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On reclaiming and building our democracy


Democracy is not a particular state of affairs but a process that requires continuous maintenance and commitment from both leaders and citizens. For the first time in our history, we have had a continuous democratic regime for eighteen years. Elected government based on the principle and practice of the universal suffrage, a system of internal checks and balances in the administration of public affairs, and an agreed constitutional order, has become our accepted form of governance. This is a valuable state of affairs that developed out of decades of struggle for democracy and many false starts. We must not lose what we have achieved and my key message today is that we might very well lose it if we do not work to preserve and deepen it.

Nigeria is today facing an unprecedented series of crises and there is an urgent need to stop the drift towards system breakdown. My greatest concern is the spread of the culture of violence in our society. The Boko Haram insurgency has persisted for a decade and although progress has been made towards containing it, it remains a major scourge with over 30,000 people killed and millions displaced. The Niger Delta remains marked by militancy and economic sabotage. In more recent years, a crisis of pastoralism has developed and deepened leading to violence and mass atrocities in most states in the country as herdsmen and farmers clash. Communal clashes are also spreading and the religious arena has become a major bone of contention for organisations such as the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, which has been engaged in regular clashes with the State and security agencies. There are simply too many national crises facing us concurrently.

Meanwhile, the growth of public corruption has continued in spite of the promises made by the Buhari Administration to contain it. Indeed, corruption has become so embedded and systemic that it has become difficult for public institutions to execute their mandate as self-interest of officials overtakes the public good. The successful prosecution of corrupt officials has become difficult due to a combination of slow judicial process and corruption within the judiciary.


The major outcome of the crisis facing the country has been the erosion of public trust. A toxic atmosphere has developed in which different actors are suspected of developing plots to destroy others. Action of whatever type by governments and private are no longer taken at face value but are re-interpreted within narratives of coordinated plots by some groups to destroy or eliminate others or to take their land. Late, poor or non-responses by governments to unfolding events have further eroded public trust. The role the security forces play in resolving our problems is extremely important. There are concerns that in their deployments around the country, they are overstretched, overburdened and their impartiality is not always guaranteed. All these contribute to the erosion of public trust.

I am aware that there have been many voices of discontent being expressed about the failings and limitations of our system of democratic governance as it has been practiced over the last eighteen years. There are loud voices against the persistence of corruption. Many are not happy about the way in which our political parties behave. Yet others are upset about the lack of effective responses by government to popular demands and expectations. The youth are alienated from electoral politics, the continuing marginalization of women from the core of the political space, and the exclusion of minorities from effective participation and representation has, additionally, fed into a growing politics of anti- politics. The deficits of trust in established institutions of representation, participation, and accountability are, in turn, fuelling new forms of anti-establishment extremisms that range from the political to the religious. Nigerians are above all concerned with growing insecurity as violence affects them in their homes, on their farms, on the road and indeed everywhere. The Nigerian State is increasingly becoming unable to provide for the security and welfare of citizens as required by the Constitution.

These concerns are being expressed more loudly in the face of the rise of new populist movements expressing sentiments of secession, separatism and the establishment of alternative states. There is also a growing feeling that democracy as a system of government is no longer as fit for purpose as it ought to be in our country. Apart from problems of representation and participation, which seem to be mounting, observers have also pointed to the increasing inadequacy of existing politico-governance structures, methods, and processes for effectively engaging the youth and women. Furthermore, lacklustre economic performance has gone hand-in-hand with mounting social problems.

My argument is that we must keep or eyes on the ball, the problem is not democracy but religious and communal violence, widespread corruption, and an excessive presidentialism amidst enduring poverty, unsustainable levels of unemployment among the youth, growing inequality, an eroded state-society compact, and threats to the unity and secularity of the state. 

Unsurprisingly, trust in multiparty politics and the politicians who drive it has declined over recent years. The tendency of the average politician in office to be excessively self-absorbed whilst service to the public suffers has compounded the growing feeling that contemporary democratic institutions and processes are broken and in need of replacement. In this context, former President Barrack Obama has suggested in an address to the Ghanaian Parliament that what African needs is not strong leaders but strong institutions. In my view Africa needs both because weak leaders tend to undermine the emergence of strong institutions.

Similarly, I wish to suggest that whether as cause or symptom or a combination of both, the explanations of the failings of contemporary democracy around the world are underpinned and put in context by the development deficits that have become manifest both in the theory and practice of democracy-building. At the level of theory, there is a prevalence of minimalist definitions of democracy that privilege electoral processes and whose translation into practice has resulted in an excessive emphasis on the pro forma and a neglect of the substantive.


Indeed, amidst a perennial but largely false debate as to whether countries, depending on their circumstances, should prioritize democracy or development first, we will do well to remember and keep in mind that:
* Democracy is a permanent work in progress just as development is also always an unfinished business. This implies that one aspect of the democracy-development nexus cannot be stopped or suspended at the expense of the other. Rather, they ought to be pursued together.
* Democracy is good in itself and is a key heritage that must be nurtured constantly as part of our drive to enhance human civilization but precisely because of that, it cannot be treated as an end in itself lest we risk becoming too abstract and disconnected from the day-to-day concerns of the populace that include socio-economic livelihood issues.

* All around the world, citizens across different historical periods have indicated through direct popular action that they cherish the freedom and liberties offered by democracy just as they celebrate the concrete improvements in livelihood that development policy and action delivers.
* Sustainable democracies are those, which not only ensure the integrity of democratic processes and institutions but also go a further step to deliver socio-economic dividends to the populace in order to enable them enjoy the fullness of their citizenship.
* Sustainable development happens not only when governments are able to increase productive capacities and translate same into higher levels of income for the members of society but also underpin the socio-economic system with strong commitments to citizen political participation and representation of the type that can exact accountability and discipline leadership to a shared vision of society.

Let me conclude this short address by drawing attention to the importance of creating trust and peace building in our society today. Whenever there is an erosion of trust, it’s a sign of weak leadership. Citizens are not being mobilised and galvanized into a system they feel ownership of. Whenever there is self-help and citizens start taking up arms against their neighbours, it’s because they do not feel protected by the state and its leaders. Our leaders must get out of their lethargy and stand up for citizens, for peace and for reviving our democracy. When they do that, citizens would begin to feel ownership of the political system and become more active players in building the nation and keeping the peace.
• Gambari, Chairman, Savannah Centre for Democracy, Diplomacy and Development, delivered the address above to civil society leaders’ stakeholders conference in Abuja

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