20 Years of Nigeria’s Democracy


Aminu Waziri Tambuwal

Mr. Chairman, please let me add my voice to those of others and thank the organisers of this conference for the kind invitation extended to me to join such a galaxy of scholars. I believe I speak on behalf of my fellow countrymen and women in Nigeria when I say how much we appreciate the University of Oxford through St. Antony’s College for the time and attention you have given to Nigeria since the inception of the African Studies programme here. And of course, a special thanks to my friend and brother, Professor Wale Adebanwi for taking the African Studies Programme to greater heights. Eku se o!

Yes, I agree this university holds a unique place in the world. It is not just a home to great thinkers of the past, but it is also a constant reference for great ideas of the future. I am fully aware that the tradition of the influential study of Africa in this university predates the 2004 when this centre was founded, let me also state here that it is difficult to think of a Nigerian national leader or administration, since 1960 till date, that has not had his policy, pronouncement or at least thoughts influenced by studies or opinion from this university, so Oxford and Nigeria have been together for long, for better or for worse.

I am of the opinion that spaces of learning should be areas immune from raw partisan politics and I also feel that discussions in these places should never be based on, or motivated by pure partisan affiliations, it is my view that a university or any other citadel or institution of learning should be dedicated to, and should accommodate only rigorous rational reflections that can illuminate minds of all for the betterment of the society.

During the early years of Nigeria’s democracy, I was armed with a bachelor’s degree in law from Usman Dan Fodio University in Sokoto and was studying for my master’s degree. I had gone into law school as a young man full of idealism. Coming from humble beginnings, I had witnessed some of the inequalities of the legal system, and I wanted to work from the inside to change them. I thought that as a lawyer I could do my part to help the weak and vulnerable. At that time, I had no political aspirations, but I did have strong feelings about what I saw around me. Living under the military regime for most of my life, I had seen first-hand the impact of military dictatorship on society. I was frustrated by the slow pace of development in my country. And in the early part of this century, I became excited by the promise of democracy. I wanted to be involved. I became a legislative aide, and I started to believe that God had another path in mind for me.

In reflecting on the 20 years of Nigeria’s Democracy, I will, therefore, do my best to refrain from any observation or pronouncement based on partisan affiliation and I will use facts to focus on the system as a whole knowing that political parties, citizens and politicians are largely variables and reflections of the system as a whole. The best or the worst we do is ultimately a product of, or a reaction to the system, or if you wish reaction to the environment in which we live and operate.
Looking back over the past two decades, I must admit that our democracy has not yet reached its potential. Threats of violence and corruption still undermine people’s trust, and as elected officials, we still have much to do to demonstrate that we are worthy of that trust.

When we talk about 20 years of Nigeria’s Democracy it is important that we first remind ourselves that the 20 years we are analysing means 20 years away from a period when under military dictatorship the Nigerian Government and country were treated as a pariah unit, not welcomed in the community of civil and democratic states. The period before the 20 years we are to talk about today, was a period in which Nigerian citizens could not vote at all, it was a time when groups and individuals could not express themselves at all let alone freely; 20 years ago, public officer holders were not accountable to any legislative body let alone to the general public.

Yes, in Nigeria, we now have elections where people can vote and be voted for, but how free and fair are these elections? Even within political parties, the credibility of elections and the whole internal democratic process depends on which faction of the party one belongs to. If we are to have a credible foundation for our democracy, this is the first thing we must address.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I refer to Institutions. I refer to the only base on which we, like any other truly democratic society, can build upon and the cover under which we, like any other truly democratic society, can get protection from the whims, madness or even cleverness of any single individual who might have his or her interests or flaws.

Institutions, not individuals protect the collective interest and grow the commonwealth in a fair, legal and lasting way. The best individuals can do is to help build institutions. The lack of institutions that all can truly trust and fully depend upon is perhaps the biggest flaw in our 20 years of democracy.
I can tell you that building systems that take all voices into consideration is hard work and it can be frustrating. Believing in a democracy means taking time to persuade and build consensus rather than seeing those who disagree as enemies to be overpowered. It means agreeing to accept the will of the majority when your side does not win. The temptation to circumvent the process through violence will always be with us and must be fought.

I am however optimistic because my experience first as a lawyer, later as a legislator and then as a governor has given me the rare opportunity to mix with people from all areas and persuasion of Nigeria and part of what this experience has shown me is that we have people that can build institutions.
We have people that understand the importance of strong and legitimate institutions that can work for all. The other important thing my experience has shown me thanks to my mental curiosity and physical travels to meet Nigerians across Nigeria and indeed outside Nigeria is that our fears, our desires, and aspirations as people are more similar than some want to make us believe.

I have noted that regardless of where people come from or wherever they live, or whichever language they speak or in whichever way they worship, what people, all kinds of people, really desire is to live in a peaceful environment where they can express themselves freely, work, study, love, worship and prosper. That is what most people feel democracy is about. Nigerians expect development from Democracy; in Nigeria, we call it dividends of democracy. Nigerians share faith in democracy. But democracies do not exist solely on faith. Maintaining a democracy is work- persistent, attentive work– not only by our leaders but by the people as well.

We are all in this together. Nigerians be vigilant. I am convinced that to lead Nigeria to a place where citizens will be proud of our democracy and happy to defend the institutions of democracy, we need men and women who understand that our greatest assets are our children and that the biggest gift we can give, the best way we can nurture these children is by giving them education, good education!
I believe that the burden of leadership must be shared among those who understand that every ward in Nigeria should have a full-fledged functional secondary school. That is why in Sokoto, in the last five years our education has always taken the largest part of our budget.

