Nigerian Democracy: Gains and pains 21 years after


When on May 29,1999 the military junta led by Abdulsalam Abubakar made good its promise of handing over power to a democratically elected government, quite a good number of Nigerian young men had visions while the old folks dreamed dreams of a peaceful and prosperous future.

It was a very colourful event at the upscale Eagle Square where Olusegun Obasanjo took over the reins of power from the military, promising to end all forms of executive arrogance and impunity that defined the old order that typified several years of the military in power.

For a country which Mother Earth endowed generously with both human and material resources, expectations were high that an Eldorado was on the way to be nurtured and sustained by petro-dollar that was flowing like stream into the national coffers.

But all that did not happen. Instead, it  has  been 21 years of shattered dreams and aborted expectations for which Nigerians are jittery, citing poor management of available resources, reckless spending, executive arrogance and impunity, legislative rascality and the treachery of the judiciary which have all combined and conspired to bring about pitfall, not windfall, from governance.

Democracy has been redefined, readjusted and redirected to benefit only the political class, their cronies, family and friends to the detriment of the rest of the people from who power to lead and to govern is derived ab-initio.

Be that as it may, political analysts insist that democracy still remains the best form of government, more so for a country like Nigeria that has had the ugly experience of military dictatorship of the Sani Abacha hue that did not stop at only his jackboot rule, but also dipped his hand deeply into the vault.

“Yes, we have seen the very bad and ugly side of democracy in Nigeria, but we can still point to a couple of gains we have made from coming out of military rule. Over the years, we have had political enlightenment. Today, an average Nigerian, literate or illiterate, is politically aware and that is a plus,” Sabinus  Makinde, a political scientist told BDSUNDAY on phone.

He added that unlike a military regime, democracy has afforded Nigerians the opportunity to exercise their right, explaining that citizens are today at liberty to question or contest government policies they consider unfavourable to them as individuals or a collective.

Michael Asaolu, shares this view, pointing out that democracy has ensured that no matter how powerful or power-drunk the president of the country is, he still has to lobby if he has an unpopular policy or national decision to make. This, he said, allows for checks and balances in government.

“In a military rule, all the state governors take orders from the head of state different from what obtains in a democracy where the governors are not tied to the apron string of the president. Each governor is answerable more to the people and the state’s House of Assembly than to the president,” Asaolu noted.

Nigeria runs a presidential system of government which has been described as too unwieldy and too expensive because of the large retinue of political office holders and their aids—special and senior special assistants/advisers who also have their offices with a considerable number of staff.

However, there is still something positive in all of this. Democracy has helped to create jobs for many Nigerians beginning from the preparation for election to the conduct of the election and eventual setting up government.

“This is one form of income redistribution and it is one of the positive sides of democracy. A legislator, for instance, needs a cook, a gardener, two or three drivers, and a few office staff. He also sets up a Constituency Office where he employs a couple of staff. All these people earn income and invest same in the economy of the country,” Makinde noted.

An average politician in Nigeria would readily beat his chest that the country has done well having recorded 21 years of unbroken democracy. But analysts dismiss this as a small prize for a country with the largest black population in its 59 chequered years since independence in 1960.

“This is a small prize, indeed, but it’s one worth celebrating all the same,” noted an analyst who did not want to be named, noting further that “the larger 59 years of Nigeria’s existence are those of mixed feelings and everything in-between. The verdict is that Nigeria is capable of being much more and better than she has become. The country is a giant with feet of clay.”

“The recent xenophobic attack on Nigerians and other African nationals in South Africa points to the poverty of development the country continues to suffer. Otherwise, why would young Nigerians flee their own country in such large numbers to hostile environments if all were well at home?

“Significantly, what are those saddled with leading the country doing at the moment to lift her from the stagnation that has characterised her since the military truncated her march to progress six years after independence?” the analyst queried.

Some Nigerians are so disgusted with the way and manner democracy is practised in Nigeria that they would rather return to the parliamentary system of government which was practised in the country post-independence in 1960.

Ogaga Ifowodo, a poet and political activist, was quoted as saying that, “there is a radical need to go back to the old parliamentary system of governance from which Nigeria started its independent life as a country, as it is more effective and cheaper to run than the bloated presidential system currently being practiced.”

According to him, the need to return to the parliamentary or prime ministerial system, which is far more cost-effective and ultimately more flexible and dynamic, should be part of any discussion of restructuring. “The fact that elections are local and governance is shared (the executive is part of parliament) reduces some of the more egregious problems of the presidential system, especially in a poor country with weak or non-existent social institutions,” he said.

The consolation Nigerians have had over the years is in the saying that the worst democracy is better than the most benevolent military government. Otherwise many Nigerians have argued that most of the infrastructural achievements recorded in the country were done during the military regime.

