Twenty Years of Democracy in Nigeria 

Pendulum By Dele Momodu, Email:



Fellow Nigerians, just yesterday, the University of Oxford organized a worthwhile conference on 20 years of Democracy in Nigeria. The one-day conference which took place at two venues Oxford University, at St Anthony’s College and at the Blavatnik School of Government was organised by the African Studies Centre of the University of Oxford. The Convener of the Conference was the highly cerebral and erudite Professor Wale Adebanwi, the Rhodes Professor of Race Relations, who heads the Centre. The Conference Administrator was Brenda McCollom a recently graduated Master’s degree holder from the Centre.   

The event which featured several notable speakers from both the academics and the public of private sector in Nigeria and internationally could not have come at a more auspicious time when the nations nascent democracy is seemingly under threat. The conference was broken into 3 sessions with the highlight of the conference being the evening session when two of Nigeria’s 36 Governors were invited to deliver addresses to wrap up a thoroughly interesting day in which speakers and participants sought to assess how far democracy had progressed in the 20 years of the 4th Republic.  Governors Kayode Fayemi and Aminu Tambuwal, Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Governors’ Forum respectively acquitted themselves very well as they were frank and honest in their assessment of democratic progress in the country. In short, Oxford University and Professor Adebanwi, in particular, could not have made better choices in those to present special guest speeches at the conference. Both Governors are relatively young, smart, experienced and exposed and they gave very good accounts of themselves. 

The well-attended and brilliantly organised conference afforded us the opportunity to listen attentively and interact closely with distinguished politicians and famous scholars alike. I’m glad I attended. Unfortunately, as we savoured the well-researched presentations, bad news flew across the oceans from Nigeria. The terrible videos even made matters worse. I didn’t know when tears welled up in my eyes as I watched with mouth agape and ajar, one of the greatest rapes of democracy ever witnessed in any civilised country. The brutalization of our hapless outspoken Brother and colleague Omoyele Sowore was not just an attack on a notable member of the Fourth Estate of the realm, it was an assault on one of the fundamental pillars of our democracy, freedom of speech and expression. But what was worse was the violent, unbridled and damaging continued onslaught on one of the tripods of any democratic nation, the judiciary. I had thought that the carnage being wreaked on the seemingly defenceless judiciary and its personnel had reached a crescendo with the removal of the Chief Justice of the Federation just before the 2019 elections, in the government’s rabid bid to silence all opposition and take control of all the appurtenances of government and law enforcement. I did not believe that any government, would stoop so law as to allow security operatives to shatter the myth and invincibility of the judiciary by taking its battle with a weak political opponent, a tyro in politics and a minnow now made a giant of the democratic struggle by the government’s crass handling of what has now snowballed into a calamitous crisis, into the sacred and hallowed chambers of a courtroom. The stories of the Judge, Ijeoma Ojukwu scurrying dishevelled, with her tail between her legs, into the presumed safety of her private chambers in the Court premises was too much for me to bear. The whole world was confronted with the shocking images of the manhandling beating and choking of the helpless Sowore and those seeking to assist him in the courtroom. It was like a macabre dance of juggernauts as both the hunter and the hunted were locked and joined in a frenzied, frenetic dance of lunacy. I wept for my dear country as the revered and sanctified recesses of a court was being violated and desecrated. Eventually, all I could do was sigh, as always. Whenever I thought we can never go lower, something happens to dampen my spirits, shock my sensibilities and teach me the lesson never to say never. I await the reaction of lawyers and Judges in particular to this latest act of insanity by government goons. If ever there was contempt in the face of the Court, this was a brazen example. Let us see wither democracy!  

It seemed apt that the circumstances in which this appalling news came to me was at a time when we were at this conference. Here we were at Oxford University, one of the oldest, most unique and respected citadels of learning discussing Democracy and all we were getting was opposite news from home about civilian dictatorship and autocracy. Interestingly, the keynote speaker, the widely acclaimed and respected scholar, Professor Larry Diamond, of Stanford University, gave kudos to Nigeria for promoting Democracy despite its imperfections. He spoke about the salutary efforts of fighting corruption by the Buhari administration. His submission did not write off  Buhari but said he can do much better. How I wished the President and his people resisted the temptation of this sporadic descent into brash trampling on fundamental human rights and the pillars of democracy and democratic institutions. I have good news for him, it is not too late to embrace true Democracy and return to the path of peace and jaw jaw rather than that of high-handedness and war war. There is so much to gain. I confess that I have been strident in my criticism of the Buhari administration in recent times. I have been concerned about the debasing of most, if not all of our democratic institutions. Professor Diamond, a foreigner made me stop to think that despite all the failings of this administration, all is not lost because we have indeed made some gains in the democratic sphere. We have had uninterrupted civilian rule for the longest period in our history, the fear of another military intervention has receded although for the most part of this latest democratic dispensation we have been ruled with an iron fist by military generals. Nonetheless, we must not consider that all is lost, even if some of the gains have been tarnished, we must still admit that we remain on the right path and we must salute ourselves and our civilian leaders, past and current for this feat.  A true democrat and critic must be willing and prepared to make concessions where appropriate and I do so in this regard not because I believe that what is happening is good for our democracy, but because I appreciate that we are at least still paying lip service to  that democracy and ultimately whenever this government leaves, it is my hope and prayer that a better government will be properly elected.

