The 2023 general elections seem to have happened so long ago, and it also seems like yesterday. This sense of never ending election mode could be because of off cycle elections or because Nigeria’s political class are perpetually in election mode with every decision made with a view to consolidating wins and/or winning the next election. Yet the quality of elections is declining and so is the democracy we tether so tightly to elections. In a video making the rounds on Whatsapp, Prof Bello Bada in a thoughtful analysis of the state of Nigeria warned, ‘if care is not taken, future elections will be difficult to conduct in Nigeria.’
If we were preparing an end of year list for the most worrying developments for democracy, these would make the short list.
Burning a state assembly
On October 29 the Rivers State House of Assembly building was set on fire reportedly to prevent plans to impeach the governor. The story behind impeachment plans is not secret – the assembly is one of the casualties of trouble in the paradise of the Governor and the man who takes the credit for installing him as his successor. To date, as accusations and counter accusations fly about assassination attempts and responsibility for arson, no one has been arrested for the destruction of public property. This is a terrible precedent in a country of many bad precedents on abuse of power. Other governors’ intent on installing their successors will be watching, and so will future successors. This brigandry will not augur well for Nigeria… thugocracy is on the rise and there is nothing to check it, indeed, it is the successful model used by most, if not all of those successful in elections.
Election tribunal judgements
The trend of controversial election judgements continues. Many might have thought we would never get anything as egregiously unjust as the Supreme Court’s Imo State gubernatorial election judgement in 2020. In the judgement, the person who scored the fourth highest number of votes during the election was crowned the winner. Now the Court of Appeal is outdoing itself. It is wading into a pre-election matter when precedents say pre-election issues can have no determination, discarding the votes of 165,000 people – in a country with low and declining voter turnout because ballot papers were not stamped by INEC and has been caught with a written judgement that is the opposite of the court’s declared decision. When called out, the scorn with which the average Nigerian is held is evident in the response: the certified true copy of the judgement finding for the NNPP governor is a clerical error. Asides the judgement buttressing allegations of corruption around the judiciary, particularly those involved in election cases, INEC’s integrity and capacity is also called into question. Will no one in INEC take responsibility for not doing what it was supposed to do? And will the Supreme Court allow this judgement, which flies against the spirit of justice to stand?
Lagos State budget
Last week, Lagos state’s budget trended on social media platforms. At a time when Nigerians are tasked with belt tightening and making sacrifices, Funsho Doherty – 2023 Lagos state gubernatorial candidate for Action Democratic Congress highlighted in a letter, elements of unconscionable waste in the 2023 budget. While we know that budgets are typically padded – there are certain items that speak to how compromised our democracy is and while in the past our knowledge could be belittled as unsubstantiated tales, now we have proof. Public funds are used to maintain political parties – there was an entry for 20.8 million naira to ‘decorate venues for political delegates congress’. Doherty’s letter resulted in additional scrutiny of Lagos State’s budget by Nigerians and another democracy related revelation was a 200 million naira budget line to pay the legal fees of the governor and deputy in defending themselves from the election suit filed against them.
This is one of the reasons election petitions have become commercialized and why challenging irregular elections is now the reserve of the extremely wealthy a.k.a. those who have access to public funds. There should be calls for the resignation and/or impeachment of the governor and deputy. This practice of using state funds to defend lawsuits (when the pensions of governors and deputies are not split with the state or the people) is probably the norm in other states and we should expect more reviews, revelations and hopefully lawsuits, even if we have to crowdsource the funding for them.
State of political parties
Political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers is how Levitsky and Ziblatt put it in How Democracies Die. Healthy political parties are a major element of any democracy – to mobilize people, form and influence policy, keep governments in check as opposition and most importantly, recruit and support leaders for elective office. The malaise of political parties in Nigeria are multidimensional, and some of the challenges are tied to how parties are funded i.e., through the use of state funds to fuel party operations, such as they are. This access to state funds is why godfathers and former governors who install their successors need percentages of state budgets/revenue to continue to hold, maintain their structures. The structures should not be for individuals, but for parties however we see how individualized party influence is with the recent revelation that while the former governor of Rivers is still officially in PDP, serving in an APC led administration, the recently appointed interim officials for APC in Rivers are his associates. This in effect means those who have been in APC, maybe as far back as 2014, who are not considered in the former governor’s graces, will be shut out. At the same time, despite whatever rules PDP has on anti-party activities, it cannot find energy or strength of will to suspend the former governor or at least investigate the allegations against him. The deliberate undermining of opposition and the inability of political parties to wean themselves off the funding of the state for their operations contributes to how democracy is being undermined in Nigeria.
These three examples are by no means the only developments for concern – partisan appointments being made at state and federal level, including as Resident Electoral Commissioners and the politicisation of appointments to the supreme court judges are also troubling.
Former President Obasanjo was recently quoted as saying that liberal democracy has not worked for Africa, implying that our culture might have something to do with this but when have we practiced liberal democracy? Do we know what liberal democracy is and do we want it? Nigerians should discuss this along with the collective vision we have for the country and what system of government will deliver. In 1999, elections cost 1.5 billion naira, in 2023, the budget was 305 billion naira. We must assess the quality of our elections against the costs of elections, both formal and informal – elections are a huge drain on resources that could be better channeled into improving public goods, especially when our institutions and governance culture are only remotely democratic.
People consensus, some would say, elite consensus, is required to agree on a way forward because elections are increasingly a threat to democracy in Nigeria, as it is across the world today. We still have the opportunity to course correct; but only if we acknowledge there is a problem.