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Defense & Security

The Case Against Military Rule

Abuja, Nigeria, capital of Nigeria, anchored on the political map.

Image Source : Shutterstock

by Ebenezer Obadare

First Published in: Feb.26,2024

Mar.15, 2024

Nigeria needs a change of direction, not a change of government. With Nigeria plunged into a full-blown crisis due to a worsening economic climate, a cross-section of Nigerians, desperate for a quick turnaround and certain that the Bola Tinubu administration has lost the plot, have started clamoring for a coup d’état. So loud has been the agitation, especially on social media, that Chief of Defense Staff Christopher Musa came out last week to warn those behind it that “the law will come after them,” and that “the armed forces of Nigeria are here to protect democracy.” It is an interesting paradox that the same generation of Nigerians who have consistently put their bodies on the line in defense of democracy are the ones now apparently demanding military intervention. The paradox is resolved as soon as it is realized that though seemingly divergent, both the hunger for democracy and the incipient yearning for khaki rule are united by the same impulse. That impulse is, not to put too fine a point on it, a government that delivers and is the thread that runs through the ongoing ferment in Nigeria and the spectacle in Western and Central Africa where, defying expectation, throngs of young people took to the streets to welcome assorted coupists. Nor is the impulse unique to young people in Africa. If, across Western democracies, the electorate appears to be souring on liberal democracy (“just half of Europeans aged 16-26 believe democracy is the best form of government”), populist appetite for strongman rule has noticeably increased in places like Hungary, the Philippines, El Salvador and, whisper it, among a key segment of the American electorate. While it is true that the Nigerian situation has some local wrinkles—for instance, there is no gainsaying that lingering resentment at the outcome of last year’s presidential election is an important subtext to the current discontent—this does not make it any less illuminating as an illustration of growing popular disenchantment with liberal democracy. Instructively, too, the concern on the streets has reverberated among the political elite, resulting in a trenchant, if misguided, insistence on a return to “African democracy.” Nigerians have good reason to be irate, having seen scant return on their emotional and physical investment in democracy since the inception of the Fourth Republic in 1999. Indeed, one reason the clamor for military rule has grown is precisely because an increasing number of people see no improvement in their material situation, and therefore little justification in defending a regime that, from their standpoint, has only favored a narrow band of elites. For the average Nigerian, the only difference between civilian and military rulers is in their accoutrements. While this diagnosis is beyond dispute, it cannot be emphasized enough that military rule is the wrong prescription, and in the Nigerian case would mark a tragic regression after twenty-five years of civilian rule. The reasons are not far-fetched. In the first place, since the security aspect of the current crisis owes largely to the failure of the armed forces to contain the Boko Haram insurgency and rampant banditry, handing over the reins of political power to an institution that could not even discharge its constitutional duty of protecting the territorial integrity of the country would be tantamount to rewarding failure. If the Nigerian military cannot do even that for which it was trained, how can it be expected to accomplish that for which it lacks the expertise, never mind the temperament? Furthermore, no matter the underlying frustration, the clamor for military intervention ultimately boils down to a refusal to face the arduous task of institution building. Nigeria faces a clear challenge: ensure that budding democratic institutions put down roots, and where such institutions are absent, inaugurate new ones. That this is nonnegotiable can be gleaned from the history of the advanced economies, and military intervention at this crucial moment will only interrupt a social process that the country must have to pass through. The desire for military intervention also calls to mind the fantasy of “developmental dictatorship,” specifically the idea that what will ultimately right the ship in Nigeria and other African countries in a similar position is the intervention of a beneficent dictator who, knocking a few heads together and dispensing with all the inconveniences of the rule of law in the process, puts the country on the path to development and promptly steps aside. In Nigeria, this fantasy—the utopia of “a shirtless (Jerry) Rawlings driving a bulldozer,” as a Nigerian commentator puts it—has always existed cheek-by-jowl with agitation for popular rule, accruing popularity during moments of economic and political stress. It is often forgotten that this Faustian bargain often leaves societies with a lot of dictatorship and very little development. Lastly, the fact that the majority of the people currently championing the return of the military were either too young or had not been born during the last military era in the country points to an all-important generational dimension. The chasm between members of this generation and Nigerians for whom the terror of military rule is eternally fresh is one of the drivers of political division and misunderstanding in the country. For every member of the younger generation legitimately chafing at the lack of progress under successive civilian administrations, there is a member of the older generation, particularly Nigerians in their fifties and sixties, who cannot forget that the first thing military rule will abolish, together with all the other political freedoms that young people have come to take for granted, is the right to protest about how one is governed. While elected representatives may be petitioned or pelted as the case may be, unelected soldiers cannot, since martial law is the exact antithesis of the rule of law. There is no denying that, on the whole, liberal democracy has failed Nigerians, making their sense of grievance understandable. That said, Nigerians cannot afford to cut their nose to spite their face. While the problems besetting the country cannot be solved by a single administration, a democratic government in which people argue, write at the top of their voices, debate, and sometimes throw the odd punch, offers the best prospect. If that system can work elsewhere, there is no reason why it should not work in Nigeria. Of the many desiderata for democratic flourishing, the most vital, and, as it happens the one that is glaringly absent in Nigeria, is a democratic temperament. If the experience of the advanced democracies teaches us anything, it is that this temperament is acquired ever so slowly and starts to burgeon only after a period of patient and deliberate cultivation. Taking the long view, Nigerian intellectuals should step in to educate Nigerians—especially members of the younger generation—about the evils of military rule.

First published in :

Council on Foreign Relations


Ebenezer Obadare

Ebenezer Obadare is the Douglas Dillion Senior Fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also a senior fellow at the New York University School of Professional Studies Center for Global Affairs, as well as a fellow at the University of South Africa’s Institute of Theology. Prior to joining CFR, he was a professor of sociology at the University of Kansas. He is the author or editor of eleven books, including Pastoral Power, Clerical State: Pentecostalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Nigeria. 

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