A civilian transition?

In most of the “first world” the notion of democratic power transfer is taken for granted. When an old government is thrown out at the polls, and a new one elected, no one in Canada ever wonders if the old government will, in fact, relinquish power … its taken for granted that the people have the final say in who governs, and there is no legitimate reason, or method, for a defeated Canadian government to remain in power. If a defeated Canadian Prime Minister were to attempt to take control of the military to forcibly hold onto the leadership of Canada, it would be seen throughout the world as a truly shocking event. Even the logistics of how a Canadian PM might manage to get enough of the Armed Forces to go along with him to make this even remotely viable are nearly impossible to imagine … its simply not even a credible option to imagine a military coup d’etat in Canada in response to an election that went differently from the incumbant’s expectations.

And yet, in much of the “third world,” such a situation is par for the course. Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is holding elections this week, and while these will not be the first Nigerian elections by a long shot, the change of power after this election may very well be the first transition from one civilian authority to another in the Nation’s history. The current administration of Olusegun Obasanjo has already been elected to 2 successive terms and is prohibited from running for a third, making it virtually certain that new rulers will lead Nigeria after this election, even if from Obasanjo’s party. When that happens, it will mark the first time in Nigerian history that one democratically elected President has handed over power to another democratically elected President.

The only other civilian regime in “modern” Nigeria (since the fall of the First Republic in 1966), that of Shehu Shagari from 1979-1983, actually came into power because of elections and a transition to civilian rule overseen by the then military dictator, Olusegun Obasanjo, and he remains the only military leader in Nigerian history (prior to the beginning of the current, Fourth Republic) to willingly give up power to a democratic, civilian President. That a former military dictator also became the first President of the Nigerian Fourth Republic (the Second Republic was Shagari’s short regime, with the First Republic being the period of independence prior to 1966 and the third being the non-rule of MKO Abiola in 1993) might seem a bit incongruous to outsider’s, but that it was Obasanjo made a lot of sense to people familiar with Nigerian political history.

Other than Obasanjo’s elections in the modern Fourth Republic, that pretty much covers the extent of success in the Nigerian Democratic experiment. Shagari’s regime was overthrown by Muhhammadu Buhari on New Year’s Eve 1983, citing charges of corruption (an astute reader might also notice Buhari’s name among the contenders for democratic President as well, leading the party opposing Obasanjo), and while another election was scheduled for June of 1993 by Buhari’s successor (in another coup d’etat, this one over charged human rights abuses by the Buhari regime) Ibrahim Babangida, the results of that election were annulled by IBB. While there is still no officially accepted results from the 1993 election, it quickly became clear that Mosood Abiola’s victory over Bashir Tofa was not the expected result as far as Babangida was concerned, leading to the annulment of the elections. While Abiola was jailed and later died in prison, Babangida didn’t get off either. Public demonstrations and condemnation of the election annulment eventually led to the overthrow of Babangida by yet another military dictator, Sani Abacha, in late 1993. In 1998, Abacha died suddenly (there is still a lot of speculation about his death … officially listed as a heart attack, there is speculation he overdosed on Viagra as he was with prostitutes when he died) and was succeeded by Abdulsalami Abubakar who ushered in the elections (considered generally the cleanest elections in Nigerian history) of 1999 that saw Obasanjo win his first democratic term as president.

The end result of this long, winding road to Nigerian democracy is that no democratic leader has ever handed over power to a new, different democratic leader. There was a chance for that to happen in 2003, but with Obasanjo again winning the vote, no transition took place. In this case, Obasanjo is done no matter how the vote turns out, leaving him to transition power to someone else, even within his own party. With one of the strongest contenders in the race being 2003’s runner up and former military leader Buhari, its possible that this election may bring not only Nigeria’s first transition from civilian to civilian rule, in typical Nigerian irony, its also very likely that both the last and the next “democratically elected President’s of Nigeria” will both be former military dictators. Only in Nigeria would that be seen as a positive step towards a functional democracy, but its definitely a step in the right direction.

Picture from PCR Project, devoted to Post-conflict reconstruction. PCR Project provides an EXCELLENT primer on the Nigerian election linked from the picture above …

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