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18 Years Of Nigeria’s Democracy: The Highs, Lows




Since attaining self-rule in 1960, Nigeria has made several attempts at enthroning virile democracy, with some of them always ending in a fiasco, but the fourth republic, which began on May 29, 1999 seems to have broken that jinx, though political observers have contended that it is not yet uhuru due to myriad of paradoxes, OMONU YAX-NELSON writes.

The charismatic wartime president of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln, is famously quoted to have referred to democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Similarly, the enigmatic wartime prime minister of Britain, Winston Churchill, is also quoted to have said on November 11, 1947 that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…” The deduction from these is that democracy remains the best system that guarantees fair representation.
On the foregoing premise, Nigeria set out to join the rest of the world as a democratic state when it attained independence in 1960, but three frantic attempts ended in a colossal failure. However, in 1998, two ‘quick’ events took place that ‘permanently’ changed Nigeria’s historical trajectory- the sudden death of Gen Sani Abacha on June 8 and that of MKO Abiola on July 7.
The Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar-led military junta ushered Nigeria into its fourth attempt at enthroning democracy. Despite the push and pull that have characterized the last 18 years of Nigeria’s democratic experience, analysts believe there is much to be celebrated. They reckon that in the 57-year history, this is the first time the country is able to hold out without military intervention after five consecutive general elections in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015 respectively, despite the dissatisfaction with the outcome of the exercises.
To put icing on the cake, a feat, according to political observers, was achieved during the 2015 general election when for the first time in Nigeria’s political history, the opposition was able to defeat the ruling party, something hitherto thought to be a mirage.
The result of the 2015 presidential election was described by most watchers of political development in Nigeria as a soothing relief for the disenchanted group who had concluded that politically, nothing good could come out of Nigeria.
However, just when politically conscious Nigerians were beginning to roll out drums and basking in the euphoria of 18 years of unbroken democratic journey, the Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen Tukur Yusuf Buratai, took the nation by storm with the announcement that certain elements within the political class were courting some soldiers for a possible military intervention in politics.
The latest development is a sad reality of the fact that, after 18 years of democratic practice, our politicians have not learnt much. Analysts say this sad development can be explained within the stand point of the fact that our politicians see the game of politics as a do or die affair or an investment that must be protected at all costs.
In his assessment of how Nigeria has fared in the last 18 years of democratic practice, an accomplished diplomat who served as permanent secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Joe Keshi, expressed regret that not much has been achieved as many Nigerians are still unhappy with the state of the nation.
He said, “I think it has been an interesting journey so far. We are not yet where we should be but we are struggling on and hopefully some day we will get there and in one piece. At least we have begun the journey, even though without adequate preparations, which is why we are experiencing serious challenges.
“You need to appreciate that democracy is more than just an election and the struggle for power, influence and wealth. It is more than that. It is about freedom from oppression of any kind, freedom of worship, association and accommodating one another. It is about justice, fair play and equity, it is about good governance, transparency, accountability, it’s about having strong institutions that operate within the orbits of the law and not beholden to one powerful man or groups.
“It is about meeting the basic aspiration and happiness of the people especially to the good things of life including the security of the people. Eighteen years after, I hope it is not uncharitable to say that it’s been all motion and no movement and l believe that is the truth if we want to be honest with ourselves, especially as the vast majority of the people are unhappy with the state of the nation.
“Everybody is complaining or unhappy about one thing or the other. If it is not about the economy which works for a few and the increasing cost of living, non-payment of salaries of workers and pensioners especially in the public sector, about the state of our education, health and justice systems, about infrastructure, especially power and roads, unemployment, marginalisation of some groups in terms of appointments and recruitment, declining moral valves, it is about the weakness, inefficient and ineffectiveness of our institutions making it difficult for us to resolve any problem.
“It is about the huge unjustifiable budget the National Assembly has allocated to itself, in a nation short of resources to meet more pressing problems. It is about lack of transparency in the procurement process despite the war against corruption.
“All these, you can attribute to the absence of a national leadership with a national vision and philosophy and a clearly defined and well-articulated national objective and with the moral force, courage and charm to mobilize the people towards a common destiny.
“Even where chapter 2 of the constitution has a well- articulated, national objectives, I am not sure our leaders care or understand the imperatives of driving those objectives. As a result of the vacuum created by the absence of a national leadership with a national vision and philosophy, the space is today occupied by ethnic and tribal warlords and secessionists, religious bigots, militias fighting for one thing or the other with each group threatening the fabric of our existence as a nation. Indeed, 18 years into our democratic experience, the nation is frankly more divided than it has ever been and this is worrisome, especially as there is no rallying center or figure to pull us together.
“Our leaders at all levels don’t even appear to appreciate the magnitude of the problems nor the need for an honest national consensus and mobilization of the people to collectively resolve the issues. Even more tragic is that there is no hope that the character of leadership will change as we continue to promote and encourage the same people who are in so many ways responsible for our unfortunate situation. What is more disturbing and sad is that the media is the one in the forefront of promoting these leaders who have failed us in the past. We need a new set of leaders if this country is to seriously turn the bend and l hope 2019 will be the year in which serious efforts will be made to bring up new leaders that can lead us to a better future”.
On the behavior of the political class and its effect on politics in Nigeria, Keshi said, “First, we have political parties and politicians who have no ideology or abut united by the desire for power, influence and wealth which is why you find politicians decamping at will to the ruling party.
“There is no discipline or internal democracy and we know the parties exist mostly during elections or when they are deep in crisis often times over leadership. Unlike in other climes, they depend on largess from federal and state governments as there is no financial burden imposed on members like membership fees and annual dues.
“Our politicians in the last 18 years have become richer while the people whose interests they claim to represent have become poorer. Our politicians do nothing else but mock us. They are selfish and self-centered. They lack the maturity, discipline and knowledge of democratic governance nor do they understand what development is all about. If they do, 18 years is enough to have transformed the nation or set it on the path of irreversible progress. We would have become a productive nation. But no, as long as there is oil money, we are stuck in our bad ways and as we have seen, it makes no difference which party is in power.”
The ambassador described the latest coup rumour as a mere distraction. “As you can see, it took away every other issue from the headlines. Some of us are learning from President Trump. However, if the army chief is serious, he should reduce the military engagement with civilians by ensuring that the military keeps to its core mandate. Today our military is very exposed and engaged in activities that are within the purview of other agencies. Never in the history of this country have we so exposed and stretched the military like we are doing today. They should only be called out to assist other agencies not take over some of their responsibilities”.
Politically, the behaviors of the political actors have remained a constant cause for concern. Like it has been since the first republic in 1960, political parties are riddled with one crisis too many.
Despite the nearly two decades of democratic practice, indications from the two leading political parties, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which ruled the country until it was defeated in 2015, is at the moment on ‘life support’.
Also, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which was formed by a coalition of political parties in 2013, and was able to defeat the ruling PDP has been maintaining peace of the graveyard, since it took power in 2015.
In advanced democracies, democratic culture is entrenched through the instrumentality of political party ideologies. But in our clime, political observers say, there is lack or absence of clear cut party ideologies. Political scholars have severally described the character of political parties in Nigeria as a mockery of an ideal democratic system. This, they say, portends political immaturity and might be an attraction for the military class.
Ideally, the political class of a politician is known by the party he or she belongs to. That is far from being the case in Nigeria as one can hardly distinguish between political parties. This makes it more convenient for politicians and elected representatives of the people to defect from the party on which platform they were voted to where their greed and avarice will be satisfied.
Most remarkably, a close assessment of the first, second, third republics shows no significant difference in the attitudes and conducts of the political class. As a time-tested saying goes, ‘those who don’t learn from history repeat historical mistakes.” That is the dilemma of political system.
Economically, analysts say the fourth republic, which began in 1999, has not delivered on the mandate of democracy, which is better life for citizens. Commentators have adduced discordant reasons for the economic doldrums in which Nigeria is currently enmeshed.
Many attribute Nigeria’s democratic paradox of increasing poverty to the greed and recklessness of the ruling elite. In the face of astronomical earnings from crude oil and other collectable taxes, the majority of Nigerians continue to slide into abject poverty.
According to recent statistics from the National Bureau of

