The struggle to reclaim Nigeria from military rule was not an easy one. Pro- democracy activists made sacrifice, – some were jailed, others fled into exile. While many were tortured, others lost their lives and properties in the struggle. So it was a great relief when the military retreated to the barracks in 1999. Consequently, for the first time since independence, Nigeria has had an unbroken stretch of democratic rule for 19 years. Since then, the country has made considerable progress in democratic culture. The peaceful transfer of power from one civilian administration to another is one achievement. Even quite remarkable is the handover of power from a ruling party to an opposition party following free and fair elections in 2015. This singular feat earned the country a lot of plaudits from around the world as a country whose democracy is maturing and an example for other developing nations to follow.
Nevertheless, there are certain worrying prevalent phenomena which have undermined the ability of Nigerians to enjoy the dividends of democracy. One is the lack of democratic ethos among those handling the levers of governance.
Earlier this year, the chief justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, during a public lecture in Lagos, warned against the federal government’s penchant for disobeying the orders of court, saying it is a veritable recipe for anarchy. At the heart of any democracy is the primacy of the rule of law, the separation of powers and the principle of checks and balances. The absence of any of these principles is authoritarian rule. The country’s political landscape is littered with incidences of the executive arm proceeding in defiance of court orders. The cases of Col Sambo Dasuki (rtd), former National Security Adviser (NSA), and Sheikh El Zakzaky, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), who have been in detention for years are well known, despite the courts granting them bail. The latest is the case of Jones Abiri, a journalist who was held in the Directorate of State Services (DSS) gulag for two years without prosecution. His travails only came to light after the sack of the agency’s former boss, Lawal Daura. Aside these prominent ones, there are thousands of persons in jails without trial across Nigeria who cannot enjoy the freedoms offered them in a democracy because of a justice administration system riddled with corruption, impunity, and the abuse of process by police and judicial officers. As a result, the judiciary is no longer the last hope of the common man.
The legislative arm of government is not excluded in activities that do not promote democracy. This arm of government is composed of the people’s representatives and is so important that it is the only one wiped out in any military takeover. Yet Nigeria’s experience so far is that the lawmakers have not prioritised the interests of their constituents. Rather, they are generally self-serving and often take advantage of their law making and oversight powers to funnel the nation’s resources into their private estates, in connivance with the executive arm whose excesses they are supposed to check. The security agencies are yet another governmental institution that needs total reorientation in order for the masses to enjoy the dividends of democracy. Most personnel of the security forces have not yet changed their earlier notion as forces of state coercion to the democratic notion of citizen defence and protection from all kinds of abuse and denial of the constitutionally guaranteed rights. As result, many of their operations are characterised by excessive use of force, extortion, bribery and corruption, torture, extrajudicial killings, rape and other forms of abuses.
The politicians themselves have not demonstrated the spirit of democracy. That is why political contest is marked by thuggery, rigging, killings and other forms of do-or-die tactics. If their mission is primarily to serve the people, they will not resort to these anti-democratic behaviours.
Nigerians craved for democracy because they saw in participatory governance an opportunity to better their lot. Sadly, recent reports show that Nigerians have progressively become poorer over the last 19 years. Our democracy must make meaningful impact on the quality of life of ordinary Nigerians as it does in other countries.