Nigeria’s Militarized Democracy Faces a Test at the Polls

The country has been led by someone linked to the military for 48 of the 58 years since it gained independence.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari speaks at a campaign rally on February 9 in Lagos.
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari speaks at a campaign rally on February 9 in Lagos. (Temilade Adelaja / Reuters)

ABUJA—Politics in Nigeria can be like General Hospital or Coronation Street—a long-running soap opera in which the cast rarely changes. Except here, it’s all about the military.

In 1979, General Olusegun Obasanjo handed over power to Nigeria’s first democratically elected government. The parade ending 13 years of military rule was organized by a young colonel, Abdusalam Abubakar. The elected administration was ousted in 1983, in a coup led by General Muhammadu Buhari, and the military remained in charge until 1999, when Abubakar, who by then had taken the reins, stood down in favor of Obasanjo, who had run for president as a civilian. Buhari himself won Nigeria’s most recent election (as a civilian) and is currently running for reelection against Obasanjo’s former vice president, with voting taking place Saturday.

In short, the same band of characters has run this country of about 180 million people for upwards of half a century. And while Nigeria is entering its third decade of uninterrupted democracy, it does so with the omnipresent influence of the military in its politics. Like in Egypt or Pakistan—countries where elected leaders are often overshadowed by senior officers—the military plays an outsize role here, and not just in the form of prospective political candidates. Former officers hold seats in private-sector boardrooms and bankroll political campaigns, too. The longer that continues, the harder it becomes to separate the civilian leadership from the military’s top brass, and the worse the impact on public life in Nigeria.

“As a result of the kind of funds that they had access to while the military was in power, and the fact that they ingratiated themselves into Nigeria’s power structures, they wield a lot of access to Nigeria's patronage networks,” Cheta Nwanze, the head of research at the Lagos-based SBM Intelligence, a risk-advisory firm, told me about the military’s influence.

In 48 of the 58 years since Nigeria won independence from Britain, it has been led either by a general or by someone with a link to the military. The exceptions were in the first five and half years of Nigeria’s modern existence, and then during the leadership of Goodluck Jonathan. Jonathan, who made history in 2015 as the only incumbent in Nigeria to lose an election, only rose to the presidency when his boss, Umaru Yar’Adua (the younger brother of, you guessed it, a general), died of an illness in 2010.

And in the business world, military officials have had their pick of jobs, from controlling stakes in oil fields to executive roles in shipping companies and defense contractors, as well as board seats on charities. Three of the biggest farms nationwide belong, respectively, to two ex-generals, one of them former President Abubakar, and a one-time air vice-marshal. It doesn’t end there: Just months after his airline lost its license and went bust, another retired general was appointed ambassador to South Africa, while Yar’Adua’s elder brother was, until his death, a major shareholder in a Nigerian bank. In 2010, one former army chief of staff told a stunned public gathering that he made $500 million from oil wells (to say nothing of his board positions with a telecom firm and a beverage manufacturer).

The enormous role the military holds in public life here has consequences beyond the positions officers hold, and is affecting both how the law is applied and how Nigerians view their own democracy.

As president, Obasanjo routinely instigated impeachments of state governors who refused to do his bidding, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to extend his tenure beyond the two terms presidents here are limited to (a former chairman of Nigeria’s human-rights watchdog has claimed that Obasanjo tried to bribe lawmakers to do so). Buhari, whose deputy is a law professor, has shown a spectacular disdain for the courts. Under his watch, secret police arrested judges in a midnight raid and detained journalists. In January 2019, the president suspended the chief justice, an unconstitutional move. And last summer, he told a room full of lawyers, including the now-suspended judge, that the “rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest.”

Support for elections remains high here—an Afrobarometer poll this month showed that 72 percent of Nigerians believe elections are the best way to choose the country’s leaders, but that figure was down from 82 percent in 2003. And public backing for democratic norms appears to be declining. Some Buhari supporters have suggested that the constitution be suspended temporarily for the president to enact reforms, arguing in favor of a strongman in the face of “unruly behavior,” as Buhari himself put it during his first address to the nation, on October 1, 2015—Nigeria’s Independence Day. Older Nigerians point to coups as useful ways to displace corrupt politicians, or reference Rwanda and Ghana (under Paul Kagame and Jerry Rawlings, respectively, both of whom commanded armed forces) as examples of strongman states that Nigeria could learn from. Expressions and mannerisms from the days of military rule are still part of the democratic lexicon; phrases such as with immediate effect, an inference that orders must be implemented without procedural hurdles, are commonplace on TV and radio.

“If you look at African history, you will come to the conclusion that even in cases where military intervention may have been a quick fix in a particular context, in the long run, strongman rule was extremely detrimental to our continent,” Chris Fomunyoh, the Africa director of the National Democratic Institute, which has observed all national elections in Nigeria since 1999, told me. “In today’s Africa, with youths who see themselves as citizens of the world and who aspire to have [the] same liberties as elsewhere, there can be no rationale for throwing them and the continent back to the dark days of strongman rule.”

There are, however, positives. Though the military has a significant impact on Nigeria’s politics, no serving officer has ruled the country since 1999. When Jonathan lost to Buhari four years ago, he conceded without much drama; Buhari himself could be defeated in Saturday’s elections. Fellow West African countries such as Ghana and Gambia have shown a commitment to democracy, which can itself have a positive knock-on effect.

But more needs to be done. Nigeria’s political structure has thrust too much authority into the hands of the president, and few updates have been made to the country’s constitution, which is little changed from when the military handed over power. “Nigeria’s constitution … has managed to over-concentrate power at the center, à la military command, rendering other operating units weak and ineffective,” says Adewunmi Emoruwa, an Abuja-based analyst who is the chief operating officer of the Nigerian consulting firm Gatefield. The country’s leaders, military or not, are also an elderly bunch. Legislation has been passed cutting the minimum age required to run for state and federal positions and, buoyed by this, a 35-year-old MIT graduate is contesting a senatorial race in Lagos, but Buhari is 76 and his challenger, Atiku Abubakar, is 72.

“I am still optimistic about Nigeria,” the National Democratic Institute’s Fomunyoh told me, before adding that the country still has to focus on strengthening its democratic structure. “You have to improve it—that’s a natural component of the democratic process.”