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Nigeria’s democracy…Counting the gains, arresting the threats

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M.K.O Abiola

Today is Nigeria’s Democracy Day, which is celebrated to commemorate the end of protracted military rule in the country.

Until June 6, 2018, the event was held yearly on May 29, the exact date the military handed over power to an elected civilian government in 1999. The new date– June 12– announced by President Muhammadu Buhari on June 16, 2018 was later backed up by an Act of the National Assembly last year in honour of Nigeria’s outstanding hero of democracy, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola.

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Exactly 28 years today, June 12, 1993, Nigeria conducted a presidential election, which was presumably won by Abiola. The election, which was adjudged free and fair, was annulled by the military regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, under its botched transition to civil rule programme.

MKO Abiola | Image: Medium


The annulment enraged Nigerians, leading to sustained protests and agitations against military rule, especially in the southern part of the country. When the pressure became too much for the regime, Babangida handed over power to an Interim National Government (ING) headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan on August 27, 1993.

On November 17, 1993, Gen. Sani Abacha seized power from Shonekan. Abiola was later arrested and detained after he declared himself president. He died on July 7, 1998, the day he was due to be released from detention.

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As Nigeria marks 22 years of democratic governance today, the memory of Abiola resonates with many citizens, likewise the struggles that forced the military out of power and gave birth to the country’s longest democratic experience since independence.

Democracy Day celebration is an opportunity for deep reflection on the country’s democratic journeys. The Guardian spoke with some Nigerians on the gains, pains and current threats to the nation’s democracy as well as the way forward. The following reports contain their views.

‘Buhari Should Curb Insecurity, Respect Rule of Law’
By Timothy Agbor, Osogbo

A former Nigerian Ambassador to Philippine, Dr. Yemi Farounbi, and the Chairman of Civil Society Coalition in Osun State, Comrade Waheed Lawal, described the inability of the Federal Government to guarantee Nigerians’ right to freedom of speech and secure life and property as major threats to democratic governance.

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The duo told The Guardian that growing insecurity and the clampdown on freedom of speech constituted great dangers to the country’s democratic system.

They called on government at all levels to tackle insecurity and heed the clamour for restructuring and making of a new constitution.

Farounbi said: “There are what the public expect from democracy. One is freedom of speech; second is freedom of worship; third is freedom from wants and the fourth is freedom from fear. Now, freedom from fear is the most important because it means that nobody should be afraid about the security of his life and property. But I think the greatest threat to democracy today is the fact that we don’t have freedom from fear.

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“You feel insecure at home, on the road and in the farms. It appears that the current Nigerian democracy is unable to guarantee safety of life and property. Therefore, a lot of people are thinking of other solutions and are asking: Do we create new government and republic where security of life and property will be assured; do we restructure the country by writing a new constitution that will decentralise the issue of security? There is need for employment creation and infrastructural development. Life and property must be safe in Nigeria.

“The other thing is freedom of speech. The constitution guarantees the rights of every Nigerian to receive, disseminate and distribute information. When government begins to interfere with free choice of the people in the dissemination of information and news, then it becomes a threat.

“I also mentioned freedom of worship, the right of every Nigerian to worship God the way he wants. When you cannot go to mosque without being afraid of being attacked by some fundamentalists either as Boko Haram or ISIS or ISWAP, then such freedom to worship God is being impaired. If you cannot go to church without fear of being massacred and attacked, then you are not guaranteeing the freedom of worship.

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“These are essentially danger points in our democracy today. The beauty of democracy itself is that it makes the leadership to be accountable to the people. It makes the leadership to listen to the people and operate in line of the wishes of the people. So, when there is so much clamour within the Nigerian society, either for a restructured society or a new constitution and they are being dismissed with a wave of the hand, or are being threatened or being intimidated and bullied by agencies of government and security officers, then it’s no longer the government of the people, for the people and by the people.

“The moment you think that the wisdom of government is bigger and more important than the wisdom of the people, then we are not having democracy. So, if we really want to cope with the challenges, then we have to listen to the people. When the people are asking for a new constitution, we cannot be telling them why it cannot be done; we should be telling them what we need to do for that to be stopped. We have to listen to the people. We have to learn not to interfere with their freedom, with their free expression. Very importantly, we have to secure their lives, their property wherever they are.”

