The head of Nigeria’s army has pledged his commitment to protecting democracy and promised to stay out of politics at a time when President Umaru Yar’Adua’s two-month absence has raised questions about who is in charge.
Lieutenant General Abdulrahman Dambazau, chief of army staff, said the army had remained “neutral but absolutely committed to the survival of our nascent democracy”. It would continue to do so despite what he called attempts to drag it into politics.
Yar’Adua has been in Saudi Arabia receiving treatment for a heart condition since late November but has not formally handed executive powers to his deputy, raising uncertainty about who is steering government in Africa’s most populous nation.
Nigeria emerged from decades of coups and military rule 10 years ago but the military remains a potent background force, with retired generals reinventing themselves as politicians and businessmen and still pulling the strings of power.
“The barracks is not a political battlefield and our soldiers are not tools to be used for creating disunity,” Dambazau said in a speech on Monday night to mark the commissioning of an army base in the capital Abuja.
“The Nigerian army affirms its commitment to its constitutional responsibilities and will continue to contribute meaningfully to the entrenchment of democracy in Nigeria.”
Nigeria has seen some turbulence in Yar’Adua’s absence.
Clashes between Christian and Muslim gangs killed hundreds in the central city of Jos last week, while there have been street protests and court challenges to the legality of government decision-making with the head of state away.
Investment decisions in sub-Saharan Africa’s second biggest economy have been put on hold amid the political uncertainty while analysts say progress on oil sector, electoral and banking reform bills has also slowed.
The Senate was locked in a five-hour, closed-door session yesterday to debate Yar’Adua’s absence. The head of the Senate’s media committee, Ayogu Eze, told reporters talks would continue today before the upper house announced its position.
“I can assure you that 70 percent of us are in favour of the president transmitting a letter to the National Assembly to allow the vice president to act as the president,” one senator, who asked not to be named, told Reuters after the session.
Political analysts including a former US envoy have warned the country is on the brink of constitutional crisis and that if the uncertainty is drawn out the military could intervene.
“Meddling in political issues does not complement our constitutional role in any way, shape or form. I therefore warn all members of the armed forces to steer clear of politics,” Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshall Paul Dike said.
A decade after Nigeria’s last military ruler ordered his troops to “forever resist the seduction and temptation of political power”, democracy has a fragile hold.
Since General Abdulsalam Abubakar ceded power in May 1999, polls have been far from exemplary in a nation that sees itself as the biggest democracy in the black world. Corruption remains endemic, poverty widespread and infrastructure shambolic.
“Nigeria’s military, though much weakened, continues to regard itself as the ultimate custodian of the state,” former US ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell said in a paper published last month.
Dambazau made no direct reference to the absence of Yar’Adua, but did speak about unrest in the central city of Jos.
Christian leaders have accused the military of deploying predominantly Muslim soldiers to quell the violence and have called for an investigation of what they say were targeted killings, according to local newspaper reports.
“We noted that some persons who apparently do not value peace are hell-bent on creating disaffection between the military and the public, particularly with reference to the Jos crisis,” Dambazau said.
“We want to state categorically that in the Nigerian army our religion is esprit de corps, while our tribe is the military profession and our training has placed us above primordial sentiments,” he said.
Pic: Nigerian troops