10 years of democracy: The highs and lows
Have the Legislature and Judicial arms attained some internal self-confidence and independence needed to nurture and strengthen democracy?
Those are some of the questions that a look back at the immediate past decade of Nigeria’s march through a democratic system of government will throw up.
Most observers point to the succession politics that trailed the legislative improvisation that facilitated then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan’s ascension to the position of acting President as the beginning of the uneven tone in the nation’s democracy.
The continual attempt at patching up Nigeria’s lopsided political structure, which was defined by the 1999 Constitution, has sustained the political upheavals in the country. That these cataclysms and spasms engender deep-seated mistrust among the federating units of the country became apparent when President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua suffered a long absence due to ill health.
Stakes And Stilts
THE idea of rotating the presidency, which was first mooted by the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN) way back to the Second Republic, was reintroduced by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
The initiative, according to the founding fathers of PDP was to give a sense of belonging to the constituent parts of the country and ensure national cohesion and stability.
During the 2005 Constitutional Conference convened by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the second republic Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, who was one of the eminent politicians imprisoned by the military junta after the 1983 military coup, suggested that the country be split into six geopolitical zones.
In one of his media interviews, the former Vice President explained that the geopolitical zones were not strictly partitioned according to geographic location, but based on the similarity of ethnic and common political backgrounds.
He noted that his novel idea received some inputs from a former governor of Ogun State, Chief Bisi Onabanjo, while they were in prison, adding that although it was not adopted at the Constitutional Conference, the Sani Abacha military junta did welcome it.
While denying that the idea of a six-geopolitical zones structure was intended to abolish the states or make them the basis of the federation, Ekwueme hinted at a political structure that could make Nigeria politically and economically viable.
He stated: “Going back to history we negotiated over a decade starting from Ibadan Conference in 1951 up to the conferences in Nigeria and in London and so on until independence in 1960, a ten year period of negotiation and in the end what Nigerians agreed with the colonial masters on what would be the form of government on the basis of which they would be given independence, was a federal form of government made up of three regions – North, East, and West.
“That was the form of government agreed with each region autonomous in many respects and with each region having its own Constitution and the Constitutions of the three regions annexed to the Federal Constitution in one document and with each region being able to develop at its own pace.”
However, it could be seen that the failure to incorporate such new political thoughts into the Nigerian constitution paved the way for political parties, such as PDP to introduce measures to serve as stakes to guide the tendrils of national politics.
But on February 9, 2010, it became clear that vested interests and gapping holes on the nation’s grundnorm have continued to make the management of Nigeria’s democracy very tetchy.
On that fateful day, the National Assembly resolved to empower Jonathan to serve as the country’s acting President following the prolonged absence of the substantive leader, Yar’Adua.
In the more than 78 days of the President’s absence due to ill health, the business of governance was shuttered and the nation left in suspense. Voting on a doctrine of necessity, as propounded by the Jurist, William Blackstone, the two chambers of the National Assembly moved to restore order.
Then President of Senate, David Bonaventure Mark, who alluded to the doctrine, said the resolution empowered Jonathan to exercise the full powers of the President on acting capacity in line with Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution.
According to the Senate’s motion, “The vice-president, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, shall henceforth discharge the functions of the office of the President, commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the federation, as Acting President.”
The Action Congress (AC), which was the major opposition party, derided the patchwork, saying that Yar’Adua ought to be removed from office, since according to it; the National Assembly resolution takes the country “closer to the abyss.”
“All hell has broken loose. Jonathan should take wise counsel and keep to the law. He should see this senate resolution as nothing, but a Greek gift designed to do him in.”
It happened that the seeming clash between PDP’s power-sharing arrangement, which was not captured by the constitution and did not envisage such extra-legal improvisations, hampered the free flow of governance.
While the north, comprising Northwest, North Central, and Northeast geopolitical zones, winced at the possible disruption of the power-sharing arrangement, Nigerians, including civil society actors insisted on the new arrangement to avoid vacuum.
