The Democracy Obasanjo Wants

The Democracy Obasanjo Wants

By simon kolawole

Let me say I took former President Olusegun Obasanjo lightly when he told me that “liberal democracy is not working in Africa” in an interview a while ago. I did not read much into it. I even thought he was still recovering from what hit him in the presidential election (won by his old enemy) and he wanted the military to wade in. I asked him: “What type of democracy would work?” He replied: “I don’t know. But the liberal type of democracy as practised in the West will not work for us. We have to put our heads together. You can give it any name. This is not working. Out of the six (African) countries that have experienced coups, three of them are directly from elections.”

I went away thinking that, like Brutus, Obasanjo does not know what he wants but he wants it badly. Maybe I am wrong. Last week, he came out forcefully at a two-day event organised by the Africa Progress Group. He not only repeated his misgivings with “liberal democracy” but also suggested the invention of “Afro democracy” by Africans to suit — as it were — their temperature and humidity. “The weakness and failure of liberal democracy as it is practised stem from its history, content, context and practice,” he said. “We have a system of government in which we have no hands to define and design and we continue with it, even when we know that it is not working for us.”

His conceptualisation of “Afro democracy” appears to still be at the teething stage. Maybe he is making things up daily or deliberately releasing the details of his political philosophy in bits and pieces. But he said something that forms the fulcrum of his thinking: “Once you move from all the people to representatives of the people, you start to encounter troubles and problems. These few people are representatives of only some of the people and not full representatives of all the people. Invariably, the majority of the people are wittingly or unwittingly kept out.” I would glean from this statement that he is most probably against electoral and representative democracy. I may be wrong.

To be sure, there are several issues with representative democracy. There is the “principal-agency” problem. Elected representatives hardly represent the people. They are representing either themselves or vested interests. This is not peculiar to Africa: it is also a big problem in Western countries. An option is a return to the good old “direct democracy” — where every eligible citizen votes on every decision. But it is complicated. Populations have exploded and it will be a logistical nightmare subjecting every government decision to popular vote. More so, some policy decisions are highly technical and require expert understanding which the majority of the citizens may not have.

For instance, most Britons who voted for Brexit did not understand the ramifications. They voted out of anti-immigration sentiments. Ironically, the immigration they thought they were voting against has risen far above pre-Brexit levels, according to the latest statistics. Also, if you ask Nigerians to vote on petrol price today, most will probably say it should be free “because we are blessed with oil”. They will surely vote for the exchange rate to be N1/$1. Direct democracy has limitations and implications. To improve representative democracy, there has been a campaign to re-insert the people via decentralisation and participatory governance. This is to promote more — not less — democracy.

Obasanjo’s major grouse is with “liberal democracy as practised in West”. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines “liberal democracy” as a form of democracy “in which the power of government is limited, and the freedom and rights of individuals are protected, by constitutionally established norms and institutions.” Obasanjo’s position aligns with the thinking of leaders like the late Lee Kwan Yew who practised “dictatorial” democracy in Singapore with good outcomes. Thus, many Africans are clamouring for “benevolent dictatorship”. I always argue that countries develop because of competent and patriotic leadership, not necessarily because of democracy or dictatorship.

Since Africa’s adoption of democracy in the 1950s, many elected leaders have been behaving like monarchs and despots, treating the commonwealth as personal asset, crushing opposition frontally or via co-optation, and toying with elections. To justify this self-serving culture, some African leaders have been campaigning for “home-grown democracy” — which Obasanjo has now christened “Afro democracy”. It is not new. The argument would be that most precolonial African societies were ruled by kings without term limits, without elections, and without opposition. It is argued that we should build our democracy around this. Well, let’s stop kidding: democratic principles are universal.

If we randomly peruse Obasanjo’s history, we will realise that his “Afro democracy” — as contrasted with “liberal democracy” — has been hidden in plain sight all along. He does not believe in plural democracy. He has been an advocate of one-party state for decades and this he tried to implement when he was elected president in 1999. One of his earliest moves was to emasculate the opposition parties — known then as the All Peoples Party (APP) and the Alliance for Democracy (AD). He co-opted the APP chairman, the late Alhaji Mahmud Waziri, and the AD chairman, the late Alhaji Ahmed Abdulkadir, by making them his aides. This threw the opposition into endless crisis and commotion.

Obasanjo’s “Afro democracy” nearly reduced Nigeria to a one-party state and almost installed him as life president. There was the failed attempt in 2006 to amend the constitution to give him a third term, which many saw as the first step to life presidency. Billions of naira went into the failed project. He has consistently denied it. There is no need to argue over that. However, in “Afro democracy”, life presidency is common. Mobutu Sese Seko of Congo, Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe all did life presidency and “Afro democracy” but did not turn their countries to Singapore. I repeat: countries develop because of quality leadership, not democracy or dictatorship.

With the third term project thrashed and trashed, Obasanjo’s strategists did not give up on “Afro democracy”. The PDP constitution was amended in the dying days of his tenure. The PDP board of trustees (BOT) was given the power to enforce “party supremacy”, with a clear provision to the effect that the positions taken by the BOT would be binding on the Nigerian president. President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania invented this after he left office in 1985. One more thing: the BOT chairman must be a former president democratically elected on the PDP platform. You got it: Obasanjo was the only one qualified to hold the position. It was going to be life presidency through the back door.

