As Nigerians celebrate the 2018 edition of the return of democracy to their country in 1999, following sixteen years of Jackboot dictatorship, this column bluntly examines the visceral facts of Nigerian democracy.
Nigeria’s current democratic experiment commenced on May 29th, 1999, the date the military dictatorship of General Abdulsalam Abubakar, having conducted a General Election, formally handed over the reins of governance to the newly elected civilian government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, who himself as former military Head of State from 1976 to 1979, had likewise handed over to a civilian government headed by Alhaji Shehu Shagari, after conducting a General Election. Since that historic date in 1999, May 29 has officially become known as “Democracy Day” in Nigeria’s political calendar.
The democratic history of Nigeria, though having roots in colonial times, when the colonial authorities gradually absolved Nigerians into the administrative machinery of the fledging colony, could be said to have formally commenced in 1960 with the official acquisition of independence, and has continued to evolve since then. From a Westminster Parliamentary three Regional arrangement from 1960 (later enlarged to accommodate a fourth region, the Mid-Western Region in 1963) to 1966, a Federal Presidential multi-state structure, first from 1979 to 1983 – ending when the military struck – and, later, from 1999 – when the military interregnum ended – till date, Nigeria could be said to have navigated several waters in its journey towards full blown democracy.
According to common sense definition, a society is said to be democratic when its people can contribute meaningfully to the running of their affairs. It is based on the idea that the people, through their elected representatives are supreme. At the head of a democratic system are popularly elected leaders who are expected to work for the common good of all members of the polity. Lawmaking bodies are established to ensure that leaders do not become tyrannical. The Nigerian State subscribes to adherence to the principles of democracy as its first major objective. These principles form the plinth on which the Nigerian State supposedly stands. The sovereignty, security, free and equal participation of the people in the political process are supposed to be the chief cornerstones of Nigerian democracy as provided in the constitution (See Chapter II: Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy – Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999).
The purpose of the above provision is to ease the construction of a functional and enduring democratic culture in Nigeria, which would ultimately culminate in the achievement of the common goals of national development. This democratic sloganeering is hypothetically meant to place power firmly in the hands of the people. Nigeria is also a signatory to the United Nations’ Atlantic Charter of January 1st 1942, in which all member nations declared that “they have united to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom and to preserve human rights and justice in their own land as in other lands”(Odor, 2002: 9).
However, in practical terms, Nigeria’s return to democracy since 1999, has been as contradictory as it has have been incongruous, as was the order prior to the military putsches of 1966 and 1983. It has played out in the form of a skewered arrangement that has benefited only some very special sectors of the business class and allied members of the political establishment – moguls of Nigeria’s commercial order. The ordinary members of the society have been mere spectators, not active participants. The truth is that “government of the people” has remained a farce in Nigeria. It has been an ever receding pipe-dream that exists only in the breach. What obtains in Nigeria is an oppressive, impassive political regime where the few misrule at the expense of the many. It is the antithesis of a system of majority rule based on popular consent. Nigeria’s democracy surfers from operational hiccups which makes it practically impossible for the masses to enjoy the often overblown dividends of this novel political tradition that have been adopted to good effect in other climes.
The problems with Nigeria’s democracy are purely man-made. They are manifestations of the demonic schemes of a narcissistic minority in the country; a clique of self-seeking, self-serving Ostriches who have chosen to lead the country off course in their quests for the largess’ of political office, irrespective of the harm this causes the larger body politic. Nigeria operates a sickly, shameful and superficial system that is everything but democratic.
What is democratic about a system where a minority rules over the majority? What is democratic about a system where, despite the constitution allowing for a multi-party system, two Dinosaur political parties, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressive Congress (APC), perpetually dominate the political space at the federal, state and local government levels? What is democratic about a system where electoral umpires at both national and state levels are appointed and remunerated by the incumbent chief executives? What is democratic about a system where full citizenship participation is not truly guaranteed in the electoral processes, and where eligible voters are systematically disenfranchised through technical default and other evil machinations of the two-timing demagogues in power? What is democratic about a system where the results of elections are known even before they are held? What is democratic about a system where the controllers of the machinery of the state regularly capitalize on the ignorance, poverty and passivity of the larger population to influence the conduct and outcome of elections? What is democratic about a system that does not control corruption and the abuse of power by elected officials? What is democratic about a system where you have rulers – not leaders – without followers, and where naked force is the lingua-franca? What is really democratic about Nigeria’s democracy?
