Adebajo: Ides of March, ghosts of June
IN ancient Rome, Julius Caesar’s wife had dreamed about his assassination, while a soothsayer had warned him about the “Ides of March.” Both had a sense of foreboding. Caesar was killed in March 44 BC in a meeting of the Roman Senate. The upcoming election in Nigeria also seems to portend similar bad omens of a Shakespearean tragedy. There are signs that the administration of Goodluck Jonathan is playing for time, having lost much support across the country. It is a dangerous game of political poker that could threaten the stability of Africa’s largest economy. As ethically challenged politicians from various parties continue to spread apathy across the country, there are dark murmurings of a plot to shelve the March 28 election and install what would be a constitutionally questionable interim government.
Such a development would surely revive the ghosts of the June 12 ,1993 crisis that took Nigeria to the brink of the abyss after the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida annulled an election in which over 14 million Nigerians had participated. The diabolical Babangida had, since 1985, conducted a “transition without end” which terminated the still-born Third Republic. His military brass hats then pressured him to establish an illegitimate interim government under Ernest Shonekan rather than hand power to the presumed winner of the election, Moshood Abiola. This ephemeral arrangement was terminated, and followed by five years of the brutal rule of General Sani Abacha.
The history of elections in Nigeria has often been one of fraud and violence: from the “Wild West” of the 1960s (when the Western Region burned following rigged elections in 1964/1965 that resulted in about 2,000 deaths) to the profligate Second Republic’s 1983 electoral charade which the military regime of Muhammadu Buhari brought to an end four months later; from the Fourth Republic’s deeply flawed 1999 and 2003 polls to the sham 2007 election in which ballot boxes were stuffed and stolen; voters intimidated; about 200 people killed; and results appeared out of thin air in areas where voting had clearly not taken place, especially in the Niger Delta. Even the victorious president, Umaru Yar’Adua, felt obliged to promise electoral reforms.
The role of Nigeria’s military in the country’s politics has often been critical. Not only did a former general – Olusegun Obasanjo – rule as a civilian leader between 1999 and 2007, another general – Buhari – is now the main opposition leader, trying to win the presidency at the fourth attempt. The legislature and other socio-economic sectors of Nigerian life are also packed with former military officers, several of whom accumulated wealth during successive military regimes. Nigeria’s “men on horseback” have ridden onto the national stage six times since 1966, often proclaiming themselves to be the guardians of national unity seeking to rescue the country from the grip of decadent, corrupt politicians. They espoused such values as self-discipline, honesty, and patriotism. From the regime of General Babangida in 1985, the military, however, completely lost any moral credibility as it descended into an orgy of unbridled looting of the national treasury. It became so discredited under General Abacha’s tyrannical rule that it was shamed to returning to its barracks in 1999.
The Nigerian military has also clearly prided itself on keeping the country together during a traumatic civil war (1967-1970); maintaining Nigeria’s internal security; and conducting peacekeeping operations abroad from the Congo to Chad, from Somalia to Sierra Leone. As Commander of the Nigerian armoured division in Jos during Chadian military attacks on Nigerian villages in the Lake Chad region in 1983, General Muhammadu Buhari had launched military reprisals that went beyond the orders of President Shehu Shagari. Nigeria’s generals were also angered by what they perceived to be Shagari’s weak response after Cameroonian soldiers killed Nigerian citizens in disputed border areas in 1981. They were stung by criticisms of their peacekeeping role in Chad, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
The current military is, however, a shadow of its former self. Some of its top leadership is widely perceived to be politically compromised amidst allegations of corruption that has seen troops out-gunned by Boko Haram militants, and soldiers deployed without proper equipment to United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Darfur. The decay of such a vital national institution is perhaps the worst indictment of an errant Nigerian political elite that has inserted its snout so deeply into the national trough that it cannot even muster the will to protect its own most vital interests. The death of outrage at the failure to protect citizens – over 13,000 of whom have been needlessly massacred by Boko Haram – is simply unforgivable. Along with allegations of widespread graft, this is the main reason why Jonathan would struggle to win a second term in office in a free and fair election.
The tragic decay of the Nigerian army mirrors the decline of other state institutions amidst a crumbling infrastructure. Nigeria, which often boasts of being a regional superpower, is revealing itself to be a giant with clay feet, a regional Gulliver whose troubles are being exposed by soldiers from Lilliputian Chad, Niger, and Cameroon who are now humiliatingly helping Abuja to fulfill the most fundamental task of any government.
It was particularly dangerous to see Nigeria’s military service chiefs criticising General Obasanjo as “an embarrassment” for accusing them of having been used by President Jonathan to postpone the February 14 election. The military top brass’ statement came just after Obasanjo had left the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) following persistent criticisms of Jonathan. What business do military leaders have in appearing to insert themselves into partisan political disputes in a democratic order? How will the middle ranks of a deeply divided Nigerian military respond to their compromised and politicised leadership? As Nigeria approaches its date with destiny, Jonathan would do well to beware the Ides of March and the ghosts of June 12.
• Dr. Adekeye Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, South Africa.