Buhari: Democracy in full bloom or autocracy in the ascent
There is now some measure of consensus, at least at the level of practical politics, on what constitute the core elements of democracy. These core elements include: Freedom of choice of leaders; periodic competitive elections, which are free, fair and credible; adherence to rule of law; guarantee of fundamental human rights and freedoms; respect for democratic institutions, processes and values; and independence of the judiciary.
It is how effectively entrenched these elements are in a given society that determines the extent of democratization in that polity. Deviation from these elements implies oscillation towards authoritarianism. In this sense, authoritarianism is construed as the opposite of democracy as the core elements of democracy are essentially lacking in an authoritarian regime.
It can be extrapolated from the foregoing that democracy is not static, it is a process which requires constant nurturing. It is inappropriate therefore to view democratic process as unilinear or unidirectional. Indeed, there can be democratic setback even in a democracy or reversal in democracy. It is in this context that governments can be evaluated to determine the extent to which the democratic principle is upheld in the polity. Attention is now directed at the President Buhari administration. For a systematic analysis, the discussion is structured around specific themes, viz. relationship with other arms of government: the legislature and judiciary;
election administration; and relationship with the opposition, anti-corruption war and the rule of law.
One of the fundamental principles of a presidential system of government is separation of powers. While the three arms of government are expected to cooperate to promote the common good of the citizens, each arm has its own constitutionally defined sphere of influence and responsibilities.
Early signs of disdain for the legislature (National Assembly) and the judiciary were obvious under President Buhari’s administration.
The attempt by the leadership of the All Progressives Congress (APC) to impose leaders on the National Assembly is instructive (Punch, 2015; Jimoh, 2015; Olumide, 2015). Whereas the President had promised to work with any leadership that emerged in the National Assembly events later proved that either the statement was a mere rhetoric or the president later changed his mind.
The blatant interference and desperate attempt to manipulate the process of leadership selection in the National Assembly created discord and dysfunctions from which the system is yet to fully recover. As already well known, the emergence of the leadership of the National Assembly, which produced Bukola Saraki as the Senate President and Honourable Yakubu Dogara as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, was fiercely opposed by both the leadership of the APC and the presidency in spite of the initial pretense by the latter. The refusal of the president to meaningfully engage the National Assembly leadership, especially the Senate leaders for some time, and some of the president’s utterances clearly portrayed the president as lacking respect for the right of the National Assembly to choose its leadership.
The ruling party, the APC, understandably made its position known on what should be the role of the party in the selection of leaders of the National Assembly. It is understood that in different political systems, parliamentary leaders are determined on the basis of several factors such as the type of government in operation, parliamentary rules and traditions. In the 2015 Nigerian case, the position of the presidency and APC leaders appeared not to have been anchored on consistent rational tradition.
It is interesting to note that after the 2011general elections, Honourable Tambuwal emerged the Speaker of the House of Representatives contrary to the position of his party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which supported Honourable Mukaila Akande, having zoned the position to the South West.
Not only was Tambuwal’s election as Speaker supported by members of the APC who were then in other opposition political parties, the Action Congress of Nigeria and the Congress for Progressive Change (prior to the merger of these parties with some other groups to form the APC), they equally defended his emergence vociferously on the grounds that the National Assembly, as an independent arm of government, had the right to elect its leaders.
Intriguingly, when Tambuwal defected from the PDP to APC, members and leaders of his new party contended that he needed not resign his position as Speaker of the House in which the PDP had majority despite his defection to an opposition minority party. In the context of these developments, therefore, the position of the APC leaders, inclusive of the presidency, on the election of the National Assembly leadership in 2015 appeared strange. It was expected that regardless of the intrigues and predilections of individuals, the election of the National Assembly leadership ought to have been immediately respected by the presidency.
