Democracy Day and Nigeria’s quest for authentic democracy
Yesterday, June 12, was celebrated in our country as Democracy Day. It was a day set aside by the Federal Government to mark the watershed, masses-driven victory of the late MKO Abiola in the 1993 presidential election. The election was adjudged by local and international observers as free and fair.
But it was annulled by the despot, Ibrahim Babangida, who has justly earned for himself an ugly and ungainly place in Nigeria’s political history.
It will be recalled here that until June 6, 2018, when it was publicly declared Democracy Day, June 12 was like any other day. It replaced May 29, which in times past, had been celebrated as Democracy Day since the country returned to democratic rule in 1999.
However, June 12 was formerly and initially celebrated as ‘Abiola Day’ in some South Western states of Nigeria, before its new status, as the new Democracy Day on June 6, 2018, by the President Buhari-led Federal Government. In the light of this prudent decision, and despite his other shortcomings, there is a lot to be said for President Buhari for recognising June 12 as Democracy Day.
Moreover, Buhari also gave due and just regard as well as recognition to MKO Abiola as the human essence and face of what has now become our Democracy Day.
But, it is not the mere celebration of the day that matters. Rather what the day symbolises is of much more importance.
Unfortunately, rather than focus on the essence, Democracy Day in Nigeria has been turned into an occasion for routine parades and predictable speeches.
However, June 12 symbolises much more than much of the immediate foregoing. It is a commemoration of what is adjudged to this day, to be Nigeria’s freest democratic election. For the first time, the “coconut head” generation will relate better with the June 12 struggles due to their involvement in the EndSARS protests. This involvement will be instrumental in making them, and indeed the older generation connect better with June 12, since its victories came with “Sorrow, Tears, and Blood.”
On this note, realism compels the recognition that our democracy did not come through a bloodless negotiation.
Rather, the aftermath of the June 12 struggles was the realisation on the part of diverse groups like, technocrats, activists and civil societies on the need to get involved in politics and governance of the nation.
Not only did it awaken the consciousness of the civilians, it also evoked a new consciousness, even on the part of the military men as regards the need to privilege democracy over military rule.
Indeed, and in any case, the military had also exhausted its historical possibilities as far as Nigeria was concerned. On this note, it is useful to appreciate that the journey to genuine democracy has been long and tortuous for the most populous black nation in the world. Nigeria gained independence on October 1, 1960, from Great Britain.
But, thereafter, it succumbed to the first of so many military coups whose inception dates back to January 15, 1966, followed by a civil war.
Nigeria is therefore an emerging nation state. And, we must be sure not to overlook the important difference between emerging democracies (which are often found in newly emerging states) and established democratic regimes existing in states with long traditions of uninterrupted sovereignty.
The core of democracy is the principle of popular sovereignty, which holds that, government can be legitimated, only by the will of those whom it governs and thus it can be understood why a military coup may not be seen as democratic during those times when Nigeria was not a democratic state.
For most of its independent history, Nigeria was ruled by a series of military regimes interspersed by brief moments of democratic rule.
The end of military rule in 1999 brought about a new era of regular elections as well as the return of civil liberties, free press and an end to arbitrary arrests and torture, although human rights violations still occur with some regularity.
Nevertheless, some of the off shoots of military regime are still here with us. Prominent among these are ethnicity/tribalism as well as bribery and corruption. Several efforts in the last 23 years to eradicate bureaucratic and military corruption that had paralysed the economy and severely tarnished our international reputation have proved abortive.
Indeed, rather than abate, the scourge has increased, as currently being witnessed in the ongoing political party primaries where delegates receive huge sums of money in local and foreign currencies to vote for an aspirant to a political office.
Ironically and ominously enough, those involved in this shameful act are the same people that would constitute the psychological variables in the next democratic dispensation come, 2023. A corollary to the immediate foregoing is that the gains of democracy have continued to elude the long-suffering peoples of this country.
Since 2011, the security landscape has been shaped by the war against Boko Haram terrorist group in the northern states. This is in addition to cases of banditry and kidnappings and continued unrest in the South East, resulting from separatist agitations.
More recently, even the relatively peaceful South West had a taste of this security nightmare when scores of worshippers were killed in a Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State.
Meanwhile, on the economic front, in 2020, Nigeria experienced its deepest recession in two decades. But growth resumed in 2021 as the pandemic restrictions were eased, oil prices also recovered, and the authorities implemented policies to counter the economic shock.
Nigeria was highly vulnerable to the global economic disruption caused by COVID-19, particularly due to the decline in oil prices. Oil, it must be recalled, accounts for over 80 percent of exports, a third of banking sector credit, and half of government revenues.
In 2018, it was estimated by the World Bank that 40 percent of 200 million Nigerians (83m people) lived below the poverty line, while another 25 percent (53m) were vulnerable. Currently, the number of Nigerians living below the international poverty line is expected to rise by 12 million next year.
As part of its COVID-19 response, the government carried out long-delayed policy reforms in 2020. Notably, it: (i) began to harmonise exchange rates; (ii) initiated reforms to eliminate gasoline subsidies; (iii) adjusted electricity tariffs to more cost-reflective levels; (iv) cut non-essential spending, and (v) enhanced debt management and increased transparency in the public sector, especially for oil and gas operations.
Still, Nigeria’s economic outlook remains highly uncertain. Uncertainty around the continued subsidisation of petroleum products, mounting debt profile, manufacturing industries producing below installed capacity, high inflationary pressures, sky-rocketing interest rates, persists.
Moreover, the modest projected recovery is being threatened by volatility in the oil sector, including an unexpected shock to oil prices, crude oil theft, illegal crude refining, insecurity, farmers-herders crisis, lop-sidedness in public service appointments, and weaknesses in the financial sector as well as the untoward and unexpected consequences of the war in Ukraine.
Even in the most favourable global context, the policy response of Nigeria’s authorities will be crucial to lay the foundation for a robust recovery.
While Nigeria has made some progress in socio-economic terms in recent years, its human capital development is ranked 150 of 157 countries in the World Bank’s 2020 Human Capital Index.
The country continues to face massive developmental challenges, including the need to reduce the dependency on oil and diversify the economy, address insufficient infrastructure, build strong and effective institutions as well as address governance issues and public financial management systems.
Inequality, in terms of income and opportunities also remain high and has adversely affected poverty reduction. The lack of job opportunities is at the core of the high poverty levels, regional inequality, and social and political unrest. High inflation has also taken a toll on households’ welfare and high prices which continually push more people into poverty and unemployment.
Thus and against this background, as we today, on this public holiday, mark 23 years of unbroken democracy, let us not forget the essence of the June 12 struggle and the positive trappings of democracy itself. Such essence and trappings include: doing away with tribal, religious, cultural and age differences as well as the need to ensure life, more abundant for the long-suffering Nigerians who are yet to benefit in any meaningful way from the economic dividends of democracy.
The day, June 12, was one that brought everyone together to usher in a new Nigeria. And in the spirit of actually effecting change, the authorities at various levels of government must work on these factors.
Above all, we must rekindle our faith in one united, indivisible Nigeria brought together by God for a divine purpose. The truth as it is often stated is that, we have no country other than Nigeria.
Therefore, it is important to reiterate here that, as we continue to bask in the ambience of June 12, i.e, Democracy Day; it should be noted that, thus far and till date, it is still ‘Their’ Democracy. Its gains are yet to be owned by the millions of Nigerians out there, who continue to languish in the backwaters of economic brutalisation and marginalisation.