The Order/Other of Political Culture: Reflections on Nigeria’s Fourth Democratic Experiment

The Fallen House

Political commentators are quick to comment on Nigeria’s capacities for survival. They are puzzled by how the barely cohesive country manages to stumble from one crisis to another without leading to dismemberment or the irreversible slide into genocidal conflict. This article reflects on Nigeria’s fourth democratic experiment (1999- ) and on the numerous and often disorienting paradoxes, contradictions and conundrums that arise within an archetypal postcolonial setting. It also attempts to depict the kinds of social disorder that neoliberal policies bring to the fore in a milieu where the private-public distinction is still blurred by the unresolved tensions between the colonial and the postcolonial, between the modern and the premodern, between vestiges of feudalism and late capitalism, and finally between residual militarism and unsystematic demilitarisation.

In addition, we have to note that as a result of the problematic private-public axis, multiple bases of political power drawing their various impetuses from colonial and modern orientations and from religious structures of authority and an obscure secularism in turn give rise to often violent syncretisms not only in everyday life but also at the very core of centralised political power. Constitutional processes can only be made meaningful if and when political agency, subjectivities, practices and institutions are construed as emerging from a multiplicity of variables (colonial, postcolonial, secular, religious and neoliberal). This complex scenario throws into disarray state-imposed strictures of governance (democracy from above) and affords a site of struggle for an enfeebled civil society to articulate its counter-discourse against state-imposed political processes (Ekeh 1975; Mamdani 1996).

This article suggests what conditions of existence are like in a context where there is often hardly any difference between the licit and the illicit, and where corrupt practices are not only a fact of everyday life but indeed a virtual requirement of survival (Oliver de Sardan 1999).

We shall also explore the continuities of militarism in relation to Nigerian democracy. Militarism and democracy do not constitute separate or distinct categories, as they frequently meet at the level of constitutional processes, governmental policy-making, and various other sociopolitical processes. Democracy is usually understood and employed as a technical concept fashioned in accordance with the imperatives of the Bretton Woods institutional order. Thus it becomes a concept without precise historical and cultural linkages, drawing its political force from an unproblematised understanding of the discourse of universal human rights. It is in these terms, however, that the struggles for Nigerian democracy have been waged. But the conflation of militarist and democratic mentalities has other conceptual implications as well: the conflation of legitimate and illegitimate political activity, the redeployments of ethnicity as a form of political capital, and finally, the remobilisations and redefinitions of jurisprudence according to new pressures on the conceptions of legitimacy, ethnicity and power.

Nigeria still faces many of the problems that led to the civil war of 1967-70: internecine ethnic struggles, large-scale governmental corruption, labyrinthine and unnecessary bureaucracies, a seemingly uncontrollable military establishment, religious intolerance, widespread crime leading to a general breakdown of law and order, the rise of powerful ethnic militias, acute pauperisation (skeletonisation) of large segments of the population, collapsed social services and infrastructure, and a host of other national difficulties (Maier 2000).

It also faces the problem of resolving the national question just as it attempts to cope with the challenge of drawing lessons from the many versions of its history (Osaghae 2002). The endless revelations that assault Nigeria’s moral sense are probably the reason for its lack of a feasible ideological base and its distorted and contradictory collective consciousness.1 Thus, oftentimes, the very meanings of corruption, accountability and even nationhood become difficult to specify.

Reinventing Democracy

David Landes, in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, enumerates the classic textbook problems of Africa: “bad government, unexpected sovereignty, backward technology, inadequate education, bad climate, incompetent if not dishonest advice, poverty, hunger, disease, overpopulation – a plague of plagues” (1998: 499).2 He adds, “no other part of the globe is so much prisoner to survival” (500). These various problems, encountered by African governments and peoples at the onset of independence, have become increasingly complex. “Independence”, “liberty” and “democracy” are seductive words, but in Africa in particular, they have been much abused.

Democracy in Nigeria is rarely associated with its classical Athenian origins. This is not to say that acquaintance with that precedent might have yielded a vastly different political outcome, but the harried nature of the present democratic experiment often displays an acute shortsightedness. It is never fully understood how “the political way of life is, by definition, possible only through the existence of a community” (Villa 1996: 47). Here, the much analysed conflation of public and private domains is indeed relevant. The public domain in Africa is usually devoid of accountability and responsibility, as modern notions of sovereignty and citizenship clash with the most basic forms of communalism/mutualism. In the Athenian model, “the public realm presents a theatrical space, a ‘stage,’ which offers an escape from the darkness and determinism of biological and psychological dimensions of human existence” (ibid.). In Aristotle’s Ethics, friendship and justice are essentially what construct the social bond (Butler et al. 2000). It has been noted that “civic faith depends in part precisely on its adaptability to the circumstances and conditions of particular peoples of particular historical moments” and, consequently, that although technology transfer may work, “institution transfer almost never does. Democratic institutions succeed because they are molded to the landscape in which they are grounded and planted in the soil of a well-established civil society” (Barber 1996: 141).