Many Nigerians link the trial of Senator Saraki at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and High Court to his aspiration for the office of the Senate President. His deputy, Senator Ike Ekweremadu was arraigned with Senator Saraki at the High Court. Senator Saraki himself sees his prosecution and of course that of his deputy as persecution ( Thisday, 2016; Falodi, 2016)
The nature of the relationship between the presidency and the judiciary can be understood from events located in the early period of the Buhari administration. Understandably, the administration’s often stated core programmes relate to fighting insecurity and corruption as well as improving the economy and creating jobs. As in his first era as a military head of state, the president seems to have serious passion for anticorruption. This passion possibly defined, and still defines, his attitude towards the judiciary.
Following the arrest and arraignment of Mr. Nnamdi Kanu of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd.), they were granted bail by the Federal High Court but were not released by the federal government. The president’s response, during his media chat, to the issue of non respect for court orders did not portray the government as having respect for the judiciary. He expressed the view that Mr. Kanu and Col Dasuki could not be released because their offences were grievous. Both the comments of the president and the action of the federal government were clearly disrespectful of the judiciary and the rule of law which constitute the fulcrum upon which democracy is built.
The arrest of seven judges among who were two justices of the apex court, the Supreme Court, is one of the significant issues in the Buhari administration’s relationship with the judiciary. The arrest was widely criticized by some individuals and bodies including the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and the National Judicial Council (Okutu, 2016; Ogundipe, 2016; Madukwe, 2016; Odebode, et al, 2016). For the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmoud Mohammed, the arrests were unacceptable and an attempt to intimidate the judiciary and undermine its independence.
It should be emphasized, even as argued by the federal government through the Attorney-General, that nobody is above the law (Nnochiri, 2016). Thus, anybody who contravenes the law ought to be prosecuted before a competent court of law. This is even more so considering the extent of corruption in the country, not least the judiciary. Of crucial relevance in the arrest of judges, however, is the manner in which it was handled. The invasion of judges’ homes in the middle of the night by many operatives of the Department of State Services on suspicion of corruption is unlikely to be generally perceived as a civilized way to handle such a situation.
A major element of democracy is election. To consolidate democracy, it is imperative that elections are free, fair and credible. Credible elections confer legitimacy on the government and tend to reduce the urge to engage in violence as there is the confidence that votes would count.
The political history of many countries, including Nigeria, lends credence to the possibility of democratic retrogression owing to lack of credibility in the electoral process. It is generally accepted that the 2011 and 2015 general elections in Nigeria marked improvement in the country’s electoral process.
In general, the elections conducted since the emergence of Buhari’s administration do not seem to elevate the electoral process. They have generally been characterized by controversies, violence, inconclusiveness and allegations of abuses. There is no doubt that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has the primary responsibility for election administration. Yet, it can be equally argued that the government is crucial to credible elections. Indeed, the role of the government in ensuring free, fair and credible elections cannot be overemphasized. Besides the fact that key members of the INEC are appointed by the president (subject to confirmation of the Senate), the government is in control of the security apparatus of the country, which has obvious relevance for the conduct of elections. Importantly, government’s inclination to interfere or not to interfere with the work of the INEC could have serious consequences for the integrity of elections.
The controversial postponement of the gubernatorial election in Edo State and the allegations of massive fraud associated with the election are unhelpful for democracy. The violence in the gubernatorial election in Bayelsa State and the by-elections in Rivers State is equally disturbing. Till date, the INEC has not concluded the elections in Rivers State. The allegations of widespread misuse of security agencies in these elections are retrogressive. In the case of Rivers State, although the INEC’s reason for not concluding the elections is the threat of violence, it is hard to understand why the security agencies cannot maintain law and order in a state that is not at war.
It would appear that a common thread that links the crises of election administration in these states is the desperation of certain political actors to win all elections at any cost. This desperation seems to be at the heart of even some decisions regarding election administration. Clearly, the anti-democratic forces at play in these elections across the states where elections have been conducted since the inauguration of the Buhari government are disruptive of political stability and democratic order.
•Prof Obiyan delivered this lecture at Centre for Constitutionalism and demilitarization, Lagos