Campbell on the brink

THE PUNCH Newspaper- Niyi Akinnaso

Campbell soup can be quite tasty. And it comes in different flavours. However, there is nothing tasty about the doomsday predictions of a former United States Ambassador to Nigeria who happens to be a Campbell – John Campbell. The issue is not his name (he may not be related to the Campbell family of the soup fame) but his former role as American Ambassador to Nigeria (2004-2007) and his present role as Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Both roles give extra weight to whatever he says about Africa in general and Nigeria in particular.

Drawing upon this dual role and his research skills, he recently came up with two controversial articles, “The return of the African coup”, which appeared in both the June 22, 2010 edition of Foreign Affairs and the June 29, 2010 edition of The Namibian, and “Nigeria on the brink: What happens if the 2011 election fails?”, which appeared in the September 9, 2010 edition of Foreign Affairs. Both articles came in only one flavour-doom.

In the “coup” article, Campbell and his co-author, Arsch Harwood, a Research Associate in the Africa Programme at the Council on Foreign Relations, foresee a proliferation of coups all over Africa. In their own thinking, “The conventional wisdom that Sub-Sahara Africa has moved beyond military coups may be wishful thinking”. With regard to Nigeria, Campbell concludes in the “brink” article that “The end of a power-sharing arrangement between the Muslim North and the Christian South, as now seems likely, could lead to postelection sectarian violence, paralysis of the executive branch, and even a coup.”

It would be dishonest to pretend as if Campbell were the first to put Nigeria on the brink. Even some notable Nigerian citizens have done so. It would also be unfair to deny Campbell‘s findings of some truth value. There were coups recently in four out of 54 African countries, all of them relatively small former colonies of France. It is true that the so-called power-sharing arrangement between the North and the South has generated a lot of discussion. Campbell‘s underlying message is also worth noting – things are not well with Nigeria. The problem is that, instead of writing like a diplomat about these developments, Campbell wrote like an alarmist. He overreached in his conclusions and allowed the skeletal truth in what he had to say to be enveloped by unbridled generalisations and prophesies of doom.

For example, the forecast about coups in Africa, based on incidents in four small countries, is like forecasting an outbreak of violence across the United States, based on incidents of protest in four out of 50 states. Campbell‘s coup thesis thrives on a chain of assumptions needed to support his claim that “Successful coups … may become infectious, encouraging copycats in neighboring states.” Accordingly, he insinuates that the coup in neighbouring Niger “prompted rumours of coup plotting in Nigeria”, which in turn “prompted military officers to restrict the movements of soldiers”. Campbell then concludes that this chain of events “may have spurred the political elite to reach the consensus that installed Goodluck Jonathan as Acting President”, while former President Umaru Musa Yar‘Adua was absent from duty on account of illness.

In reaching such a conclusion, Campbell ignored the public protests and media pressure on legislators to invoke appropriate sections of the constitution to fill the power vacuum. Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka did not organise a protest match in Abuja to stop a military coup but to goad legislators into action. Furthermore, in pursuance of his coup thesis, Campbell ignored the resolution by the majority of African countries to remain democratic. That‘s why, despite occasional hiccups, countries like Nigeria and Ghana are experiencing their longest uninterrupted democratic rule. Even the military in both countries have redefined their role as defenders of democracy.

The assumption that electoral mishap in Nigeria in 2011 could lead to a coup is as farfetched as the theory that the consensus reached in installing Jonathan as Acting President was prompted by a coup in Niger. What is more, while the international community embraced the action of the National Assembly, Campbell was more concerned about faulting the legislators: “The National Assembly extralegally designated Jonathan the “acting president” by resolution, even though there is no constitutional provision for doing so.”

This statement betrays Campbell’s skepticism about the existence of a provision for an Acting President in the constitution. It also reveals lack of awareness or recognition of the National Assembly’s recourse to the doctrine of necessity in order to invoke Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution, which stipulates the procedure for appointing an Acting President. Clearly, Campbell‘s kind of skepticism, assumptions, and alarmist conclusions are not the type that Nigerians want their friends and allies to peddle around.

