Celebrating Democracy, Warts and All

Kayode Komolafe

In one respect, it was fitting that former President Goodluck Jonathan was invited to make a statement yesterday at the lecture organised by the federal government to celebrate uninterrupted democracy in a quarter of  a century.

The theme of the lecture, delivered by  a former Speaker of the House of Representatives and a former governor of Katsina state, Alhaji Aminu Bello Masari, was “25 Years of Enduring Democracy: Prospects for the Future.”

By the way, since the forum was convened to reflect on the last 25 years of the nation’s democratic journey while looking forward into the future, the participation of other political parties should have been visible. It was a huge deficit in the organisation of the event  that this was lacking. Afterall, APC has been in power cumulatively for only nine of the 25 years of steady  democracy.

The significance  of Jonathan making a statement on democratic culture should not be lost on Nigerians. Jonathan  called for an alternative to  the present   winner-takes-it-all system in order to lessen frictions. He described the prevalent game of politics in Nigeria as “zero-sum” type.  It would be a pity if Jonathan’s proposition does not generate a virile debate in the polity. For instance, how would his idea work in a presidential system?  Jonathan also urged leaders to give democracy content by improving the quality of lives of the people.

Jonathan’s attitude to power   is one of the  good stories in the last 25 years of Nigeria’s experiment with liberal democracy. His decisive  role is a huge rebuke to the comments from some cynical quarters that “there is nothing to celebrate.”

As the votes were being collated in the 2015 presidential election, Jonathan of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) called General  Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) to concede defeat.  He relieved   the nation of the poltical anxiety often associated with the prolonged judicial conclusion of the electoral process.  As they say, the final counting of the votes is often done in the courtroom by the tribunal judges.

It is also remarkable that in reciprocation, Buhari has been gracious to admit that the  act of his predecessor would deepen the nation’s democratic culture. At home and abroad Jonathan has continued to receive the applause justifiably  for being a democrat. He ensured a peaceful transfer of power from one party to another one. If you think Jonathan’s action “is no big deal,” juxtapose that heroic moment in 2015  with the extremely bitter atmosphere  which enveloped the political landscape after another election. 

Beyond that, those  who take whatever  happens in the West as the standard for democratic practice may wish to compare Jonathan’s heroism with the attack on the Capitol building in Washington, United States, on January 6, 2021. In what was akin to a coup, a mob of supporters  inspired by President Donald Trump of the Republican Party descended  on the parliamentary  house  in order to disrupt the conclusion of the process of the presidential election won by Joe Biden of the Democratic Party.  Trump wanted to prevent Biden, who was legitimately elected as president, from assuming office. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) considered the incident “an act of domestic terrorism.”  In the course of the ensuing violence,  lives were lost and about 140 Capitol and Metropolitan policemen were criminally assaulted.  The damage done to the Capitol building was estimated to be $1.5 million. Meanwhile, the same Trump said the other day that  unless he wins the next presidential election, that  would be the “last”  election in the country regarded as the citadel of democracy. Trumpists  still insist  that Biden “stole” the election despite court rulings to the otherwise.

The American democracy is over 200 years old. In precise terms, some theorists consider the point when the first  American president,  George Washington,  peacefully transferred power to his successor,  John Adams,  as the “real birth” of democracy in the United States in 1793.

Except for those who suffer from incurable inferiority complex, the Jonathan 2015 moment in Nigeria’s democracy was democratically superior to the Trump abortive coup in America in 2021. While 2015 was a high point of Nigeria’s democracy, 2021 was a low point in the democratic history of America.

Another comparison could made between a brilliant episode  of Nigeria’s democracy  and the symptoms of democratic recession in another advanced country, the United Kingdom. Masari, who delivered the Democracy Day lecture, expectedly recalled the story of the failed attempt by some forces  to change the Nigerian  constitution so that the president and governors could have third terms in office. This happened towards the end  of the second term of President Olusegun Obasanjo. After the invidious plot failed, Obasanjo later made a national broadcast denying that he made a bid for a third -term. But those who were actively involved  on both sides of the third- term debate continue to tell  the stories of the highwire political manoeuvrings which took place. Masari was the Speaker of the House of Representatives while Senator Ken Nnamani was the President of the Senate. In an  alliance with some forces cutting across political parties,  the National Assembly deftly moved to  put an end to the third-term  plan. In fact, the whole exercise of constitutional review, which was the pretext for the third-term game,  was jettisoned all  together. Powerful forces  could not force the third-term provision into the constitution. On that  occasion the strength of the parliament was put to test. And the legislative  institution  rose to the occasion valiantly. 

