A Flawed Democracy


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October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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A Flawed Democracy



Reuben Abati





culled from GUARDIAN, May 28, 2006


Tomorrow May 29 is the seventh anniversary of Nigeria's return to democratic rule after years of failed experiments with governance and long seasons of military tyranny which virtually re-conditioned the people's orientation and sowed the seeds for future collapse of the Nigerian state. Tomorrow, the rulers in the corridors of power will expect us to celebrate; after all this has so far been the longest season of democracy in the country, we have been able to keep the soldiers in their barracks and despite the failures and triumphs of the last seven years, Nigeria has remained one country. What should be noted, though, is that comparatively, democracy is a new form of government in Nigeria. The last seven years can therefore be assessed in terms of lessons that the people may have learnt through specific highlights during the period.


We must begin with the admission that all things considered, this has been a flawed democracy: our institutions are weak, the police is not more efficient today than it was seven years ago, power supply remains epileptic, petroleum products are available but they are so expensive partly because the government is insisting on an import-dependency policy while the country's refineries remain comatose, government officials are still corrupt; the scope for human freedoms may have been expanded a little, but the police are still shooting people indiscriminately, government officials behave as if they are above the law, media houses are still being attacked by government agents.


The government has an economic reform programme which it promotes as a major achievement, but the reforms have not addressed the big challenge of poverty which is at the root of social dysfunctionality; there is no meeting of minds on the supremacy of the rule of law; the average Nigerian is alienated from his own society; the real sector is under-performing; there are no jobs, no water supply, no beauty, so much ugliness, anger and despair. Yesterday, for example, was Children's Day, but Nigeria's children are under-privileged, malnourished and trapped in unhappy homes and schools that are ill-equipped. Nonetheless, the idea of democracy is now firmly implanted in the hearts of our people. They want it because they have seen its advantages. They are prepared to defend it. They love it. They desire it. This passion for democracy can be traced largely to the highlights that I referred to above. I propose to examine them in turn and their relevance to our experience.


The first is the idea of the people's proprietorship of democracy. This is something that we can point to as a growing feature of Nigerian democracy. Under the military, the people were outside government; they were not in a position to ask questions or define their own interests in the governance process. The soldiers ruled with guns, threats, blackmail and intimidation. Since 1999, the people's voice has been heard much louder in this land. There is a growing sense of equality of worth, with ethnic groups and communities insisting that they must be treated as equal partners in the Nigerian arrangement. Under the military, every company was required to have a Northerner on its board, preferably as the Chairman, even if that Northerner did not have a penny in the investment. Today, no Nigerian investor would accept that; people from the Niger Delta travel to Abuja and they wonder and they have asked questions: why should a city that has no river have so many bridges and flyovers whereas the people who are surrounded by rivers have no bridges in their communities? Minority groups have become more persistent in demanding for equity. There is a streak of independence that is running through various communities, and this explains the emergence of ethnic militias, every group has felt a need to defend itself even under a democratic government. Old issues have been reinvented and public opinion has become a key element of democracy. The refusal of the authorities to allow that opinion; their attempts to stifle the people's voice is what has generated so much tension in the last seven years. But the most recent debate of the so-called Third Term agenda has established the lesson beyond controversy that respect for the people's will is the only means of guaranteeing confidence in a democracy.


The second highlight is the focus in seven years on the duty of government. Both the people and the media have been most vocal in drawing the attention of elected representatives to the fact that the only way they can justify their presence in power is to serve the people. The elections may have been rigged in many places but it can be said that in parts of Nigeria, some Governors have tried to give effect to the people's mandate by doing a few visible things. Money may have been stolen, contracts may have been inflated, but generally the people have shown much intolerance for theft in the corridors of power. Those officials who were caught with their hands in the public till were promptly shamed by the people.


The clear, unambiguous message of the last seven years is that the duty of government is to serve the people's interests, and ensure their security and welfare. Where government fails to provide a people with a sense of security, when it denies the people a sense of freedom and ownership, when it fails to provide them with jobs, with potable water and other basic necessities of life, including the opportunity to realise their full potentials as citizens, it diminishes their humanity. Democracy in the people's reckoning means improvement in their circumstances. When a full account of Nigeria's experience of democracy under this administration is taken, the duty of government will certainly be of major interest.


