Wednesday, 4th October 2023

Political power in Nigeria – Part 7

By Sylvester Odion Akhaine
15 February 2023   |   4:34 am
Election and Government of National Unity (GNU) are features of the third wave of democratisation in Africa. The third wave is a global wave that began in the 1974 in Portugal with the overthrow of the dictatorship of Marcello Caetano..

National Unity

Election and Government of National Unity (GNU) are features of the third wave of democratisation in Africa. The third wave is a global wave that began in the 1974 in Portugal with the overthrow of the dictatorship of Marcello Caetano (See Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave, 1991). For democracy promoters in the West, the democratisation process is not complete without a definitive election in which a new set of state actors takes control of the political space. The Non-Governmental Organisations, minions, are there to testify on the propriety of elections. In this gregarious pre-occupation with elections, the substance of governance bordering on power relations in society is often neglected, and returns to trouble the polity.

Sarah Bracking offered a brilliant insight into this phenomenon in her 2009 paper presented at the annual Democracy Lecture of the Centre for Constitutionalism and Demilitarisation. She noted that “in theory and practice, elections have become the preferred core institution of those seeking to assess whether a country is becoming more or less democratic, notwithstanding that they exist in a nexus of multiple institutions, and overlapping mediating democratic values which are embedded in a myriad of other social and political behaviours and places.” In this respect, a situation of habituated democratic freedom with less need for an election, or where elections failed to alter power relations in society despite rage, does not matter (see The Constitution, Vol. 10, No. 1, March 2010). In 2003, despite the flawed electoral process, there was the ‘Carter Clause’, i.e. the insufficiency of the flaws to warrant annulment. Similarly, despite the electoral debauchery of 2007, the Nigerian Supreme Court upheld the election.

The GNU, otherwise called coalition government, is a product of the resolution of power struggles among the political class. It is usually a product of disputed polls that are characterised by violence that pushes the polity to a tipping point. In older democracies, it is a function of war or national emergencies. Kenya and Zimbabwe exemplify this phenomenon in Africa’s contemporary political developments.

Between April 2008 and 2013, due to the controversial 2007 presidential election involving Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement and Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity, a coalition government was set up in Kenya. Consequently, Odinga became the non-executive Prime Minister while Kibaki remained president. In Zimbabwe, Government of National Unity was formed on February 13, 2009, under the mediation of the Southern African Development Community. As a result, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change became Prime Minister while Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front stayed as President. As Bracking noted in her lecture, these two instances are examples of “how elites retain power in the face of denial of a democratic mandate to do otherwise.”

Nigeria’s electoral atmosphere is tense, and there is the lurking fear of whether elections will be free and fair. If the elections are not free and fair, will the contestants accept the outcome? How will the electorate relate to it? So, in the end, this can portend crises for the polity. The only way to resolve this type of crisis as we have seen in the context of the third wave of democratization in Africa is that you either have a coalition government that seeks to bring all the warring partners together or have an interim government of impartial players that would prepare another leveling field for the proper transfer of power. So this is one of the possibilities in the political arena. Notably, Afe Babalola has proposed it to settle the substance of politics, in other words, the nagging national question, as a prelude to the imprimatur of elections.

The ‘inheritance elite’, minders of the second front on the platform of the PDP are forward-looking. The triumph of the PDP will predictably morph into a political crisis, an identity one, hence the open affirmation by Atiku Abubakar that he would form a government of national unity. The London meetings of the last quarter of 2022 broached the idea of an interim government. They did, perhaps, in anticipation of many unpleasant scenarios. Recall that the crisis of June 12, 1993, presidential election was reigned in, albeit temporarily, through an interim contraption headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan.

I noted in the preceding serial that a surge in the activities of bandits and insurgents might create a force majeure, a situation whereby it becomes impossible to hold the elections. Indeed, Simon Ekpa of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) has already issued a warning that elections would not be allowed to hold in the South-East without a referendum (

By the provisions of the Nigerian constitution, candidates for the presidency must win 1/4 of the votes cast in two-thirds of the 36 states of the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory. The implication is that if no candidates polled the absolute majority of the votes in ways that satisfy the constitutional provisions, there will be a re-run. The re-run, however, may present its peculiar problems as no one can predict what the reaction of the electorate or the politicians will be. So aggravated, it could become a justification for postponing the elections indefinitely, which might, prima facie, lead to a political vacuum. 

The 1999 Constitution as amended provides against any vacuum to the effect that the incumbent could remain in office in the event of war as provided for in Section 135 (3): “ If the Federation is at war in which the territory of Nigeria is physically involved and the President considers that it is not practicable to hold elections, the National Assembly may by resolution extend the period of four years mentioned in subsection (2) of this section from time to time; but no such extension shall exceed a period of six months at any one time.” Perhaps, only a few Nigerians will tolerate the continuation of the Buhari administration beyond May 29, 2023. So, Nigeria is in a dilemma if these dynamics do not culminate in a smooth transfer of power at the end of the day.

An intriguing form of the interim government is also possible. This will be in the form of a coup d’état by the men on horseback. Historically, in this part, their incursion into politics is an aberration and therefore, an interregnum of sorts. The talk of the town is that if things go off course, this outcome is possible. It is significant enough to earn a rebuttal from the military. The Acting Director of Defence Information, Brigadier General, Tukur Gusau, stated: “The Armed Forces of Nigeria notes with dismay the story being peddled around by some unscrupulous elements alleging that some military officers met with a Presidential candidate with the aim of disrupting the general elections and setting the country on fire. The wicked and very malicious propaganda indicated that a so-called Thursday meeting is plotting a Coup d’état to establish unconstitutional order…It needs to be stated that the Armed Forces of Nigeria is a professional military that is loyal to the constitution of the Federal Republic and will never be part of any evil plot against our democracy. Besides, the Military remains apolitical and neutral in the current political process and will not engage in the alleged shenanigans. The Armed Forces of Nigeria will never be part of any ignoble plot to truncate our hard-earned democracy”(

Whatever happens, the worst-case scenario is a stalemate that might precipitate an interim government in any form. Retrospectively, however, the reason this impasse persists is the inability of the neo-colonial elite to transcend the inherited colonial structures of state (see Georges Nzongiola-Ntalaja, Democratic Transitions in Africa, The Constitution, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2006). The next installment will focus on hegemony and the politics of health.
• Akhaine, Ph.D. (London), former General Secretary of the Campaign for Democracy in Nigeria, is a Professor of Political Science and Visiting Member of The Guardian Editorial Board.