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Establishing Hope in Nigerian Democracy

Democracy was the driving force and political objective of intensified anti-colonial nationalism in Africa after the end of World War II. These democratic values and ideals still elude Africa more than three decades after the formal termination of Western European imperial control of most of the continent.

African nationalists sought to overthrow Western European imperial control of Africa because they believed that no section of the human family had an inherent right to rule, dominate, and exploit another section of that family; that all men and women have natural rights, as equal members of the human family, to participate in reaching decisions that affect their lives either directly or indirectly; that freedom from alien control would help to promote and sustain the civic virtues and ideals of obligation to freedom, justice, equality, accountability, and truth in Africa.

On October 1, 1960 Nigeria added to its list of vital statistics a new status as the world’s fourth largest democracy. The list has been already impressive. One African in four is a Nigerian; with a population of 200 million or more, Nigeria is larger than any country in Europe. It is also the world’s eighth largest producer of crude oil and has been the United States’ second largest supplier for six years, neither joining in the Arab boycott of 1973-74, nor cutting exports for policy reasons subsequently.

At independence, the country experimented with a parliamentary system of government patterned on the British Westminster model consisting of an executive headed by a prime minister and a cabinet based on collective responsibility, a bicameral national assembly elected largely by universal suffrage, and an independent judiciary, among other features. From the outset, the political system came under severe stress brought about by ethnic rivalry. The democratic experiment broke down in January 1966 when power shifted to the military in a trend that would mark the nature of Nigerian politics from that point forward.

Worse still, ethnic disharmony soon degenerated into war between 1967 and 1970. The war claimed three million lives, most of them Igbos, who, with other easterners, seceded to form their own independent Republic of Biafra, displacing another three million people. The war has been ranked by one chronicler as “the bloodiest civil war of the 20th century.” In 1970, following the successful termination of Biafran secession, the country reunified and continued its journey toward nationhood.

Nigeria has a federal system of government that operates as a unitary format, particularly during periods of military government. Over time, this system grew in complexity and is today made up of one national government, thirty-six state governments, and a federal capital territory (FCT) based in Abuja, and numerous local governments. Although Nigerians are a freedom-loving people with a passion for democratic rule, democracy has had a checkered history in Nigeria.

Any voluntary handover of government from military to civilian rulers is unusual. Nigeria’s was, arguably, unique. Meticulously planned, and including civilians at all stages of the four-year process, it culminated in a change of government as smooth as in a Western democracy. The legitimizing rhetoric of post-Cold War democratization was that even if democracy fails to improve the lives and civic freedoms of Nigerians and other African peoples, there is a consolation prize: the electoral mechanism of voting out nonperforming governments, which would, over time, entrench a culture of accountability. This claim has floundered spectacularly in Nigeria.

Although, democracy gives citizens the opportunity to participate in government, which in turn promotes development. However, while engaging in various forms of deliberative democracy has increased in some countries since the 1990s, contributions to, and even the feasibility of, deliberative democracy in divided (multicultural) societies have as yet been studied and contested very little, especially in ethnically and religiously divided countries like Nigeria.

The adoption of liberal democracy in Nigeria was not an organic product of homegrown political struggles. Nor did it emanate from the deliberative and ideological disputations of Nigeria’s vibrant civic public sphere. Instead, democratization was predetermined by a toxic mix of three crosscutting phenomena: the post-Cold War search for a new logic of neocolonial control and domination; the suffocating global ubiquity of a pro-democracy slush fund disbursed strategically by governmental and non-governmental Western actors; and the ideological certitude and arrogance of a unipolar political formation located in the Global North.

For six decades, Nigerians have been searching for democracy through constitutional reforms and intricate political engineering and experimentation, spelt out in successive transition programmes. They have, however, been continuously disappointed. Many Third World countries in the 1990s, have been concerned with democratic consolidation, whereas the primary concern for Nigeria was, and still is, how to end military rule and bring about credible democratic rule.

Discourse and electioneering have generally lacked a substantive debate of issues and policies and focused more on being on the winning team. Political power has often been considered the easiest route to wealth in Nigeria, and as a result, elections have been hotly contested since the end of military rule in 1999. But the intense contests do not necessarily produce the ablest leaders with the best policy prescriptions.

The Fourth Republic differs from the three previous Republics we had in Nigeria in several respects. For one, it is the longest. While the First Republic lasted 5 years from Independence, the Second Republic lasted four years and three months while the Third Republic was inconclusive. It had elected state governors, state assemblies and even a National Assembly, to which the AFRC ceded some inconsequential powers including the power to legislate on museums, monuments and public libraries.

However, the Third Republic never had a civilian President. Even though a presidential election was held on June 12, 1993, the Returning Officer, Prof Humphrey Nwosu, did not declare the result until 15 years later, at an awkward and legally inconsequential public lecture in Abuja in 2008. Two federal elections were held in the 1st Republic, in 1959 and 1964; two were held in the 2nd Republic, in 1979 and 1983, and 6 have so far been held in the 4th Republic, in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019. Throughout the 1st Republic there was only one Prime Minister. Throughout the 2nd Republic there was only one President. During the 3rd Republic there was no civilian President but there was a military President. In the 4th republic however, we have had four civilian presidents so far, even though two of them are former Army Generals.

It is on record that at least 14 million young voters have registered since 2017. With the passage of the eligibility age law in May 2018, space has been created for 18 to 35-year-olds, who constitute over 60% of the population, to be more involved in the governance process.
The sustained interest in the choice of electoral regime is better appreciated when juxtaposed with the fact that no election in Nigeria since 1959 has gone undisputed.

