Crawling Steadily Out of the Woods

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that while it is worth celebrating two decades of unbroken civilian adminstration, the longest in the history of the country, the journey to the attainment of the lofty goals of democracy are still far from being achieved

Today, in every part of the country, there is a beehive of activities to celebrate Nigeria’s enduring experiment with democratic rule, which began in 1999. Though there may not be change of governorship baton in states where off season governorship elections will hold later in the year (or in 2020), it is expected that formalities centred around celebration of Democracy Day will take place in all state capitals and in the Federal Capital Territory. Twenty years on, the nation has unequivocally demonstrated its preference for democratic governance as it is in most parts of the civilised world.

Today’s celebration of May 29 as Democracy Day is the last, as the Federal Government has proclaimed June 12 as the new Democracy Day. The controversy surrounding June 12 is one of the most outstanding signposts of Nigeria’s present democratic journey. It was the annulment of the June 12 election supposedly won by the late Chief MKO Abiola that engendered a period of struggle by rights groups pressuring the military government of the late Gen. Sani Abacha and his successor, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar to transmit power to civilians in 1999. The calculation of the leaders and influencers, at the time, was that the South-west of Nigeria, where Abiola came from needed to be placated for the loss of Abiola. Therefore, Abiola’s Abeokuta-Ogun State kinsman, former Head of State, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was favoured to win the 1999 presidential election in which he was a candidate, having been released from prison where he was serving time for alleged attempt to overthrow the Abacha government.

Obasanjo’s reputation on the international arena helped to stabilise the image of Nigeria’s burgeoning democracy. World leaders readily embraced and quickly reversed the country’s stature from a pariah state to Africa’s promising bastion of democracy. The Obasanjo presidency will be remembered for groundbreaking policies in many sectors, particularly in establishing departments and agencies that were targeted at dealing with specific malaise in the society, even if some of these bodies appeared to be in direct conflict with one another, in terms of functions. To his credit, he set up the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). He established the Due Process Office in The Presidency and started the process of unbundling the power sector.

Obasanjo ran an administration that brooked little opposition. His relationship with the legislative arm of government was anything but cordial. In his time, there appeared to be a season of musical chairs in the leadership of the National Assembly, orchestrated by a presidency that was bent on having its way.

Obasanjo sought to extend his sphere of influence to include direct control of state governors. A couple of state governors who were perceived and actually opposed the presidency for policies they thought were not in tandem with the constitution were dealt with. The Obasanjo presidency came down hard on the former governors of Lagos and Akwa Ibom states, Bola Tinubu and Victor Attah respectively. Funds belonging to their states were arbitrarily held back by Obasanjo. State of emergency was declared in some states by the Obasanjo regime, not necessarily because the security situation in those states had become intractable, but it served as a measure to clip the wings of governors who did bow to his whims.

It was under Obasanjo that Ahmad Yarima, former governor of Zamfara State, zoned off his territory as an Islamic Republic, proclaiming the reign of Sharia Law. This ultimately awakened the rest of Northern Nigeria to the prevailing state of insurgency and religious intolerance.

Obasanjo was so consumed with the party of praise singers who did not see anything wrong in his administration. Convinced that he was Nigeria’s Messiah, he schemed through the backdoor and nearly succeeded in changing the country’s constitution to accommodate a third term of four years in office for the executive. But for the eternal vigilance of the opposition, he would have succeeded. Forced to renounce the third term agenda, Obasanjo foisted the reluctant former governor of Katsina State, Umaru Yar’Adua on the nation. Yar’Adua had earlier said he wanted to return to his job as a lecturer.

After winning the presidential election in 2003, the late President Yar’Adua made one of the most honest public statements in Nigerian political history by admitting that the election that brought him to power was not free and fair. He promised to pursue electoral reforms with a sense of purposefulness. He was also able to enact a policy of forgiveness to Niger Delta militants who had disrupted production activities of the International Oil Companies in the region.

Following his passage, the then Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan assumed office, but not without a lot drama that brought up a new phrase in Nigeria’s political lexicon called, ‘Doctrine of Necessity’. The Nigerian constitution did not anticipate a situation where a serving president will die in office. It was a very trying and delicate period in the country. A similar, but not directly connected situation will latter play up in Kogi State, when a governorship candidate that was coasting to victory passed on before the results of the election were declared.

During the 20-year period of Nigeria’s ongoing democracy unsuccessful attempts have been made to recall elected legislators. Whether at the federal or state level, the relationship between the legislature and the executive has been very bad. The picture that is clear to onlookers is that this two arms of government have mostly worked at cross-purposes, to the detriment of the people they were elected to serve. Partnership between the states and the federal government is often defined by partisan interests. The party at the centre conducts its affairs as if it owes no obligation to states not governed by its party. It does not matter if the interest of the people is at the receiving end.

Nigeria’s economy went into a recession during the period. While the pangs of this difficulty are still being experienced by the populace, the government insists that the country is technically out of recession.
Interestingly, the constitution allows a multiplicity of political parties, in real terms, but Nigeria may described as a two-party state. This is the clear indication in the past 20 years. However, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has remained the constant decimal on the Nigerian political turf, surviving various crises. The party has largely been in control of governance at the centre and in many states of the federation in the last two decades. The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) which wrestled power from the PDP had to form a merger of different interest groups to create a platform that defeated the PDP, dislodging it from power at the centre, for the first time in 2015.

The Nigerian judiciary which is the third arm of government has been embattled from many disputes brought before it, resulting from the unrest between the executive and the legislature. To its credit, there have been many defining and landmark declarations by the courts. This is not to deny the odium brought on the judiciary by controversial decisions that have subtracted from the eminence of that arm of government.

Generally, lack of political will and selfish ambition by key players in the Nigerian polity have robbed the country of the opportunities that were beckoning and dashed many hopes. The refusal of many succeeding administrations to follow through with policies of their predecessors has set the country back. Viewed from any side of the spectrum, the few outstanding performance of some state governors and the inconsistencies in policy of the federal government has erased gains that would have generated excitement at the celebration of two decades of democracy in Nigeria.