Lawal corroborated Farounbi that insecurity has become a major threat to Nigeria’s democracy. He called on President Buhari to ensure that banditry, killings, kidnappings and destruction of public facilities are curbed.

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“The constitution says the president must provide security for Nigerians and their properties and cater for the welfare of the citizens. We are lacking these two cogent needs in Nigeria. The threat to democracy is this insecurity. We must tell ourselves the plain truth. With banditry, killings, cultism and attacks here and there, our democracy is threatened daily and government must rise up to this challenge. It is the duty of President Buhari,” he said.

‘Tenets Of Democracy Still Lacking In Nigeria’
ARE we even a democracy? At best, we are a civil rule. The tenets of a democratic system, which include presence of a people’s constitution, respect for the rule of law and due process, respect for human rights and civil liberties, security of life and property and welfare of the people, separation of powers and checks and balances on the organs of government to check descent to dictatorship, arbitrary rule and tyranny, respect for the entities making up the federation and even distribution of amenities and appointments among the federating units or what you may call true and clear case of federal character in the distribution of amenities, appointments and recruitment of people into federal institutions, ministries, agencies and departments, are far from here.

A society where there is absolute absence of these genuine attributes of democracy and where citizens are killed like animals without government’s due intervention to arrest such madness and impunity, please, do you call it a democracy? Things have become too bad such that some of us who played key roles in returning Nigeria to civil rule are regretting our participation. This is simply because things have become worse in all ramifications and we don’t have any reason to support our fight against military dictatorship.

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In summary, we are still waiting to see these gains that democracy has offered to Nigerians since 1999. We have seen more human rights violations and abuses, more insecurity, more corruption, more abuses of the rule of law, due process and federal character principles, disrespect for justice, fairness and discipline. We have more joblessness and loss of hope by Nigerians. The naira woefully collapsed and hunger, prostitution, loss of human dignity and shamelessness have become the order of the day. The vandals are in power and the citizens are groaning. What a shame we call democracy!

The present threats to democracy include insecurity as we can see all over Nigeria, bandits in power are plundering the society and bandits on the streets and forests are killing, abducting, maiming and raping the women. The welfare of the citizens is absent; no employment, no water, no electricity, no good roads, no good railway system, no good airports and no food to eat. Public institutions, governance and education have collapsed, and there is no respect for the people. There is utter disregard for the ethnic regions that own Nigeria in the distribution of amenities, appointments and employment. 

To address these issues, Nigerians have to sit down and produce a generally acceptable constitution that will prescribe how Nigerians will live in respect for one another. Secondly, national resources should be shared equitably and fairly. Thirdly, appointments and employment opportunities have to be justly distributed. We have to elect credible, hard working and brilliant leaders who would reorganise Nigeria and put her together. The new leaders should reform the educational system, rebuild Nigeria and tame corruption. This is how I think we should run Nigeria.
Ohabuenyi Ibuchukwu Ezike, Executive Director, Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO)

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‘Buhari Should Organise, Attend Town Hall Meetings Across Zones’
THE threat to Nigerian democracy today is very open and clear. The disintegration of the nation is just here. It is under democracy that we are seeing this serious threat to the existence and survival of Nigeria. The threat is so frightening; every Nigerian is frightened. I believe President Muhammadu Buhari is also feeling the threat; that is why he has been mentioning things about the civil war. The fact that the President opened his mouth and referred to the civil war experience is an indication that he is feeling the threat. So, if Mr. President is feeling the threat, what should we do?

We are not seeing him do anything; so we don’t understand him. That is why Nigerians are afraid. He is leaving the work to people like the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed. And people are shocked that he is leaving the job of encouraging Nigerians to have faith in this country to his minister.

I expect the president to meet elder statesmen like former head of state, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, religious leaders and traditional rulers, and mobilise them to work towards the stability of this country. I expect the president to hold town hall meetings in the six geo-political zones that will involve elder statesmen, religious leaders, youths, women and intellectuals in the universities. If he does that, the present mindset of some Nigerians will automatically change. If the president announces today that he would be holding town hall meetings in the six geo-political zones, and actually does that, the current tension in the country will be doused.

