A Memo To Obasanjo 

By Akin Osuntokun 

Exasperated at a slew of successive military take over of governance in the African coup belt states of Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger and Gabon, President Olusegun Obasanjo came to the conclusion that liberal democracy has failed post colonial African states. Reinforcing this Afro pessimism was the recently concluded sham general elections that has produced the current elected civilian government in Nigeria. The election was fraught with the kind of political behaviour with a huge potential to precipitate a 

relapse into military dictatorship. 

A scholarly opinion is that “Coups have become increasingly limited to the poorest countries in the world, and the recent wave of coups fits into that,” he said. Gabon, Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Chad and Mali all had less than $22 billion in GDP in 2022, according to a World Bank estimate, while Sudan had a GDP of $52 billion. By comparison, the United States’ GDP was worth $25 trillion in 2022, ranking it the highest in the world”.

Defined by the inherent characteristics of separation of powers; an independent judiciary; and a system of checks and balances between branches of government, the former Nigerian President holds that the culture of liberal democracy is unamenable to the tradition of Africa. We can profitably proceed with a clarification of the concept of liberal democracy and the extent of its correlation with what is practised in its name. As an ideal type, it is only attainable in abstract and relative terms, the realisation of its fullness is unattainable. 

There is a difference between the spirit and prescription of liberal democracy (as enshrined in the constitution) as against the reality of its practice. On this score, there is no country on earth including the advanced democracies that practises textbook or ideal liberal democracy. “Practically every country in the West, including the United States, is for all practical purposes a social democracy—and for good reasons. They all have the good sense to recognize that social Darwinism has to be restrained as much as state power, that we simply cannot dispense with the notion of society as a commonwealth of persons with common concerns”. 

In personality projection, Obasanjo is unapologetically African and given to recurrent ruminations on the applicability of proto African tradition to contemporary political challenges confronting post colonial African states. He believes that the notion of liberal democracy is alien to Africa hence its contextual failure in Africa. This belief is however at odds with the observation of Richard Sklar, who had this to say about the Alaafinnate of the Oyo kingdom. “The Yorubas of the West (Western Nigeria) are a highly democratic people. In the pre-colonial days, the monarchical form of government existing among them was a kind of constitutional democracy. Ibadan,which is an example of a Native Authority, has a far-more ‘democratic’ constitution with no crowned head, but a council of city fathers and military leaders whose tenure rests to some extent upon public approval. 

The classic illustration of Yoruba government is the kingdom of Oyo. In theory and in practice, the powers of the Yoruba kings were regulated by custom and limited institutionally by countervailing organs of the state. Government was a communal interest and at some point every adult had a say. All decisions of the Alafin (King) of Oyo required the approval of his council of chiefs. In former times, a gift of parrot’s eggs from the leader of the council was a sign to the Alafin that his death was desired by the chiefs and the people. Invariably the Alafin compiled by taking poison, so the threat of a dread gift was a safeguard against tyrannical rule. As remarked in an authoritative study, the proscription of this custom by the British dislocated the checks and balances of the old constitution”. 

What, I think, the former President meant to articulate as the bane of post colonial African states is the absence of autochthony, ( in which regard, it is the totality of the colonial transition that has failed) 

of which the bastardisation of democracy is an epiphenomenon. As a sounding board, let us briskly run through a literature review of typical formulations of Africanist scholars on the failure of post colonial African states., Margery Perham remarked “I have believed that in a relationship which we forced upon a once ignorant and helpless Africa, we were responsible for all that they did. The great facts of history have exposed isolated and tribal Africa to the sudden dislocating effects of the twentieth century civilisation”. 

Similarly, Mahmood Mandani wondered if it was not otherwise illogical to assume that modern civilisation which took a protracted period (centuries) to take root in the society of its birth could be transplanted in a much shorter period of half a century of colonialism in the African colonies. And that “this fragile transplant succumbed to caprice and terror on the morrow of independence and emerged as a specifically African form of state”. In this tradition,Tom Young formulates the problem of colonial transition in terms of being defined by ethnicity. Posing ethnicity as a uniquely African phenomenon he argues that the failure of Africa should now be seen as autonomous of colonialism. He characterised the bane of ethnicity as the “bitter struggle among ethnic groups for access to the resources of the state.. the instrumental use of culture for political ends’. 