A country where people sigh repeatedly and have sad stories to tell each time they discuss the affairs of such a nation is not salutary. That was the view of a cleric, who insists that the country has fared badly in the last 21 years.

“We see all the important bridges across the country today; great buildings and many others that were built by the military. The power sector that has become a mess these days were well run many years back. Now that they have been privatised, the country has become worse off. Everything that was left behind by the military has been destroyed.

“If you ask me, I would say that we were supposed to be doing better now, with the technology and everything that is in our favour.  You are in the media; where is Daily Times today? It was civilian administration that destroyed it. That was a few years ago. Just name other great achievements Nigeria has recorded in the last 21 years apart from the liberalisation in the telecommunication sector that puts phones in our hands, making communication easy? For me, it has been a sad story all the way; a regret indeed,” the cleric said, asking not to be named.

Since 1999, insecurity has continued to dog the country. The situation got worsened with the advent of the Islamist Sect, Boko Haram, which has since given rise to other insurgent groups, terrorising Nigeria. Since 2009, when the activities of the sect became pronounced, thousands of Nigerian citizens have been killed in their bloody campaign.

Anthony Ezenna, a lecturer in a polytechnic, wondered what gain Nigerians could be pointing to. He said that by his own estimation, “Nigeria is dangerously collapsing in our very eyes.”

“What gain do you think the parents of Leah Sharibu, or parents of those girls abducted from Chibok in 2014, who have remained in the enemy camp till this moment, would see in the civil rule that is in place in Nigeria today? What do you think would be the assessment of the family of the Adamawa CAN chairman, who was beheaded by the insurgents, or relations of those mindlessly murdered by the rampaging Fulani herdsmen across the country; or those kidnapped, raped and murdered by bandits within this period?

“What can the Nigerian masses point to as the benefit in the last 21 years? Their lifestyle has negatively changed- job losses, insecurity, high level of poverty, and the country has been severely torn apart because of divisive style of leadership. For me, it has been from fire to frying pan,” Ezenna said

Chima B. Onuoha,a professor of management with the University of Port Harcourt, believes that Nigeria has fared badly in the last 21 years in the area of checking poverty. He said: “According to The World Poverty Clock, Nigeria is the world’s headquarters of extreme poverty.

“In a report released in May 2018, Nigeria had 87 million poor people, replacing India with the population of 1.3 billion people and with only 73 million people who are extremely poor. In a recent report (May 4, 2020) released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), 40.1percent (or 82.9 million) of Nigerians are extremely poor.

“The NBS in the same report put the urban poverty index at 18.04percent while the rural poverty rate is estimated at 52.10percent. A report about five years ago showed that there were 112 million poor people in Nigeria. The point I am making here is that poverty rate is even decreasing though at a sluggish rate. There are no reasons it shouldn’t be too low. After all, China was able to pull out over 700 million of her people from poverty in less than three decades.”

In his assessment, Guy Ikokwu, a lawyer and member of inner caucus of pan-Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, said that there was nothing to celebrate about democracy in Nigeria, rather the people should discuss anti-democratic policies of government that have subjected the nation to decades of degradation.

Ikokwu said that a nation with so much human and natural resources should have reason to celebrate, but regretted that leadership failures had subjected the nation to the poverty capital of the world.

He stressed that Nigeria would have got it right if June 12 election which had a Muslim-Muslim ticket, of a presidential and vice presidential candidates from the South and the North respectively, and supervised by an electoral umpire from the East, was not annulled.

The Ohaneze chieftain maintained that Humphrey Nwosu the then chairman of federal electoral commission n(FEDECO), introduced option A4 to make the electoral system credible, pointing out that the mistake made by annulling that election reduced Nigeria to a totally degraded nation.

“We can see what is happening all over the world, the protests going on in the United States of America as a result of violation of Human Rights. We can liken Nigeria to a nation with its knees on the necks of its citizens. So, some Nigerians are no longer breathing, while others are waiting to be buried,” he said.

“In COVID-19, a lot of citizens can not earn a living, with so many people killed of hunger more than the pandemic has even killed. There is nothing to celebrate. What we should be talking about is impunity day, anti-democracy day or anarchy day,” he said.

Ayo Adebanjo, elder statesman and Afenifere leader, said that without restructuring there would be no peace in the country.

“What is there to celebrate? I think we can celebrate being alive to see this day. The government that is ruling us is not for the common man but for themselves. Our demand is clear that the country must be restructured now; anything less the government is just wasting time. Restructure the country back to federalism, let every region be autonomous then we can be in peace; any other thing cannot work,” Adebanjo said.

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