Nigeria’s democracy at 21


Nigeria’s 21 years of unbroken civilian rule has been a potpourri of celebration, sadness and hope. As the nation marks the occasion today, May 29, 2020, it has become imperative to look at where we were coming from and where we are heading.  

Prior to 1999, the military had always interrupted our march to unhindered democracy. The First Republic, for instance, ended abruptly in January 1966 following a military coup. There was another military coup in July of the same year that ultimately led to a bloody civil war that ended in 1970. The military continued in power until 1979 when the then Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo, returned Nigeria to civilian rule. Alhaji Shehu Shagari, who took over as President, ruled for four years. His second term was truncated in 1983 by another military intervention that brought in the then Major General Muhammadu Buhari. Barely two years after, General Ibrahim Babangida toppled the Buhari government.

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Babangida tried to hand over to a civilian government. His transition programme saw the election of civilian governors, state lawmakers and federal lawmakers. The conduct of the presidential election on June 12, 1993, to conclude the transition programme, ended in a fiasco as the result was cancelled for some inexplicable reasons. This engendered some crisis that snowballed into the formation of an interim government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan. This did not last long as General Sani Abacha shoved Shonekan aside and mounted the leadership saddle.

When Abacha died mysteriously in June 1998, General Abdulsalami Abubakar emerged and eventually conducted the election that brought in Chief Obasanjo as civilian President in 1999. Obasanjo handed over the baton to Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2007. Goodluck Jonathan took over after the death of Yar’Adua in 2010. In 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari took over from Jonathan and is on his second term in office, which expires in 2023.

This uninterrupted succession calls for celebration. No doubt, democracy cannot be compared to military regimes. If not for anything, people can now look their leaders in the face and tell them the home truth. Although there are hiccups here and there, the Freedom of Information law has also made it easier for people to access some information that were hitherto classified. Different obnoxious decrees, like Decree 2 which infringed on human rights of citizens, were abrogated.

Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go. The three arms of government: the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary, still work at cross purposes. They are to serve as a check on one another. However, the way they function sometimes calls to question the principle of separation of powers as enshrined in our constitution. Instances abound where the executive arm of government interfered in the running of the legislature and the judiciary. Sometime in 2018, security agents invaded the residences of the then Senate President, Bukola Saraki, and then Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, to the chagrin of many Nigerians. Security operatives, in a commando style, had similarly invaded the houses of some judges at night without recourse to due process. The executive had also disobeyed some court orders as exemplified in the long detention of the former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, for four years even after the court had granted him bail.

This is not to exonerate the legislature and the judiciary from the ills of our democracy. The legislature, for instance, has shown proclivity for profligacy as exhibited in constituency projects that, sometimes, are haphazardly executed. The recent reported delivery of exotic cars for the lawmakers amid serious economic downturn in the country is another low for the legislature. On its part, the judiciary is known to have courted some controversies with regard to certain judgments, especially on election petitions. Besides, our electoral system is not where it should be. In most cases, our votes do not count. Oftentimes, elections are characterised by vote buying, violence, snatching of ballot boxes and killing of political opponents. The atmosphere in the last general election was so charged that scores of people lost their lives.

Insecurity is another big problem. Kidnappers, armed robbers and sundry criminals have held citizens hostage. In the North particularly, Boko Haram terrorist group remains a torn in the flesh. The terrorists  have killed and maimed thousands of innocent citizens. And they are not relenting. By far, our greatest challenge as a nation is leadership deficit. A country like Singapore started like Nigeria. Today, that country has left us behind. The man who laid the good leadership foundation, Lee Kuan Yew, was an epitome of what good leadership should be. Nigerian leaders should study that man’s history and his legacies. If they apply half of what he did for Singapore, Nigeria will join the league of advanced countries.

We have the potential to be great. But what is lacking is the strong will to tackle corruption and profligacy in government. In a report in 2018, Transparency International detailed how security votes fuel corruption in Nigeria. According to the report, the federal and state governments spend N241 billion on security votes annually. The agency noted that this amount was more than the annual budget of the Nigerian Army, Air Force, and the Navy combined.

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This wasteful spending is irrespective of the current abysmal performance of the economy. We depend almost entirely on oil, but the turbulence in the international oil market occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the world has underscored the need to diversify the economy. Unemployment is on a steady rise. Nigeria’s debt profile has also continued to rise. In 2017, it was N21.725 trillion. As at March 31, 2019, the debt profile rose to N24.95 trillion. Currently, it is said to be N33 trillion.

To worsen matters, Nigeria overtook India as the poverty capital of the world in 2018 with an estimated 87 million people living in extreme poverty. At least, 80 per cent of Nigerians live below the United Nations poverty threshold of $2 per day. A report by the Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organisation in the United States, indicates that extreme poverty in Nigeria grows by six people every minute.

It is imperative that Nigeria understudies China, India and Singapore with a view to learning what they did to transform their economies. Essentially, government should provide the enabling environment for businesses to thrive. It should encourage our small and medium scale enterprises to enable them to create employment and lift Nigeria out of extreme poverty. Revival of agriculture which the government has already embarked upon is a step in the right direction.  On the political front, we should begin to emphasise on issue-based politics and reduce the influence of money in our affairs. Political office-holders need to reduce the cost of governance. Electoral reforms and political education for people to know their rights are also very germane.

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Though we are very far from where we ought to be, all hope is not lost. We should emulate other countries where democracy works. We copied the presidential system of government from the United States of America, but we are nowhere near what is obtainable in the US. Ultimately, if we get the leadership succession right; if we are able to revamp our educational and health care systems; if we are able to restructure the country such that every section of the country feels a sense of belonging, every other thing will fall into place.

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