Obasanjo’s controversial policies risk ethnic conflict in Nigeria

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

M.A. Shaikh

Jumada' al-Ula' 20, 1420 1999-09-01


by M.A. Shaikh (World, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 13, Jumada' al-Ula', 1420)

Surprised Nigerians have witnessed two unprecedented events in the last month. A new truth-commission, known as the Oputa Panel, held its first hearings into abuses of power by military rulers, and the administration of the recently-elected president Olusegun Obasanjo announced a plan for the drastic reduction of the army that could cut it by half. Nigerians are watching both developments with interest and no small trepidation.

But although Nigeria, like many other Muslim countries, has suffered grievously at the hands of its army, the commission and the purge - both blunt instruments - are peculiarly open to abuse in a divided and corrupt society, particularly under a ruler who is himself a former military dictator, and who is widely believed to have an ethnic agenda.

Theophilus Danjuma, the defence minister and one of Obasanjo’s closest allies, announced on August 18 that he planned to cut Nigeria’s 80,000-strong armed forces by 30,000 soldiers and sailors as part of his reorganisation of Nigeria’s army and navy. The object, he said, was to reform the army into a leaner, better-equipped and better-trained body subordinate to civilian rule.

The other tool of reform, the Oputa Panel - which held its first hearings at about the same time - is supposed to be modelled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in South Africa to investigate human-rights violations under the apartheid regimes, and on those of Chile and Argentina to enquire into the activities of military rulers. The commission, chaired by Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, is to enquire into allegations of torture and murder against the country’s various military governments since 1976. It is scheduled to continue its work well into next year but is likely to concentrate on the late general Sani Abacha’s period, and avoid the 1976-1979 period when Obasanjo was military dictator. As one newspaper-report put it, the president “will be in the unusual position of being both answerable to the panel as military ruler and able to appeal to it as a victim, having spent two years in jail under general Abacha.”

Both plans, together with the announcement that 150 generals are to be retired, have created unease in the army and among the country’s northern Muslim populations - made up mainly of Hausas and Fulanis - who dominate the military. Obasanjo, inaugurated on May 29, has already raised hackles by dismissing Hausa and Fulani officers in the army, navy and police-force, and replacing them mostly with officers from his own tribe, the Yoruba. He has also appointed new 200 officers, most of them from the centre and south of the country.

Northern Muslims came to dominate the military because, under British rule and during the early years of ‘independence’ (which began in 1960), opportunities for employment outside the army were less accessible to them. Early education being provided by missionary schools, and the colonial authorities favouring non-Muslim tribes, members of Muslim groups, like many disadvantaged peoples the world over, sought employment in the army. Even today the Yoruba dominate the banking and commercial centres. As one wit summed up recently, Nigerians are divided into “Hausa generals and Yoruba millionaires”.

This may explain why Obasanjo’s much-publicised anti-corruption programme has faltered, and why his reforms concentrate on purging the army of senior officers. The present government, far from cleaning up either the public or the private sectors, is proposing hefty ‘furniture-allowances’ for the newly-elected senate and lower house of parliament. If the senate adopts the proposals, 90 senators will have the equivalent of $35,000 each to spend on furniture, and the 379 members of the lower house will likewise receive a $25,000 allowance each. The allocation of $12 million for the refurbishment of legislators’ homes has come at a time of national economic crisis, causing widespread outrage. The proposal makes nonsense of the government’s explanation that its plan for creating a leaner army is designed to cut costs that the country can ill afford.

It was the International Monetary Fund that demanded the reduction of military expenditure in return for agreeing to continue to lend foreign money. No leader of a country dominated by its military will agree to undertake such an extensive purge of the army, except to please the IMF. Nationalists are already accusing Obasanjo of pandering to the west. The Oputa Panel has also come under strong criticism: analysts have pointed out that it has no legal standing and that its powers are so vague that its investigations may well fail to lead to prosecutions. Unlike South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the panel has no authority to grant amnesties to those who admit wrongdoing of any type. This issue is still being discussed.

The panel also offers the daunting prospect of encouraging tribes to seek revenge instead of justice. So far, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (one of the main Niger-Delta tribes) has presented 8,000 cases. Truth-commissions are better-designed to provide individual justice than group-justice. If group-cases come forward in such large numbers (the population of Nigeria is about 100 million), there is the serious possibility of the panel’s work being paralysed and of ethnic unrest erupting - especially if Obasanjo pushes ahead with his ill-advised project of purging Hausa and Fulani soldiers and officers.

That project has been set back temporarily because general Danjuma, the defence minister, fell ill and checked into a hospital in London shortly after announcing it. Obasanjo will have to find another trusted ally to carry it out. In the mean time Nigerians are noting that, since most of them cannot afford medical treatment abroad, they will have to make do with the meagre medical care available at home.

Muslimedia: September 1-15, 1999

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