The idea was that President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, whom he installed as his successor, would start taking instructions from him. Yar’Adua, of course, got the PDP constitution amended at the earliest opportunity. The word in town then was that he had stopped picking Obasanjo’s persistent calls. But “Afro democracy” was back on track in 2010 when Yar’Adua fell terminally ill. Obasanjo worked round the clock to help Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan become president. “Afro democracy” stopped working when Jonathan tried to become his own man. Obasanjo openly attacked him and shifted support to Candidate Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015.

But his “Afro democracy” still failed with Buhari. Obasanjo attacked him several times in the media before returning to his vomit, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, whom he endorsed in 2019 without success. This time around, he endorsed Mr Peter Obi. If Obi had won, I doubt Obasanjo would now be canvassing “Afro democracy” — except Obi stopped picking his persistent calls. Not being in control triggers Obasanjo’s disenchantment with “liberal democracy”. Archaeologists could dig into the second republic and unearth parchments of Obasanjo’s sayings against President Shehu Shagari, our first elected president, after Shagari stopped kowtowing to him. I am determined not to go that far.

In fairness to Obasanjo, he did not pretend to be a practitioner of “liberal democracy” when he was president from 1999 to 2007. In 2003, his goons falsely imprisoned Dr Chris Ngige, then Anambra governor, and tried to force him to resign for failing to sign away the state’s revenue. Obasanjo thereafter withdrew Ngige’s security, saying he had resigned in the eye of the law. The state assembly complex was burnt in order to engineer the declaration of state of emergency and the removal of Ngige. Nobody was arrested, tried or jailed for this. “Afro democracy” is the rule of impunity: there is no rule of law and the president can say, like King Louis XIV, “I am the state”.

Obasanjo, using state powers like other “Afro democrats”,  wantonly orchestrated the unconstitutional removal of governors by deploying security agencies and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). A governor was removed by six members of the 24-member house of assembly. State lawmakers were arrested by the EFCC and forced to impeach their governor. A Supreme Court judgment declaring Senator Ifeanyi Araraume as the legitimate PDP candidate in the 2007 governorship in Imo state was undermined by Obasanjo, who directed that PDP should instead forfeit the state by not presenting a candidate. This is “Afro democracy”.

The closest success story of “Afro democracy” today is Rwanda, with President Paul Kagame as the “benevolent dictator”. Nigerians praise Rwanda a lot but I have noticed that when they want to “japa”, they head for “liberal democracies” such as the UK, the US and Canada. They don’t go to Rwanda to enjoy “Afro democracy”. I am, thus, encouraged to conclude that the way forward is for Africans to improve their democracy so that elections will be credible, citizens will have space and voice, rule of law will prevail, and voters will have multiple choice. In other words, we need more of “liberal democracy” as “practised in the West” since “Afro democracy” has not served us better.



May I specially commend Mr Funso Doherty, the former governorship candidate of the Action Democratic Congress (ADC) in Lagos state, for taking time to go through the expenditure of the state government and writing a probing letter to the governor. Something worries me about Nigerians: our understanding of democracy starts and stops with elections and the fall-outs. We often neglect the critical aspect of democracy: promoting transparency and accountability. This is what makes democracy work for the people. It helps the cause of good governance. How I wish there would be Dohertys in all states and LGAs. As things are, elections are the main thing that excites us. Sigh.


I have been hearing complaints over the upturning of election results by the courts. This, it is argued, has usurped the power of the people to choose their leaders through the ballot. I am genuinely unsure of the aim of this argument. Are we saying that aggrieved parties should not approach the courts for remedy — as provided for in our laws? Or that the courts should throw out all petitions and insist on the INEC-declared results only? It is more baffling that those who went all the way to the Supreme Court seeking to upturn elections and lost are complaining about the courts upturning elections. I need someone to make me understand so that we can debate it properly. Confusing.


I am not that much into environmental issues but I started developing keen interest after listening to a message in a UK church over 10 years ago. The pastor said when God created the Garden of Eden, he charged Adam and Eve to take care of it. His message was that we have a God-given responsibility to care for our environment. On Wednesday, I attended a forum on ‘Nigeria, Climate Change and the Green Economy’ organised by Agora Policy, a think-tank led by Mr Waziri Adio. The grim statistics and trend mapping in the Agora Policy Report on the impact of climate change on Nigeria woke me up to reality yet again. We know we are already feeling the heat, but this may just be introduction. Scary.


In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL) owned by the federal government and boasting of 24 ships. While other shipping companies were making good money from maritime business, the NNSL was busy accumulating liabilities — as is typical of government-run commercial entities in Nigeria — until it went caput. Fast forward to 2023. Alhaji Adegboyega Oyetola, minister of marine and blue economy, has announced government plans to re-establish the shipping line. This is said to be a “bold move” aimed at “enhancing internally generated revenue”. It is projected to bring $10 billion annually into government coffers. Like yesterday. Hahahahahaha.

Related Articles