Also institutions, systems of production and modes of knowledge generation, storage and dissemination are now linked to complex postmodern technologies (Amin 1994). The advent of the information age is poised to raise additional problems for Third World practices of democracy, just as the lack of conceptual moorings has always done. In the information age, “all kinds of discoveries, from worlds as far apart as genetics and molecular biology, military requirements, management theory, encryption theory and obscure new fields of mathematical advances, were coming together to create a cyclone of social and business change and a furnace of innovations and possibilities” (Howell 2000: xx). Most postcolonial societies are far removed from these important developments (and when they aren’t, their insertion into the global system is marked by violence, arbitrariness and the more disabling tropes of spectralisation), but it is difficult to conceive of the future of democracy without them.3 The relative underdevelopment of civil societies in the African postcolony places great expectations on governments to develop those very societies as the continuing digitalisation of the postindustrial world makes the ghettoisation of most parts of the African postcolony even more apparent.

Max Weber claimed that the Industrial Revolution created a “new kind of man.” It has been argued that contemporary globalisation has had a similar effect. Technology is giving rise to new forms of autonomy that are transforming not only the individual but the entire political process. Traditional hierarchical structures are being at once eroded and reinforced as extremely powerful networks of interaction, information and communication gain prominence.

We require a serious reconsideration of democracy, its meanings and various trajectories in Africa (Ake 2001). Democracy, because of its attractiveness and its immense emancipatory potential, is increasingly being usurped by undemocratic forces and transformed into an instrument of oppression (Ihonvbere 2001). Despots realising the essential malleability of democracy as a concept have devised ingenious ways of deploying it for the work of death (Arendt 1973). Some African theorists with varying degrees of directness4 have deployed this concept under African conditions, where politics, even when camouflaged as a modern and civil activity, is never far from the practices found in states of exception. Power is devoid of accountability and thus becomes Hobbesian. Opportunistic political actors exploit widespread democratic expectations for self-serving motives.

In many African regions, civil disorder is provoked by adverse environmental factors such as lack of water, farmland and natural resources. In essence we are entering a bifurcated world. Part of the globe is inhabited by Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s Last Man, healthy, well fed and pampered by technology. The other, larger, part is inhabited by Hobbes’s First Man, condemned to a life that is “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Needless to add, the majority of African nations belong to the Hobbesian sector. But the new technological imperialisms differ from and subvert the old relations of power established by industrial capital. The new constellations of financial capital cut across all nationalities, classes, races and also the categories of gender and sexuality. The typical fate of the African postcolony is characterised by “overloading: overloading of language, overloading of public transport, overloading of living accommodations” (Mbembe 2001: 147).

Infrastructures are severely overloaded. Vehicular networks which are poorly constructed in the first place deteriorate as a result of constant wear and tear and are left in a state of disrepair; social services of all kind collapse including refuse disposal systems, leading to acute environmental and health hazards; economic activity stutters in the face of unbearable and unrelieved strain.5 Even the quest to link up with global circuits of capital is undermined by social and demographic excess. As Jacques Derrida has put it (1994: 85), “Never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity.”

The entire meaning of space and its uses and abuses is fast changing. The entrenchment of warlordism, criminal syndicates and drug cartels is transforming vulnerable geographical spaces such as Sierra Leone, the Congo, Somalia, and Liberia. These networks of crime are intertwined with the normal circuits of global capital. Benedict Anderson’s thesis in Imagined Communities that nations are bounded and determinate does not apply to many regions of Africa. The African continent from precolonial times has always had to contend with itinerant forms of territoriality. In other words, most territories, boundaries and spaces in Africa are likely to be redrawn by ever-mobile technologies of domination. Pre-virtual forms of war are now assuming a prominent role in affirming geographical realities thereby adding their own peculiar horrifics in which the instrumentality of rumor and spectacle emblazon and reformulate tales of rape, ruin, death and despair for greater spectral effect. In addition, the privatisation of the means of violence has become an entrenched feature with a proliferating number of private security concerns especially in the West African region.