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We had crisis like this under the Gen. Sani Abacha regime because of the annulment of June 12, 1993 election. But he was able to quell it. So, I don’t know how Buhari would fold his hands and not do anything.

He should also look into the 2014 national conference report, which is gathering dust in the archives. But he does not want to look into that kind of document for political reasons. He should forget about pride and try to implement it.

Former president Obasanjo was saying that Buhari would never rule Nigeria again. But during the 2015 election, when Obasanjo felt that he needed to take a decision in the interest of the nation, he supported Buhari against the then President Goodluck Jonathan, his boy. That is human being for you. That type of humility is necessary in dangerous situations like this. The president should make a move that will give the impression that he means well for the nation. Some ethnic nationalities are saying they want to be on their own because they feel the Federal Government cannot help them. They are also talking about arming themselves to protect themselves and their people against criminals as all of us are witnesses to the level of insecurity in the country today. These things are happening because people lack faith in the nation. The major thing to do is for us to have faith in the nation, and it is President Buhari that will show us the evidence.

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But there is hope for Nigeria. It is out of frustration that some of these things are happening. It is the elites that are causing all the problems in the country. For example, we heard somebody who said he was educated, comparing Fulani herdsmen to auto spare parts. What does that tell you? You are the one causing problems; you are the one encouraging those who are lawless among the uneducated. So, it is the elites that are blindfolding the ignorant people and causing problems for the country. It is unfortunate that this government is facing all these problems. But we hope for the best.

Joseph Evah, Coordinator, Ijaw Monitoring Group (IMG)
‘FG Should Deploy Every Apparatus To Ensure Law And Order’
From Ann Godwin, Port Harcourt

A former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, Onueze Chukwujinka Joe Okocha (SAN) identified the seeming breakdown of law and order and rising insecurity as major threats to democratic governance in the country.

Speaking with The Guardian in Port Harcourt, Okocha said it had become imperative for the country to organise a proper constitutional conference and to deploy all apparatus of government to ensure law and order.

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“As we all know, the safety of lives and property of citizens is the primary purpose of government, but it seems as if things are getting out of hand. The Federal Government appears to be throwing their arms in the air saying, ‘we are dealing with it’, ‘we are on top of the situation’; but they are not on top of any situation.

“Everybody has said we need to have a proper constitutional conference for immediate purposes. They should deploy every apparatus of government, including military, police, Directorate of State Services (DSS) and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), to ensure law and order. We should organise a national conference to look at the issue about whether or not we should have state and local government police. We need to look at the issue of restructuring the federation so that people will have less reason to be dissatisfied with how government is being operated in the country.

“The government should take its responsibility seriously and not appear as if it is shielding some law breakers. What are we talking about the bandits? They are thieves; they are criminals. Kidnappers are criminals. Insurgents and Boko Haram are all criminals. Government should bring them to book. These are the immediate and long- term solutions to our country’s problems.”

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‘Efforts To Shrink Civil Space Harming Democracy’
By Ijeoma Thomas-Odia

EXECUTIVE Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) and Head of Transparency International Nigeria, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, said Nigeria still lacked necessary democratic values despite the fact that democracy was restored in the country since 1999.

“The major threats to democracy in Nigeria are the recurring efforts to shrink the civil space, which constitutes the fundamental tool in every stable democracy. While Nigerians were hopeful for renewed dynamism in addressing the myriad of problems bedevilling the country since the return of democracy in 1999, they are instead being compelled to endure growing socio-economic and political threats presented by successive administrations.

“These include seemingly intractable insecurity, pervasive corruption and mismanagement, rising poverty and unemployment, disrespect for citizens’ human rights and disobedience of the rule of law. The citizens’ efforts to protest and express their plights are hampered by threats that currently manifest in media harassment and intimidation, unlawful ban of a social media App, constant harassment of human rights and anti-corruption organisations, an illegal ban on protest and arbitrary arrests. These are symptoms of the lack of necessary democratic values in Nigeria.”

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On possible solutions, Rafsanjani stressed the need to reflect on Nigeria’s political ideology and tackle impediments to the nation’s unending desire for true democracy.

