Averting democratic disaster - Tatalo Alamu

Once again an organic crisis of the state grips Nigeria. The post-military democratic order is in grave danger. The atmosphere is thick with foreboding. There is so much anger and ill-temper in the land. Insults are let loose like verbal missiles. While poverty of vision and loss of initiative permeate the entire political class, the president is behaving like an all-conquering emperor with impressive anti-democratic credentials.

This is not the way to go if we want to preserve and entrench democratic rule in this unhappy clime. After General Abacha’s despotic blitz which followed the annulment of the democratic wishes of Nigerians, the 1999 Settlement and the return to civil rule was the only thing that saved Nigeria from looming disintegration.  Nigeria cannot return to iron-fisted rule without the fragile elite consensus which underwrites the Fourth Republic collapsing.

His messianic zeal buoyed by adulation in certain quarters,  General Buhari treats civil and civic obligations with the kind of contempt and disdain he did not and could not contemplate even as the head of a military junta given the reality of countervailing power and possibilities of that era. The paradox is that despite its essentially despotic and anti-democratic nature, military rule among peers in multi-ethnic and multi-religious nations had its own inbuilt anti-dictator dynamism.

It was this constellation of contrary forces that eventually brought the general from Daura to grieve. In any badly polarized and bitterly divided nation, any sanitizing mission which is not underwritten by substantial elite buy in and endorsement is bound to falter at some point. This is at the heart of the contradiction that has hobbled Buhari’s anti-corruption crusade.

Unfortunately in the current conjuncture, General Buhari is not helped by evidence of organic dysfunction in the first family. The open bickering and nasty infighting emanating from the precincts of power in Aso Rock are a costly distraction and do not portray the president as sovereign over his own private affairs.

There is something to be said for the stoic discipline and forbearance which do not allow the murky effluents of domestic dissonance and marital meltdown to seep through the portals of public matters. But rather than indulge in insult and recriminations, we must put on our thinking caps once again to plot how the current crisis can be resolved in favour of the continuation of the democratic project rather than its swift termination in chaos and anarchy.

To do this is to face certain awkward and uncomfortable facts and home truths. General Buhari is not the first elected ruler in the Fourth Republic to exhibit despotic tendencies. But he is the one determined to drive this contradiction to its logical conclusion thereby exposing the fragile and ethically-challenged template of a military ordained democracy. It is in the nature of unnegotiated diarchies that they will be vulnerable to anti-democratic strongmen particularly of military provenance.

Yet whatever the current level of anger and disappointment with him, it would have been impossible for the president to gain his initial political ascendancy without the support of the majority of his compatriots and other critical sectors. That widespread support, except in the most classic instance of delusional daydreaming or wishful thinking, could not have been predicated on Buhari’s democratic credentials or capacity to deepen the democratic process.

Buhari’s critical supporters, among which were many famed patriots, held the fervent belief that by ending terrorism and insurgency and by battling corruption to a standstill, he could free much needed national resources in order to address the fundamental problem of poverty in such a way that this can be leveraged towards the democratic emancipation of average Nigerians.

But as hopes of a fundamental economic re-engineering of the nation recedes in the face of accelerating poverty and immiseration of the people, and as evidence of a reflexive intolerance of democratic institutions mounts with an increasing resort to self-help and serial constitutional infractions, a mood of despair and despondency has overtaken the nation. The pessimism is such that in some quarters, it has been concluded that neither democracy nor development is possible under the current structural configuration of the nation.

In such dire circumstances, rather than looking forward, this column this morning has decided to cast a retrospective look backward to the last major manifestation of an organic crisis of the Nigerian post-colonial state and how it was impossible to resolve until there was a major reconstitution and reconfiguration of the Nigerian ruling class.

Written for The News magazine which remained proscribed at that point in time, it was an inquiry into the nature of organic crises and an appraisal of the chances of General Sani Abacha just as the dark-goggled one unleashed a campaign of terror on the nation the like of which had never been seen before then. Needless to add that what the article predicted was what eventually took place exactly four years after much bloodshed and national trauma.

Injury Time

The game so beloved by Nigeria’s ruling oligarchy has reached what is known in footballing parlance as injury time. As all soccer fanatics know, it is indeed a most critical moment, distinguished by anxiety and acute uncertainty.

