• Monday, June 24, 2024
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Crisis of democracy at the grassroots in Nigeria

Nigeria’s “Performance Democracy”: Transcript of my keynote address (2)

Nigeria claims to be a democracy and a federation. Its whole democratic apparatuses and federation are modelled after that of the United States of America. It has elaborate constitutional designs, sharing powers among arms and orders of government, and setting up a so-called system of checks and balances.

But Nigerians have a legitimate complaint, which is that its Constitution allocates way too much powers and functions to the Federal Government than is healthy in a true federation.

And despite all the powers allocated to the Federal Government, it has failed in virtually all its functions, especially that of securing the country.

Currently, Nigeria is a country adrift; from the Boko Haram armed insurgency still raging in the North-East; insecurity and wanton killings in the North-West and North-Central regions; pogroms in Southern Kaduna; organised gangs/cults, kidnappings and armed robberies in Southern Nigeria; repression of minority groups and police killings and brutality.

The natural result is the total loss of trust and confidence in governments and institutions to protect the people or help them get justice. This has compounded the problem with Nigerians now resorting to self-help to protect themselves, and states increasingly demanding for more powers to tackle existential threats and justify their existence as orders of government such as fiscal autonomy and state police.

Sadly, beyond just governorship elections every four years, all democratic structures in all the states are dead

But while we all tend to focus on the larger failings of the Federal Government – which is true and can’t be over-emphasised – we easily forget or overlook the states. Sadly, beyond just governorship elections every four years, all democratic structures in all the states are dead.

Since 1999, and despite the elaborate constitutional designs replicating all the structures of democratic governance at the state level, there has not been any identifiable democratic system of checks and balances in the states and the governors operate, in the words of former President Obasanjo, as ‘emperors,’ diverting or outrighly stealing huge chunks of the state’s revenue without question and ordering the arrest, torture or even killing of anyone that dares to question them.

The state Houses of Assembly and judiciary are virtually all subordinated to the wishes of the governor or a godfather. State Houses of Assembly in particular, only act as rubber stamps to the governor or a godfather, and are always filled with the governor’s or godfather’s loyalists. The people are treated with little or no regard. What is worse, the last hurdle of accountability at the polls is easily sidestepped by massive rigging and manipulation of elections.

The problem began in 1999 when Nigerians were all focused on the centre. Smart politicians like Peter Odili in Rivers State simply installed his boy Rotimi Amaechi (who, by his own confession, took to politics due to unemployment) as speaker of the State House of Assembly. Unencumbered by citizen and press searchlights, the governors or godfathers quickly took over control of their various states, deciding who gets elected into the state houses of assembly, who is not and who gets what leadership position.

Read also: Administration of justice is foundation of democracy, business – Osinbajo

In no time, the states lost their democratic structures beyond physical appearances, except for the compulsory governorship elections every four years. Anyone who wins the elections – by really campaigning or through rigging – takes the entire state and all resources due to the state. Even if the state flips through the actions of the courts (which is quite common these days in Nigeria), virtually all the members of the state assembly decamps to the new governor’s party and if the speaker of the House is not to the governor’s liking, s/he resigns or is forcibly replaced with the governor’s candidate.

But the governor or godfather is an emperor who cannot be questioned or held to account by the democratic structure in the states. The same scenario plays out at the local governments, which are all under the control of the states.

If this is happening in just a handful of states, we could say it is the exception. But it is the same in virtually all states of the country. It points to a bigger problem of erosion of democracy, especially at the grassroots.

Does that mean Nigerians don’t really like democracy or does it have to do with the weaknesses of the democratic structures in place? To my mind – and as I have enunciated on this page before – Nigeria suffers from isomorphic mimicry – the creation of institutions that act in ways to make themselves “look like institutions in other places that are perceived as legitimate,” but which, in reality, are not.

We have all the institutions a supposed democracy has on paper, but in reality, they are not effective or are designed not to be. We may have an Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) for instance, that is supposed to ensure that elections are conducted freely and fairly, but we all know in reality that those who vote do not really determine the outcome of elections as much as those who do the counting of the votes.

We supposedly have a third arm of government – the judiciary, which is theoretically independent from the executive and adjudicates disputes between the other arms of government and protects individual liberties from government overreach. But the very head of the judiciary was illegally booted out of office, justices of the Supreme Court harassed and intimidated into silence and the courts have become more or less the mouthpiece of the executive such that no one is left in doubt as to where the courts stand these days.

The legislature is supposed to perform oversight functions and check the powers of the chief executive (president or governor), but they are often rubber stamps.

We can pretend to be a democratic society all we want, but until we begin to build solid and durable institutions, we may just be deceiving ourselves. I understand that in Africa, we tend to place emphasis on leaders and not institutions. In the structure-agency debate in academia, most African intellectuals favour agency over structure. But that is precisely why we are a poor and beggarly continent. That is why we suffer reversals. Structures control and condition agency and until we accept that reality, our material situation will remain the same.