25 Years of Unbroken Democracy… Whose Democracy?

The democracy Nigeria practices today is one that primarily benefits the political elite. The masses, who should be the ultimate beneficiaries of a democratic system, are left with the short end of the stick as they grapple with the consequences of a flawed and corrupt governance structure. The ideals of democracy: freedom, dignity, prosperity, justice, and equality, remain out of reach for the average Nigerian.

25 Years of Unbroken Democracy... Whose Democracy?


25 years of unbroken democracy... Whose democracy?

25 years of unbroken democracy... Whose democracy?By Nnanke Harry Willie

As Nigeria commemorates 25 years of uninterrupted democratic governance, the question millions of Nigerians are asking is  “Whose democracy?”

The journey began with ‘Hope 93’ as SDP’s Moshood Abiola’s rallying call resonated with the people and he won a landslide victory as President-Elect. That hope was however dashed when Abiola’s bosom pal and military president, Ibrahim Babangida annulled the election. This was especially strange as it was (and still remains) the fairest and freest  election ever held in Nigeria!

After stepping aside in a huff a few months later, Ibrahim Babangida’s long time buddy, Sani Abacha kicked out place-holder Ernest Shonekan from the presidential villa and unleashed a reign of repressive dictatorship that sent social and political activists scampering for safety across the world as leading lights of the struggle for democracy where taken out by the bullets and bombs of the goons of Abacha.

New Minimum Wage: It’s the value, not the amount, Stupid

It was with high hopes therefore that Nigerians welcomed a new democratic era when Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn in as president in 1999. 25 years later, however, that joy, ecstasy and expectation have since been replaced with a daunting despondency reminiscent of the pre-1999 era.

How did we come to this sorry pass? A combination of a series of betrayals by political elites, and odious contempt for democratic values and integrity have subverted Nigeria’s current democratic process. Democracy has been exceedingly good for the few well-placed political actors while the ordinary Nigerians have been pulverized, pauperized, traumatised and asphyxiated.

Riggings, killings, corruption, and the plundering of national resources have become the hallmarks of Nigeria’s democracy, raising serious questions as to whom this system truly serves. The optimism of 1999 has long since been replaced by disillusionment as successive administrations have failed to live up to the democratic ideals they professed. Indeed, the people wonder “whose democracy?”

Hope deferred?

Though some progress has been recorded within the 25 year period, Nigerians believe that a lot more could have been achieved. Nigerians are now wondering if we have not presently hit rock bottom with the desperate state of things in the country.

From Abiola’s Hope ’93 to Tinubu’s present Renewed Hope’, Nigerians have had to seemingly defer the realization of their dreams and hopes. The present economic, security and social situation the country surely is not what the people expected of their democracy.

Return to civilian rule in 1999 was supposed to mark a new beginning for Nigeria. After years of military dictatorship, Nigerians yearned for a government that reflected their will. Olusegun Obasanjo’s election as the first civilian president of the Fourth Republic was heralded as a new dawn. However, the optimism of 1999 has long since been replaced by disillusionment as successive administrations have failed to live up to the democratic ideals they professed.


Rigging, Violence, Subterfuge as Tools of Power

Elections in Nigeria have been fraught with irregularities, rigging, and violence. The process, intended to be a peaceful and fair means of choosing leaders, has often turned into a battlefield. Political actors deploy thugs to intimidate voters, snatch ballot boxes, and disrupt polling stations. The use of violence to secure electoral victory has led to numerous deaths and instilled fear among the electorate, effectively disenfranchising large segments of the population.

As if that is not enough, a new tool of grabbing democratic power is Nigerin-style subterfuge. There have been instances where politicians who did not even stand for particular elections where declared winners and the real candidates kicked out by the courts while electoral agencies at the national and sub-national levels have become experts at generating the desired results of their principals and ‘clients’.

How it started in 2003 

The 2003 general elections, which saw the re-election of President Obasanjo, were characterized by widespread electoral malpractices. Reports of ballot stuffing, voter intimidation, and violence were rampant. Observers noted that the elections were neither free nor fair, setting a troubling precedent for future polls. The use of state resources and security apparatus to rig elections became a recurring theme, undermining the very foundation of democracy.

Corruption as democracy dividend

For decades, corruption has been the cancer eating away at the fabric of Nigerian society. But the scale, depth and dimension it has taken in recent years has been phenomenal.

Corruption has flourished as a result of the erosion of values across the land. The lack of accountability and transparency in governance has created an environment where corruption thrives. The best of Nigeria’s citizens are being forced to flee the country in search of better opportunities, leaving behind a nation in disarray.

Public office has become synonymous with personal enrichment, and politicians routinely siphon off public funds meant for development. This has seeped right through to the society as people in the rank and file of all agencies see looting of public funds as a benefit for being in privileged positions and in fact in any office. The same goes for business organisations and individuals. Sadly, the culture is so entrenched that, not being corrupt and taking advantage of an office or position is seen as stupid and idiotic. Looting across the divide has thus assumed an industrial scale.

Little wonder Transparency International has consistently ranked Nigeria among the most corrupt countries in the world, a testament to the systemic nature of the problem.