Vulnerable sectors in the Third World contribute to the criminalisation of the state (brigandage) together with civil society.6 In other words, there is an inability to recognise the epistemological and historical antecedents of democratic culture and the ways by which they permeate and shape the destinies of popular social struggles. Usually, ‘democratic’ experiments are conducted from ‘above’ within elitist citadels of excessive bureaucratisation in which both local and international interests alternately converge and clash.
Migrations of Power

The privatisation of public authority and legitimacy which several social scientists have decried in the conduct of African politics has assumed even more alarming forms under the current Nigerian democratic dispensation (Ake 2001). The political elites rather than attempt to create credible structures of governance based on the rule of law and public accountability have engaged in a Darwinian struggle for political power for its own sake. In this sort of context, the perception of, and confrontation with, dissent by the state are usually outside its already eroded foundations of legitimacy. By disregarding the rule of law, even ostensibly constitutional organs of governance are being criminalised.7 Thus, the observation that the colonial state can be regarded as “an aspiration, a work-in-progress, an intention, a phantasm-to-be-made-real” (Comaroff 2001: 58) has particular resonance within the Nigerian contemporary milieu. There are several examples to corroborate this view.

In many states of the Nigerian federation, there is clearly a breakdown of law and order on every tier of government. In Enugu State for instance, there was a bitter tussle between the Governor, Chimaroke Nnamani and Senator Jim Nwobodo. The state legislature was divided into two opposing factions with each one loyal to either the governor or the senator. But it was the violence of their disagreements that is remarkable, in that the business of law-making was abandoned for gangsterism.8 Sixteen legislators had to flee the state capital and settle in five-star hotels in the federal capital territory, Abuja, from where they flew in chartered flights back to the state capital accompanied by a cauldron of armed policemen. They then proceeded to break down the doors of the state assembly complex, impeached the speaker of the house, and promptly flew back to Abuja. One of the principal personalities in the drama simply wanted the governor impeached. In his words, “I believe you know that whether the governor likes it or not, I was instrumental to his becoming the governor and he said so in his earlier press statements” (This Day, September 22 2002). By extension, the power to remove the governor also rests with him.

Several states of the Nigerian federation are characterised by such struggles for power where it is not unusual to find that the person who holds formal office is not actually in control. In essence, there are multiple sites of power beyond borders of constitutionality. Beginning from the 1980s, “behind the mask of order and legality and histrionics of the state, an underground process of the gradual dispersion of power was underway” (Mbembe 2000). There seems to be a gangsterisation of the activities of elected public functionaries taking place instead of the much awaited dividends of democracy which in public imagination include the provision and discernible improvement of social services and infrastructure, a robust public health delivery system, decent educational facilities, economic advancement and the provision of social security. Nothing so far has indicated that these expectations would be met.

With the collapse of the formal economic sector and all its attendant implications, politics as a means of survival becomes the only feasible option.9 In addition, the struggle for power is characterised by gross incidents of financial embezzlement at the highest levels of governance and oftentimes unsolved political assassinations.10 Ethics, credibility and integrity have become foreign to the business of governance and law-making. This is demonstrated in several ways. For instance, Bakassi Boys, a vigilante group formed to combat armed robbery was employed by state governments in eastern Nigeria to stem crime. It is claimed that initially Bakassi Boys were able to curb armed robbery in parts of the east. But later, they started to engage in rape, extortion and violent crimes. They also became a form of private indirect government. The demand for all manner of vigilante groups is attributable to the numerous failures of the law enforcement agencies. In fact, in most cases, the Nigeria Police Force has become an agency of extortion that terrorises an already impoverished citizenry with its interminable roadblocks and fraudulent schemes of taxation. Both in government circles and in the popular imagination the meaning of law and order and the ways and means by which they can be more securely established are perverted. Rather than reveal the gravity of this anomaly, the current Nigerian democratic experiment tends to gloss over it. The blind struggle for political power ensures that the disconnection from established traditions of political philosophy is generally not taken seriously. The lack of a sense of history gives the current democratic dispensation a feeble operational framework.

Indeed, democracy in unhealthy societies is a recipe for tyranny, criminality and irresponsibility, as has been seen in many Third World countries. Wole Soyinka has frequently bemoaned the spate of assassinations and the undemocratic character of the current political dispensation. In a communication regarding these issues, he states:

I am convinced, without any further doubt, that there exists within the ruling party, a nest of murderers. Their purpose is Power, and to attain and retain this at all costs is a mission that harbours a deep contempt for moral scruples. This nest is prepared to subjugate the rest of the nation to a reign of terror, backed by a display of contempt that is best expressed by a familiar Americanese: IN YOUR FACE! This cabal of killers not only eliminates opposition, it proclaims the authorship of the act by a subsequent pattern of conduct that revolts all the coarse sensibilities (Guardian, August 3 2003, A5).