Running against the formulation of ethnicity as a uniquely African (or Asian) phenomenon is the argument that ethnicity is a postmodern global trend in which there is a general movement from class-based to ethnic-based politics. “The postmodern era has been universally characterised by ethnic revival and the reemergence of the sense of primordial ties as central to individual identity. It is reflected in the worldwide movement from class-based to ethnic-based politics’ and has resulted in such consequences as the linkage of peoples across state  

Chief Obafemi equally speculated whether “It was too much to expect that people with diverse and divergent political orientations would have, within a short period of twelve years (1947-1959), been so culturally and politically assimilated as to operate, peaceably and with understanding, such a strange and highly sophisticated political system as representative democracy. Somewhat in consonance with Obasanjo, Wande Abimbola opined that ‘The decay we are seeing everywhere in Nigeria is the result of the large scale abandonment of the traditional way of our fathers and mothers. We have condemned our way of life and embraced foreign culture”.

Claude Ake saw the failure of the colonial transition in terms of the disabling discontinuities it fomented, he contrasted the congruence of state and society in pre colonial states to their incongruity in the colonial and post colonial successors-‘while most of the state forms in pre‐colonial Africa tended to approximate statehood, the same is not true of the colonial and post‐colonial state in Africa. Colonialism thus negated the prescriptive utility of “autochthonous transformation of the state in Africa. “Peter Ekeh restated the point that ‘there were no national societies commensurate and coextensive with the national states of conquest”. And haven brought the disparate ethnic groups together in a multi ethnic (national) state, “the British did no positive thing to minimise the feeling of cultural separatism” argues JideOsuntokun. 

Ekeh continues “Take the Japanese, the Taiwanese, The Indian and the Chinese. They have evolve with their culture and tradition, intact. They evolved, wearing their own clothes, speaking their own language, teaching every subject up to university level, on their own language, keeping their values, their gods, their own religion… They have all come out better for it. Their economy, education, health, orientation, better than that of the Blackman and in some cases, better than the whiteman’s”. 

In the proclivity to sow the seeds of political fractiousness (resulting from conspicuous cultural and national disparities among the precolonial African societies perfunctorily pooled together to form a state) Nigeria was a typical product of the 1886 Berlin conference. Hence the discontinuity from precolonial African societies to post colonial African states. It was on account of the lack of this organic linkage between the Nigerian state and the constituting societies (of Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Ijaw, Berom etc) that Awolowo characterised Nigeria as a mere geographical expression. 


In a paper I presented at the Obafemi Awolowo University in 199I, I located the misconduct of the Nigerian elite, as it borders on corruption, in the discontinuity between state and society; in the fact that the state did not organically evolve from society; that the state lacks autochthony. I will explain. When we talk of lack of autochthony and lack of organic evolution, we are saying that there is no organic relationship (analogous to parent-child evolution) or linkage between a state and the society from which it is supposed to be derived.There was no society of native Nigerians from which the Nigerian state emerged. 

The entities comprising 

Nigeria preexisted as an assortment of tribal empires, kingdoms and principalities like the Oyo Empire, Sokoto caliphate, Tiv, Berom, Ogoni, Ijaw kingdoms and the like. It was from these disparate entities 

that Nigeria was created by the British colonial masters.

To borrow the parlance of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, there are no Nigerians in the manner that there are Germans, English or Russians. If there are no preexisting Nigerians before Nigeria was created, it means that Nigeria does not represent a continuity of any nationality in the sense that Germany and France are a continuation from preexisting societies or nationalities of the Germans and the French. It is in this respect that we speak of state-society discontinuity in Nigeria. 

Emphasising the antidote of federalism for such embattled states was the proposition that 

“Countries with ethnic, linguistic, or religious divisions that substantially coincide with territorial boundaries confront special problems in making democracy work. They are vulnerable to intense intergroup conflict, which all too often leads to violence or to attempts at secession. One institutional device intended to mitigate such strains is federalism”

Of the same accord, I argued that 

the ethno regional federalism that defined the independence constitution best approximates

a sociological continuity from the societies constituting Nigeria to the Nigerian state. The Yoruba political unit (nation) that, for instance, antedated Nigeria holistically found political and constitutional expression in the Western region of the Nigerian state. Hence the Pan Yoruba cultural/moral order was relatively preserved in the process of its incorporation into the Nigerian state. If there is virtue in autochtony then there must be virtue in its preservation. The extent to which Nigeria permits the preservation of autochtony is the extent to which the incorporated pre colonial societies/states would functionally integrate and succeed.

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