There is no point in having educated people who will not live long, so I also strongly believe that health in Nigeria must be made a priority. We need to build health institutions and facilities that are near to the people, affordable for all and capable of effectively and efficiently preventing and curing sicknesses.

We need to drastically improve our attitude to research, practice, and remuneration related to the provision of healthcare services. A major area in which we have not done well in the past 20 years, is food security.

We need to make it a priority and policy to feed our people. The Agric Sector must be seen as a strong potential source for creating jobs and wealth. A particular area that we have particularly left adrift in the past 20 years is housing. This is very sad and strange to me because housing does not only cater for very basic and obvious needs of almost everyone in the country, but it is also one area that can easily create employment and wealth, it is an area that can positively affect most citizens as a process and as an outcome. At the moment we are having a deficit of over 20 million housing units.

It is my opinion that a democracy of well-housed citizens is a stronger democracy.
The last 20 years have also sadly seen the growth of security issues that are sometimes, tinted in ethnopolitical shades, as well as in religious and professional and colours. Insecurity, whether in form of raw and pure banditry, to organised crime or fraud, to terrorism, of any kind, is powered by an army of desperate, reckless and hopeless youths who do not see a future in a legitimate society and who do not share the values proclaimed by such society.

So far, we have not been able to win the battle against insecurity in a way that will make our citizens feel truly safe across the length and breadth of Nigeria and we have not in the last 20 years made the rest of the world see Nigeria as a place safe enough to go to without apprehension or extra care.

It must be said here, that the issue of insecurity is a global issue and it will be unwise to oversimplify such a complex issue. I, however, believe that two major things among others to fight and win the war on all form of insecurity is to focus on one side, on prevention through the battle of minds through education and engagement and on the other side build a superior security force that can contain all strands of enemies of peace and security.

The oxygen that helps criminals and terrorists stay alive is made up of the availability of an army of desperate, reckless and hopeless youths who do not see a future in legitimate society.
We need to stop this flow. We need to provide education and hope for these youths so that we can win them away from joining the flocks of those who want to harm us.

It is important to do all that we possibly can do to ensure that potential armies of criminals and terrorists feel they are better off being part of a legitimate society and not the illegal part of it. We must identify and engage idle hands so that they do not fall prey and become the devil’s workshop.
Another important area of prevention is intelligence gathering. We need to shape our security system in a way that can intercept and foil plans, actions, groups and individuals that want to bring harm to us. We certainly need to better train, better equip and give better care to our servicemen and women who are currently largely understaffed, highly overworked and generally disillusioned.

Allow me to pay tribute to all our gallant officers and men of our security services, serving and those who have lost their lives in the service of our dear country.
Allow me to be a lawyer here and to say where the rule of law does not reign there will not only be chaos and danger but also that there can be supreme, no progress and prosperity.
The question of disrespect for the rule of law is one major problem that we have not been able to solve in the last 20 years.

There is a myth that Nigeria is ungovernable because of its many religions and languages. I do not believe it. It has become a cliché to say, “our diversity is our strength.” Well, there is something to be said for clichés. I believe the reason this thought has been repeated so often is that it is true.
As I have traveled around the country, I have found that insights and answers can be found in all of our communities. The building blocks needed for the somewhat elusive common ground we seek as a nation already exists.

My emergence as the speaker of the House of Representatives in 2011 is a case in point, where there was a consensus by the majority of members to support my candidature irrespective of political, religious and ethnic differences. Our varied backgrounds provide different ways of approaching problems and different perspectives, and this gives us enormous potential.

This is not to say that our differences are not real. One of the great challenges inherent to any democracy, but especially in a society as diverse as ours, is to ensure that representatives elected by the majority do not leave the members of minorities feeling that democracy is– to quote one of your famous Oxford alumni, Oscar Wilde–‘the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.”
As elected leaders, it is incumbent upon us to act for the benefit of ALL of our constituents, not only to listen but to demonstrate that we are listening.

A few suggestions are necessary here. The first is that a new electoral act that entrenches a foolproof electronic voting system and reduces the interference of security agencies in elections has become urgent. Secondly, Judicial reform that enhances the independence of the judiciary is key to the sustenance of Nigeria’s democracy. A situation where senior judicial officers can be removed almost whimsically leaves much to be desired. Thirdly, the appointment and removal of heads of security agencies, especially the Police, which is the central security organisation in a democracy should be made subject to Legislative approval. Fourthly, the zero-sum nature of Nigeria’s politics needs to be revisited in such a way that the winner take all system is changed for a more inclusive system to eliminate extreme desperation to win elections.

Fifthly, as we reflect on the 20 years of democracy in Nigeria for the period 1999 and 2019, we must begin to refocus our attention to the electorate in terms of why and how their mandates matter. Delivery of good government has emerged as one of the central bases for democratic consolidation. If citizens feel that a government is working for them and totally committed to their interests and welfare it is easy to mobilize them for development. In this sense, the notion of mandate is linked to the authority vested in the elected representatives by the people to govern on their behalf. The link between the people and the election is that through the ballot box, they are able to confer or withdraw their support to a political party or candidate.

Lastly, the need for national unity, inclusive and fair approach to governance is a sure guarantee for democratic stability. At the end of the day, our fault lines and cleavages will be better managed where there is a sense of belonging by all groups within the nation.

To do so, we need to learn from our past, be bold enough to see and accept where we have gotten it wrong, understand the need to pull together our best minds in a bid to build a lasting fair, functional, truly representative and flexible institutions that work for All Nigerians.

•Governor Aminu Waziri Tambuwal of Sokoto State delivered this speech at the African Studies Centre, Oxford University, UK recently