On the conduct of the 2003 general elections11 following the 2001 murder of Attorney General Bola Ige, he continues, “the aftermath of that murder as manifested in the ‘sweeping victory’ of the PDP throughout the nation, and especially in the South-West, in a so-called election left the opposition reeling and international observers in awe [at] the sheer effrontery of it all…. It takes its place as the most violent [election] since independence. The scale and manner of ballot robbery, as revealed day after day, reveals a tightly centralized operation, not a sporadic series of electoral violations” (ibid.).

The poor faith that characterised the 2003 general elections came to the fore when the governor-elect of Anambra State, Dr. Chris Ngige, was abducted on July 10 2003 by an assistant general of police who was supposed to be on terminal leave. The police chief had acted on the orders of Chris Uba, a power broker in the state and alleged political godfather of Ngige. Uba claimed that Ngige had resigned and the deputy governor had taken over power from the ‘ousted’ governor. Even when many were decrying the ‘rape of democracy’ and the ‘aborted coup d’etat,’ more than a month later Uba had still not been charged. It is claimed that Uba had close links with the presidency and that was why he was let off. A cultural organisation called Nzuko Obuma published a press statement on the political saga. Parts of the statement carried the following views: “Having seen and verified the resignation letter written and signed by Dr. Chris Ngige, we are convinced that in fact and law [emphasis mine], he actually resigned his office as the Executive Governor of Anambra and should stop parading himself as the Executive Governor of the State with effect from July 10 2003. Dr. Ngige admitted at the senate investigation panel that he actually wrote and signed the two letters. He should therefore quit without delay!” (This Day, August 17 2003). As for Ngige’s political godfather, Uba, the cultural organisation had the following words: “he should have allowed him to settle down in office and once in a while, he would have been given contracts to recover his campaign expenses” (ibid.). And then it had even harsher words for the embattled governor; “How on earth did a governor allow himself to be slapped by those he was supposed to govern? He has indeed debased the exalted office of a governor. How was a governor pushed inside a hotel toilet and made to sign two cheques worth 1.5 billion naira each?” (ibid.).

Undoubtedly, the foundations of Nigeria’s fourth democratic experiment (beginning with Olusegun Obasanjo administration in 1999) are insecure. Clientelism, nepotism, gross financial misconduct of all kinds are evident. The legislature has been plagued by corruption. The syndrome of the “untouchable big man” looms large in the public imagination, just as it did in the precolonial epoch. There exists the same seamless conflation of public and primordial domains and the resultant problematic relationships with discourses of modernity (Ekeh 1975; Mamdani 1996). The political elite contributes to this conceptual difficulty, as this confusion serves to solidify its bases of power.

An recent incident demonstrates the centrality of problematic modernities in postcolonial settings. Nigeria was to host a Miss World Beauty pageant. It had taken the organisers two decades to secure the hosting rights which came shortly after a Nigerian, Agbani Darego, won the 2001 Miss World Beauty contest. Viewed by about two billion people worldwide, Darego’s victory was seen in some quarters as signifying an advancement in modernity. On the other hand, advocates of Islamisation saw the pageant as an affront to the dignity of the human person (see Biaya 2002 on the question of bodily aesthetics in an Islamised context). In those circumstances, even the notion of freedom became confusing. In addition, those circumstances were transformed into irreconcilable ideological positions in which arguments become instances of stark binaries: white/black, orient/occident, native/alien, nature/culture, good/evil etc. Of course, these categories are never mutually exclusive as they overlap in many contradictory ways.

This quest for essentialisms is also a quest for cultural and political hegemony just as it is at the same time a struggle for personal and collective survival in the face of what is perceived as an onslaught led by Western imperial capital. Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria since the 1980s has been a crucial factor in deciding what constitutes law and order; it has generated much violence. Petrolic capitalism and the numerous social dislocations brought about in its wake are in several ways responsible for the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. The Maitatsine revolt which occurred in the northern city of Kano in 1980 can be read as a subaltern response to the disempowering articulations of global capital within a disavowed local space. The “state mediation of the oil boom meant corruption, chaos, and bureaucratic indiscipline” (Watts 2002: 86), and commoners and the popular laity sought to undermine a corrupt bureaucratic class on the one hand and socially disruptive petrolic capitalism on the other. This laity attempted to articulate a counter-discourse to the emerging sociopolitical order, often provoking outbursts of violence. These outbursts have not ceased.

In the north, there is an ongoing quest to institute a theocracy nationally in spite of a supposedly secular national constitution. This quest has resulted in thousands of deaths and the destruction of property worth millions of dollars. With the sharia code operating in at least nine northern states, the quest will not end any time soon. Instead, as the logic of late capitalism continues to disempower millions of youth from the north, more violent eruptions are likely to occur.