That is why his “Nigeria on the brink” touched on many nerves. The article‘s superficiality is evident in the binary opposition it developed between the North and the South and between Islam and Christianity. The North and Islam are further fused into one and then opposed to the fusion of the South and Christianity. The interwoven tapestry of ethnicity, religion, and language within and across regions was ignored.

According to the Ethnologue database on the languages of the world, Nigeria‘s language tapestry alone boasts over 500 languages. Many language boundaries coincide with ethnic boundaries but Islam and Christianity cut across them all. There are even families in which both religions are represented. There are also millions of Nigerians who do not participate actively in either religion or do not even belong at all.

Campbell’s prognosis that a coup might occur in 2011 if a Northerner were not fielded as the presidential candidate is an unfriendly projection of Nigeria‘s past onto the present and the future. True, Nigeria’s political development was marred by regional conflicts in the past. However, recent changes in educational expansion, inter-ethnic marriages across regional boundaries, nation-wide political alliances and the balkanisation of the regions by the creation of states and zones have changed the complexion of the regions. In particular, the Old North is no longer today’s North.

It is not clear which Nigerian newspapers Campbell has been reading lately. There were abundant reports in Nigerian dailies during the zoning debate, which show clearly that those who oppose the so-called power-sharing arrangement between the North and the South far outnumber its supporters, and that they come in all shades across regional, ethnic, religious, gender and age boundaries.

It is important to emphasise that the power-sharing arrangement which Campbell made the pivot of his argument is restricted to the Peoples Democratic Party. It is the biggest party alright, but its purported “popularity” is precariously anchored on its control of state resources and the machinery of elections. Nigerians are determined not to allow the fate of their country to be tied to the breakdown of a political party‘s internal arrangement.

To be sure, Nigerian politicians are not immune to the conflicts and struggles which are the staple of partisan politics. Such struggles were abundant in 2007 when manipulated primaries and large-scale electoral fraud converted many a winner into losers. Campbell should have noted that rather than look to a military coup for conflict resolution, the losers looked to the judiciary for redress. This has been the case since the reestablishment of democratic rule in 1999. Besides, the ruling party, the PDP, has always had one internal crisis or the other to resolve during every election period. There is as yet no reason to believe that the conflict over zoning will not be resolved as well.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Campbell’s articles have drawn the ire of not only the Nigerian political establishment but also Campbell‘s colleagues in diplomatic and academic circles. For example, Professor Adebowale Adefuye, Nigeria‘s Ambassador to the United States, described Campell‘s article on Nigeria as “in bad taste”, while Adegboyega Ariyo, Nigeria’s High Commissioner in Namibia, in collaboration with Osisioma Nwolise, a political scientist from the University of Ibadan, took strong exception to Campbell’s prognosis about coups in Africa.

Even Campbell’s professional colleagues and academics in the United States, including Howard F. Jeter, his immediate predecessor as American Ambassador to Nigeria, and Gwendolyn Mikell, Professor of Anthropology at Georgetown University, disagreed with Campbell’s analysis and conclusions. In their joint rejoinder to the “brink” article, they submitted that, “What Ambassador Campbell does is to construct a complex improbability, then label it inexorable. Not a single match has been lit and yet he forecasts a nation aflame … As such, Ambassador Campbell’s article was good fiction but less than a stellar portrayal of facts” (The Punch, September 29, 2010).

I concur with a comment: Without a doubt, there are problems with Nigerian politics and politicians. In order to make an informed analysis of political events and trends in the country, one has to understand how the complex political landscape, the hybrid political culture (call it Afro-EuroAmerican) and oil politics have contributed to the domestication of democracy in Nigeria. This is where, I think, Campbell needs some more work.


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