Nigeria’s Democracy Beyond Its Crown Year

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On this day in 1999, amidst pomp and pageantry, General Olusegun Obasanjo took the oath of office as president of the Federal Republic, bringing to an end some 16 years of brutal and bloody military dictatorship, and signposting another era of civil democratic government in what has commonly been accepted as the Fourth Republic. Today marks the 21st anniversary of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, which, despite its challenges and setbacks, still remains the longest uninterrupted democratic journey since the country’s independence in 1960. In every time and clime, the 21st birthday, either of an individual or a corporate, is celebrated as a major milestone. In many countries, it is the legal age of adulthood – an age to be independent and responsible, if not to chart a path of possibility. Some call it the ‘crown year’, being the year young adults are allowed to carry themselves like royalty. Indeed the 21st birthday is rooted in a rich tradition about the coming of age.

However, were the Fourth Republic a maiden celebrating her 21st birthday, could we trust her to be responsible and independent, to show enough promise to be treated like an adult? On the strength of what we have seen since its inauguration 29th May 1999, the Fourth Republic is far from qualified for the rites of passage from adolescent to adulthood. We’ve had periodic elections yet we do not really have democratic governments; every election is usually a display of the worst in undemocratic practices – vote buying, ballot stuffing, ballot box snatching, intimidation, violence, arson and killings.

Like Esau who sold his birth right for a plate of food, the people have prostituted their constitutional powers to elect their leaders and hold them accountable. We have, in the process, mostly abandoned the political space to fraudsters, cowboys and criminals, who are experts at gaming the system to undermine, pervert and weaken the democratic institutions for self and group interests. We have, therefore, been saddled, at different levels of government, with rulers: semi-dictators who personalise the state and its resources. And the cloth of our democracy has been the worse for wear.

It is important for the health of our country that the Fourth Republic has meaning, and shows its possibilities beyond the crown year; that the seed of democracy is nurtured to grow into an oak tree, and that the people are allowed, sooner rather than later, to leverage, in accordance with the constitution, on social and economic conditions for which citizens can live a good life, or to borrow the hackneyed phrase of our politicians, enjoy democracy dividends. In order to achieve this, we need to overhaul a few of the structures and institutions of state, as itemised below, but in no particular order of importance.

One, the Nigerian Armed Forces is unsuited in ideology, structure and leadership to serve the cause of democracy. The Nigerian Army, the oldest, largest and most important component of the Nigerian Armed Forces, has its root in the Hausa Constabulary, a paramilitary force largely constituted of Hausa speaking people of Northern Nigeria. Established in the late 19th Century, the 1200 strong Hausa Constabulary was set up by the colonial authorities at the time to quell internal revolt, and for policing duties. The Constabulary became, at the beginning of the 20th Century, part of the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF), a British creation for its West African colonies, established principally to arrest French colonial expansion in areas bordering its territories, including Northern Nigeria. The RWAFF though saw little action during World War I, was fully active in World War II, with the British promoting ethnic cleavages by recruiting, from the North, personnel for infantry/artillery, while ensuring southerners were recruited for posts requiring more technical training. By the time the Nigerian Regiment in RWAFF transformed into the Nigerian Army as the British colonies in West Africa moved towards independence in 1960, a faulty foundation had already been laid.

Little or nothing was done to correct the situation until the northern elements in the Nigerian Army took advantage of their number and the strategic positioning of their officers and men to execute the July 1966 revenge coup. The ensuing civil war and Biafra’s collapse compounded the original error. The north dominated strategic military appointments and promotions; indeed the ability to speak Hausa enhanced the chances of officers and men for upward mobility, professionally and politically. There was also a preponderance of military institutions sited in the north, an unconscionable northernisation policy the Buhari administration, then and now, has aggressively promoted.

It was no coincidence that northern officer-cliques almost always dominated every successful military coup, with the attendant power, influence and wealth that went with it. This created a cabal of officers and retired officers whose connections were so extensive, reach so long, and influence so pervasive that they formed and removed governments at their whims. These were the godfathers of political and economic power. Inevitably, loyalty – perhaps the most important element in military service – became channelled to, not the nation, but individual officers. Perhaps because of the history of colonial creation, if not the psychological violence from incessant coups, military personnel treat Nigerians like a conquered people; they harass, beat up and kill, at the slightest excuse, the very same people they have been trained to protect. A military where regionalism subverts nationalism, where politics trumps professionalism, and one that revels in visiting violence on the very citizens it is meant to protect cannot possibly serve the cause of democracy. There is an urgent need for a review.