The clash of views on questions of gender, sexuality and the status of the body – and on how these questions are articulated in the public domain – has had nation-wide implications. The question of what is normative in Nigeria is rendered problematic by the fact that the country is an amalgam of diverse nationalities with a multiplicity of tendencies, and thus is often thought to be on the brink of dissolution. Indeed, the beauty pageant crisis had national repercussions because the then first lady of the nation, Stella Obasanjo, had been involved in organising the event and gave it her support. In governmental circles, the beauty pageant was seen as an opportunity to improve the nation’s image and also to increase its tourist rating. Part of the nation wanted to ascribe a modern set of values and aesthetic conception to the body while another part saw it as a vulgarity. The nation as a whole was subjected to a violent trick by the post-national order of global capitalism.12 Just before the aborted beauty contest, Amina Lawal, a resident of one of the states in which the sharia code operates, had been condemned to death by stoning for adultery, which only aggravated the tension.

Journalist Isioma Daniel had written these incendiary words: “the Muslims thought it was immoral to bring ninety-two women to Nigeria and ask them to revel in vanity. What would Mohammed think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from them” (This Day, November, 16 2002). These words led to her arrest by secret service security operatives in addition to many deaths and the destruction of the newspaper’s property as well as several mosques and churches. Once again, the problematic postcolonial relationships with a metropolitan language, with the discourse of modernity and finally, with the struggle for universal values were demonstrated. What are Beauty, Democracy, and Universalism and what is Law and Order? What aesthetics and epistemologies of the self are acceptable and within what socio-ideological frameworks are they realisable?

The aborted beauty pageant displayed Nigeria’s numerous irreconcilable contradictions and its confused attempts at dialogue. It was a tussle between a strand of Islam that refused a certain technology of subjectivity and a form of syncretic modernity.13 Beginning with the very being of language, the nation’s sense of alienation and disconnectedness with itself were remarkably clear. The hosting rights for the 2002 Miss World Beauty Pageant were withdrawn from Nigeria on account of riots in which over two hundred people lost their lives and in which thousands became refugees. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the ongoing Islamisation of northern Nigeria is a trend without its own ambivalences. Undoubtedly, the sharia code has resulted in the mass destruction of churches, hotels, brothels and property of those deemed to be infidels. In addition, many lives have been lost. Many northern states have closed down hotels and banned the sale of alcoholic drinks even within those enclaves where anti-Islamic lifestyles thrive. On the other hand, military barracks are sites where secular and unpoliced modes of life continue to thrive. Also, in the north, businessmen have been able to entrench a nation-wide vehicular economy based on oil, agricultural produce and machinery, and a variety of commodities. With the collapsed rail system, trucks have become pivotal. Within this itinerant economy, a migrant subculture has become established which is in many respects the antithesis of the strict Koranic way of life.

In Ibadan, a city in southwestern Nigeria, there is a vibrant subcommunity whose inhabitants are mainly from northern Nigeria and who live outside the policing of the sharia code in a neighborhood called Ojoo. Perhaps it is more appropriate to call it a squatter zone. Its wood and cardboard structures have a visible air of impermanence. Ojoo is a site of the most startling contrasts. It is a melting pot of several ethnicities drawn from all over the country and most parts of West Africa. It is full of petty traders who sell sweets, candles, batteries, sugarcane, flashlights, cigarettes and roast meats. It is also littered with food vendors and ramshackle eateries (bukas). In addition, money lenders, smugglers of petroleum products, automobile parts salesmen, traders in precious gems, and sex workers are drawn to Ojoo. These various ethnicities and diverse categories of traders meet and disperse under the looming influence of Islam. Within the settlement there is a divisional police station. Beside the police station, there is a mosque and just further on, there are ragged lines of kiosks where freshly made tea, bread and eggs can be bought. Milling around the kiosks just by the mosques, street urchins smoke marijuana openly. A few metres away, there is a police checkpoint where bribes are extracted from motorists. Night times at Ojoo are usually marked by revelry. A band that plays traditional northern music is usually the highlight of the weekend. Truck-drivers park their trucks in the space between the causeway and the sides of the highway making an already narrow and dangerous route even more precarious. The police have learnt to look the other way by taking bribes. The same space also serves as a refuse dump that often spills onto the road. In addition, it is used as an open public toilet at all times of the day. There is no sanitation and only sporadic waste-disposal. Water is drawn from a few viable wells in the area. Outbreaks of cholera sometimes occur.