Unfortunately, few of the culprits are identified, and even fewer prosecuted. It is believed that corruption has also permeated the law enforcement and judicial agencies,  highlighting the culture of impunity that protects the powerful and connected.

Economic Despoilation: The Looting of Nigeria

The economic mismanagement and looting of Nigeria’s resources by politicians and their cohorts have had devastating consequences. Despite being one of the world’s largest oil producers, Nigeria remains mired in poverty, with a significant portion of the population living on less than $2 a day. Indeed, Nigeria has in recent times been described with the unflattering moniker of ‘The poverty Capital of the World”.

Insecurity and Economic Hardship: The Fallout

The fallout from this democratic failure is evident in the daily lives of Nigerians. Insecurity is rampant, with terrorist groups, bandits, and kidnappers operating with near impunity. Economic hardship has intensified, with spiraling inflation and high unemployment rates. Basic services like healthcare and education are in a deplorable state, further compounding the suffering of the people.

While cost of living is rising in geometric proportions, incomes have remained stagnant and even lost as an unacceptable number businesses have been forced to shut down as result of unsustainable operating environment. The present is bleak and the future looks frightening.

Japa Syndrome: Fleeing a Failed State

With the shockingly frightening future and disillusionment generated by the state of affairs, many Nigerians are opting to leave the country in search of better opportunities abroad. This “japa” syndrome, a Yoruba term for ‘escape’, signifies the loss of hope in Nigeria’s future. The brain drain has serious implications for the country’s development, as it loses its brightest minds to more stable and prosperous nations.

As if that is not enough, corporate organisation with rich and deephistories in Nigeria are jumping on the japa train as they exit in droves and move the operations to other Africans countries. Something needs to be done urgently to halt the citizen and corporate japa syndrome. We must make Nigeria a destination for the bright and beautiful.

Whose Democracy?

The democracy Nigeria practices today is one that primarily benefits the political elite. The masses, who should be the ultimate beneficiaries of a democratic system, are left with the short end of the stick as they grapple with the consequences of a flawed and corrupt governance structure. The ideals of democracy: freedom, dignity, prosperity, justice, and equality, remain out of reach for the average Nigerian. This has forced some Nigerians to even wish for the pre-1999 days…as they reckon that, at least, there were fewer thieves pillaging the commonwealth. They sneer at celebrating Democracy Day…asking “Whose democrcy?”

Making Nigerian Democracy work

To reclaim Nigeria’s democracy, several critical reforms are necessary:

  1. Electoral Integrity: Reforming the Electoral Laws to make electoral agencies responsible for proving the the fairness of elections in court. Strengthening the independence and capabilities of Electoral Agencies to conduct free, fair, and credible elections while making leaders and officers of electoral commissions bear personal liability for their action or inactions that lead to compromised elections. It is time to also make the Electoral Agencies’ activities and practices open to transparent scrutiny.
  2. Judicial Reform: Ensuring the judiciary is truly independent and free from political interference, with mechanisms to hold corrupt judges accountable. The first step will be to make the Judiciary self-accounting and accountable.
  3. Value-reorientation: There must be a clean, fair and transparent way of choosing and rewarding leaders. No system of government yields positive results if crooks and knaves are in charge. We also need tp implement robust anti-corruption laws and ensuring strict enforcement to curb the culture of wanton impunity.
  4. Economic Diversification: Reducing reliance on oil by investing in and promoting other sectors such as agriculture, technology, and manufacturing to create jobs and drive sustainable growth. Though leaders say this all the time, their policies and actions have largely fallen short, putting the nation in economic dire straits.
  5. Political Will to Execute Security Reforms: It has become clear that providing financial resources and issuing ‘marching oders’ have not yieded the desired results in providing the desired security for Nigerians. It is time to think radically out of the box and enhance the capacity, stature and effectiveness of our security agencies to combat terrorism, banditry, and other forms of insecurity, while respecting human rights. Nigeria must get back its ECOMOG days’ glory when Nigeria was recognised and celebrated as a regoinal military power. Surely, we can do it again!
  6. Social Welfare Services: Investing in the diginity of every Nigerian is the surest way of making democracy viable. The world will only respect Nigerians if Nigerian leaders treat their citizens with respect. Images of Nigerians in perpetual Internally Displaced Persons Camps (IDP camps) across the country does not bode well for our well-being and dignity. This is compounded by endless shows of tokenistic sharing of food items and money. The right programmes must be introduced to emplace sustained rise in Nigeria’s Human Developent Index (HDI). This must of course include healthcare and education to improve the quality of life and ensure that basic services are accessible to all Nigerians. All these will be possible if Nigeria’s corruption monster is tamed.

Democracy should at all times benefit the majority and not a select few. Until this happens, Nigeria’s journey to a true democracy will remain fraught with challenges. We can however turn the corner by recommitting to the principles of justice, transparency, and accountability, Nigeria can build a democratic system that serves all its people,(including the elite) and secure a prosperous future for the nation. Let us work to make Democracy Day truly happy in the coming years.