Nigeria inherited from Britain helped create the take-no-prisoners approach to elections which had led to violence and disunity. Nigeria is a country that is large and difficult to manage. The most populous country in Africa, Nigeria accounts for over half of West Africa's population. Although less than 25% of Nigerians are urban dwellers, at least 24 cities have populations of more than 100,000. The variety of customs, languages, and traditions among Nigeria's 250 ethnic groups gives the country a rich diversity. The dominant ethnic group in the northern two-thirds of the country is the Hausa-Fulani, most of whom are Muslim. Other major ethnic groups of the north are the Nupe, Tiv, and Kanuri. The Yoruba people are predominant in the southwest. Nigeria is still very much a tribal society, in which clan, tribal and regional jealousies, hostilities and interests count for more than national attachment.

About half of the Yorubas are Christian and half Muslim. The predominantly Catholic Igbo are the largest ethnic group in the southeast, with the Efik, Ibibio, and Ijaw comprising a substantial segment of the population in that area. Persons of different language backgrounds most commonly communicate in English, although knowledge of two or more Nigerian languages is widespread. Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Fulani, and Kanuri are the most widely used Nigerian languages.

Nigeria faces enormous economic and social problems, despite being the world's sixth largest oil exporting country. Under the impact of the collapse of oil prices and years of military rule, it has become the world's thirteenth poorest nation.

Authoritarian rule by an institutionalized oligarchy constitutes the main structural obstacle to deepening democratic rule in Nigeria. Oligarchic rule in Nigeria is founded on two reinforcing structural factors: total economic dependence on the redistribution of petroleum and gas revenues, and the centralization of financial and political power in the office of the presidency. Whatever stability is achieved by the redistribution of patronage among the regional interests constituting the national oligarchy, the positive contribution is simultaneously undermined by the resulting political uncertainty, regulatory weaknesses, and economic disorder. Together, this combination of insecurity, petro-dependency, and the need to hold or have access to the presidency drives members of the oligarchy to fix elections, organize political violence, constantly reshuffle alliances, and avoid institutionalizing stable political parties.

The informal exercise of power by Nigerias political oligarchy exerts more control over daily life than do formal institutions. The formal and informal powers converge in the office of the president who largely monopolizes oil revenues to reward and cement his patrimonial networks. This centralization of power, security, and financial resources in the presidency constitutes a major obstacle to the realization of Nigerian democracy.

This oligarchic control of political power contributes to patterns of inefficient centralization, a dearth of meaningful representation within the political system, and a culture of impunity that dates back to military rule. This has created a stark gap between the rulers and the ruled, leading to a general dissatisfaction and cynicism regarding governance combined with growing sentiments of injustice which are fueled by attempts to manipulate ethno-religious rivalries. This directly threatens political stability, which is extraordinarily fragile. A breakdown in stability could undermine ongoing reform efforts, which the analysis indicates are beginning to gain some traction in each of the areas of governance despite the predominant obstacles.

Twenty years of military rule and poor governance from 1975 to 1999 did much to intensify the prospects for conflict, while seriously damaging Nigerian society's capacity to contain, manage, and resolve disputes. The vast looting of petroleum-derived public resources, the open door to corruption, and the lack of accountability of GFRN officials to citizens combined to produce economic stagnation, declining living standards, and abuse of power. Protests highlighting these ills, such as in Ogoni land in the Niger Delta over oil-related problems, and in the Southwest over the 1993 elections, elicited immediate and ruthless repression from most of Nigerias military regimes (i.e., those headed by Buhari and Sani Abacha).

Simultaneously, praetorian leaders and their military and civilian supporters corrupted, dismissed, or destroyed the staffs of the conventional institutions of constitutional systems for managing conflict, such as legislatures, human rights commissions, and courts. Notable among them was Ibrahim Babangida (19851993). He employed gentler tactics than his friend Abacha, but did more to corrupt the society as a whole. Military leaders also corrupted, manipulated, and intimidated local-level, indigenous, and community institutions of conflict management and collective action. Military misrule weakened the economy and severely undermined the middle class and the institutions it staffed (universities and the civil service). Growing inequality brought together a generation of youths facing extremely limited economic prospects, led to the rise of intimidating groups of area boys (local toughs), and forced all political players to compete for their slice of the federal cake. Many analysts also assert that poverty explains much of the rise of contemporary mass religious movements, whether in the South or the North.

