Read: Nigeria democratically elects its former dictator
“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.
Read: How to undermine a 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.