By Lindsay Barrett
There can hardly be any argument offered in the annals of African public and political affairs against the relevance and desirability of the democratisation of Nigerian governance. The history of our remarkably diverse homeland is replete with tragic errors and missteps as well as with extraordinary instances of recovery and survival. While the saga of Nigeria’s unfortunate fraternal conflict, the war against Biafran secession of the late sixties, is arguably the most frightening of our national mishaps since independence it is the story of the abortive attempts at representative governance and the military interventions that overturned them that continues to reverberate and demean the hopeful narrative of Nigerian progress.
This narrative has increasingly become a saga of deep distrust and popular disenchantment especially in reaction to the events emanating from the Nation’s longest and so far most resilient experiment with democracy. Eventually, the nearest thing to true competitive electoral contestation that has been invoked by the democratic experience between 1999 and now is the hostile exchange of sentiment and abuse between the two giant parties the All Progressive Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The forthcoming contest will actually serve as an institutionalised commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the new democratic order and thus as a celebration of the existence and survival of the PDP whether it wins or loses.
It is noteworthy that the process of building a form of government representation based on the peoples’ will rather than on institutional privilege has been the basic motivation claimed by most, if not all, of the participants in this experiment. However the record of practical example since the installation of the democratic order in 1999 has served to undermine popular confidence in the credibility of this assertion on the part of the leaders who have emerged as the main beneficiaries of the new order. In fact the key factors of leadership that have been promoted as a consequence of the Nigerian democratisation agenda have so far been based on elitist selection rather than popular acclamation. As a consequence while the emergence of Umaru YarÁdua and Goodluck Jonathan was brokered by a retired military leader who became civilian president, General Olusegun Obasanjo, the most remarkable event yet to occur as a consequence of the handover of power from the authoritarian military elite was the defeat of Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent, in 2015 by retired General Muhammadu Buhari, a former military leader who had first come to power by overthrowing a democratic government.. The fact that it was still considered relevant to look to a former military ruler to provide credible leadership for the nation, after the first attempt at installing a slate of fully civilian leaders through the ballot in this dispensation was an unfortunate, not to say incredible, phenomenon.
It has become absolutely and categorically obvious that the rhetoric that accompanied retired General Buhari’s restoration was replete with unreal anticipation. The mantra of change in the conduct of governance was largely based on a set of illusory assumptions. The climate of corrupt and privileged regional entitlement which has often been attributed to military paternalism in office has emerged as still being a part of the fundamental nature of the government that was put in place by the new party after an unconscionable delay. In addition, it became clear that economic and social principles for the correction of what the APC declared was the PDP’s 16-year record of profligacy had neither been effectively prepared for nor aptly identified. As a consequence, the successor government led by an undoubtedly popular (at least in some parts of the country) former military leader was foisted onto the electorate by a combination of electoral chicanery and simple deployment of threats and irregular operational flaws. The introduction of card readers, a substantial proportion of which did not work on polling day, for example, turned out to be a profoundly erroneous decision that threw a major shadow of doubt over large sections of the exercise. Also in huge states in the North especially Kano, Jigawa, Sokoto, and Borno verifiable complaints of irregular distribution of Permanent Voters Cards (PVC’s) to under-age voters and even some suspected batteries of aliens went largely un-investigated. The truth is that the election of 2015 ushered in a scale of impunity and tolerance of irregularity that has tainted the expectations of large numbers of Nigeria’s potential voters.
In spite of this dire prognosis, it is noteworthy that a growing body of Nigerians from all around the country have begun to express themselves impressively on the subject of representation and accountability in their increasingly public conversations about governance. This phenomenon is most noticeable on the innumerable social media platforms that have become virtually commonplace for communication among urban youth. What this prescient development indicates is that in spite of the dire experiences of anti-democratic conduct that has been fostered by the institutionalisation of privileged leadership right from the start of the new order the average citizen has continued to nurse the hope that real democracy and truly representative stewardship of the affairs of the nation will eventually evolve from the system of governance that has been put in place. The opportunity for that eventuality to take root is what is offered by each bout of electioneering and this time around it appears that this desire for genuine public responsibility and accountability to the demands of the voting public has become more relevant to the contest than ever before.
Whether this impression emanates from disenchantment with the performance of the Buhari-led administration or is actually inspired by a critical attachment to a desire for genuine service by those who will be elected into office the prime imperative is that this time around the reaction of the people to the results that are eventually announced might be based on increased consciousness of the methodology and data deployed during the exercise than has been the case in the past. It is of paramount importance that those who are monitoring these polls whether as neutral officials or as partisan watchdogs, should remain vigilant and conscious of the need for genuine participatory equanimity in the exercise of their right to choose. Interference in the process might be concealed but the organisers of this contest should be aware that this time around the exercise of the public right to choose might very well herald the end of authoritarian usurpation of the rights of the people, or the consolidation of the failure to prevent this usurpation from parading as the result of a popular vote. The former outcome will be hailed as a triumph for the people while the latter will be enshrined in future history as a victory for the enemies of the popular will. Unfortunately, for the former triumph to be achieved popular sentiment must overcome a strong sense of disenchantment not with the ruling APC but with the heavily discredited PDP. The oldest party in the arena must embody the spirit of renewal and attract the support of the younger generation to an unprecedented extent if the 2019 polls is to bring about the genuine change, which the younger APC promised but failed to deliver.
This is the crux of the crisis of confidence in democratisation that bids fair to make the forthcoming election, especially the Presidential race, the most complex and challenging tournament since 1999. Whereas the spectre of Northern hegemonic circling of the wagons was a profound and undeniable factor in the 2015 contest, this time around the two champions are both scions of the Northern Fulani elite. The contrast between them is based on their professional antecedents as well as on their personality rather than on their regional proclivities. It can hardly be doubted that former Vice President Atiku Abubakar will seek to protect the privileges and special entitlements that have accrued to his ethnic constituency over the decades of Nigeria’s existence both in the colonial era and since independence. However he has shown himself to be a bridge builder and an advocate of partnership with other occupants of Nigeria to an extent that has been missing in the sentimental arsenal of the Buhari-led APC Administration. It is this sentimental contrast that the PDP is hoping to deploy as a national asset in confronting the severe and austere image of the retired General and former military usurper of the democratic mandate in the forthcoming contest. It is once again a time of trial for our beloved and dynamic nation and the gauntlet has been thrown down for the people to overcome. What remains to be seen is whether once again votes will be counted by the faceless denizens of privileged officialdom or whether in the true sense of representative emotion the peoples’ votes will count.