Bold women dance into the night as they flout the Islamic injunctions concerning the sequestration of the female sex while impoverished street urchins watch. At five o’clock in the morning there is the inevitable call to prayer as droves of trucks head north and south simultaneously. There are several northern communities just like the one in Ojoo in all parts of the federation that constitute both the margins and centre of Islamic life, that inscribe into the heart of exclusionary Islamism forms of secularism and also of cosmopolitanism. Indeed there are migratory Islamic groups within the northern region who defy the sharia code and travel the length and breadth of the federation and as well as the entire West African coast, pushed by the logic of capital, and who cultivate modes of social existence which bypass, subvert and transform the code’s central tenets. Transient northern communities located in non-sharia states in the federation inhabit a number of precariously assembled borderlands: cultural, economic, ethnic, social, religious, legalistic and at times even postmodern. Away from direct influence of the state, these unsettled (and at moments, unsettling) borderlands are in turn put under the threat of imminent violence by their own fragmentariness.


Generally, attitudes to collective and national memories differ, and official stances towards what is stored in them can be either liberatory or disempowering. The 1999 Nigerian constitution is often construed as a disengaged and indifferent document (Ihonvbere 2001). Also, it is regarded as a hurriedly devised text assembled by a less than democratically-minded military cabal, a text purporting to be for democracy but which in reality undermines the tenets of civilised political life by virtue of its oligarchic antecedents. The constitution, it is claimed, is an extremely impoverished text, one that does not engender constitutional faith (Verfassungspatriotismus). This deficiency has a bearing on the initiatives of civil society to find a new consensus.

One such initiative began in 1999 under the auspices of Citizens’ Forum for Constitutional Reform (CFCR). In the final analysis, the CFCR could only come up with recommendations based on an ethno-regional framework with the various regions of the Nigerian federation – southwest, northwest, southeast, etc. – presenting divergent views on fiscal federalism, resource control, centralisation/decentralisation, the sharia code, gender issues and so on. It was clear that the excesses of an inchoate nationalism were in conflict with the disequilibria of an ill-conceived multiculturalism. At the level of ideas, a lot of contradictions needed to be resolved in the constitution. Just as the democratisation processes are elitist military cabal affairs, constitution-making processes are often transformed into diversionary instruments from directing national attention away from more urgent social and economic concerns (Momoh 2000).

Indeed the Nigerian crisis can be attributed to several factors. First, the state has always been maintained precariously (Soyinka 1996; 1999). Also, capitalism, as a way of life and mode of socio-economic organisation, has been uneven and unsystematic. Within this scenario, pre-neoliberal forms of collective existence are still entrenched. State and nation have not acquired the prerequisite degree of infrastructural, cultural and economic capital (in spite of the growth of petrolic capitalism) to resist the numerous onslaughts of neoliberal global processes.

The welfarist ideology which might have helped in redressing the imbalances of primitive capital and which might have created a modern industrial class never really took root before the IMF-induced structural adjustment programmes began. Consequently, the sociopolitical orders promoted by precolonial communal life are in a constant struggle with the global ideology of neoliberalism. The conceptual tussle has dramatic consequences in everyday life. For instance, corruption becomes especially problematic to define, identify and punish in the postcolony since it is often mediated by the politics of ethnicity and the regulations and configurations of precapitalist existence. What this means is that an individual who is found guilty of corruption by due process is often decriminalised in the public court of his ethnic enclave so long as he finds favour within it. Finding favour within his ethnic enclave entails saving part of his loot for development projects and well-wishers in his ethnic domain. This undermines the uniform administration of law and order. In other words, justice is usually an instrument for juridical trade-offs between often competing ethnicities which are in constant struggle for limited government resources.

The fact that the country has experienced prolonged militarism in its checkered political history must also be mentioned. Militarism as a form of politics extends beyond itself and its precise, active moment. Nigeria has been under military rule much longer than it has been under democratic governance. Prolonged militarisation erodes the institutions and ethics of civil society and then becomes the thread that holds together what is left of the social fabric. When the Abubakar Abdusalami regime handed over political power, it did so without holding a referendum on the constitution. Elected legislators were only shown the constitution when they were already in office. And for a while, competing versions of the constitution were in circulation. Consequently, there are still calls for a national conference to resolve this matter. Extensive militarism has for the most part eroded the will to address the poverty of the civil order. Residual militarism is a stumbling block to the establishment of an active civil society. Several institutions of civil society, government bureaucracies, private and public institutions, universities, and the military establishment itself have been disfigured by years of dictatorship. During the military era, universities were sometimes headed by army generals who were designated sole administrators. Entire generations of politicians colluded with military bosses to undermine constitutional processes and the drive toward democratisation. Many of those politicians acquired power in the democratic dispensation.


