the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 April 30


For translation of an unfamiliar word, place the cursor over the word.


Sovereignty is best defined as impunity de facto. It is not merely the power to act without repercussion or accountability, but the actual exercise of that power. And no characteristic was more central to the behavior of Nigeria’s last military dynasty than a sense of invulnerability. The culmination of this brash exercise of power came on 1995 November 10. By that time, the dynasty had thrown its leading critics, Mọṣud Abiọla, Oluṣẹgun Ọbasanjọ, and Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, into prison, where Abiọla and Yar’Adua would die. On November 10, in the full glare of international scrutiny, the military hanged nine dissidents, including Ken Saro-Wiwa.1 This was not merely a calculated act of naked self-interest, it was a declaration of independence, an assertion by the régime of a right to do precisely as it pleased with anything and anyone in Nigeria.

A civilian president, Shehu Shagari, was overthrown by the Nigerian military in 1983. The coup was the result of a genuine conspiracy, but it had a clear center, Ibrahim Babangida.2 The coup plotters appointed a peripheral participant, Muhammadu Buhari, as head of state. But within two years, Babangida assumed full control, through what has conventionally been viewed as a second coup. In 1993, Babangida was temporarily (and nominally) replaced as head of state by Ernest Shonekan. But Babangida’s protégé and second-in-command, Sani Abacha, soon took overt power in much the same way as Babangida had. The collective leadership that held power after Abacha’s death in 1998, which appointed Abdulsalami Abubakar as figurehead, brought military rule to an end, effecting a long-promised transition. The dictators Babangida and Abacha, and the nominal leaders Buhari, Shonekan, and Abdulsalami, are thus taken here to represent an essentially-continuous system of government, and grouped together under Babangida’s name.

Dominion is the ideology and practice of the exercise of control over the world and its inhabitants. The motives and methods of dominion are evident in the Babangida dynasty. Why does some faction of humanity seek to rule the rest? How does it do so? Why and how does a subset of the whole ― especially when a minority ― take and hold power?

Self-interest is only one of the motives. It must be recognized that some impetus for dominion comes from a sincere belief of its practitioners that they are entitled to rule ― that because they are smarter, bolder, better organized, more advanced, or simply more powerful, it is natural, right, and desirable that they exercise control. Nonetheless, rulers take and hold power for use in personal objectives, even electorates and politicians in democracies. The characteristic that distinguishes dominion from justified government is that in the former, the personal objectives of the ruling body are in disregard, and usually contradiction, of the interests of those not in the ruling body. The smaller the ruling body, the more perverse those objectives may appear.

Self-interest is also one of the means by which dominion effects its control. But the others are more obvious and, in a way, more desirable for the dominion. The most obvious tool for control is force, the classic formula for tyranny, the naked use of violence or the threat of violence against the unwilling. The preferred method of control is myth, the use of indoctrination and propaganda to convince the ruled that it is good and right that they should be ruled, or even to convince them that they are not ruled. Acceptance of the system is the cheapest and most stable means of control. It is, by definition, a ruse, a confidence scheme. Its victims come to believe that they have an interest, economic or political or at least psychological, in the arrangement.

But some, ultimately, must be in on the con. Some must know the truth and participate nonetheless; and for them, the interest must be real. The result is a feudal network of self-interest that provides benefit in exchange for support. Those who are complicit are (generally) aware not only of the broader deception but of the fact that they themselves are being used. This pact among thieves is the most costly to the dominion as a whole, since it requires a broader provision of benefits, and creates a broader pool of potential treachery.


Nigeria is a clear example of the colonial and post-colonial imposition of a set of boundaries, the modern and reflexive notion of nationality, and the accompanying sense of nationalism, a sense shared by those who benefit from the nationalistic structure, and those who are indoctrinated to believe in it. The Nigerian border crosses ethnolinguistic lines, grouping and dividing self-identified nations without their consent, in the usual pattern in the colonized world. The Nigerian border also crosses the long north-African line that marks the southern extent of Islam. As with Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire, the division between northern Muslims and southern animists and Christians has significant social and political consequences. In Sudan, this is as well a pronounced racial divide, Arab and African. But in Nigeria, while the situation is less obvious and simple, the divide is still conceived of partially in ethnic or racial terms, with the Hausa and Fulani taken as a northern Muslim bloc, the Yorùbá and Igbo as a southern Christian bloc.3

These differences are by no means imaginary, as the present conflict over Shari‘ah implementation in the north makes clear. Religion and ethnicity are probably the two most powerful potential organizing principles in Nigerian society, more than economic status or political ideology. In both cases, the Babangida dynasty exploited them to further its control: divide et impera, the old colonial strategy. Specifically, the protection of “northern” interests was one underlying justification for continued military rule. It is doubtful whether Babangida ever meant the 1993 June 12 election, called ostensibly as part of the promised transition, to stand.4 A divided outcome could be used as a demonstration that the populace was not ready for democracy. In the event, the election of Mọṣud Abiọla may have been free and fair5, but it was not unanimous, quod erat demonstrandum for the régime, which cancelled the results.