How can Nigerian politicians associate their sharp practices with democracy, when money is the name of the game in these parts? In this country, cash determines who gets what, when and how. With money you are able to buy enough political positions and become a major stakeholder, regardless of whether you are capable enough for the job or not. This is an age of bloated governments, oil thefts, bank frauds, political trade-offs and sundry other clandestine deals that the common Nigerian is unaware of. This system is everything but decent, honest or fair. It is about being a member of the league, about who you know and the extent you are willing to compromise your moral values in order to profit from the arrangement. That is why it will be very difficult to develop quality leadership in this country. The political environment does not give room for that. How can there be good leadership in a country where it costs billions of Naira to be elected a Senator? Leadership failure has been overwhelming in this country and has left several unmarked graves across the landscape. Democracy in Nigeria is akin to a game of chess played by grandmasters, funded by investors and special interests and lapped up by the people. Take it or live it!
The idea that Nigeria operates a democracy is a repugnant supposition that sounds as hollow as a clanging cymbal. It is simply an idea without a firm practical base. In all fairness, can the circus shows regularly exhibited in Nigeria’s conflict ridden political amphitheatre where elections are brazenly rigged and candidates standing for political offices handpicked and foisted on the people by the political parties, be said to be based on democratic principles? Can Nigerians be said to be truly supreme under the current cosmetic political arrangement where, despite being Nigerians, they are debarred their basic rights?
American democracy, which the Nigerian version is supposedly modeled after, is founded on the ideals of popular representation and participation. This is in recognition of the novel roles played by the people in the independence struggles of the U.S. These ideals have continued to drive citizen-state relations in this state. That is why the security of the lives of the citizens of America, are treasured above those of other nationals. That is why the U.S is ready to go war to protect the common interests of its people globally. That is why American leaders of listen to the opinions of their people before hashing out policies – domestic and foreign – that would affect them in the long run. But the truth must be told that Nigeria’s democracy is a poor copy of the fluidly functioning American models.
Talking of popular representation, parliaments, ideally, should protect the liberties of the citizenry in a true republican sense. A virile parliament checks executive excesses. It is the closest arm of government to the people, and is the major forum through which they participate in governance. But the reality in Nigeria is that parliaments (at the Federal, State and Local levels) have generally been speech-making forums where passing references are made to the supposed “needs” of the people. They are assemblies of fowls, cocoons of caterpillars where the grandest schemes against the people are hatched and executed.
Come to think of it, how representative are representatives who hardly consult their constituencies (made up of people who supposedly elected them to protect and project their interests)to sample their opinions on issues of common concern before contributing to the law-making processes? Can legislators who hardly visit their constituencies to ascertain the wellbeing of their electors be called true representatives of their people? Can a parliamentarian who collects constituency allowances running into millions of Naira over a period of four calendar years, without executing a single laudable project in his constituency, be called a representative of his people? Can a legislator who is preoccupied with fighting for committee portfolios, furniture and other beggarly allowances be termed a true representative of his people?
Nigeria is a democracy in theory. In practice, it is an oligarchy that operates in the full mode of an absolute monarchy; a political system that is run by a few individuals with practically unlimited powers at all the three cadres – Federal, State and Local. At the head of this hierarchical structure is the President who acts as the potentate, ably assisted by an advisory council of elders made up of selected members of his cabinet, the legislature and appointed top members of the judiciary. At the state level, you have a similar formation with the Governor, together with an advisory council of Satraps duplicating the scenario at the center. The local government, at a lower level, replicates the arrangement at the higher echelons of the ladder. It is simply a dynastic arrangement that is based on hereditary succession where parents build political structures and bequeath them to their children, relatives and close associates; a business concern that is closed to the ordinary Nigerian without financial or any clout whatsoever; a political La Cosa Nostra, a highly organized criminal system where important decisions of public importance are made by impassive physicians of death who then compel those on the lower rungs of the ladder to swallow their quack prescriptions hook, line and sinker. That is the bitter truth!
Thus, rather than regularly celebrating – “marking” is preferable – a mere Utopia with so much pomp and pageantry every May 29th, as has become the sad tradition in these parts, Nigerians, on this occasion, should sit down to deeply reflect on what has constituted and defined their journey to democracy so far. If they do that, they will discover that there is a huge lacuna that has to be filled; they will discover that the reasons why they lag behind the rest of civilized humanity, live in deplorable conditions, lack the basic necessities of live – food, clothing, shelter and security –, are debarred their basic rights, first, as Nigerians, and secondly, as members of human species, is because of poor leadership, consequent to the absence of a viable democratic culture in their country. They will also discover that there is a way out of their quandary.
The forthcoming 2019 General Elections, presents Nigerians – leaders and followers- with another opportunity to right the avoidable wrongs of the past. For the political class, 2019, rather than being another year of business as usual, should be seen an opportunity for them to redeem their thickly muddied images by given room for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections. While for the electorate, it is another opportunity to exercise their civic responsibilities by electing the most credible candidates into the political positions that would be vacant on D-Day. It is not too late to do a detour and correct the deplorable blunders of the past.
God save Nigeria!