Some years after the third-term debacle in Nigeria, the British parliament was divided on the deal to be struck by the United Kingdom with the European Union on Brexit. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanted to have his way to quicken the process for his own  political advantage. He longed  for  a place  in history as the prime minister who “got Brexit done.” To realise his dream, all means were fair in the Brexit war.  Fearing that he might  not secure enough votes in parliament to back his position,  Johnson manipulated the process of  “prorogation” of  the parliament.  Prorogation refers to the period between the end of the parliamentary session and the commencement of a new session. In simple terms,  Johnson suspended the British parliament  so as to avoid a proper scrutiny of his Brexit deal. The Speaker of the House of Commons at the time, John Bercow, called it a “constitutional outrage.” Johnson’s act was later ruled as “unlawful”  by the court. The Liberal Party is currently  campaigning to review the Brexit deal.  Yes,  that was what  happened to the “mother of all parliaments,” as the British parliament is often admirably  called.             

So, democracy  can decay.

The  other powerful point made at  yesterday’s occasion was that of  Ambassador  Babagana Kingibe. He  asserted that the  process of democratic growth should be seen as a continuous one. He also shared his experience about the challenges of  democracy.  Kingibe was the running mate to Bahorum Moshood Abiola in the historic June 12, 1993 presidential election. It was 30 years  two days ago  that Abiola declared himself president at Ekotedo in Lagos State in what amounted to the climax of the struggle to reclaim the June 12 mandate. The election was  annulled by the military government of  President Ibrahim Babangida. The military government of General Sanni Abacha incarcerated Abiola until his death on July 7, 1998. Kingibe joined the cabinet of Abacha while Abiola was in jail.

On June 12, 2018 Buhari proclaimed Abiola the elected president and Kingibe the elected vice president based on the results of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. Abiola was posthumously awarded the highest national honour, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR),  while Kingibe was awarded the second highest national honour, the Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON).  The point Kingibe made yesterday about  meeting the challenges of democracy  in Nigeria and making a distinction between “democracy as a system” and “governance as a process” is quite significant. Remarkably, as pointed out in the foregoing, Kingibe also made references to challenges faced by the advanced liberal democracies. He was quite on  point to advocate  that democracy should be defended at all costs  as no alternative to it could be contemplated.

Such is the role of the individual in history with all its contradictions and complexity. The journey is often full of twists and turns. 

Perhaps, Vice President   Kashim Shettima made the most vigorous point about  the role of  the individual in the struggle for democracy. He recalled again the part played by Tinubu as a leader of the struggle for the revalidation of the June 12 mandate. In his view, the verdict of history would be kind to  Tinubu.  Shettima said: “As we celebrate our past, we look to the future with clear and determined vision. Today is not just a day of remembrance, it is a call to action”

Now, the challenges of democracy are immense. They include the weaknesses  of the institutions of democracy such as the parliament, political parties, electoral body, free press, judiciary and the  civil society. 

Voter apathy is also  a serious problem. About 93 million registered to vote in 2023 and 87 million actually collected their voter’ cards. However,  less than  30% of those who registered  actually  turned out at the polling booths on the election day.  Democracy should be widely participatory. 

According to the English liberal philosopher,  John Stuart Mill, “democracy is government by discussion.” Such discussions come as public reasoning. Public reasoning is an essential ingredient needed  in deepening democracy. But the public sphere in Nigeria is too toxic to allow proper public reasoning. Incivility, prejudice  and shallowness  prevail in the media especially the so-called social media.

It’s tempting to look into the horizon and see only the cloud. That would be a wrong thing to do. It is important to seek out deliberately the silver linings in this cloud. In other words, it is only those democratic forces  who elect to have an optimistic outlook while working hard  to deepen democracy that could mobilise the people towards a future of genuine democracy and social justice.

Doubtless, it is quite useful to reflect on the past  as the nation ponders the future.

For clearly understandable reasons, not a few people are disappointed at many stops in the nation’s democratic journey.

Yet, it is important to look into the future with hope.

All told, the earnest hope is that in  another quarter of a century some of the challenges will be overcome in the course of democratic development.

Related Articles