This argument to northern interests represented an expansion of the ruling body. All northerners were encouraged, for raw self-interest, to support military rule as a way of protecting their supremacy within Nigeria. Any northerners who accepted this notion did so knowing full well that they would not benefit as much as Babangida and Abacha, or other senior officers or well-connected businessmen. But their status relative to the southerners would be preserved. The benefit in this case was construed as both economic and political, with the latter having much to do with the political status of Islam. At one point, in fact, Babangida took this multi-religious country into the Organization of the Islamic Conference. But this strategy did employ myth as well, aimed at convincing northerners of a benefit that they did not and would never receive, or of a threat of southern domination should the northern faction ever cease fighting for northern interests.

These realities and strategies did not go unnoticed. In the south, for instance, democrats referred to the system of northern domination as ‘the Caliphate’, most directly an allusion to the Sokoto Caliphate which ruled northern Nigeria theocratically in the nineteenth century, and also an indirect allusion to the larger Islamic caliphate, either abstractly or in its various incarnations in the Arab world in particular.

The two political parties established by the Babangida régime for the 1993 elections were officially the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention, designed to be “a little to the left” and “a little to the right”. But wits dismissed these fabrications as “a little to the south” and “a little to the north”, and renamed them the ‘Southern Democratic Party’ and the ‘Northern Republican Convention’.

Nigerian nationalism, by contrast, was entirely a use of the myth strategy of dominion. It served to develop consent to oppression. Neither individuals nor nations (original nations, meaning ethnic groups) were included in Nigeria by the British Empire as a matter of choice. British policy to develop a Nigerian identity undermined the existing nations, and this policy was perpetuated after independence, partially by the international system of nation-states, and partially by the internal governments of Nigeria. The substitution of Nigerian nationalism for Yorùbá or Hausa nationalism expands the constituency for federal institutions, and therefore, given first British colonial and then Nigerian military control of those institutions, for dominion. The requirement of “national” orientation of political parties, in place well into the present civilian administration, has meant that even democracy was originally designed to be a form of dominion, the rule of “Nigerians” over those with an alternative identity.6 The argument that civilian governments produce instability and disintegration is only valid if one views the integrity of the Nigerian state as a necessary good.

The risks to the dominion of using myth are evident in the presidency of Buhari. Because he was given the august title and nominal status, the myth meant that ordinary citizens owed him loyalty as president, and ordinary soldiers owed him loyalty as commander-in-chief. Buhari was in fact able to use his mythical authority7 to accomplish real goals without resort to the military officers who put him into office. This undoubtedly hastened the day when Babangida effected his own coup, consolidating his control of the network of self-interest, and assuming mythical control as well. In particular, the moves made by Buhari against Aliyu Mohammed, a key ally of Babangida in the coup against Shagari, prompted Babangida’s action, not only preventing his own Buhari-forced retirement, but reversing that of Aliyu.

Soldiers are naturally accustomed to giving and taking orders.8 It is natural that an officer rising to commander-in-chief would believe himself worthy of command and deserving of obedience. Babangida and Abacha had arranged for their own supremacy by force and by constructing a network of self-interest. Buhari had not, but was still vulnerable to, as is said in US politics, “believing his own press”, that is, believing the hype that others used to create a myth around him that those others, especially Babangida, could use to control the populace, always acting through Buhari and in his name.

Among the decrees issued under Buhari were those that eliminated government accountability.9 This assertion of sovereignty amounted, ultimately, to rule by force. But Buhari also launched a War Against Indiscipline, a bizarre effort to make the society more like the military, more orderly and efficient, and this was an extension of the myth strategy, to inculcate military obedience among ordinary citizens.

The network of self-interest in the Babangida dynasty was sustained, of course, through oil. The revenues from the sale of oil drove the Nigerian government (as they still do), and graft and patronage from those revenues were the main benefit to accrue to the dynasty and its supporters. Oil revenue also, not coincidentally, strengthened self-interest as a motive for rule: Nigeria was a much more desirable fiefdom with such riches to be had.

By the time of the Abacha régime, the strategy had shifted much more decisively to force. Not to deny that Babangida was an autocrat, it can be said that Abacha became a tyrant of unprecedented ruthlessness ― unprecedented for Nigeria, anyway, but Abacha’s rule was creatively brutal by any standards. His system of totalitarian rule involved massive state-security oppression. Abacha also attempted a cult of personality ― a myth tactic ― but this was the least formidable of his tools for dominion. In fact, the breakdown of myth had led to Babangida’s departure and Abacha’s rise. The military was blamed for the unrest in society, blamed for failing to improve Nigeria’s economic situation and even for aggravating it with the imposition of a Structural Adjustment Program, and had opened itself to popular discontent by holding and then annulling the June 12 elections. Abacha pressured Babangida to step aside for an Interim National Government (headed by Ernest Shonekan, the chief focus of civilian window-dressing under Babangida), with the hope that Babangida would take the fall for the military’s failings.