One of my favourite papers at the conference was presented by Professor Eghosa Osaghae, former Vice Chancellor of Igbinedion University, under a panel session titled “The Nigerian State: Structure, Agency and Institutional.” His own paper was titled “Reconstructions, Resilience and Relevance: Political Elites and Ethnic Mobilization, 1999-2019.” He was simply brilliant. He later spoke to me about writing a paper to develop my theory of why people steal in arrears and in advance, the first as reparations for years of suffering and the latter as consolidation for the unknown future.

Rotimi Suberu of Bennington University, Vermont, USA, spoke on “Federalism, Constitutional and the Elusive Quest for ‘Political Restructuring’ in the Fourth Nigerian Republic. Next was the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Aliyu Modibbo Umar, of The African Studies Centre, University of Oxford, UK. His paper was well applauded for the way it broke down the giddiness of power and how the people can advertentlý or inadvertently make a leader swollen headed and begin to misbehave. The other seminal papers in this panel session made for sombre thought and reflection on why things have gone wrong and how they may be redressed. Thus, Professor Adigun Agbaje of the University of Ibadan, spoke on the topic “A Republic of Dashed Hopes? Party Politics and 20 years of the travails of Democracy in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. The last paper for that panel session was a poignant reminder for those of us who had been in the trenches in the dark days of the Abacha administration and the stark and startling resemblance of those heinous days with events unfolding in our polity today. The paper, delivered by Matthew T Page of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, was aptly titled “Today’s Nigeria resembles Abacha’s Nigeria. Why does the international community treat it so differently”?   

The second Panel session dealt with the economy and Nigeria’s economic mainstay, oil. It seems apposite to me that majority of the speakers in this session were expatriates. Our oil resources have been much denuded and filtered away by the International oil companies and multinationals.  They have not done us a favour but fleeced and impoverished us because our communities have been laid to waste and there has been hardly any technological transfer. Much of our economic woes have been caused by the manner in which foreigners have dealt with our oil. Most of them are responsible for the blight that oil has caused on our political, social and economic landscape. The first paper in the session was from Peter Lewis of John Hopkins University in America and it was titled “Politicians and Oil” in keeping with the theme of the impact of 20 years of democracy. The second paper titled “The Political Economy of Nigerian Oil Trading” was delivered by Ricardo Soares de Oliviera of the University of Oxford, whilst the third speaker was Dr Zainab Usman of the World Bank and her topic was “From Diversification to Decentralisation: The Sub-National Roots of Transforming Nigeria’s Oil Economy”. The last paper of the Session was one which portends grave danger for our economy if we do not shift our focus and reliance on oil to other productive and financially rewarding sectors of the economy. It was gloomingly and fittingly titled “Nigeria: No Longer an Oil State” and was written by Oliver Owen and Sarah Burns, both of the University of Oxford.

The Third Panel session in the late afternoon dealt with Electoral Governance, Civil Society and (In)Security. Papers were delivered by Okechukwu Ibeanu of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on “Theorizing Electoral Democracy in Nigeria: Elections, Representation and Accountancy”; Jubrin Ibrahim of the Centre for Democracy and Development, Abuja “The 2019 General Elections in Nigeria: An Assessment”; Ebenezer Obadare, of the University of Kansas “Resistance in the Age of Democracy: The Changing Parameters of Civil Society in Nigeria”; Idayat Hassan of the Centre for Democracy and Development, Abuja, “From Human Rights Movement to Civil Society: A Review of Twenty Years of Democracy in Nigeria”; Nic Cheeseman of the University of Birmingham, “Political Communication in Nigeria: From Radio to WhatsApp”; and Adam Higazi of the Modibbo Adama University of Technology, Yola and the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands “The Political Economy of Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in North-East Nigeria”.  

The Fourth and Final Session was the evening Panel Session which featured the political gladiators and big masquerades, Governors Fayemi and Tambuwal. Both spoke ardently and fervently about the Nigerian Nation. Both were concerned about Constitutional reform and the structural re-adjustment and re-alignment of the Nigerian nation. Both of them indicated their preference for resource control by the States and a clear need for the decentralisation and dismantling of power at the centre. Tambuwal stress the need for enduring institutions as one of the practical solutions to seemingly intractable political conundrum.

At the end of the conference, it was clear that all the participants believed that though democracy was becoming entrenched in the Nigerian psyche, it is not yet Uhuru because a lot still remains to be done before we can truly consider the country a democratic country in terms of principle and practice. It was certainly kudos for a job well done to the organisers and the speakers who came from diverse and disparate backgrounds. It was obvious that they all had one thing in common, the desire that Nigeria should take its deserved place in the comity of democratic nations being one of the biggest and most populous countries in the world.