By Dr. Okey Anueyiagu
The return to a democratic regime to Nigeria in 1999 formed part of the crest of a tidal wave of democratic transition that was sweeping the world since about the mid-1970s. Statistically, by the turn of the century, approximately 60 percent of the world’s independent states were democratic.
As Nigerians were celebrating freedom from autocratic military rule, it appears that the celebration was premature, as the democratic wave has been detoured by a powerful authoritarian undertow perpetrated by the political class and their accomplices in the bureaucratic set up. Electoral fraud all over Nigeria has facilitated in a rather rapid pace, the dethronement, and if you may, the overthrow and stifling of democracy. All over the country, there are very severe problems of governance and very deep pockets of disaffection. The major problem with Nigeria’s democracy, is the failure of the state since 1999 to consolidate the gains of the momentum generated when Obasanjo became president. Emerging democracies must demonstrate that they can solve their governance problems and meet their citizens’ expectations for freedom, justice, a better life, and a fairer society. If democracies do not move effectively to contain crime and corruption, generate economic growth, relieve economic inequality, and secure freedom and the rule of law, people will eventually lose faith and turn to authoritarian alternatives. And this is the inevitable way that Nigeria is going today.
There is absolutely no doubt that democracy is the best form of government, but struggling democracies, such as Nigeria’s, must be consolidated so that all levels of society become enduringly committed to ethos of democracy as enshrined in the country’s constitutional norms and constraints. United States then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during her last visit to Abuja, reechoed the belief that democracy is in decline or in recession here, demanding more than superficial electoral democracy, by holding government accountable for the problem of democratic dissension.
Considering the strategic importance of Nigeria in the world economic and political arena, many are worried about this trend, and asking how to reverse this democratic recession. Before and from the day Obasanjo allegedly attempted to elongate his mandatory tenure, otherwise known as the “third term”, all manners of the expansion of executive power, the intimidation of the opposition, and the rigging of the electoral process have extinguished even the most basic form of electoral democracy. Nigeria as in many other developing democracies, is plagued by a superficial type of democracy, that is blighted by multiple forms of bad governance: abusive police and security forces, domineering local oligarchies, incompetent state bureaucracies, corrupt and in accessible judiciaries, and venal ruling, elites who are contemptuous of the rule of law and accountable to no one but themselves. In this country, there are elections, but they are contests between corrupt, clientelistic parties.
There are parliaments, state and local governments, but they do not represent broad constituencies. There are constitutions, but not constitutionalism. Is Democracy not over now? The level of voters disillusionment and disenfranchisement has reached a very high pitch, resulting in massive cases of democratic distress. The biggest challenge for the survival of democracy in Nigeria lay partly on the willingness of the ruling party to; listen to their citizens’ voices, engage their participation, tolerate their protests, protect their freedoms, and respond to their needs. How do we ensure an enduring democracy in Nigeria. We must confront the monstrous electoral authoritarianism as practiced by Prof. Mahmood Yakubu’s INEC. Elections are only democratic if they are truly free and fair. This requires the freedom to advocate, associate, contest, and campaign. It also requires a fair and neutral electoral administration, a widely credible system of dispute resolution, balanced access to mass media, and independent vote monitoring. By a strict application of these standards, Nigeria may have slipped below the threshold of a democracy.
Nigeria’s promising democratic experiment has been gravely ravaged by electoral fraud and endemic corruption. If this experiment fails, and Nigeria reverts to military rule, descends into political chaos, or collapses, it will deal a harsh blow to democratic hopes across Africa. Indeed, the many African countries that remain blatantly authoritarian will never liberalize if the continent’s new and partial democracies cannot make democracy work.
I am a strong advocate of the widely held theory that without significant improvements in governance, economic growth will not take off or be sustainable. That without legal and political institutions to control corruption, punish cheating, and ensure a level of economic and political playing field, pro-growth policies will be ineffective and their economic benefits will be overshadowed or erased.
Nigeria is a tragic case in point. Since the return of democratic rule in 1999, some achievements have been made in the economic sphere, but much of this progress has since unraveled amid the paroxysms of ethnic and religious violence, and by the disruptive militant conflicts in the North, Niger Delta and South East regions. Government has woefully failed politically, by condoning or even perpetrating massive electoral malpractice, corruption, ethnic favouritism – a poisonous mix that has brought a promising new democracy to the brink of total chaos.
All in all, the consequential failures of our democratic experiments, are grossly portrayed and projected in the recent electoral melodramatics in Edo, Ondo and Rivers States. Critics of government and INEC point to Aso Rock as the autocratic machine spinning violently and virulently within the electoral power vertical that endangers the political process. These critics, while admitting that our electoral process, by virtue of the human and financial investments in it, ought to be, at this stage, fairly developed, or even highly sophisticated, call the system, useless. In this wise, our elections are isolated from the process of endowing the polity with power; they invariably amount to nothing more than expensive rituals of corruption, blood letting, death and disgraceful concentric tragedies.
•Dr. Okey Anueyiagu, a Political Economist lives in Ikoyi Lagos.