In February 2019, Nigeria held its sixth national election since the country’s return to democratic rule, making it 20 years of democracy. In this report, RUTH TENE NATSA writes on stakeholders’ reflections and recommendations toward enhancing the nation’s democracy.
As Nigeria entered its third decade as a democracy, YIAGA Africa, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and Ford Foundation hosted a conference titled “Nigeria’s Democracy at 20: Reflections and Reform” held in Washington DC from Tuesday, October 22 to Wednesday, October 23, 2019.
In a statement by YIAGA Africa’s Executive Director, Samson Itodo, he stated that the conference was designed to raise the profile and build on on-going election review and governance reform conversations in Nigeria and mobilise international support for democratic reforms in Nigeria.
Amidst addresses and panel discussions, stakeholders at the conference called for inclusion as a means of promoting and further boosting the nation’s democracy.
Senior Vice President and Africa Practice Lead, Albright Stonebridge, Group Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, while recalling that Nigeria had become a civilian government in the late 1990s described Nigeria as the 4th largest democracy in the world and the largest in Africa, even while observing that it remained imperfect like all other democracies.
According to the Thomas-Greenfield, “Like all democracies, Nigerian democracy is not perfect, it is a process, and democracy is a process that is constantly evolving in a continuum of hope and people support democracy because they have hope that it would make a difference in their lives in the future.”
“Nigeria democracy has had its fits and starts, successes and failures and it has taken 3 steps forward and 2 steps backward but it continues to march forward nonetheless,” she said.
She described the nation’s democracy as a beacon of hope for Nigeria and the African continent quoting that when Nigeria sneezes the continent gets a cold, when Nigeria’s democracy falters, everybody gets nervous and when Nigeria has elections everybody stands on pins and needles watching what is happening.
Breaking her presentation into five trends of positives and negatives, the diplomat listed institutional infrastructures, committed voters, young youthful population, financial means and a proactive civil societies.
Positive trends in the Nigeria democracy she said includes Nigeria’s institutional infrastructures which she said can support democracy “It has the courts, the electoral commission, legislature, it has political parties and the administrations that can work.”
According to her “if there is a comparison of the infrastructures on the continent no other country can rival what Nigeria has in terms of institutional infrastructures,” adding that Nigeria has the capacity though sometimes lacking the will.
She said Nigeria also has “committed voters” stating she had never witnessed the turn-out of voters coming out early in the morning to get certified, voted and ensuring their votes counted in the 2015 elections. She said in the US they are lucky if they get 20% showing during local elections. She stated that this shows that citizens have confidence in the process, whether it works for them or nor, assuring that eventually it will work for them.
Thosmas-Greenfield further listed a young youthful population as one of the positives as she recalled that the Not Too Young To Run legislation was a real accomplishment pushed by young people who will be significant voters in the process in the future.”
Other positives she assured was that Nigeria government has the financial means to carry out an election, observing that while the US can afford to sponsor elections at the local level in Nigeria it is the National level that comes up with the money for the elections.
She noted that Nigeria has active, proactive and very effective civil societies unlike many other countries which do not have such.
Quoting YIAGA as one of the CSOs that have contributed to the impact CSOs can have on Nigerian democracy, she observed that Nigeria had achieved far more because of the pressure on government to deliver democracy for the people.
Speaking on the challenges, she opined that youth and women participation in the electoral process had not achieved the levels it should. She stated that while the NTYTR was successful the next step getting the young people and women to run and get elected and continued to be difficult in Nigeria. Noting that Nigeria had never had a woman governor. She further noted that it was hard for youth to participate as the nation’s electoral process remains an Old Men’s Club.
Other challenges according to the Ambassador where ethnic and regional allegiances which had hampered the political process, Corruption which had hampered Nigeria’s potential as a democracy and placed Nigeria at 144/180 as quoted by Transparency International (TI).
The Ambassador quoted other challenges to include high cost of elections as well as the potential for violence.
Recalling that in the US, citizens contribute to support candidates running for various offices, she noted that was the contrary in Nigeria, where a candidate running for office has to be rich and sometimes has to buy votes to prove that he will take care of them when voted, thereby limiting the abilities of many to participate in the electoral process.
While she commended former President Goodluck Jonathan, who had in 2015, said no one should die, because they want to vote, she however noted that while there were pockets of violence, it was extremely low compared to the previous years. This is even as she noted a huge step backwards in 2019 where over 30 people were killed.
She concluded her presentation by saying there is tremendous anxiety for Nigeria democracy but however assured that she saw overwhelming hope for Nigeria to succeed as it is an example to the region, the continent and globally. Noting that its failure will have tremendous impact to the region and its success will be encouraging to all. She urged all to look at the silver lining by ensuring the nation’s democracy becomes all-inclusive for the good of all.
Thomas-Greenfield urged that “Democracy has to be futuristic to look at how to make the lives of the next generation better”.
For his part and speaking for the Youth, Executive Director, YIAGA Africa, Samson Itodo decried the indignity and lack of value, the state placed on the Nigerian youths who were contributing their quota to nation building and Nigerians democracy.
Itodo recalled how Fisayo Soyombo, who through his undercover reporting, exposed the corruption and rot in the nation’s criminal justice system. He also recalled ‘Revolution Now’ convener, Omoyele Sowore who has been in detention for close to 3 months for mobilizing Nigerians to speak out against the alleged incredibility of the 2019 elections, corruption and ineptitude among others.
The youth convener further recalled Jalingo Abba who exposed corruption in Cross River and was led in chains to courts stressing that the outcome of the efforts by the youths were more often met with intimidations and threats to their lives.
“For a lot of young Nigerians when we hear democratic consolidation it makes no meaning because we got a society that does not respect the dignity of a human person and that is a conversation we need to have” he said.
“We also have got institutions that are not only weak, but today disseminated”. Itodo recalled that in “1999 Nigeria had a National Assembly that could call the bluff of the Executive, but today we have young Nigerians who were voted for the first time seeing a legislature that could not debate the medium term expenditure but was just passed, so when we talk about checks that these institutions that should call the bluff of these executives have been disseminated and that is a big source of concern.
Noting the three checks of the parliament, media and the civil society organisations, Itodo observed a collapse of unionism in the nation’s social space and stressed the need to establish a connection between activists and unionists.
He further stressed the need to establish a mechanism of accountability between Civil Society Activist who transit into politics and the recklessness of the political class, noting the importance of the existing mechanisms to address such recklessness and mobilizing a critical mass of Nigerians towards promoting the nations democracy.
Also speaking, Prof Eghosa Osaghe from University of Ibadan opined that with haven recorded six consecutive elections, democracy had become deeper but not sufficient even as he observed that if there were democracies on a sustained basis there were chances for developments.
He noted that Nigeria operates a federal system and with most institutions built around the federal stated that too much focus was placed on the federal government rather than the states and local governments.
Esaghe noted that with 36 states and 744 local governments if democracies are to be meaningful and yield dividends, then equal attentions must be paid at the state and local government levels as he observed that Nigeria had shied away from engaging at the states and local government levels.
The professor stressed the need for the government to mobilise the youths who had been frustrated as a result of poor education, joblessness and non-inclusion to become the foot soldiers towards assuring of a more democratic revolution.
He also called on the states and local governments to grow capacities to deal with issues of insecurity currently troubling the nation.
Other speakers on the panel led by Carl Levan of the American University were a legal practitioner Ayo Obe, and PLAC’s Clement Nwankwo.