Both cosmopolitanism and democracy have universalising tendencies. But overt political pressures do not usually motivate the drive towards cosmopolitanism. Instead, it is informed by a human impulse to make the entire globe one’s home. Democracy, in its present-day complexion, on the other hand has become largely subsumed underneath the political agendas of the Bretton Woods institutional order (Appadurai 2002). In spite of these differences they are conjoined by a universalising impulse. As Anthony Appiah reminds us, “cosmos,” after all, is just Greek for “world” (2002: 7). Rome too, during the time of Jesus, was already an Empire. Thus, “to be civis Romanus was to be bound together with other Romans not by mutual knowledge or recognition, but by language, law and literature”; similarly, “the cosmopolitan agenda focuses on conversations among places: but the case for those conversations applies for conversations among cities, regions, classes, genders, races sexualities, across all dimensions of difference” (ibid.). Indeed, it requires a certain effort and quality of mind to be deemed cosmopolitan. This yardstick can also be applied to projects of democratisation.

In the past, democracy gave rise to fascism and other forms of tyranny (Badiou 2001). Without its proper context, democracy can become stripped of meaning and hence vulnerable to overthrow. Also, the project of defining democracy has now been largely taken over by narrow economism and the Bretton Woods institutional order, thereby surrendering its more exemplary ideals (Appadurai 2002).

For many postcolonial African subjects, democracy possesses appealing attributes in the way it is packaged by the political elites and by international donor agencies. This is understandable as disempowered African subjects attempt to find meaning and metaphor in the midst of seemingly endless spirals of violence and despair.

The illusion is that democracy automatically inaugurates the beginning of civil order, and that totalitarianism recedes accordingly. But oftentimes, democratic institutions emerge out of a background of collective disempowerment and disorder. At the end of military regimes, there is always a clamour for civilianisation, but concrete action is rarely taken toward achieving that goal. The accumulation of force by prolonged militarism has implications well beyond the military establishment. In many ways, this force translates into fraudulently acquired financial capital which is often the basis through which any semblance democratic life is possible. Politicians always talk of not wanting “to stampede the military out of power.” This stance is mediated by the knowledge that their political survival depends on the military. Indeed, many politicians need excessive military capital and power both within and outside the confines of civilian rule.

The tensions generated at the level of governance by the private-public divide, between multiple power-bases (premodern and modern), between religious fundamentalism and secularism, between capitalist and socialist modes of economic organisation, and between residual militarism and civilian rule have resulted in sociopolitical disorders that draw directly from all these various configurations. This hybridised milieu of political contestation is also mediated by the pressures of neoliberal ideologies in which the constant and often violent interactions between global and local processes generate political scenarios that continually subvert and bypass both. Imagining a political discourse without including these variables would be delimiting.

This article has sought to address the categories that constitute the fourth Nigerian democratic experiment. These categories include legitimate and illegitimate kinds of activity, residual militarism, the blurring of the private/public distinction in political life, the politics and demands of Islamisation, the presence of the tradition/modernity dichotomy, and the fused nature of sacred and secular domains all of which are pressed into an abstract conception of what democracy entails. It is in this diverse cauldron that the search for the meaning of Nigerian democracy can begin to make sense.

Perhaps one should add yet another scenario. The constant agitations taking place in the Niger Delta also have implications for Nigeria’s democratic evolution. The youth in the area have been mobilised in both positive and negative ways by a combination of governmental graft, incompetence and the culpability of multinational oil concerns. They decry decades of environmental degradation and social neglect and are pushing for a reformation of the status quo. This particular equation would also go a long way in predicating the outcome of the current democratic project.

In conceptual terms, the Same/Other dichotomy is (re)presented. The Same here is taken to mean Western-inspired modernity and the Other represents the (pre)constituted object of Western orders of knowledge. The ideal of democracy is merged with the non-Western category of otherness, resulting in a conceptual deferral of democracy. Similarly, the Western ideal of jurisprudence is appropriated for (re)invention by the category of otherness, thereby creating something else.

Likewise for a wide variety of institutions and cultural practices: we find the invention of yet another order of otherness – a transformation and also an extension of difference. Such operations aren’t merely a vulgarisation of Western ideals and practices. They are, more importantly, a reconfiguration of those ideals and practices. They also constitute a new repertoire of political practices and signs that cannot be fully appreciated by employing only the political categories of the Same.


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1. On this point see Soyinka 1996 and 1999. In a keynote address, Soyinka stated, “we are a nation that desperately needs to redefine itself” (Soyinka 2000: 25).