Two, the Nigerian Police Force, in history and ideology, is not too different from the Nigerian Armed Forces. With its history also rooted in the Hausa Constabulary, it was, ab initio, set up to suppress the natives. Although it has gone through several structural transformations, it really has not had any fundamental ideological change; we only need to replace ‘natives’ with ‘citizens’; the well- known slogan, ‘The Police is your friend’, has long taken on an Orwellian meaning. It is a little difficult differentiating between men of the criminal world and personnel of the Nigeria Police Force. The general consensus is that the police, as presently constituted, cannot perform its primary duty of preventing crime and bringing criminals to justice.

More crucially, the Nigeria Police Force has, in the lifetime of the Fourth Republic, been an ever-ready weapon in the hands of desperate politicians to rig elections, pervert justice and undermine democracy. There has been plenty of motion on the desirability of state police, and lately community policing, but little or no movement in the direction of one or the other. In no serious country is the central government involved in general policing duties. The global practice is to have metropolitan policing – New York Police Department, London Metropolitan Police or Dubai Police – responsible for general policing duties; the central police body is restricted to serious crimes like terrorism. We cannot continue to have a behemoth like the Nigeria Police under the control of one individual for every policing duty. It has failed the country in the past. It is not working for us now. And there’s no indication it will work in the near future. It’s use, or misuse, for electoral malpractices hampers the nation’s democratic growth. It should be dismantled if the flowers of the Fourth Republic were to bloom.

Three is the nature of the nation’s revenue generation and distribution, or what some prefer to call fiscal federalism. Nigeria is a Federal Republic, and the constituent parts of every other federation, globally, own whatever revenue generated from their resources and only pay an agreed percentage tax to the central government. That is the situation in the United States of America whose governmental system – presidential democracy – we substantially adopted. That was also what our founding fathers negotiated among themselves and implemented during the First Republic. Even in other governmental systems as the unitary constitutional monarchy of the United Kingdom, the confederation of Canada, and the federal constitutional monarchy of the United Arab Emirates, the constituent units of the state own revenues generated from their resources and only cede an agreed percentage part to the central government.

However, there is something curious in the present Nigerian arrangement whereby the central government takes custody of revenues generated from the constituent parts and redistributes same, using some asinine guidelines: land mass and population, among others. Such inverted pyramid system is neither justiciable nor sustainable. It gives too much power to the centre and constraints the 36 states in embarking on healthy competition for development. It is central to the agitations and the crisis of instability bedevilling the Fourth Republic. Rather than the parts constituting the whole in the natural order of things, the whole pretends to own the parts. We therefore have a federal democracy in theory, but unitary system in practice. That is akin to powering a Rolls Royce car with a Kia engine. It is no surprise the Fourth Republic has been running, no ambling, in fits and starts. For the health of our democracy, nay that of the nation state, Nigeria needs to return to a semblance of the negotiated agreement on revenue generation and distribution the nation’s founding fathers implemented in the First Republic.

Four is the leadership challenge. The leadership selection process among the nation’s political parties is troubling. Since 1999, we’ve had fraudsters and career criminals and ritualists and certificate forgers elected or appointed officials of state – council chairmen, legislators, ministers, and even governors. The political parties throw up all sorts of characters in government. There is no minimum standard, in character and learning. Anything, if not everything, goes! Some graduate of some backwater university would simply wake up and aspire to contest the presidential election. In societies where politicians take themselves seriously, only those who attended Ivy League institutions aspire to high elective offices. In those other societies, politicians aspiring for public offices would have to worry about their character, their pedigree, and their vision. But here, those who have money and guns seem to rule the roost. That’s why we mostly have the worst of us enacting laws, and formulating and implementing policies. Nigerian political parties should re-examine their leadership selection process. That’s one sure way the Fourth Republic would begin to realise its possibilities, so that democracy would thrive in Nigeria. The issues discussed above are not necessarily exhaustive. In the meantime, let’s savour the 21st anniversary of Nigeria’s democracy, for whatever it’s worth. Who knows, the Fourth Republic may yet flower.