It was speculated that fear of losing the pivot of political power made northern power bloc to prevail on Yar’Adua not to send in a letter of authority to the Senate mandating the Vice President to act in his absence.
From that point till May 5, 2010, when Yar’Adua bowed to the pericarditis affliction and his death paved the way for the eventual ascension of Jonathan from the acting President’s status to substantive President, it was a topsy-turvy situation for the polity.
A year later, what the north feared cropped up. President Jonathan aspired to contest for the office in the 2011 presidential election. Attempts were made by some northern political actors to throw up a consensus candidate with a view to using its perceived superior delegate numbers to check the movement and regain northern perch on the presidential throne.
It took the combined effect of the second term ambition of the state governors from the northern states and fear of the growing opposition under General Muhammadu Buhari and his Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) to torpedo the effectiveness of the consensus option.
However, as he geared up to seek a second term mandate, the governorship election in Ekiti presented what looked like a litmus test. PDP won the governorship by returning former Governor Ayo Fayose, who displaced the incumbent, Dr. Kayode Fayemi.
The election was said to have been won and lost as a contest between stomach infrastructure and elitist governance style. But, PDP’s electoral triumph in Ekiti could not be replicated in Osun, where the opposition APC retained the governorship seat.
Despite attempts by the opposition to showcase the ruling PDP as being desperate to rig itself back to the Presidency, the 2015 election ended as an anti-climax, because the power of incumbency was demystified.
The then President Jonathan conceded defeat midway into the collation of the results, thus paving the way for the first historic loss by an incumbent of a presidential election.
The 2015 polls showed the vibrancy of shaming, propaganda and bandwagon effect of political messaging. The opposition exploited the mental fatigue surrounding the incumbent; in addition to the sensibilities about power rotation arrangement, which Yar’Adua’s death and Jonathan’s sudden ascension breached.
The animosity and psychological hangover from the outcome of the 2015 general election trailed the next four years of the new governing party, which by virtue of its structure was firmed up not for leadership but regime change.
In the light of that, the contradictions in the merger arrangement, particularly belated accommodation of a fraction of the former ruling party, otherwise known as nPDP, left the polity in suspended animation and non-distinct direction for policy formulation and implementation.
For the greater part of the period spanning 2015 and 2019, the political brickbats between APC and PDP roiled the nation, just as the Executive cum Legislature relationship witnessed much wrangling and open antagonism.
For the first time in the history of the nation, missing budget and padding entered the lexicon. As the mind games continued between the leadership of the National Assembly and the Presidency, assent to bills and motions became instruments of political warfare.
On the whole, the insistence of the National Assembly to uphold the independence of the legislature, which the principle of separation of powers envisaged, further hardened the Presidency’s search for supremacy or imperial executive.
The lowest points in the constant Executive versus Legislative brouhaha were the ‘abduction’ of the mace and invasion of the National Assembly complex. It was a decade that threw up a lot of tense emergency moments.
THE outgone decade also popularized regional groupings, flowing from the obvious slant in federal appoints by the new administration. The rise and fall of the Jonathan Presidency occasioned new political alignments.
And it happened against the background of the contrast between the perceived waste of the first five years (spanning 2010 through 2015) and the frugal five years (2015 through 2020) with its much-touted change and anti-corruption battle.
Although the people of the Middle Belt had been fighting against perceived marginalization and domination by the core north, the regional grouping gained more traction from the politics that surrounded the emergence of Dr. Jonathan as President.
During the suspense occasioned by Yar’Adua’s health challenge, the Middle Belt Forum declared publicly that it would not support the north to force the then Vice President to resign.
The regional socio-political group used the opportunity offered by democracy to rekindle what the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) began under Joseph Tarka. It was said that the former Plateau State governor, Joshua Dariye, was punished for his effrontery to reject overtures from the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) to join it.
Dariye had in 2001 told an ACF delegation led by Major General Abdullahi Shelleng that his people prefer to remain as Middle Belters instead of going to be marginalized by the north.
