Preventing military coups in Africa: Attention, Nigeria

President Bola Tinubu

President Bola Tinubu

By Tonnie Iredia

Two recent military coups in neighbouring Niger and Gabon have heightened discussions in Nigeria about the possibility of military intervention in the politics of the nation. The feeling appears so palpable considering the commonality of causative factors that, over the years, have always influenced military rule in Africa: societal restiveness, a poor economy, failed elections, pervasive corruption, the extravagance of politicians, and the helplessness of civic society, accentuated by the disappearance of the middle class.

In Nigeria, the division of society into two classes—those who have everything and those who have nothing—is more visibly felt than anywhere else. This has left many people to pray not just for something to change but for it to come through the efficacy of a military coup. The recent decision of the military hierarchy in Nigeria to formally dismiss such undemocratic undertones in the country is instructive.

Democracy is no doubt acclaimed worldwide as the best form of government, but democracy is not a matter for claims. Rather, it is a system of government that is based on freedom and the politics of equality. Its features are not only sacred; they are offensive when adulterated. There are five such critical features, namely: the sovereignty of the people, the rule of law, free and fair elections, majority rule, and the protection of minority rights. To qualify as a democracy, therefore, the sovereignty of the people on whose behalf the government functions is not negotiable. It is the people who matter, not the government. A democratic country in which everyone is equal before the law cannot allow certain privileged citizens to use law enforcement agencies to detain their opponents or critics without trial. To manipulate an election process for losers to become winners nullifies real majority rule, just as democracy as a game of numbers is contingent upon the protection of minority rights.

What the above features suggest is that those who are anxious to prevent military coups in Nigeria must first endeavour to make Nigeria a democracy. It is erroneous to continue to argue that the worst form of democracy is better than the most benevolent military rule because there is no difference between military rule and civilian rule, or fake democracy. Those who argue that soldiers who shoot their way into government were not elected by the people must be fair enough to agree that those who come into office through the manipulation of the votes of citizens were also not elected by the people. Soldiers in government are not accountable to the people because they were not elected by them. Similarly, election riggers in government only mouth service to the people; rather than serve, they amass wealth in readiness for the manipulation of the next set of elections. It is therefore undemocratic to have elections that are neither free nor fair.

In truth, Nigerian politicians do not believe in hitch-free elections. They prefer to devote all their energies to circumventing electoral laws and guidelines. Although the constitution provides for an electoral body made up of people who are transparently non-partisan, many electoral officials in Nigeria are card-carrying members of the ruling party. By so doing, some players in the game of election are also referees in the same game. Again, our constitution provides for a democratically elected system of local government, yet our governors always ensure that government at that local level is run by caretaker committees made up of party members. Where local government elections are organised, the state electoral bodies are directed to ensure the election of all chairmen and councillors of the ruling party. The goal is to divert public resources accruing to them at that level from the federation account to the personal use of governors and their parties.

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In a democracy, everything is scheduled. For example, after electioneering comes governance. In Nigeria’s democracy, every election is for electioneering. As soon as one election ends, electioneering begins for the next election due in four years. Already, state governors who came into office a few months ago are currently busy leading campaign teams in other states whose elections are soon. When will such governors govern their states? Why can’t such governors concentrate on governance while their party officials use the party machinery for their current campaigns? In Edo State, for instance, governorship elections are not this year but next year, yet the matter of the moment in that state is the number of governorship aspirants that are already engaged in open campaigns. If Kogi, Imo, and Bayelsa, with their nearby governorship elections, are doing nothing else but electioneering, should that also be the fate of others, such as Edo, whose elections are not immediately around the corner?

The result of our culture of “election without end” is poor governance, which makes it virtually impossible for the living standards of ordinary people to improve. Nigeria’s electioneering is not only long and capital-intensive; it is also bastardised. To start with, incumbents are busy placing hurdles in the way of their opponents during campaigns. This shortchanges the electorate because state facilities do not belong to a ruling political party; they belong to the people and ought to be used for public enlightenment. The level playing field that guarantees the politics of equality is distorted when opposition parties are precluded from using public facilities such as stadiums or any other platform. Indeed, state media outfits are propelled to shut their doors to opposition political parties in breach of the electoral law, which directs the public media to provide equal time for all.

Poor governance in society frustrates all and sundry, such that aggrieved soldiers think of nothing but coups while traumatised citizens troop out to rejoice and embrace military intervention in politics. To prevent Africa’s wind of coups from blowing towards Nigeria, so much has to be done to keep society on good footing. First, it is necessary to draw a fine line between electioneering and governance. A presidential or governorship candidate has to be loyal to his party, but when he becomes president or governor, his oath of office demands that his loyalty shift to the general public. The trend in Nigeria, in which members of the ruling party want to constitute the government alone, is parochial. In the last few days, some APC members have openly condemned the appointment of a non-party member to a newly constituted board. The posture works against inclusivity as the officeholder was not elected by members of only one party.

Monopoly, which members of a ruling party seek to exercise over government, is particularly dangerous as it has the capacity to swell up the numerical strength of ordinary people who feel aggrieved against government. It is, in fact, offensive for a government to allow itself to be seen as not belonging to all. Some non-partisan citizens, especially notable technocrats, must be included in any government that intends to succeed in developing society. After all, the most effective members of successive governments in Nigeria were sourced on the basis of their track records of service and not because they were card-carrying members of the ruling party. Unless the government follows such a well-tested pattern of leadership recruitment, a conducive environment would be created for civil society groups to distract the government with criticism only.

It is also important for the government to depoliticize the security agencies as well as the military. Ironically, those who went to court in the past against the use of the military in our elections have, since 2015, consolidated the same anomaly. But when it is convenient, it is said that the military must not intervene in politics. There is an urgent need to equip the forces appropriately and give them attractive conditions of service. The new National Security Adviser has reportedly begun moves to reposition the police to take full charge of internal security. It is hoped that he will also sensitise them to recognise that in a democracy, public protests are allowed and not teargassed. It is also hoped that the common practise of supersession among our uniform forces will be checked. If not, those who are superseded or compulsorily retired to pave the way for their chosen juniors to take control of the forces will join the army of aggrieved citizens, especially the massive unemployed youths, to canvass, urge, and pray for military coups.

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