Since 1999, May 29 has been celebrated every year as Democracy Day and is usually a national public holiday. During his inaugural speech, President Olusegun Obasanjo set the day aside to commemorate the return of democratic governance to Nigeria after long years of military interregnum. It is a day Nigerians remember their countrymen and women who paid various prices, some even the supreme price, during the struggle for the restoration of majority rule in the country. It was on that day in 1999 that Obasanjo took over from the last military ruler, General Abdulsalami Abubakar.
Since then, there have been significant developments on the political front. It is now 18 years of sustained majority rule, the longest in the history of Nigeria. During this time, the country has witnessed the handover of power to three different administrations – from Obasanjo to the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua/Goodluck Jonathan and to Muhammadu Buhari. Most significantly, there has been a transfer of power from a ruling party to an opposition party, also a first in Nigeria’s history and a signal to a positively evolving democratic process.
Nevertheless, there are few aspects of this form of governance that need sprucing up to better serve the purpose for which many Nigerians clamoured for it for a long time. First and foremost, most of the politicians do not possess the democratic spirit/ethic. That is why political contest in Nigeria is characterised by violence, thuggery, assassinations, election rigging and the exploitation of political office for primitive acquisition to the detriment of the people and the nation. Thus, those who hold the levers of governance not only arrogate to themselves humongous salaries, allowances and severance packages, they also engage in serial looting of the public till. That is why despite the sustained democracy, more Nigerians have become poorer whereas the leaders are swimming in opulence. If democracy is about the people, then we suggest that this attitude has to change.
Furthermore, the security agencies have not been sufficiently democratized enough to guarantee the freedoms that a democratic system offers the people. Most officers still see themselves in the mould of forces of state against the people, not forces that protect the citizens against the abuse of their rights. Many Nigerians who have had a brush with security agencies always complain about how their rights were trampled upon with impunity, for the lucky ones who live to tell their stories. Bribery and corruption, extortion, torture and extrajudicial killings are commonplace among certain security agencies. Under these circumstances, the citizens cannot hope to enjoy their democratic rights and freedoms. This has to change. Beyond the call of duty, those managing our security matters must learn to operate within the rules of engagement at all times.
In a democracy, the last hope of the common man is the judiciary. In Nigeria, however, that is not always so. Widespread corruption and impunity in this arm of government has ensured that the real enemies of state are walking freely in the streets, while thousands of innocent Nigerians are languishing in jails without trial. Justice and the rule of law are sine qua non to this form of governance.
The legislature, especially, is the real bastion of democracy. That is why it is the arm of government that is inoperative during authoritarian rule. Our legislature needs to up its game if the electorate is to enjoy the dividends of democracy. Through its law-making and oversight powers, the legislature has the capacity to compel the executive arm to provide the right leadership. The fact that Nigeria has not made much progress in most sectors since 1999 points to ineffectiveness on the part of legislators, many of whom, through their actions, have shown that they are representing themselves rather than their constituents. In Nigeria’s experience, the state legislatures are practically a rubber stamp of the state governors, offering little in the way of checks and balances and exposing the common man to the whims and caprices of the executive.
As Nigerians commemorate the return of democracy today, this newspaper wishes to call upon all those involved in politics and public governance to always defend this hard-won system of government by playing according to the rules. They must also realise that democracy must translate to better life for the people and not otherwise.
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