During this same period the military government ignored or suppressed burning problems and grievances, which are now bursting into the open. These include the problem of the rise of serious crime and personal insecurity, illustrated by the growth of the area boys, the corruption of the police and much of the judicial system, and the rise of vigilantism as practiced by the Bakassi Boys and the Oodudwa Peoples Congress (OPC). Although crime appeared less an issue in the North, many asserted that popular support for the Muslim hisba groups, who work to enforce the sharia, can be understood as a rejection of the social disorder growing in part from the corruption and decline of conventional governance institutions. In the oil-rich Delta, Nigerias failure to deal with the environmental and economic problems has spawned persistent, low-grade anarchic behavior, typically between small groups of youths and oil companies, but also frequently between youths from neighboring communities. Depending on circumstances, such groups function either as self-defense associations or incipient mafias.

In August 1998, the Abubakar government appointed the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct elections for local government councils, state legislatures and governors, the National Assembly, and president. INEC held a series of four successive elections between December 1998 and February 1999. Former military head of state Olusegun Obasanjo, freed from prison by Abubakar, ran as a civilian candidate and won the presidential election. Irregularities marred the vote, and the defeated candidate, Chief Olu Falae, challenged the electoral results and Obasanjo's victory in court.

The PRC promulgated a new constitution, based largely on the suspended 1979 constitution, before the May 29, 1999 inauguration of the new civilian president. The constitution included provisions for a bicameral legislature, the National Assembly, consisting of a 360-member House of Representatives and a 109-member Senate. The executive branch and the office of president retained strong federal powers. The legislature and judiciary, having suffered years of neglect, needed to rebuild as institutions and begin exercising their constitutional roles in the balance of power.

The emergence of a democratic Nigeria in May 1999 ended 16 years of consecutive military rule. Olusegun Obasanjo became the steward of a country suffering economic stagnation and the deterioration of most of its democratic institutions. Obasanjo, a former general, was admired for his stand against the Abacha dictatorship, his record of returning the federal government to civilian rule in 1979, and his claim to represent all Nigerians regardless of religion.

The new President took over a country that faced many problems, including a dysfunctional bureaucracy, collapsed infrastructure, and a military that wanted a reward for returning quietly to the barracks. The President moved quickly and retired hundreds of military officers who held political positions, established a blue-ribbon panel to investigate human rights violations, ordered the release of scores of persons held without charge, and rescinded a number of questionable licenses and contracts let by the previous military regimes. The government also moved to recover millions of dollars in funds secreted in overseas accounts.

Most civil society leaders and most Nigerians saw a marked improvement in human rights and democratic practice under Obasanjo. The press enjoyed greater freedom than under previous governments. As Nigeria worked out representational democracy, there were conflicts between the executive and legislative branches over major appropriations and other proposed legislation. A sign of federalism was the growing visibility of state governors and the inherent friction between Abuja and the various state capitols over resource allocation.

In the years following the end of military rule, Nigeria witnessed recurrent incidents of ethno-religious and community conflicts, many of which derived from distorted use of oil revenue wealth, flaws in the 1999 constitution, and longstanding disputes over the distribution of land and other resources. In May 1999, violence erupted in Kaduna State over the succession of an Emir, resulting in more than 100 deaths. In November 1999, the army destroyed the town of Odi in Bayelsa State and killed scores of civilians in retaliation for the murder of 12 policemen by a local gang. In Kaduna in February-May 2000 over 1,000 people died in rioting over the introduction of criminal Shar'ia in the state. Hundreds of ethnic Hausa were killed in reprisal attacks in southeastern Nigeria. In September 2001, over 2,000 people were killed in inter-religious rioting in Jos. In October 2001, hundreds were killed and thousands displaced in communal violence that spread across the Middle-Belt states of Benue, Taraba, and Nasarawa. On October 1, 2001, President Obasanjo announced the formation of a National Security Commission to address the issue of communal violence.

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