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Nigeria still in transition to democracy, says Naanen

By Kelvin Ebiri
30 June 2020   |   3:02 am
To hit the nail on the head, I could say at the moment that Nigeria can be described as a country in transition to democracy. All the infrastructure of democracy is there, but democracy is not working the way it should be.

Former provisional president of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Professor Ben Naanen, told KELVIN EBIRI in Port Harcourt that Nigeria is still in transition to democracy. He stated that while all the infrastructure of democracy is in place, the operators of the system with authoritarian and kleptocratic tendencies are undermining evolution of democracy

It’s 21 years after military rule ended.
Can we truly describe Nigeria today as a democracy?

To hit the nail on the head, I could say at the moment that Nigeria can be described as a country in transition to democracy. All the infrastructure of democracy is there, but democracy is not working the way it should be. Those who are operating the systems don’t seem to be obeying the rules and tenets of democracy. Take the issue of election: when are we going to have free and fair election in Nigeria? And that is an important component and foundation of democracy: free and fair election, at least in a modern sense.

Take the issue of accountability. Are the people in government accountable to anybody? Why are we having the level of fraud we have all over the country? Where is democracy dividend for the poor in terms of improvement in the quality of life? We cannot say we are truly democratic yet.

Is the Nigerian factor responsibility for the hitches in our democratisation process?
I don’t like when people continue to talk about the Nigerian factor. Is there anything like the Nigerian factor that is not allowing this whole thing to work? Is it a cultural issue? I don’t like talking about Nigerian factor. But there seems to be something fundamentally wrong in our system, in our orientation, or the way we see things, our world view and all that. Take, for example, if you are elected or by whatever means you get there (to position of power) and you are not amassing wealth, people think you are a failure. They will think you got there and came back empty-handed; you become a laughing stock in your community. And the same people will be talking about development. How can you put kleptocrats in office and expect development?

Look at the kind of big fraud occurring in NDDC, a development agency that was set up to develop the Niger Delta? How can a country develop with that kind of irresponsible kleptocracy? Our attitude has to change. Our expectation of those in government has to change. If you don’t have a good followership, you will not have a good leadership. So, the followership is also largely responsible for the decay we are having in the system. There is a need for reorientation of our people, a new cultural context, a new perception.

In so many countries that are democratic, you also have similar tendencies, but the perception of change is there. People are trying to change all over the world, to build a better society. Democracy and liberalism have become global phenomena. So, why are we not changing? Is it in our institutions? Maybe we should look at our institutions for these changes. We have to change, otherwise society will not change.

Why has agitation by various ethnic groups for more inclusiveness persisted after 21 years of civil rule?
That is the problem with our country. In every society, we have a pattern of ethnocentric sentiment, but we are carrying it to the extreme. So much to the extreme to the extent that it is going to do continuous damage to our society. And that is the reason why federalism was introduced. If you look at constitutional developments after the Second World War that eventually culminated in independence or decolonisation in 1960, the essence was to build a federal system in which all the communities, all groups will have their own political space, but that system has been corrupted by military rule. Even then, there is hardly any society in this world that does not have one form of divisive tendency or the other. So, we have to be able to manage it.

I do believe that federalism, or what some people have called true federalism will be able to address some of these issues and that is what we need at the moment. Some people are talking about restructuring; we have to clearly define the kind of restructuring we are talking about. If we are restructuring, we have to ensure independence of the federating units, where all of them are working together in tandem. Give all the institutions, all the groups their political space to workout.

In fact, our nation building experiment has been based on false premises. At independence, we thought we could build supernatural states in the European model, but then ethnic sentiment crashed that expectation and experiment. That is the problem we are having. Even England, as we speak, these problems are there, but institutions of society are able to accommodate and reconcile these divisive tendencies that you have. The Scottish people lost their parliament in the 18th century. They had been struggling to get back their parliament until the Labour Party under Tony Blair granted it to them after almost three centuries. You have such centrifugal tendencies everywhere, but it depends on how they manage them. Often, they are managed democratically.

Some years ago, in a country like Belgium, there was a struggle between the Walloon and Flemish for almost a year, that they could not form a government. You know that Belgium is partly French and Dutch, but they were able to manage the problem and overcome it. We should not carry our own to excessive end. We should manage to work together and cooperate.

We cannot lose our group identities. The politics of our identity will be with us here for a very long time. We have to device institutions to manage these identities and that is where true federalism comes in, so that these groups will have their own political space, manage that space and leave the centre arena to representative institutions. We should device effective weapons for managing our diversity. We have to develop new nation building experiment based on the recognition of the fact that ethnicity is here to stay, but we now have to device institutions to manage those diverse ethnic tendencies.

Does President Muhammadu Buhari need to sign an executive order for the autonomy of the judiciary and legislative arms?
The judiciary and legislature have been granted their autonomy; that is what should happen. The president is merely doing that which is right. But are we prepared for that kind of autonomy? Definitely, I don’t take sides with the governors that have been fighting that. But my fear here is that, take the legislature, for an example; they are in league with the governors in subverting our democracy and depriving the people of our commonwealth. This has been happening. Is the legislature going to be able to be accountable? Who are they going to be accountable to? This is the question.

Can they really manage effectively that autonomy to the benefit of the common good? Is that possible? Are they going to do it? That is my fear. It does not mean we shouldn’t give it to them, that is the right thing to do. Governors have been pocketing the legislature, pocketing local government chairmen, pocketing everybody. That is not right in a democracy. You allow all these arms to operate in their own political space, independently, but working connectively. That is the way democracy should be run. Every successful democracy in the world, you have an effective functioning municipal democracy or, as we call it, local government here. But look at our local government system; it literally gets away with anything. You don’t really need to blame them so much, but the followership. Everyone hopes to be there so as to grab and nobody is holding these people accountable.

