Nigerians were supposed to go to the polls on Saturday for their Presidential election. However, the election was postponed by Jonathan’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to purportedly focus its attention on defeating Boko Haram. The election is now scheduled for March 28, but an extra six weeks hardly seems to be enough to time to help end religious terrorism in the North. Those critical of the postponement are right to point out that the PDP is just securing more time to rally campaign resources. The party was unprepared for the rise in popularity of the opposing candidate, former 1980’s ruler General Muhammadu Buhari, and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC).
Former President Obasanjo was incensed enough by the decision that he tore up his PDP membership card in public today. This was a major blow to the party since he has been one of their ardent supporters since the party took power 15 years ago. The PDP itself is now suffering from its misstep, as party leaders are obviously divided.
The largest tragedy of the postponement is that it is a symbolic win for Boko Haram. As an Islamic fundamentalist group, it is opposed to elections and the democratic system as a whole. Following through with the elections would have been the move necessary to show the group that democracies do no kowtow to terrorist threats. It is further troubling because through Nigerian’s postcolonial history of over a dozen military coups, postponement of elections has been part and parcel of leaders’ attempts to maintain power in the face of a potential defeat at the polls. Many of us had hoped that period had ended with the transition to “democracy” in 1999, but Jonathan’s move is a worrisome step back in that direction.
The previous post about the recent settlement from Shell favoring the Bodo community, in which the company agreed to pay over $83 million dollars to avoid litigation, made me wonder about the potential for increased use of courts as a mean of collective action for Niger Deltan women. Although the Shell settlement arose from cases filed in British courts, I considered whether women would start viewing Nigerian courts as a place to seek justice as well.
However, my research several years ago indicated that, at least then, women did not view Nigerian courts as viable conduits through which they could help remedy environmental damage. Some rural women told me that courts are unfair because you can “pay the lawyer to speak well for you,” and another colorfully said, “What is bad about Nigerian court is that a child can be born today and you can put the case in court, and the child will graduate from university and the case will still be in court.” Across Nigeria, Afrobarometer’s public opinion survey asked rural women, “How much do you trust courts of law?”:
|Not at all
|Just a little
(*The weighted average takes into account the number of respondents in each survey, which varied from 2002-2012. There were a total of 4671 respondents for all 4 surveys during this decade. My chart shows that trust in courts increased a bit during this period but was still very low (raw data taken from Afrobarometer 2012).)
A prominent women’s rights activist told me: Community groups do not have the resources to pay the fees of a legal practitioner. Also, they don’t have faith in the legal system because of corruption. It is assumed that the oil company can buy up the lawyer and spend money to disturb the legal system, so communities will not actually have access to justice. There is no faith in the system. That is why community groups do not even make the effort to go to court.
Indeed, Nigerian courts and legal institutions have long been acknowledged as among the most corrupt. The Mo Ibrahim Index regularly ranks Nigeria “very low” on its measurements of rule of law, placing it 43rd out of 52 African countries in 2012. Indeed, half of my respondents said that corruption impedes their chances of succeeding in courts. Considering corruption and the unequal playing field for grassroots activists, it is unsurprising that women have chosen to protest over engaging with formal law.
Nigerian Supreme Court.
Shell, villagers agree to $83.5 million for huge oil spilll | The Japan Times.
Over 15,600 Ogoni farmers and fishermen whose lives were devastated by two large Shell oil spills in 2008 are celebrating the $83.5 million settlement they will receive from Shell as compensation. The settlement, split among individuals and the community as a whole, avoids Shell having to defend a potentially embarrassing London high court case which was due to start shortly. It is thought to be the largest payout to any African community following environmental damage and the first time that compensation for an oil spill has been paid directly to affected individuals rather than to local chiefs.
In the past, compensation from companies has been paid to chiefs, with the understanding that he would use it for community projects. However, there is little to no oversight after the compensation is paid out, leaving room for chiefs to skim off the top. In fact, chiefs have had an incentive to actually encourage collective action against oil companies, since resistance measures could cause companies to pay out financial compensation that chiefs would then control. Conversely, during protests the chief will go to a private negotiation with company officials to “settle peace,” as Nigerians call it. The company may pay the chief what they term “community compensation” to settle the matter, with both parties understanding that the chief is being paid to send the protesters home. Whether collective action succeeds as it did in this most recent case, or whether is fails when chiefs put an end to it, the chiefs benefit. Hopefully, pay outs directly to community members like Shell is now doing will help ensure compensation goes where it should, into the pockets of local citizens.
Chiefs hold immense political, social, and spiritual (due to their perceived relationship with the ancestors) in the Delta. This continued legitimacy of traditional rule has been found in rural communities across Africa, despite the perversion of the chieftaincy institution by colonial indirect rule (See Martin Chanock). In additional to their historical authority, chiefs also play a direct role in the provision of collective goods for collective benefit that encourages individuals to follow their directives. Anne Swidler (2010) describes how, if villagers are to act collectively on their own behalf, it is the chief who organizes that cooperation. If a village needs a path cleared or a school building repaired, the chief calls villagers together and requires them to contribute a day’s work to the collective task. In turn, chiefs reward those who contribute to community well-being, and they may keep accounts about who has or has not shown public spirit. Chiefs then redistribute spiritual and material goods to reward those who have helped their fellows. Thus, chiefs solve a collective action problem by contributing to the solution of communal problems, and they use their prestige to create “selective incentives” to those who contribute to the provision of public goods.
Beyond provision of goods, chiefs also act as gatekeepers to those from outside of the community. A new arrival must often first visit the local chief to ask permission to be in the village, which I did in all of the River State communities I stayed in. This makes sense, since a Chief will want to know that the visitor means no harm and to better understand what kind of community resources or goods the new arrival will be using.
To conduct research in each community, I first needed to “sit court” with the local chief and offer him libations for him to grant me permission.
After remarking several times that “Chief is law” during her interview with me, I asked a female farmer in Rivers State: Why is Chief law? Why do you listen to your chief? Her answer was a rich explanation of the hierarchy of local rule in the region, and the she drew me a chart. Her is an electronic version of her drawing:
|Chairman of the State Council of Traditional Rulers
| Chairman of the Local Government Area (LGA) Of Traditional Rulers
Second Class Chiefs
Third Class Chiefs
Community Development Committee (CDC)
|—————-(Male) Youth Leaders
Source: Rose (3/15/2012)