In theory, Nigeria is a representative democracy; in practice, it is not. Unlike in a direct democracy, where people determine how they are governed by voting on policies and laws themselves, in a representative democracy, they elect others to govern them, to make policies and laws for them.
However, to be truly “representative”, a democracy must have certain key characteristics. Sadly, Nigeria’s “representative democracy” lacks most of these characteristics. I’m interested in political competition here!
But before that, let’s consider the key characteristics. According to political scientists, a representative democracy has the following key characteristics: universal participation, political equality, political competition, political accountability, government transparency, majority rule, civil liberties and rule of law. Anyone who understands what each of these characteristics entails would readily admit that Nigeria’s representative democracy is hollow.
Take “universal participation” first. This means that all adults should be able to vote. But where is universal participation in Nigeria’s representative democracy when voter turnouts are so abysmally low? Consider the two recent presidential elections.
By working with Tinubu to neuter the National Assembly and cripple the main opposition PDP, Wike and his gang are not only playing disruptive politics, but they’re also undermining representative democracy
In 2019, 73million Nigerians collected the Permanent Voter Cards, PVCs, but only 29million, about 36 per cent, voted. This year, 87million collected the PVCs, only 24m, about 27 per cent, voted, the lowest turnout since Nigeria returned to civil rule in 1999.
Why such low voter turnouts? Well, the main cause is deliberate disenfranchisement of Nigerians through voter intimidation and suppression, fuelled by electoral violence and political thuggery, and perennial failures of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. In every election, a cumulation of adverse forces push Nigerians further away from the polling units, from voting. As a result, Nigeria operates a “representative” democracy that is not remotely representative because it lacks a critical element: universal participation!
What about “political equality”? This means everyone has one vote. But, historically, everyone has not had one vote in Nigerian elections because of overvoting and ballot stuffing. The Bimodal Voter Accreditation System, BVAS, introduced in the Electoral Act 2022, was meant to eliminate such malpractices through electronic accreditation of voters and electronic transmission of results. But with INEC’s failure to use the BVAS in the presidential and some governorship elections, there were not only widespread incidences of overvoting, including underage voting, but also manipulations of results. So, Nigeria’s representative democracy lacks another key element: political equality, based on one man, one vote!
Then, there’s “majority rule”. This characteristic means that a winning candidate should receive at least “50%+1” of the total valid votes. But Nigeria’s “representative” democracy is not based on a majority rule. Today, Bola Tinubu is Nigeria’s de facto president. Yet, he secured just 8.79million out of the 23.4million valid votes in the presidential election, rejected by the vast majority, 14.6million. He won only 36.61 per cent of the votes cast, rejected by a whopping 63.39 per cent of the voters. In a recent column, I described Tinubu’s administration as a minority government. I would have said the same of Atiku Abubakar or Peter Obi if either was declared winner on a minority share of the total votes. For, put simply, a true representative democracy should be based on a majority rule.
Which brings us to “political competition”. This means that a representative democracy must be based on a multi-party system to give citizens real choice in elections. Well, Nigeria is a multiparty democracy, but is there real voter choice? Of course not! Because political parties are based on personalities, not on ideologies.
For instance, the APC calls itself “progressive”, but many of its current chieftains are former PDP leaders. So, who are the “progressives”? Even the Labour Party, which can claim to be intrinsically ideological, has long been home to disgruntled politicians from other parties. Politicians don’t move seamlessly between parties in other climes as they do in Nigeria!
But beyond the lack of ideological differences, the most potent obstacle to political competition in Nigeria is the absence of a level playing field. This is caused by two factors, namely: abuse of incumbency to gain electoral advantage; and political cannibalism, where one major party hollows out another and renders it electorally feeble.
Take abuse of incumbency. In its final report on this year’s general election, the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU-EOM) said, among other things, that “abuse of incumbency by various political office holders distorted the playing field.” Of course, abuse of incumbency is prevalent at the state level, through obstructions and interferences by state governors. But it’s the Federal Government, which directly controls the security agencies, the electoral body and other instruments of power, that most blatantly abuses its incumbency to distort the playing field in a presidential election.
Last week, former President Muhammadu Buhari said he delayed the removal of the fuel subsidy “to allow Tinubu to win the election.” In a statement issued through Garba Shehu, his former spokesman, Buhari said: “Polls after polls showed that the party would have been thrown out of office if the decision as envisaged by the new Petroleum Industry Act was made.” In other words, Buhari cynically refused to implement a decision provided for in law to allow Tinubu to win the presidential election!
By his own admission, Buhari deceived Nigerians and effectively “rigged” the election for Tinubu. He withheld a difficult decision that was in the national interest to give Tinubu an electoral advantage. Such abuse of incumbency distorts political competition. It’s hard to imagine a former president in a true representative democracy saying that he deliberately manipulated government policy to allow his party’s presidential candidate to win an election, instead of letting him compete with others, based on his manifesto, on a level playing field. The UK has a “purdah rule” that prevents such abuse of incumbency.
But what about political cannibalism? In 2015, APC came into power after helping to destabilise PDP. The newly-formed APC lured Atiku, Bukola Saraki and the so-called G-5 governors away from the PDP. Truth is, had PDP not splintered, fuelled by external forces, APC probably wouldn’t have won in 2015. Similarly, Atiku probably lost this year’s presidential election because of the deep divisions in the PDP, caused by the self-interestedness of Nyesom Wike, the ultra-narcissistic former governor of Rivers State, and his “Gang of Five”; the hare-brained arrogance and intransigence of Iyorchia Ayu, PDP’s former national chairman, now utterly shamed into silence after the election; and, of course, the crass opportunism of Tinubu, who blatantly fuelled and exploited the PDP crisis.
Before he became president, Tinubu was a master of “settlement”, who used his stupendous unexplained and inexplicable wealth to buy political influence and have his way. Now, he’s using the enormous patronage and power of the presidency to muscle his way through difficult political situations.
Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, famously said that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Indeed, it is! And few have been able to resist the allure of Tinubu’s patronage and presidential powers. Although his party has a slim majority in the Senate and no majority in the House of Representatives, Tinubu dangled political favours before Wike, his gang and others to get his preferred presiding officers. Now, Tinubu and Wike are in cahoots, plotting to impose “friendly” Minority Leaders in the National Assembly.
Which brings us back to two other key characteristics of a representative democracy: political accountability and government transparency. Both require a robust legislature and a strong opposition party. Surely, by working with Tinubu to neuter the National Assembly and cripple the main opposition PDP, Wike and his gang are not only playing disruptive politics, but they’re also undermining representative democracy. They should do the honourable thing: join Tinubu’s party, defect to APC!