What does democracy mean to Nigerians?
“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”
These words, spoken by Winston Churchill in the House of Commons many years ago, address a wearied view of the democratic concept as a system of government which would be unfit for use but for the fact that the other systems of government which have been practiced are even more unfit. Why then does Nigeria insist on celebrating this concept “democracy” when a historic figure as famous as Churchill, perhaps the most famous wartime leader in the Western world (or at least the most oft-quoted) has spoken of its imperfection? It would seem that Churchill’s perspective on democracy conceives of it as a work in progress, capable of further refinement and prone to error. The words, ‘no one pretends that democracy is perfect’, point to the fact that Churchill was not alone at the time in decrying the failings of democracy. It is these observations that have prompted this writer, on the brink of Democracy Day, May 29, 2016, a day held sacred by the Nigerian peoples for symbolic reasons, to ask what is so good about democracy that it is celebrated in Nigeria?
At the time of Churchill’s prominence- at least at the time the quote above was recorded- the world was just recovering from World War II. In the years preceding that global conflict, Western Europe was on the brink of being overrun by a rising tide of fascist ideology, championed in the main by Benito Mussolini of Italy and the dread Adolf Hitler of Germany. As a counterpoint to that threat, communism had taken hold in Eastern Europe with its focal point in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). It would go on to tilt towards the totalitarian formulation which enthroned Joseph Stalin in the USSR and precipitated the Cold War. Forced to ally itself with the Soviets during the war to defeat Hitler and Mussolini, the United Kingdom found itself a major exponent of democracy having to acknowledge and live with the realities of undemocratic government practised by its allies. One can conclude along those lines that Churchill’s statement as then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was fashioned in the light of these countervailing ideologies.
On May 29, 1999 as is well known, Nigeria completed its transition to democracy after 16 years of autocratic rule by a procession of military leaders. Rtd General Olusegun Obasanjo assumed office as President in this new era, in what was a poignant irony: it was President Obasanjo who oversaw the last transition to democracy in 1979 after three years at the helm of a military junta.
This writer recalls the events of that day with clarity. When President Obasanjo took his oath of office, he promised in his speech that there would be ‘no sacred cows’. On this return to the promised land of equality and fraternity that democracy represents, there was a sense of the cloud of dictatorial inequity being dispelled, of the jackboots of Nigeria’s supreme military leaders retreating one final time. Many lives had been claimed by the strong hand of totalitarian rule for daring to dream that an elected president would sit in deliberation over Nigerian issues together with other elected Nigerians in a representative government. Many lives had been lost in the struggle to achieve, by coup d’etat, the restoration of ideals to which the quest for independence was anchored in the run up to 1960. Some would argue that, for symbolic value, Democracy Day is just as significant as Independence Day in the context of Nigerian history.
Indeed, this year marks the first such celebration of democracy since 1999 at which the country would have been longer a democracy than it had dwelt in the shadow of military rule. It is the 17th Democracy Day anniversary since 1999, one year longer than the 16 during which Generals Buhari, Babangida and Abacha helmed the Federal Government. In another remarkable irony, it is President Buhari who will ring in the festivities. He was installed as President at the start of the last military era, when a coup d’etat wrested power from the Shehu Shagari-led democratic government in 1983. His inauguration at this time last year was seen as the first real triumph of people power- the first real expression of a collective will by Nigerians- to elect a leader of their choice since May 29, 1999. In the intervening years, stuffed ballot boxes, godfatherism and litigated election results made the headlines, shunting voter power to the fringes. In spite of the fact that May 29 is a National Holiday, the public engaged only in muted celebration year after year following the euphoria of the first day.
Taking stock of democracy in Nigeria is a difficult task, to be undertaken with unbridled optimism and the hagiographer’s (lack of) attention to (negative) detail. In the last 17 years, there have been several firsts. The election of Shehu Musa Yar’Adua as President in 2007 represented the first handover by one elected President to another in Nigerian history, and it went off without a hitch. The election of Rtd General Muhammadu Buhari last year was the first time a ruling party had passed the torch to the opposition in Nigerian history. The same period has seen the assumption of presidential office by a sitting Vice President following the unfortunate passing of the incumbent. This last event tested the shaky foundations of Nigeria’s democracy as it raised uncontemplated constitutional questions that had to be resolved in real time, revealing to the public the import of separation of powers in full.
A democratic society, aware of its human rights and liberties, which is what democracy seeks to protect in the main, benefits from several concurrent concepts. An independent judiciary is at the fore of these benefits. The fear and paranoia which dominate the military era psyche often obstruct this independence.
Since 1999, the Nigerian judiciary has pronounced weighty judgments on several aspects of Nigerian political life, re-jigging settled wisdoms of electoral participation and resource control, and generally re-denominating the argument on federalism. PDP v INEC, the landmark case in which the principle of substitution of party candidates was established, is one such case. And now it is common knowledge that the Nigerian voter goes to the polls to elect a party first and a candidate second, with the party having primacy over its choice of candidate. Several cases brought by state governments against the federation demonstrated the cardinal rule of a federal system, that differing levels of autonomy are dispersed across the tiers of government in Nigeria. It is arguable that these strides would have been impossible without democracy.
Of course, there are downsides. Nigerians love the expression ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ and use it both for cases where it is apt and on occasions where it is entirely inapposite. In the spirit of filling vacuums, democracy replaced military autocracy, for better or worse, and with the awesome powers of coercion that a military despot has at his disposal gone, it appears that democratic Nigeria has turned to corruption as a tool of control. Wealthy leaders, allegedly fattened on inflated contracts and the returns of political patronage, keep their constituents in check by controlling the outflow of capital in a country heavily dependent on government spending for survival. As a consequence, the public perception of standards of governance is not positive and there are whisperings that some would prefer a return to the military, despite the disappearances, the deaths and the deprivation that pockmarked that period in history. Perhaps, this is the reason for the election of two past military heads as presidents in the new democracy. Perhaps Nigerians are yearning for the past.
Now, one year into the President Buhari administration, Nigeria celebrates another Democracy Day. Recently, Professor Ben Nwabueze denounced his ‘intellectual capacity’ to govern Nigeria and railed against Nigerians for electing him. In his view, “His election cannot but portray Nigerians as incapable of learning from past experience, a people lacking the degree of political maturity and sagacity required for the successful working of constitutional democracy”. No doubt, the venerated academic is notorious for his contempt for Nigerian leaders by whatever name and his statement does not come as a shock to anyone familiar with his work as an elder statesman and civil society advocate. However, if the quote above is parsed for meaning, it becomes clear that the indictment is on Nigerians themselves and not necessarily against the President.
Churchill, again, spoke fondly of democracy when he said, “At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point”. It is the voter- the ‘little man (or woman) walking into the little booth’ to attempt to affect politics and government with his ballot- it is that person that matters. It is only when that person is able to make a decision in the security that the decision taken will eventually matter, that it will not be circumscribed by the backdoor activities of others who are only pretending at democracy, that we can celebrate democracy. While the evidence continues to point at the kind of ‘fantastic corruption’ mentioned by UK Prime Minister David Cameron- ill-advised though he was- it would appear that there is nothing concrete to celebrate.
Thus, on May 29, 2016, this writer will put aside the novelties that surround this auspicious anniversary of Democracy Day. There should be no garlands or rhetoric, no trumpets or declarations, rather there should be quiet reflection on the fact that after 17 years, Nigeria still stands on the starting line of democracy in many ways. There is still much work to be done.