A Month of Two Key National Milestones 

Postscript by Waziri Adio

Since that hopeful Saturday in 1999, the month of May has held a special significance for Nigeria. But this year is a bit special. By May 29th, two key milestones will coincide: 25 years of unbroken civil rule and one year of the President Bola Tinubu administration. Some Nigerians will have the urge to roll out the drums; others will strongly object; and yet some others will remain indifferent to both landmarks. The dual-anniversary is worth marking separately and collectively. More appropriately, however, this May 29 should serve as a day of reflection on what could have been for both our democracy and the current administration. On both fronts, more work is needed.  

A quarter of a century of civil rule is, unquestionably, no mean achievement for the country. Combined, our first three attempts at democracy didn’t last up to ten years: the First Republic fell apart after five years, three and a half months; the Second Republic unravelled after four years and three months; and the Third Republic came out of the delivery room as a stillbirth. Until the current dispensation, it could be argued—and it was indeed widely argued—that democracy was jinxed in Nigeria. Not anymore.

Elected officials have now ruled the country for 34 of our 63 years of independence or for 54% of the time. This is a sharp contrast to the pre-1999 period when military rule was the overwhelmingly dominant form of government in Nigeria. Today, more than half of Nigerians, according to official estimates, were born after the 1999 transition. This means that a majority of Nigerians, including a sizeable number of those currently qualified to vote, have never experienced military rule. This is quite significant.    

Many jinxes have been broken on the way to the silver jubilee of our current democracy. The records that have been shattered include: seven successive elections, against the previous record of two apiece in the first and second republics; peaceful transfers of power from one elected administration to the other thrice, against the previous record of zero; two elections in which incumbent presidents were term-barred after serving out the constitutionally allowed limits of eight years, against the earlier record of zero; and the defeat of an incumbent party and president, hitherto thought totally impossible in Nigeria.

Based on these and other parameters, as well as the longevity of the current republic, it can be argued that democracy has finally taken root in Nigeria. It has not all been smooth-sailing though. We have had nasty elections and testy moments and elected leaders with autocratic impulses. But through it all, democracy has managed to emerged as the ‘only game in town,’ that phase that scholars and students of democracy and democratisation call ‘democratic consolidation.’ On that score, there is reason to cheer, even if cautiously.

But longevity is not necessarily the same as maturity or growth. Likewise, endurance is not necessarily an insurance against backsliding or reversal. While we should celebrate how far we have come in our democratic journey, we should see this jubilee as an opportunity to examine the quality of our democracy and as a reminder of the need to get democracy to live up to its promise. This approach should take us back to philosophical and practical debates about the value of democracy and the link between democracy and development.

As Amartya Sen and others have argued, democracy has both intrinsic and instrumental worth. The freedom to choose and change who governs you and to benefit from other suites of freedoms/rights that should be taken as a given under civil rule represent the intrinsic worth of democracy. Those rights and freedoms extend the God-given rights of individuals and enhance their agency to function as complete human beings and full citizens. As someone who grew up and worked as a journalist for some years under military rule, I do not need to be persuaded that democracy has an intrinsic value or that this dimension is indeed valuable beyond the symbolic.

But when many Nigerians clamour and put their lives at risk for democracy, they expect to enjoy more than just a bundle of rights and freedoms (which even a benevolent dictator may permit). They expect democracy to translate to visible and sustained improvements in their lives. They expect democracy to be beyond an end by itself, but also a means to a higher end. This is the instrumental value of democracy, which in everyday parlance is called dividends of democracy.

There is an old argument that there is no automatic link between democracy and development and shared prosperity, which is the higher and ultimate end-goal. This is still a valid argument. However, it is equally a valid point that democracy has an edge over autocracy because of the option of choice embedded in regular, free and fair elections. It is this implicit threat that a non-performing government can be peacefully thrown out of office that should serve as an incentive for good governance.