Without a strong civil society, the civil community and all the appetency of democracy democracy cannot work. Can the legislature manage that autonomy by being accountable and transparent? How about the judiciary? Can they do it? These are the questions we should ask and it is our responsibility to put pressure on the system to ensure that these institutions work. They have to work otherwise our democracy is imperilled. We cannot have democracy if these institutions do not function properly. Just like what former American president, Barack Obama, said, that Africa needs strong institutions and not strong men. What we have in Nigeria are strong men with weak institutions. When these strong men come to power, they subordinate all these institutions to personal control and that is wrong. Democracy can never excel in such a situation.

How do we break the state governors’ stranglehold on the legislature and judiciary?
The powers of the governors are exercised to the extent that we allow the abuse to continue. If people are not talking, there is an innate dictatorial tendency in most people. If you give most people the opportunity, that personalised role will continue to reign, that autocracy will continue. Come to think of it, government is the largest industry in Nigeria and even people who should rise up and make their voices heard when these governors go wrong are keeping quiet because they want to share in the commonwealth, illegally. So they lack the voice. That greed alone is making them to lose their voice, so they are not able to talk.

In a lot of states, even the budget you don’t see. What kind of democracy is that? The so-called budget or state’s cheque book is in the pocket of the governor. He can issue the cheque book anytime he wants and nobody is querying him. Is that democracy? That is not democracy. The governors are doing so because the people are keeping quiet. During the military rule era, the civil society was very vibrant, articulate. Today, where is it? Where are those civil society groups? No democracy can function effectively without a strong civil society. We don’t have them and strong individuals who can raise their voices to correct and speak to power when the need arises.

And so why wouldn’t the governors be doing what they are doing? This is why we are having the kind of kleptocracy we see. The institutions are weak. The problem we have is that most people think they will be there someday and do what these people are doing today. Look at the Niger Delta: over N7 trillion has been received as derivation fund. Where is evidence of all the money? How can we continue this way? Even the donors are getting tired. Niger Delta has become a basket case. Donors are no longer interested in the Niger Delta. Many western countries that supported civil society movements during the military era have disengaged. They felt that once Nigeria transits to democracy, at least in name as we have it now, that the people will be able to raise their voices and correct things and you will have democratic dividends. Then you will be able to address issues of poverty, social injustice, and the various ills we were accusing the military of.

Look at what has happened. We have lost our voice and the governors are taking over things and they are not doing it in an enlightened manner, they are doing it so crudely. This level of authoritarianism and corruption going on would badly undermine our existence and prospect of development. We all have to rise up. People have to make their voices heard. We should not tolerate this level of autocracy and authoritarianism. We must rise up and do that which is right to secure our future and that of the nation.

Election is one of the fulcrums of democracy, but what is your assessment of the alienation of the electorate?
I am aware that people are complaining that the courts have replaced the voters in Nigeria and the individual voters alienated. So the courts are deciding for Nigerians and in some cases you will discover that the courts are not monopoly of wisdom, that they also are erring even by common sense. We have to build confidence in our democratic and electoral system. We have to make it work, that is very important. A democracy without a strong and independent electoral system cannot be a democracy. The people’s voice is the actual democracy itself. It is a key foundation of democracy that the people have a voice and they must be able to express that voice in terms of deciding who governs them. And that can only be achieved through free and fair elections. It is some of the issues I mentioned at the beginning. Without that kind of system we cannot say we are operating a democracy. Western democracy and liberalism may be faulty, but one thing that has remained so important is the sanity of elections. We have to have the sanity of elections for democracy to be so-called in our country.

And we should not spare anything to have a free and democratic system that allows people to be able to choose freely their own leaders. We know that nowhere in the world is everything completely 100 per cent perfect, even in the United States, as it were. If you look at the electoral system in America, it is not even the person who has the majority votes that becomes the president because of their electoral system. But it is something that is constitutional and people have accepted it. It is accepted that electoral college in a presidential election tends to supersede the popular vote.

Everybody accepts that and the people are not doing anything to undermine it. The people’s voice still counts. But here, we have to make sure that the people’s voice counts, that their vote counts at the end of the day. We should not leave any stone unturned to ensure that we enthrone a free and fair electoral system. The people’s voice must count and we must ensure the sanity of elections in this country.

What should be done to enthrone electoral sanity in Nigeria?
The people who lead these institutions like Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) are trying, but I think that a lot of the problem we have with the system is coming from the people who should be the beneficiary of the system. You imagine that during elections you begin to see cultism like in the southern states. People do not really commit themselves to free and fair election. As voters, we should be able to defend our votes, stand for that which is right for us. But we allow politicians with questionable characters and sort of funding to fool us, as they will always want to cheat. So every election becomes a matter of competitive rigging. Every party is trying to out rig the other and the party with the greatest rigging ability wins the day. The past three leaders of our electoral commission have not been doing badly. They have been doing their best. But the people who are supposed to be benefiting from democracy are the people who are undermining the system.
The electoral system should be able to have reward for good and bad behaviour. Elections have to be seen as noble civic responsibility, not only at the polls, but holding our leaders accountable. Democracy is about accountability of leadership. It is about transparency, good governance and the rule of law. We must ensure that all these components of democracy work, so that at the end of the day we all benefit from it.

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