The third highlight that I recommend for consideration is the concern in the last seven years about the dangers of elective dictatorship. One of the early discoveries was that civilian democracy is not necessarily a government of the people. It can be hijacked by dictators in civilian garbs. And this is what has happened to Nigerian democracy. The biggest battles of the last few years (in Oyo, Anambra, Lagos State vs. Federal Government, Plateau and elsewhere) have been about the crisis of elective dictatorship. The ruling People's Democratic Party had hardly won majority power than it immediately turned itself into a party of conquerors. By 2001, the PDP had effectively marginalized the opposition in all parts of Nigeria. This made it possible for the party to record a landslide victory in 2003, and to create a situation analogous to a one-party state. Having been mutilated, the PDP rode roughshod over the opposition; its officials acted as if Nigeria had become their private estate; the Governors in the states turned themselves into party leaders and the legislature into an extension of Government House. Nigerians were almost nearly helpless until divisions within the PDP created an internal opposition movement which in the last two years has functioned like an alternative party.


This is why it was possible to defeat the third agenda in the National Assembly. If the PDP had remained as united as it was before 2003, it would have been difficult to give expression to the people's true wishes. Thus, Nigerians ought to have seen how a dominant political party can become a dictatorship, and use that as guide in making choices in the 2007 elections. Should the PDP be "rewarded" for its sins with another majority representation? However, the Presidency was the biggest factor in that dictatorship. The President personally turned his office into the very epicenter of Nigeria, and by so doing did great damage to the idea of federalism. Governors and everyone else was required to act as the President's "boy"; those who showed any sign of independence were accused of disloyalty.


In seven years, Nigerians have witnessed many personality battles in government which can be traced to the blind scramble for power and position. Nigeria's democracy invariably encouraged the emergence of other mini-dictators including Ministers who travel in murderous convoys, local government Chairmen who are lords in their own right, First Ladies who operate as if they were the ones who won the election and not their husbands. There has been so much talk about corruption, but the biggest corruption of Nigeria's democracy is located in this abuse of privilege and office.


The fourth highlight is the supremacy of parliament. This is a lesson that we have only learnt recently. The debate of the Third term agenda and its resolution by the National Assembly confronted Nigerians with the capacity and potential of parliament as a transcendental body which can identify an issue, amplify it, reconstruct it, inflate and deflate, provide focus and direction and in the end, take a decision on behalf of the generality of Nigerians. If they had voted otherwise we would have had to live with their decision. This was an important moment for Nigeria because the more established perception of parliament among the people is that it is a corrupt assembly of men and women whose only mission is to collect bribes from the Executive and enjoy privileges of power. The class of 2003 in Abuja managed to redeem itself, and in the future it is to be expected that the present generation of Nigerians would take a much keener interest in parliament having suddenly chanced upon its strategic value.


This is linked to the fifth highlight namely the value of elections. In 1999, Nigerians conducted democratic elections with great expectations. They wanted democracy by all means. There was a collective resolution that the military had to be sent out of power. In 2003, although the elections were flawed, Nigerians were willing to accept the result because they did not want anything that would derail democracy. For them, democracy had become a sort of blackmail. They have seen however, that politicians are not necessarily good people. They can promise heaven and earth during election campaigns but when they get to power they do something else. They become dictators, exercising divine powers, expecting to be worshipped by the people. The elections of 2007 would prove to be critical because both the people and the politicians now have a stake to ensure that the right persons are elected into office and that the elections end as an expression of popular opinion.


This is where the national electoral body is seemingly at cross-purposes with the people. What will be required from the people is vigilance, and their target needs not be the candidates alone but the godfathers who see every election as a business opportunity and INEC with which they collaborate to impose the wrong candidates on the people. The people know who these Godfathers are; they are members of our communities; they are not all as visible as Lamidi Adedibu and Chris Uba, but they are in every community as local chieftains whose veto power is cast in concrete.


The sixth and for now, the final highlight is the failure of individual responsibility. Too many Nigerians depend on government and politicians to make the difference that we seek in our lives. Government can play its part but the task of ensuring progress is collective. Unfortunately we live in a society where people do not care enough for and about themselves. We break laws with impunity. We take the laws into our hands. The average Nigerian does not want to respect traffic rules and regulations. He would rather not obtain a driver's licence even. He does not want to pay tax and he believes that he can bribe his way out of any situation. He is very religious but religion is for him just another social vehicle. We live in a society where people think that others owe them a living and that they do not have any obligations. There is so much recklessness that translates almost into a love of evil and disorder. This has been the biggest threat to Nigerian democracy since there can be no democracy without the people themselves.


What we must do is to rescue democracy from the enemies of progress and strengthen it. We need to address the arbitrariness of the men of power, and make individual votes count such that elections would be truly an expression of public opinion and choices. We need to build a national consensus. The present administration had made a feeble attempt in that direction but it failed because there are too many insincere persons in the corridors of power who are pretending to be acting in the people's interest. And how can a nation make progress if it is unable to build consensus around certain basic issues?



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