The expectation of a much better life for Nigerians under civil rule was well captured by Mr. Segun Babatunde in a story published by the Pan African News Agency (PANA) on 31st May 1999, two days after the transfer of power to President Olusegun Obasanjo.  “It is a new beginning,” Babatunde said, echoing the sentiments many Nigerians who had lived for almost 16 years under the jackboots of the military. “It is like we have just won independence from the military.”

A quarter of a century after, not many Nigerians remain giddy with excitement about democracy birthing a new beginning or signifying another independence. Without a doubt, some gains have been made in the last 25 years. We can easily point to roads, bridges, rail lines, airports, telephones lines, schools, hospitals and others that didn’t exist 25 years ago. Equally, there is the eight-fold increase in gross domestic products (boosted by rebasing, of course, and a few episodes of soft oil booms). Then, there is a slew of public financial management and other reforms that have been undertaken and have made governance comparatively more transparent and accountable.  

But overall, more could have been done with the time and resources available. The quality of leadership and governance has been patchy. Despite restraining mechanisms, the level of state capture and official perfidy has multiplied. There are many areas we have not moved the needle much like electricity supply and the management of our oil and gas sector and on reduction of poverty and inequality. Also, there are some critical areas where we have actually regressed like security of life and property. Understandably, these areas of gaps play high on citizens’ minds when they assess the performance of our democracy.

According to a 2022 survey by Afrobarometer, 70% of Nigerians preferred democracy as a form of government but most of them took issues with the quality of Nigeria’s democracy. A whopping 77% of Nigerians expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of our democracy in 2022, up from 57% in 2017. Also, 64% of Nigerians described our variant of democracy as a democracy with major problems or not a democracy in 2022 up from 48% in 2017. The takeaway here is that most Nigerians believe that the quality of their democracy is deteriorating at an age the democracy should be maturing. This should get us worried.

Relatedly, Nigeria has posted a spotty record on major measures of democracy, governance and development in the last 25 years. In its 2024 report, Freedom House ranked Nigeria as ‘partly free’, with a score of 44 out of 100. (Ghana, one of the five African countries ranked as free, scored 80 over 100). On the 2023 Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit, Nigeria is still categorised as a ‘hybrid regime,’ with a score of 4.23 out of 10, and ranked at number 104 out of 167 countries. On the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Index of Liberal Democracy, Nigeria is scored 0.33 out of 1.

In 2021, Nigeria was ranked 30 out of 54 African countries on the Ibrahim Index of African Governance with a total score of 47.7 out of 100.  Transparency International, in 2023, ranked Nigeria 145 out 180 countries on its Corruption Perception Index, with a score of 25 out of 100. On its part, UNDP still categorises Nigeria as low on human development, with a score of 0.55 out of 1 and a ranking of 163 out of 191 countries on the 2023/2024 Human Development Index, a composite index of income, health and education. All round, these are abysmal scores.  

The point here is not a clamour for a return to autocracy, or a manifestation of what some call autocracy nostalgia. Definitely not for me, as I have as an adult experienced both democratic rule and military rule, and will never wish for the latter, even in its most benevolent form. The message is that Nigeria’s democracy could have delivered much more in terms performance on major indexes and especially in meeting the valid expectations of Nigerians. Even when we factor in the complications that electoral politics introduce to a patronage-based, heterogenous and complex country, we have to agree that twenty-five years is a very long time for Nigeria to have made significant improvement on external ranking and internal perception of the quality and the performance of its democracy.  

The best argument for democracy, especially in the context of recent reversals around us and at a time the majority of our citizens do not have a memory of how nasty military rule can be, is that democracy is indeed the best option, not only in symbolic but also in substantive ways, for citizens’ welfare. As we look back and look forward, this is the point that should not be lost on us. We need to remove the binding constraints to good governance, deepen the democratic temperament of our politicians and citizens, and enhance the instrumental value of our hard-won democracy.

(To be continued…)

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