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20 years of unbroken democracy in Nigeria: Challenges and prospects (1)

The 2019 elections marked 20 years of unbroken democratic rule in Nigeria, the longest in its history. Beyond the well-worn definition of democracy as the rule of the people, by the people, and for the people, the American political scientist Larry Diamond posits that democracy has four key elements: a political system for choosing or replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civil life; protection of human rights; and the rule of law, in which laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens. A cursory review of Nigeria’s progress against these 4 core elements paints a mixed picture.

Starting with elections, Paul Collier of Oxford University argues that for elections to meet the threshold of democracy, there must be rules for the conduct of those elections, including a lack of intimidation and violence, a process for punishing cheating, and checks and balances for the government that is elected, including constraining it from crushing the opposition. In the last 20 years, Nigeria’s performance against these criteria have been variable. For the first 16 years out of the 20 years of continuous democratic rule, one political party was dominant. However, in 2015, for the first time in Nigeria’s history, an opposition party defeated the incumbent at the center to become the ruling party and then went on to hold on to power in 2019.

This is evidence that the opposition was not crushed. The judiciary has played its role in punishing cheating in elections, sometimes nullifying elections that it deems have not been properly conducted. However, very few people have ever been prosecuted for electoral violence. Recent elections have also witnessed the new phenomenon of vote buying and selling. Condemnable as this is, it is perversely an indication that votes may now be beginning to count in a way that it didn’t in the past. If politicians could sit in hotel rooms and write fictitious election results, as they used to, why would they bother to buy votes? We could, therefore, score Nigeria a “Pass” on this one.

On Larry Diamond’s second element of the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civil life, again the story is mixed. The high cost of nomination forms and the delegate system in use in the major political parties automatically exclude people without deep pockets. However, the passage of the “Not-too-young-to-run” Act in 2018 lowered the age for political participation and opened the door for more young people to seek elective office. Participating in politics and civil life goes beyond standing for elective office though. It requires the citizenry to truly own

Section 14(2)(a) of the Constitution that says: “Sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government through this Constitution derives all its powers and authority.” It would mean that citizens can ask tough questions of their government and demand answers. It would mean that citizens will monitor and report on government actions and participate in the development and implementation of government policy. Given that Nigeria was under military rule for more than half of its existence as a sovereign nation, this aspect of our democracy is evolving rather slowly.

A number of Civil Society Organisations are now beginning to track government budgets, expenditure, constituency projects and decisions. However, the citizenry at large does not yet seem to be fully aware of its own powers. The Freedom of Information Act of 2011, through which citizens can request information about government activities, is still grossly underused. I have often argued that this law is the second most powerful law in Nigeria. Save for security information and personal information such as health status, it is only the Constitution that a public official can rely on to deny a citizen of information about government activity.

The positive correlation between democracy and economic growth has long been established. Save for very few countries, the most prosperous nations on earth practice democratic rule. The G7 countries and all the richest countries in the world all practice democratic rule

Of course, the ultimate power of the citizen in a democracy is the power to remove an existing government and replace it with another one. This is a power that it has exercised several times at state level and most significantly at federal level in 2015. There, however, remains huge scope for greater participation of citizens in national life. Still, we can score Nigeria a borderline “Pass” here too.

Nigeria does not score very highly on the protection of human rights. The country has consistently ranked very low on the Freedom Index published by Freedom House. The police are famous for constraining citizens’ rights by illegally demanding for permits before they can protest and parading suspects in contravention of the Constitution and the rulings of the Supreme Court. There are many cases where governments at all levels have been accused of arbitrary arrest, non-compliance with court orders, intimidating citizens and trying to crush dissenting public opinion. Young Nigerians are particularly susceptible to harassment by the State and a painfully slow judicial system also means that citizens often suffer irreparable damage before they are able to assert their human rights. I would score Nigeria a ‘Fail’ on this criterion.

On Larry Diamond’s final criterion on the rule of law and equal application of laws and procedures to all citizens, the story is not such a good one. Most Nigerians would not believe that laws and procedures are applied equally to all citizens. Indeed, becoming a member of the elite in Nigeria appears to give you an entitlement to break the law and get away with it. You are able to drive against traffic, not have to queue for services, pay minimal taxes, and be given personal protection by 20 policemen by a grossly understaffed police force. Having said that, there have been a few cases where members of the elite have been made to answer for wrongdoing, particularly with regards to corruption by politically exposed persons. Still, I would score Nigeria a ‘Fail’ on this criterion.

Overall, it is fair to say that Nigeria’s democracy is still maturing. There have been some areas of encouragement but also many areas where more needs to be done. As Professor Wale Adebanwi of Oxford University recently said: “Regardless of which government is, or has been, in power, there is consensus that we have not built the country that we have the capacity to build.” The opportunities that exist for more to be done sometimes leads to frustration, with some people advocating a return to military rule, balkanization of the country and even fascism. I think that it is important that we address this: Is democracy better for economic growth and prosperity or are dictatorship and fascism better?

The positive correlation between democracy and economic growth has long been established. Save for very few countries, the most prosperous nations on earth practice democratic rule. The G7 countries and all the richest countries in the world all practice democratic rule. This is not to claim any sort of causality and it would be imprudent to claim that democracy causes economic growth. Such a claim is easy to disprove by looking at China. While Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea are democracies today, they were not democracies at the time that the foundations for their development were being laid. This has led many to advocate for the benefits of a “benevolent dictator.” The little problem with that is that not many of Africa’s dictators have ever been “benevolent.” Most have been megalomaniac kleptocrats that became richer than the countries they rule, while brutally suppressing dissent. As Winston Churchill said in 1947:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

It is for this reason that I have often argued that, of all the freedoms we must protect, the two most important ones are the freedom to speak our minds freely and the freedom to choose our leaders in free and fair elections.



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