Nzongola-Ntalaja: Nigeria’s Democracy Improving Steadily


Prof. Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja is a Professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC), USA and a global scholar on African Studies and Democratisation. In this interview with Paul Obi, Nzongola-Ntalaja speaks on Nigeria’s democracy, its leadership in Africa and Morocco’s quest to join ECOWAS. Excerpts:


You are in Nigeria to deliver a keynote address at the National Defence College Abuja, across Africa, one would have thought that with most countries embracing democracy, stability will be central to governance, but crises and conflicts have continued unabated. What do you think is responsible for this quagmire associated with African democracy?

Well, I think, my lecture gave answers  to that. I spoke on three challenges of governance, the challenge of establishing the rule of law, challenge of expressing citizenship rights, then the challenge of improving the standard of living for all; these are the  three critical areas of governance. In remote African countries, the state simply failed to be able to provide for those few areas in terms of the fact that we have too many rulers in Africa, who are stubborn, they want to hold on to power for life. It is also the tendency, which is averagely diminishing, unconstitutional change of government, where people coming to govern by force as you have seen in Central Africa Republic, in Mali 2012, in other places, The second challenge is in terms of citizenship rights all over the continent. there are groups of citizens who have been denied the basic citizenship rights because of ethic minority and then from regions that considers themselves the most important in the country, the high cost of living. We see the gap between the rich and the poor widening all over the continent. Governments are unable to provide for the basic human needs of the people in terms of food, education, good healthcare, all of this contribute to the question of instability. People are very much concerned about what is happening. People ask why are the governments  they elect not fulfilling their promise of improving their lives and so on.

What do you think African leaders and citizens need to do to evolve a new template that will put in place good governance, reduce poverty and develop infrastructure?

I said, it is up to all the people to choose leaders who are visionary, men and women of integrity, leaders who are committed to the people’s welfare. For people who cherish the welfare of the people, then you are doing a good job, if the people are happy. And if the people are being taken care of in terms of healthcare, education, food, security and other basic necessities of life, I think that is what we need. It’s a three way system, you have to get people who are determined to be good leaders, who are committed to the people’s need and institutions because these leaders cannot work  as free agents. There are people who must work with the institutions, respecting the rules of law which the institutions established, doing what is suppose to be done in the country.

How will you rate Nigeria’s performance generally in terms of democracy, with regards to democratic institutions, norms and values?

The process is very slow, though it is improving. I think the election of Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999 was a very good development. It’s a good sign that the country is slowly moving to consolidate democracy and also the change of ruling party, alternating ruling party with the election of President Buhari. It is very important in terms of consolidating   democracy. And you have to be really grateful that you have a man as Attahiru Jega who chaired the electoral commission. He really gave an example of great integrity and great courage to be able to manage the process in the country as difficult  to manage as Nigeria is. I think from all of that we still have problems with so much corruption among state governors , people complain about huge amounts of money that goes to states government and people don’t see much that comes out of the money. There have been some improvement, roads built, schools, health centres, but the level of poverty is very high. The social indicators -access to health and education are still very difficult for the people to access.

So what do you think are the steps Nigeria needs to take to curtail these challenges which you have highlighted?

I think there must be mobilisation of good people, men and women of integrity, because leadership is crucial anywhere. You need a very good leader at the local level, state and federal. For that to succeed, you need stable institutions, you must make sure that state legislatures, state government, the judiciary systems are developed into lasting institutions that make decisions that people can respect, but really advance the democratic process rather than frustrate it.  And you have people understanding what challenge that is facing them, and working courageously to improve the situation, that is the key of building a strong institution. Having good leaders and citizenry that follow closely what the people they elected   into office are doing.

At the moment, across Africa, there is vacuum of leadership, Nigeria for instance is having challenges, there appears to be a vacuum because of President Muhammadu Buhari illness. What is your view?

In the case of President Buhari, he has in one point said openly that he was suffering from sickness and has to go for medical treatment. But Yar’Adua, he kept it within his small followers. But I think one cannot blame one person for being sick because it happens to everybody. All we can do is wish him well and pray that he can recover quickly and come back. While the job of the Vice President is to fill in while the President is not there, I think we should give the Vice President the opportunity to fulfill his duties if the President is found to be incapable of ruling the country. The constitution provides for him to step down, I think people should follow the constitution. What are the prospects that should be made clear? The President of the country is so important that he should not be living in secret and his health should not be a secret but should be made clear to the people.

Do you think this will attract negative image to Nigerians overseas, specifically, among comity of nations?

I don’t think one should blame Nigerians that President is been sick, it’s not the people’s fault and it’s not his fault either. People do get sick, I think Nigeria is a working political system, they should make sure the government led by the Acting  President, keep the state running.

Morocco, a North African country, is planning to join ECOWAS, but there is stiff opposition against admitting Morocco into ECOWAS. Do you think ECOWAS as a regional body should accept Morocco, a North African country, as member?

I think membership of regional communities is a matter of choice; we see for example countries like Tanzania, DRC being members of the Southern Africa Development Community and both are not part of Southern Africa. But those few countries can explain their membership in a less complex manner, as they play a major role in   southern Africa. They have a leadership group that is very cohesive and they know each other. In the case of my country DRC, we have always been part and parcel of Southern African economy system in terms of mining industry, transport and the railways. These make sense that Congo is much more integrated economically in Southern Africa, the same as Tanzania is.