Summary of a meeting with Professor Muhammad S. Umar, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Arizona State University, and 2001-2002 Preceptor for Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa, Program of African Studies, Northwestern University.
Umar's presentation focused on the problems of democratic transitions in Nigeria under the Olusegun Obasanjo's administration since 1999. In the initial phase of the transition from military misrule, there was optimism both from a broad spectrum of Nigerian society and the international financial institutions that the new government would be able to restore democratic participation, respect for human rights, and economic recovery. This optimism, Umar noted, has soon dissipated as Nigeria has confronted a number of basic challenges: organized banditry; the rise of vigilante groups; communal and religious violence; the specter of political sharia, whereby some states have imposed draconian Islamic laws; and marked economic deterioration and corruption. These problems have overtaxed the state's ability to deal with economic development, law and order, and build a modicum of confidence in state institutions. The key to Nigeria's democratic predicament, he argued, is the phenomenon of democratic processes producing undemocratic outcomes. Obasanjo came to power in less than ideal democratic procedures, but instead of building on the fragile structures that brought him to power, he has essentially squandered the opportunity to regenerate civilian institutions. As it approaches the next elections in 2003, Nigerian democracy faces immense challenges and uncertainties.
On the resurgence of Islam in the political discourse, Umar contended that it is not unique because as the economy deteriorated and public institutions decayed, a trend emerged where Nigerians of all religious stripes increasingly resorted to religion for salvation and solace. Political Sharia in most of the northern states demonstrates this trend, as state governments mobilize Islam to agitate against what they see as a distant and ineffective federal government. Moreover, President Obasanjo compounded this issue by declaring that Nigeria is not a secular but a multi-religious state, giving ammunition and legitimacy to state claims clothed in religious rights. Yet the dilemma remains how to reconcile political Sharia with constitutional guarantees for non-Muslims in the affected states. He suggested that one way out of this problem was to transfer criminal cases to federal civilian courts, a practice that worked before.
Umar claimed that the contestation over Islam in Nigeria is a symptom of the larger problem of the weaknesses of state capacity at both the federal and state levels. As the state retreated from the center of political life both due to external pressure and internal mismanagement, a vacuum was created that is now being filled by all manner of religious and political extremism. Weak and fragmented, Nigerian civil society has been incapable of taking the role as a mediator between state and society; in fact, some civil society groups have been at the forefront of the spate of violence that Nigeria is currently facing. Short of recreating new institutions of republicanism and citizenship, there is no way out of the internal fragmentation that democratization has unleashed. He further contended that the quality of civilian political leadership remains problematic, fueling mass resentment against political authority. Democracy, he claimed, cannot be built on an uncivil order of ethnicity, religious fundamentalism, and regionalism. Rather, the priority for the civilian regime ought to be checking the legacy of institutional decline. Civilian rule has the best chance of reversing the deterioration of political and economic conditions because the military has been discredited.
Gilbert Khadiagala, Director of Africa Project, 202/663-5681