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Eighteen years of threatened democracy

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Alabi Williams

After 18 years of democracy, we do not need to search very far to know how well the journey has fared. The glaring evidence of how troubled it has been is the very fact that we are still discussing the idea of a coup, no matter how embryonic and remote it may have been. That some people still nurse nostalgia for the salvation procurable via coups suggests that this democracy is not offering what it was programmed to deliver. There is sufficient amount of desperation that triggers a search for alternatives. Unfortunately, the one ready alternative people tucked somewhere in their psyche, is the military, with capacity to obliterate the present nonsense and begin afresh. Very tempting.

But many have rushed out to condemn the thought of a coup because of very ugly past experiences. The military has so debased itself that its original messianic capacity has been squandered. At the point it was forced to exit from civil governance, the military had transformed into a rampaging occupation force, abusing rights of citizens and stealing their money.

That was why in the twilight years of Gen. Sani Abacha, a global outrage was triggered to compel the military to return power to the people. As it was, it became the privilege of Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar to see that happen in 1998/99. It was a staggered process to quickly exit those horrifying days. Perhaps, that was when appropriate quality controls were not put in place to ensure a deepening of the systems. Remember that prior to 1999, the last time there were serious political formations was between 1979 and 1983. That was when our heroes past, professionals in party politics, men who participated in the struggle to attain independence and were the dramatis personae of the first republic, returned for a last effort at consolidating party supremacy. Unfortunately, all their experiences put together could not rescue the second republic.

After that, it was a long process of trial and error, with soldiers tampering with core values of party systems. First, it was General Ibrahim Babangida, who toyed with the idea of decreeing parties into existence. His two political parties, Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Party (NRC) were programmed to fail, because IBB never wanted to transfer democratic powers to politicians. He was too enamoured of awesome state powers to let go. He dribbled Gen Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and exhausted the man. Yar’Adua was later to be picked by Abacha, and liquidated. IBB then picked MKO Abiola and had him thoroughly dishevelled. He too was handed to Abacha for final winding up.

In between the two Generals, the party system was humdrum and lacked direction. Whereas there was an assemblage of eggheads to nurture a transition system, what took place was a calculated freeze to create suspense and kill reality. It was Kafkaesque at its best, because IBB was a master in power and mind game. So, many serious minded politicians stayed away. The ones who operated were jobbers and military apologists who didn’t have anywhere else to go. They were the leproused hands that were to crown Abacha with lifelong powers, like those of late Kamuzu Banda. But fate played tricks on them.

Come 1998, therefore, there were not too many good people around. Abdulsalami was left with little choice but to groom some people. Meanwhile, there were no good political parties to fall back on. A new template was rolled out and the requirements not very lenient. But that was not the issue. It was an emergency transition. So, political associations formed and three parties emerged.

Power was handed to former military head of state, Gen Obasanjo, after his party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) came first in that first election. After that, the military left the scene, supposedly. From there, the so-called democratic leadership was tasked with responsibility to grow the new system, deepen party structures and allow constitutional checks and balances to dictate the running of the process.

Eighteen years after, we have seen all sorts. First, budgets do not work. Whereas military budgets are read on January 1, every year, civilian budgets are tossed back and forth between the executive and legislature for many months. In between those months, the economy is left miserable. While that exchange of budgetary debates was designed by owners of the presidential system of government to carry everybody along for purposes of accountability and transparency, what we have in Nigeria does not inspire any confidence. There is still no transparency of any sort. Even the All Progressives Congress (APC) that promised transparency went to town in 2016 with the most padded budget in the history of this dispensation. As we speak, in June 2017, budget 2017 is yet to be signed into law. These frustrating trammels of democracy help to nourish nostalgic feelings about military rule.

While military regimes are trim and less expensive, the presidential system is full of baggage. It is costly and less efficient. The three arms of government share the budget, with the executive having lion share. More than 70 percent of that of the executive is used to service government. The remaining that is supposed to drive infrastructure is too little to make Nigerians feel there is a government in place. As little as it is, that sum, most times does not leave government coffers. It idles away because the distance between the Central Bank, Finance Ministry and Budget Office is made deliberately cumbersome, so that nothing happens.

The Judiciary that is supposed to instill fear and restraint in the other arms is starved of funds and made impotent. To enjoy better life like their counterparts in the other arms, judicial officers are ensnared in filthy sums dangled at election tribunals. They become complacent and cheap, without bite. Democracy is threatened, when election matters are deliberately programmed for the courts, where politicians may influence outcomes with huge sums. The playing field is skewed to make the Judiciary appear lower than other arms and subservient. But that was not how the original owners of the system planned it. But here, the executives are too powerful. The system kills democracy, just as it did during military rule.

The legislature, powerful and lacking in patriotic acts, is the most troublesome. Many who were elected into Houses of Assembly in states and federal in 1999 had no idea what they were going for. They were never groomed, but once they saw the resources available there, they became entrenched, cult like. Whereas the parliament of a nation can turn its fortunes around, the Nigerian legislature has specialised in grooming a political class united by resources. You cannot rely on them to transform the economy, which is why they are now proposing another petroleum tax to fleece Nigerians. Instead of reducing from their allowances to make sums available to build roads, they are going for the easy way out. They want to transfer the burden to hapless Nigerians.

There is no synergy among the three arms of this democratic system to frog-jump Nigeria into serious action. There is no vision and there is no patriotism. If you are fair enough, if you look up north, south, west and east, there is despair. That is why some are afraid that soldiers are warming up to sack this system.

I still think we can salvage this system. But people have to open their minds and stop being ethnic champions. The lean resources available can no longer service a presidential system that is consumption driven. We are very close to that time, when men of good will should show Nigeria some mercy. It is time to begin with simple forms of restructuring, beginning with a more manageable and result oriented parliament. The one we have now is too large and wasteful.

If we must run a federal system, since some are afraid of returning to regions, states must be encouraged to earn their own resources and pay taxes to Abuja. Let there be substantial decentralisation of responsibilities and obligations. Let democratic institutions be freed from federal stranglehold.

If those who have capacity to effect changes refuse, the very monster we are all running away from will be waiting ahead for us, willy-nilly.
Sunday Narrative First Published June 4, 2017.



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