With the fall of Jonathan and the eventual inauguration of President Buhari, the Middle Belt faced security challenges occasioned by incessant herders versus farmers’ clashes.
And feeling that the development was encouraged by political undertones, the group decided on identifying with the three other regional groupings in the Southern part of the country, namely, Afenifere, Ohanaeze and Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF).
These fissures and fusions became defined on the buildup to the 2019 general elections, which made the governorship polls in Plateau and Benue very competitive and combative.
While the election has come and gone, the regional groupings have remained divided and united around the call for restructuring of the country. How far the nation’s democracy thrives in the emerging decade would depend on the successful outcome of calls for the constitutional amendment.
THE general elections in 2011, 2015 and 2019 have rich contrasts. While the electoral processes in 2011 and 2015 seem to reflect the popular expression of the electorate, the outcome of the 2019 poll left the country still divided as ever.
At the middle of the decade, Jonathan’s decision to place a concession call ushered in hope of better days for the nation’s democracy. Given that the opposition had succeeded in demonizing the incumbent, Nigerians felt relieved that things went their way.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) introduced measures that helped to confer transparency on the process, especially the input of technological gadgets like the data-bearing Permanent Voter Cards (PVC) and the corresponding Card Readers.
Two weeks to his inauguration as civilian President, Buhari told members of his Media Team and Social Media Influencers that INEC’s use of PVC and Card Readers made election rigging a thing of the past.
Buhari, who spoke at the Defence House, Abuja; commended INEC “for deploying technology as part of the process of the last election,” stressing that henceforth “all elected leaders will know that the voter is the king. Nigerians now have more faith in our elections, because their votes will count.”
The INEC chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, under whose watch the commission achieved that feat, rejected overtures to continue in office, thus paving the way for the appointment of Prof. Mahmood Yakub.
Nigerians became apprehensive regarding the sustainability of the mileage already covered by INEC, even as some observers faulted President Buhari’s decision to appoint Jega’s successor from the same northern part of the country as himself.
True to the fears expressed by skeptics, INEC could not match similar single-minded determination displayed by Jega, as it fumbled in subsequent polls, starting from the off season gubernatorial elections in Kogi and Bayelsa, where it became adept at delivering inconclusive outcomes.
From Anambra through Edo and Ondo, INEC continued to offer excuses for some evident shortcomings. Although the commission offered assurances for improvement, it was noticed that the electoral umpire was not totally independent of external pressures.
The flip-flops continued, leading to the obnoxious introduction of seeing and buy, a euphemism for voter inducement, which featured prominently in Ekiti and Osun gubernatorial polls.
Expectations that the evident flaws in the electoral process would be addressed by the legislature, particularly through the planned amendment of the 2010 Electoral Act, were dashed as President Buhari, who earlier praised the use of technology withheld assent to the legislation.
The 2019 election exposed the fact that INEC had frittered the goodwill it earned from the historic 2015 exercise, just as allegations of connivance loomed against the commission.
Consequently, unlike the 2015 poll, the 2019 edition was subjected to spirited challenges at different levels of the nation’s judicial interrogation. Whatever remained as a benefit of doubt to the electoral commission was extinguished by the plethora of petitions against the conduct of the 2019 poll.
ALTHOUGH the judiciary came under strident criticisms, particularly over its conflicting pronouncements, the third arm of government came under the severe onslaught from the executive.
Apart from being used to traumatize the Legislature, through the trial of the chairman of the National Assembly, the Senate President, for a procedural beach that happened more than 12 years ago, the judiciary faced its worst nightmare when its head was removed through an administrative panel.
In the diminution of the Judiciary, the low points recorded by Nigeria’s democracy in the recent past decade finds bold expression, because Nigerians saw the invasion of residences of some prominent judicial officers and trial of the President of Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) as part of the executive excesses to whittle down democratic institutions for political dominance.
As Nigeria begins a new decade, it is possible that a fresh battle for democracy would be the path to its regeneration.
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