2. Landes writes from the kind of conservative vantage-point that has been critiqued in, for example, Davis 2001. However, in this essay, I use Landes’ account to advance other arguments.

3. For greater detail, see the International Socialist Review 2001. This issue has presentations by Walden Bello, Dennis Brutus, Noam Chomsky, Susan George, Manning Marable, John Pilger and Edward Said among several others. Although various third-world regions are discussed, there isn’t a single article that deals with Nigeria. See also New Politics, Summer 2000: “Symposium on Globalization: Hard Questions for the Left.”

4. Mbembe 2001; 2002; 2003; Okonta & Oronto-Douglas 2003; Osha 2004; 2005a; 2005b; 2005c; 2006a; 2006b; 2007; Saro-Wiwa 1991; 1992; 1995.

5. Acute housing problems like those being created in millennial Mumbai as described in Appadurai 2002a, are now beginning to appear in parts of Nigeria, particularly in the crowded cities of Lagos, Warri, Port Harcourt and the federal capital territory, Abuja. Indeed, the concept of Lebensraum is assuming spectral dynamics within this kind of configuration. For an account of how this concept might play itself out, see Lindqvist 1996. Brazil can be said to be undergoing similar processes of sociopolitical transformation in which the spread of favelas (slums) is creating new notions of space, belonging and disempowerment.

6. Bayart et al. 1999 has many references to criminal practices in Nigeria. One of such passages states: “The US authorities have long been convinced, without ever being able to provide formal proof, that the armed forces, the political class and members of the government play a major role in Nigeria’s drug trade” (29).

7. Political analysts in Nigeria haven’t quite reflected the protean nature of the postcolonial state. Oftentimes, their analyses are shortchanged by unreflective metanarratives of political economy (e.g. Caron et al. 1992; Osaghae et al. 2002). But there are other ways to view the postcolonial state. Within the Nigerian context, it might be useful to read studies where “dialectics have given way to dialogics, political economy to poetics, class conflict to consumption, the violence of the gun to the violence of the text, world-historical material processes to struggles over signs and styles, European domination to post-Hegelian hybridity” (Comaroff 2001:.38).

8. Widespread gangsterisation is not of course limited to the activities of public officials. Youth numbering up to fifty persons frequently terrorize entire neighborhoods, raping, pillaging and looting for hours on end. In some cases, they chase away less armed policemen from the neighborhood. This is clearly an epoch of generalized brigandage and the government with its unsystematic and largely anachronistic instruments of law-enforcement cannot fully turn the tide around. These acts are usually committed in large urban centers such as Lagos and Ibadan and also the eastern states.

9. A well publicised controversy between the then Nigerian Senate President, Ayim Pius Ayim and Senator Arthur Nzeribe representing Orlu senatorial district of Imo State raged during the final quarter of 2002. It involved claims and counter-claims of gross corruption and abuse of office. Senator Nzeribe claimed he had recorded video tapes to substantiate his allegations. Virtually all Nigerian newspapers covered the controversy extensively. And in July 2003, in Anambra State, the governor-elect, Dr. Chris Ngige was arrested by an Assistant Inspector General of Police on the orders of his political godfather, Chris Uba because of differences over the appointment of political office holders and the repayment of campaign money. Godfatherism has clearly assumed alarming proportions in Nigeria.

10. Bola Ige, the Attorney General of the federation was murdered in his home on December 23 2001 during the first tenure of President Obasanjo; the case is still unresolved. The prime suspect, Iyiola Omisore, who had been detained, contested for a seat during the 2003 senatorial elections and won. The fact that he was able to conduct a campaign while under arrest and on trial for murder raised a lot of questions regarding the low level of collective security and perceptions of due process. The 2003 elections were characterised by a spate of assassinations, perhaps the most prominent being those of Dr. Harry Marshall and of Barnabas Igwe, the Anambra State Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association. Such cases are rarely resolved.

11. The 2003 general elections demonstrated that the “untouchable big man” syndrome has become more widespread than ever. Powerful political figures now brazenly turn public power to personal and familial use. The Sarakis dominate Kwara State politics by the sheer number political positions they hold: a son of Dr. Olusola Saraki is the governor of the state, another offspring of his is in the Senate and yet another is a member of the House of Representatives. Former President Obasanjo’s daughter was a Commissioner in his home state and this pattern is generally widespread in the country.

12. For an idea of post-Fordist modes of social differentiation and how they differ from and in some instances resemble African forms of social stratification, see Amin 1994.

13. For a discussion of beauty and modernization within the context of Islamization, see Biaya 2002.

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