The Abacha period saw a tightening of the ruling body, and a strengthening of its incentives ― fewer beneficiaries stealing more and more of the country’s resources. This fits perfectly with its inability to effectively use myth, and its intention (and demonstrated ability) to effectively use force. The greater the demands on the participants, the greater the rewards must be. For Abacha himself, there was considerable risk, as he made himself not merely the target of dissatisfaction, as Babangida had been, but the target of pronounced fear and hatred.

And so Abacha’s assertions of sovereignty and his acts of spectacular defiance derived from several sources. First, he had virtually no recourse to preserve his rule but bold, brutal violence. Second, he had been nurtured in both a culture of military command, and a culture of military coup, in which he came to view himself as entitled to rule by virtue of rank, ability, and past actions. Third, he was the servant of an international system in which accountability stops at the border, and a Nigerian nationalism that, like virtually all nationalisms, celebrates an abstract concept whose only tangible representation is the government; in his own mind and in practical terms, Abacha was l’état, with all of the powers and privileges accompanying. He was merely the culmination, as noted earlier, of a system of dominion that used force, myth, and self-interest to control, despoil, and terrorize Nigeria for sixteen years. That is a short time as dynasties go, but only a short time ago, and Nigeria is a large place. The dynasty’s victims were many, and many of them still live with their grievances. And yet Abacha died in power, Babangida lives in luxury, and Buhari has just run for president. No one has been called to account for this period, and clearly no one ever will be.


1. Ọbasanjọ and Yar’Adua were the military ruler and deputy ruler who installed the (civilian) Second Republic of Shehu Shagari. Abiọla was the winning candidate in presidential elections held and cancelled in 1993 by the dynasty under discussion. Saro-Wiwa was the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, a protest against ethnic marginalization and environmental destruction in the oil-producing Niger Delta.

2. Babangida was then Director of Army Staff Duties and Plans, second in rank at Army Headquarters, and a former commander of the armored corps.

3. At some points in the socio-political process, there is a tripartite division, among the Hausa-Fulani north, the Yorùbá west, and the Igbo east.

4. Among the most obvious devices used was the Association for a Better Nigeria, which challenged the Abiọla nomination, the electoral commission, and finally the results, and whose leaders eventually admitted to serving to sow confusion with the aim of prolonging military rule.

5. After a fashion. Abiọla and his opponent Bashir Tofa were the candidates selected after ‘old-breed’ politicians, virtually all of the heavyweights of previous electoral politics, were banned; and they were nominees of two parties created by the military after old parties had been disbanded. Abiọla was, though, a prominent national figure. And his election over Tofa was deemed to be fair in the context of June 12.

6. The primary means of controlling political parties in this fashion was to require representation in a majority of Nigeria’s states. The winner of the election in 1993, for instance, was required to gain at least one third of votes in at least two thirds of the states, which Abiọla did

7. Referring to Buhari’s ‘mythical authority’ does not mean that there could not also be real authority, merely that the authority in question derived from myth. Abacha, for instance, certainly had both mythical and real authority, and cultivated both.

8. Oluwaseyi Ojo describes a particular ‘militarese’ in use in Nigeria’s army, adoption of which would certainly augment the sense of dominion, specifically the sense of entitlement to rule and habituation to ruling. Two specific kinds of imperative features are noted. One is the use of compulsive modals and adverbials, as in “All drills must stop immediately.”, and the other is the absence of politeness and request, as in “You are to come with me.”

9. For instance, a decree subordinated the judiciary to the military, and a second reined in the press

Ian Campbell, ‘Nigeria’s continuing crisis’. Conflict studies, 283/284, Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, 1995 September/October.
John Daniel, Roger Southall, and Morris Szeftel, eds., ‘Voting for democracy’. Ashgate 1999.
Toyin Falola, ‘The history of Nigeria’. Greenwood 1999.
Richard Joseph, ‘Autocracy, violence, and ethnomilitary rule in Nigeria’, in Joseph, ed.
Richard Joseph, ed., ‘State, conflict, and democracy in Africa’. Lynne Rienner 1999.
Nowa Omoigui, ‘Nigeria: the palace coup of August 27, 1985’, on Gamji,
Nowa Omoigui, ‘Nigeria: the palace coup of November 17, 1993’, on Gamji,
Oluwaseyi Ojo, ‘Military language and democratisation in Nigeria’, in Olowu, ed.
Chudi Okoye, ‘Blocked transition in Nigeria: democracy and the power of oligarchy’, in Daniel et al., eds.
Dele Olowu, Adebayo Williams, and Kayode Soremekun, eds., ‘Governance and democratisation in West Africa’. Codesria 1999.



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