#NigeriaDecides2023: An Opportunity to Reverse the Trend of Democratic Decline in Africa

by Tope Shola Akinyetun

Since the post-Cold War era of the transition to democratic rule, many African countries, including Nigeria, have faced challenges that threaten democratic governance. In addition to weakening the democratic system, these challenges have created a poor governance culture that has exerted a debilitating effect on the political system.

As I argue in my research, good governance is a key element of democratic growth; thus, its corrosion drives democratic decline and the spread of autocratisation in Africa. With most African countries recording deterioration in governance, citizens’ role in contributing to democratic growth is impaired.

This is particularly true for Nigeria, which is the most populous country in Africa. Nigeria’s experience with democratic rule in the fourth republic has produced six uninterrupted quadrennial elections, albeit characterised by various challenges including voter intimidation, harassment, rigging, and ballot box snatching. These electoral hurdles engender a corrupt system that rewards ‘stakeholders’ of electoral ‘victory,’ thus making service delivery and good governance difficult.

As Nigeria prepares for its general elections in February 2023, the stakes are high, and the anxiety it commands is overwhelming. The elections hold great significance considering that Nigeria is the largest democracy in Africa, and the results of the election will have a regional effect, as it could either reverse or intensify the trend of democratic decline on the continent. The election is also an opportunity for Nigerian youths to play an informed role in deciding on their future and entrenching democratic growth.

This notwithstanding, as a country with a burgeoning youth population, it is pertinent to underscore expectations ahead of the 2023 election and beyond.

Free and fair elections

Elections are integral to democratic success, whereas the entrenchment of violence is inimical to democratic consolidation. As reported in the above-cited research, the quality of elections in Africa is deteriorating, with the majority of African countries witnessing a high incidence of violence during the electoral process.

The elections in Niger, Uganda, Senegal, and Ethiopia have been fraught with violence, and fierce opposition has led to the loss of lives and property. In Nigeria, various elections have been marred by a winner-take-all mentality, increasing the chances of routinised electoral violence and rigging. In most cases, the complicity of the electoral umpire and security agents has been cited. In the first instance, lack of preparedness, poor logistics, corruption, lack of efficiency, and poor training have been identified, while partisanship and corruption of security agents have become popular.

In the 2023 general elections, it is expected that the Nigerian government will rise to the occasion and guarantee credible polls. The use of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) by the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) is billed to restore the integrity of the election management body and reduce the chances of rigging. The ability to organise a violence-free election will restore the confidence of Nigerians and, by extension, Africans in the sanctity of elections and enhance democratic growth.

Good governance

Another major factor that necessitates the decline of democracy is poor governance. Africa is presently experiencing a decline in governance, with over 13 countries recording an increasing deterioration in a ten-year trend (i.e 2010–2020). The incidence of political instability, armed conflict, and weak state legitimacy pervades the African continent.

For instance, the Boko Haram insurgency, which constitutes a major security threat to countries in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin, and pastoralist conflicts in agricultural communities have led to unprecedented displacement, poverty, forced migration, and humanitarian crises in the region. To this end, the incoming government is expected to prioritise security, as this will create a peaceful climate conducive to democratic and economic growth in Nigeria and its neighbouring countries.

State capture and corruption

The ingrained challenge of state capture and corruption also weakens democracy in Africa. In DR Congo, Guinea, and South Africa, the elite has taken over state institutions for private and partisan gains. Nigeria is a classic example of a country in which governance and democratic growth are impeded by the kleptocratic inclinations of political actors.

For instance, billions of dollars have been lost to corruption, embezzlement, contract fraud, and kickback. The incoming government is, therefore, expected to prioritise the equitable distribution of resources and citizen participation in governance. This will improve democratic practices in the country and will serve as a model for other African countries.

Economic performance

Poor economic performance also entrenches democratic recession. Many African countries have experienced debt crises and inflation. This is exemplified by the economic decline recorded in the largest economies in Africa – Nigeria, Egypt, and South Africa – in 2022.

To reverse the democratic decline in Nigeria and beyond, the incoming government must focus on ensuring food security, increased investment, and poverty reduction. This will reduce youth vulnerability to violence and encourage innovation and development expected of a youthful continent.

To sum up, the 2023 election holds the key to reversing democratic decline in Africa. It provides Nigeria with an opportunity to reassert its influence on the continent as the most populous country and largest democracy. The conduct of a peaceful election will not only signal an atmosphere of democratic growth but will also place Nigeria in an advantaged position to negotiate peace in African countries under military rule and authoritarian regimes.

In addition to ensuring a free and fair election, promoting good governance and combating state capture and corrupt practices will improve Nigeria’s economic performance and improve its democratic experience. These are important in discouraging a wave of autocratisation and military coups on the continent. Nigerian youths are expected to continue to leverage their awakened consciousness as valuable stakeholders in the electoral process and democratic progress in Africa.

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