One of the consequences of the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union was the almost world-wide appeal of Western liberal democracy. So popular did the concept become that even the worst totalitarian/fascist regimes in the world began to lay claim to the word “democratic” and use it as a prefix in describing their countries.
In Africa especially, the second wave of democratisation came so fast. Totalitarian, military regimes and one party states that were so popular in the period after independence began to give way as more and more countries succumb to the liberal democratic pull and elections became a regular feature in African states. For African autocrats who have often relied on playing the West over the East during the Cold War to remain in power, adjustment became really tough as the main game in town in the new unipolar world order became liberal democracy signified by regular periodic elections and a cocktail of rights that must be allowed.
After some notable African autocrats succumbed to defeats at elections, the remaining ones quickly learnt their lessons and found ingenious ways of maintaining the facade of democracy while in reality maintaining all the features of an autocratic state. Elections started to be rigged so blatantly that the very idea of elections in most African states became a means of perpetuating the status quo rather than a means of expression of the choice of the citizens. Autocrats and dictators in Africa who wish to remain in power perpetually need not abolish other parties or outlaw all oppositions. That no longer works and will inevitably invite Western powers to try to end such regimes. All the autocrat needs to do is proclaim his country to be democratic, abolish term limits, and hold regular/periodic elections with predetermined outcome. That way, his country will be viewed to a democracy and at the same time, he can remain in power indefinitely. He needs not worry too much about the other necessary components of democracy – political rights and civil liberties. He can tell the West that his country is on a journey to full democratic consolidation. Besides, the policemen of the liberal order don’t care too much since as they believe, democracy is a journey. So long as there are regular/periodic elections, the country could be safely termed a democracy.
This has generally led to a gradual decline in the quality of democracies around the world. The American pro-democracy think tank, Freedom House, for instance, in 2017, adjudged that seventy-one countries suffered net declines in democratic freedoms – political rights and civil liberties – with only thirty-five making progress.
In Nigeria however, by some queer circumstances, since 1999, more gains seem to have been made in guaranteeing political rights and civil liberties than in conducting credible elections. The highest point of Nigeria’s democratic experience came in 2015 when Nigerians were allowed to both enjoy their democratic and civil rights at the same time. This led to the very first defeat of an incumbent in the elections and peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another. Not a few Nigerians became very optimistic that democracy has come to stay in the country and that Nigerians were getting to exercise their rights to choose their leaders.
However, since ascension to power of Buhari in 2015, those rights have been gradually diminishing to the point now where the ruling party is expected to win all major elections conducted in the country either through intimidation of voters, political violence or direct falsification of results at the collation centres. A Diplomatic Watch (which deployed teams from Austria, The European Union, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States to monitor recently conducted elections in Kogi and Bayelsa states) raised “alarms at reports of widespread incidents of violence and intimidation, some of which were witnessed by our teams in Kogi.”
But not done with just reversing the gains made in conducting credible elections in Nigeria, Mr Buhari and his party have also begun to shrink the civic space and making concerted efforts to outlaw free speech and civil liberties that Nigerians have been increasingly enjoying since 1999. Currently, there are about four bills before the National Assembly all seeking to outlaw free speech and even lawful association.
Also, as I argue last week, Mr Buhari has achieved the uncommon feat of emasculating all three arms of government – a feat no previous Nigerian elected president has been able to achieve. As proof of that, the Senate President, a Buhari lackey, recently promised to approve any request made by the president since “any request that comes from Mr President is a request that will make Nigeria a better place.” His counterpart in the House of Representatives, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila has also never failed to show his absolute loyalty to his master in Aso Rock. Some months ago, the Speaker invited Service Chiefs to brief the House on the spate of insecurity in the country. The Service Chiefs ignored him and the only response he could muster was to threaten to report them to the president. Of course, nothing came out of his reporting them to the president neither has he summoned the courage to invite them to the House again.
It is the total submission of the Nigerian National Assembly to the president that has led to the believe that the draconian bills to outlaw free speech and any criticism of government in the name of anti-social media and Hate Speech bills will be passed by the National Assembly regardless of opposition from Nigerians.
The Judiciary on its part had long been intimidated into silence since the illegal removal of the Chief Justice and the harassment and intimidation of high ranking judges and those with the temerity to give judgements not favourable to the government or its agencies. The government not only routinely disobeys and disregards court orders, it now sends security agencies to harass and arrest citizens right inside the courts.
Of course, with absolutely no separation of powers, and with the people unable to elect their leaders or enjoy civil liberties, Nigeria has become a virtual dictatorship. What exist right now is what Ricardo Hausmann terms ‘isomorphic mimicry’ – acting in ways to make themselves “look like institutions in other places that are perceived as legitimate,” but which in reality are not.
Perhaps, after this chapter is over and Nigerians have another opportunity to build a democratic society, they will finally get rid of their atavistic attachment to, and longing for strongmen.