Within the twinkling of an eye, anything can go wrong and , invariably, things do go wrong. Carefully laid plans go up in smoke. The players themselves, with tired limbs, declining vision and deteriorating coordination, look towards the referee for early deliverance.

Since events have conspired to make it impossible to settle for a draw, since a clear winner must emerge, it is this fleeting moment that determines whether the match will end in a penalty shoot-out or the phenomenon known as sudden death.

This is the moment that has stolen upon us. As the nation lurches and staggers from one crisis to another, as one incompetent measure is hurried abandoned for even more inept “solutions”, as the state loses its authority and becomes more authoritarian, it is clear that we are faced with what is known as an organic crisis.

An organic crisis, because it affects the organism, is a profound crisis usually requiring major surgery or mercy killing as the case may be. Nations are also like human beings, and when  an affliction becomes terminal, when suffering is unbearably acute, when human misery is so stark and remorseless, it is time to consider the virtues of euthanasia.

Let us enlist the authority of Professor T.R Bates to describe an organic crisis. According to him: “an organic crisis involves the totality of society as well as its superstructure. An organic crisis is manifested as a crisis of hegemony, in which the people cease to believe the words of the nation’s leaders, and begin to abandon the traditional parties. The precipitating factor in such a crisis is frequently the failure of the ruling class in some large undertaking such as war, for which it demanded the consent and sacrifice of the people”

The current crisis has shown just how unviable a state that undermines the possibility of the nation-state has become. To move forward, Nigeria as a nation requires a new state. Failing this, the Nigeria state in its current military-feudal incarnation will need a new nation, a nation constituted along its medieval and feudalistic ethos. Either way, it is clear that something will have to give: the nation or the state.

No one can be sure about the possibilities of the current crisis, for as Gramsci has noted, “no social class is ever willing to confess that it had been superseded”. Let us recall Bates again. “This is a very dangerous moment in civic life, for if the efforts of the mandarins fail, and if the progressives forces still fail to impose their own solution, the old ruling class may seek salvation in a divine leader. This “Caesar” may give the old order a “Breathing spell” by exterminating the opposing elite and terrorising its mass support”.

The writer might well have had Nigeria in mind. Yet as history continues to show, no matter how long, the forces of rationality always triumph over irrational forces. What can be more rational in late twentieth century than a government based on accountability and democratic principles? This is what the people of Nigeria demand from their feudal and military tormentors, and they cannot lose. The international climate is in their favour. The civilized world bade goodbye to absolutist tyrants a very long time ago.

It is a tragic irony, then, that at the precise moment that Nigeria requires a leadership that can perform prodigious feats of political imagination, it has been saddled with a leadership that has shown little or no imagination at all. With tact and great astuteness the Nigerian military and political oligarchy might still be able to salvage a little portion of its honour and a substantial part of its loot.

But as its enemies close in on all fronts, as an invincible array of aggrieved forces coalesce against the moribund oligarchy, the prospects of a safe passage diminish. The past six months are a compelling testimony to the spectacular moral and political ruination of Nigeria’s dominant ruling class. The government of General Sani Abacha is an absolute disaster. In retrospect, the general has done himself and his nation a disservice by taking over the reins of power.

His mode of governance is a classic study in political plagiarism: the same tired tricks, the same dubious talks, the same devious antics of his disgraced predecessor. A nation with a battered psyche, a battered polity and a battered economy surely deserves better. The government’s prospects have not been helped by most of the politicians co-opted to serve.

These overly ambitious enemies of civil society, confusing their own rank opportunism with realpolitik are carrying on as if a Political Transition Programme which is utterly devoid of democratic content is all that matters. As with the Babangida Transition  Programme, they will discover that there is nothing to hand over.

At the end of the day, they will discover that they have merely been conscripted into The Military Party of Nigeria and as such cannot expect their masters to hand over to junior partners. Those of them with undemocratic antecedents will not find it hard to rationalise, since they never believe in genuine democracy in the first instance. It is those with democratic pretensions who will find it impossible to return to base.

  • Excerpts from Injury Time published in The News, 30 May, 1994.

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