statistics on poverty index in Nigeria, poverty in Nigeria is rising with almost 100 million people living on less than $1 a day, despite strong growth in one of Africa’s largest economy.
The percentage of Nigerians living in absolute poverty – those who can afford only the bare essentials of food, shelter and clothing – rose to 60.9 per cent in 2010, compared with 54.7 per cent in 2004, the agency said.
Although Nigeria’s economy is projected to continue growing, poverty is likely to get worse as the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen.
“It remains a paradox that despite the fact that the Nigerian economy is growing, the proportion of Nigerians living in poverty is increasing every year”, Statistician General Yemi, Kale told reporters recently in Abuja.
“NBS estimates that this trend may have increased further in 2011 if the potential positive impacts of several anti-poverty and employment generation intervention programs are not taken into account”, Kale added.
Corruption is rife in Nigeria and for decades politicians have focused on milking cash from crude oil exports, which average more than 2 million barrels per day, rather than developing infrastructure and creating jobs for locals.
Despite holding the world’s seventh largest gas reserves, which could be used to generate power, Nigeria only produces enough electricity to power a medium-sized European city.
More than half of the country’s 160 million inhabitants live without electricity, while the rest have to rely on expensive generators run on diesel supplies controlled by a small and powerful cartel of importers.
The recently released Chatham House report on corruption in Nigeria also leaves a sour taste in the mouth. While politicians live in opulence, the people that voted them wallop in abject deprivation. The Nigerian National Assembly, which comprises 365 members of the House of Representative and 109 senators, has been dubbed wasteful with allocation swollen to about N150 billion yearly.
At both chambers of the legislative arm, important state matters are left unattended while trivial issues and ones that concern the legislature’s allowances and general welfare take precedent.
On the way to get it right once and for all, observers say political leaders must summon the needed political will to implement the submitted work of the Senator Ken Nnamani-led electoral reform panel when it is completed.
They need to be properly organised, structured and be a true reflection of the people’s interest. There must be entrenched internal democracy and the cost of collecting forms to contest an election must be drastically reduced almost to nothing.
Members must contribute to the running of the party financially to reduce the influence of godfathers. Above all they must be anchored on some core principles and philosophy. They must fight to improve the lives of the people and stop the noise they

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