For the Nigerian political class, democracy is hardly desirable if it means popular empowerment of the masses. Democracy is desirable to them only if it can facilitate access to power, create avenues for looting the public treasury and keep the people in check and at their mercy. If and when such an opening is perceived, then the political class strives to negotiate the exit of the military from power. Otherwise, it does not matter if the military retains power and keeps shifting the democratization goal-post, so long as they can be in the game.

Nigeria transitioned from military to civilian rule in 1999. The transition was the result of a bargain struck by an elite cabal over 1998 and 1999, following the death of the General Sani Abacha. It observed that past governments failed in the area of development and peaceful co-existence of Nigerians due to their non-adherence to democratic values and application of the principle of true fiscal federalism.

Authoritarian rule by an institutionalised oligarchy constitutes the main structural threat to deepening democratic rule. Transforming oligarchy in Nigeria is likely to take a decade at least. However, support can be provided in the interim, particularly by encouraging the use of democratic organisations as mediators between different interests and groups.

The 2003 polls, embroiled in disarray, misconduct, and confrontation, carried worrisome echoes of previous failures. The country appears to have weathered its turbulent season, perhaps yielding a new lease on life for Nigerian democracy. Yet this crisis-ridden regime faces major hurdles to consolidation, in a volatile setting of elite contention, social polarization, institutional challenges, and economic malaise. Nigeria’s current trials call attention to the nexus of performance, legitimacy, and democratic consolidation.

Today, the continent’s most populous country, Nigeria, is still heavily reliant on oil. Petroleum represents more than 80% of total export revenue, according to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).Political sponsors use money and influence to win support for their preferred candidates. Their “godsons”, it is believed, are not always selected for their political acumen, but rather on their ability to repay and enrich their godfather.

The informal exercise of power by Nigeria’s political oligarchy exerts more control over daily life than do formal institutions. Formal and informal powers converge in the office of the president who largely monopolises oil revenues to reward and cement patrimonial networks. This centralisation of power, security, and financial resources constitutes a major obstacle to the realisation of Nigerian democracy. Nevertheless, despite these structural barriers, progress is being made. For instance, in May 2006, the National Assembly defeated Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo’s third term initiative, which would have allowed him to extend his presidency unchallenged.

When Muhammadu Buhari won his first election in 2015, he became Nigeria’s first political leader to succeed an incumbent via the ballot box. This was a milestone for multiparty democracy in Africa.
While Nigeria has made strides in its democratic development, the 2019 elections were a step backward for Africa’s most populous country and biggest democracy.

Historically low voter turnout signaled a deepening public distrust in Nigerian government and institutions. This public distrust, coupled with historical issues with electoral violence and intimidation, threatens to undermine the security and legitimacy of the democratic process and may cause reverberating consequences for other emerging democracies in Africa. In Nigeria, young people make up 51% of registered voters, and women constitute 41% [Chart above]. The low or non-participation of this huge majority in decision-making processes stops their voices from being heard and their perspectives taken into account in the policies that directly impact their lives.

The recently concluded election reflects both the strengths of and deficiencies in Nigeria’s democracy. Political space is pluralistic and competitive. The public has real expectations for government officials, and failure to meet these expectations can result in removal from office. Government structures and systems, including the electoral management bodies, security forces, and the courts are guided and constrained by democratic rules. And yet, politics is exclusionary. Government officials and agencies often fail to operate transparently and to respond to the needs and demands of the people. Officials and agencies fail to abide by the rule of law.

Elections are part of the democratic process and opportunities to evaluate the performance of those in custody of our mandates against their promises and governance deliverables. Its evolution and improvement can only be measured in terms of processes, procedures, technology, and outcome. The democratic process that elections provide brings to the fore the relevance of participatory democracy and inclusive governance. It is a period where office seekers are at the mercy of the electorate.

Listening to Nigerians, it is clear that a review of the Electoral Act in particular and electoral legal framework in general, must be anchored on a number of factors which include, entrenching internal democracy within political parties, ensuring inclusivity in the electoral process for marginalized segments of society such as women, youths and persons living with disability and ensuring violators of electoral laws are effectively sanctioned.

The ninth Senate has, however, reintroduced the bill. The main purpose of the Electoral Act in any nation is for the general conduct of election, it helps to strengthen internal democracy, reduce cost of politics and broaden political participation. As is it now, the introduction of the card reader where a candidate is accredited to vote is yet to be part of our electoral act and as such, the failure of the card reader machine or failure to use it cannot invalidate the election.

For the future of the Nigerian state to be guaranteed, government at all levels should imbibe a political democratic culture which promotes values such as popular participation of citizens in decision-making, fundamental human rights, a free press, the curbing of corruption, and above all, shunning of all anti-democratic vices in dealing with issues of the state and the application of the principle of true fiscal federalism. Without religious adherence to these ideals, then the future will be bleak for Nigeria as a nation.

While integrity in elections is crucial, there are other factors that will influence the outcome of elections and thereby contribute to building citizens’ trust in democracy. For democracy to flourish, the formal democratic system and the rule of law must gain greater prominence through horizontal checks and balances among political elites and vertical elite-public relations.

To this end, political freedom lies at the heart of the concept of democracy. One of the fundamental principles of the philosophy of democracy is that the ultimate power of political administration in the state ought to be the outcome of a decision made by the people as free moral agents.

Meanwhile, the civil society must work to ensure close collaboration amongst its ranks and consistency in its values. This will help it sustain the respect and trust of the citizens, and it will make mobilization easier in the future. While international organizations and domestic civil society groups have an enormous role to play, ultimately, the country’s political landscape can only be reconfigured by a popular movement of Nigerian voters demanding reform. That is the promise of democracy in Nigeria, and around the world.

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