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Nigeria’s 20 years of democracy


President Muhammadu Buhari (left) and his wife, Aisha during the presidential inauguration at the Eagle Square, Abuja …yesterday. PHOTO: PHILIP OJISUA

The Nigerian democracy has come a long away. For a country that was trapped in political instability, fought a civil war and went through coups and counter-coups and now could sustain some modicum of democracy for two decades is, for sure, laudable. The travails of the prevailing ‘democratic order’ make imperative the interrogation of what this regime type called democracy is all about. Do we really appreciate what democracy means? Are we making democracy worthwhile or perverting its content and process? These are the questions we need to review with a view to moving forward and consolidating the prevailing process.

Without doubt, there is a simplistic understanding of democracy as government that is not monarchical – the rule of one man; that is not tyrannical and that is not oligarchical in terms of being the affair of a few rich. Above all, democracy is seen as government by the majority on the basis of a basic law that ensures the supremacy of the law and that eschews arbitrariness. Indeed, the Lincolnian definition resonates, when the word democracy is mentioned – the government of the people by the people and for the people. A government in which the majority of the people have a say and whose votes count by which virtue it inevitably enjoys some measure of legitimacy necessary for a democratic order. It was the search for this type of government that would somewhat guarantee the wellbeing of the majority in society that made Karl Marx to define democracy as the solution to the riddle of all constitutions.

The democratic harbour was the destination of the Nigerian people whose incipient democratic experiment was truncated by the military which made incursion into politics in 1966. In fact, at the early stage of the parliamentary system, Nigerians were regaled to the beauty of parliamentary democracy: quality debate, a thriving opposition, unhindered electoral access which saw a thriving tribe of independent candidates and healthy competition among the federating regions. Although that era with its sundry contradictions could have lent itself to remediation it was cut short. While it lasted, Nigeria enjoyed the beauty of democracy. The incursion of the military, some would argue, happened because of the inherent fault lines in the federation. What is not in dispute is that military intervention did set back the march towards routinisation of a democratic culture.


The second republic suffered the same fate. It was truncated by the military which alleged mis-governance on the part of the civilians who held the reins of power. Again, the America-type liberal democracy which the country adopted faded away prematurely. The country essayed yet another republic – the third republic – which was truncated by the military which had come to see itself as the alternative party in the murky waters of Nigerian politics. But the far-reaching consequences of the annulment of June 12, 1993 underlined by an enduring resistance of the civil society led to a new democratic opening in 1999.

It is to be noted that elite choice at the point of transition was liberal democracy, a form of representative government endowed with a cluster of socio-political freedoms, namely, freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to vote and also stand for political office as well as self-determination with a Kantian bent. It also embodies the freedom of the market. Liberal democracy allows for the transmission of democratic consent by the electorate through a free and fair election. These are some of the markers of the regime type we chose in 1999 without illusion.

However, impoverished Nigerians who had borne the brunt of military autocratic rule see the democratic order beyond the aforementioned cluster of negative rights. Nigerians believed that democracy is government that will improve their wellbeing and guarantee happiness for them. It is for them an omnibus of political and economic goods including unfettered freedom for presence and access in the civic affairs of their country, a somewhat Aristotlean partnership which the famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle sees in the polis (city). The yearning for democracy by Nigerians was to have a political environment that will ameliorate their economic misery and harness the resources of the state for their general wellbeing in ways in which they can take their destiny in their hands and determine their own future. These democratic aspirations have not been realised. Instead, sundry democratic deficits proliferate.

Nigerians are beginning to question the received wisdom of democracy being the best form of political rule. For them the famous words of Alexander Pope seem to arbitrate their dilemma: “For forms of government let fools contest, that which is best administered is best.” They could well reach the conclusion that our democracy has not been effectively administered to touch the lives of all in society so far except in the deficit.

The failure of state actors to bring about this aspiration has increased the intensity of the yearning for the dividends of democracy and democracy is meaningless without its dividends. Let’s continue with this reflection on democracy.


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Nigerian democracy
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