“First, citizens’ human rights, irrespective of their socio-economic and political status, must be respected and upheld at all levels. Their freedom of expression must be accepted as a constitutional right and not a privilege. Also, efficient delivery of democratic dividends to the citizens rests largely on enabling a legal environment through strict adherence to the rule of law by relevant institutions.

“This will enhance democratic values such as accountability, transparency and human rights promotion and protection. The core elements of democracy without the rule of law are likely to be endangered. Government at all levels must respect and allow civil space for meaningful contribution to democratic governance in Nigeria, with a demonstrated commitment to the principles of responsibility and responsiveness for good governance.

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“We must develop and implement appropriate political ideology to implement the rule of law and good governance. More importantly, sincere effort must be made to address pervasive insecurity, unemployment and poverty. Furthermore, we must embrace true federalism in Nigeria. The absence of true federalism is a stumbling block to the nation’s ongoing democratic effort.”

‘Absence Of Good Governance Ensnares Nigeria’s Democratic Project’
By Tobi Awodipe

CONVENER and Director of Access To Justice Action Group, Joseph Otteh, said that happenings in the country were pointing to the fact that Nigeria is becoming a failed state. To him, there is little to celebrate about Nigeria’s democracy at 22.

On threats to democratic governance, Otteh, who lamented that constitutional democracy is at a tipping point in Nigeria, said talks of the country being a failed state was resonating locally and internationally.

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“A failed state is hardly a state where democracy can remain a practically implementable concept. The sheer absence of good governance, brought about by Nigeria’s failure to provide effective leadership, is ensnaring the democratic project. Our government is not just endangering democracy, it is also putting the Nigerian project altogether on the line. Nigeria is fracturing and the uncertainties about our future are growing by the day.

“The government is inept as killer groups are running berserk and overawing public safety. The government is plunging the economy in unprecedented debt without corresponding improvement in the lives of Nigerians. These are some of the things that have thrown nations into brutal wars from which they never recovered,” he said.

On what could be done about the various problems besieging the nation, Otteh said it was unlikely that the incumbent government would be able to stabilise the country.

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“The best the president can do now is to secure his place in history and save Nigeria. Let the President graciously admit he cannot deal with the situation his administration has brought about and take the more honourable path. History will be kinder to him than otherwise,” he said.

‘Time Has Come For Nigerians To Elect Credible People To Power’
From Anietie Akpan, Calabar
 
A former member of the House of Representatives, Mrs. Nkoyo Toyo, expressed concern over Nigeria’s democracy, saying unqualified people had been running the affairs of the country.

“While recent happenings, particularly insecurity, have provided reasons to be gravely concerned about our country, I am more worried about the health of government than that of democracy. Both are linked but not necessarily the same.

“One is about institutional capacity while the other deals with the ethos of such institutions. I fear more today that we have encouraged unfit people to lead the country to a point that it is becoming difficult to reverse the damages they have done to the system, and they keep bringing the same type of people. Hopefully, it is believed, we will find a way out of the mess that their kings had created. I fear that as long as we continue on that path, the country, the institutions and the values of democratic society are imperilled.”

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Toyo, who represented Calabar Municipal/Odukpani Federal Constituency, however, stated that “Nigeria’s democracy is growing but could do better.”

“We need to see more on the development end of the spectrum to better appreciate the progress we have made this last 22 years. No doubt, we have used the openness that democracy has brought these last two decades to restate our collective aspirations for a better country with all parts valued. Many times, the language of negotiations by the parts is oppositional but that is the nature of democracy. 

“Democracy is not a mere destination but a state of things being done. As such, democracy grows through engagement with rules and processes over time. This engagement will result in the building into society a way of doing things based on principles. Such ways of doing things are democratic in principle but differ depending on the context, as we have seen in America under Trump and Biden. Under Trump, a brand was put forward and there was the push back by the Democrats using what Americans could point to as norms and traditions of democratic experience fossilised in the annals of their history.”

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‘Youth Unemployment Is A Major Threat’
From Ayodele Afolabi, Ado Ekiti

TO Dr. Gbenga Jegede of Ekiti State University (EKSU), Ado Ekiti, the greatest threat to the country’s democracy is the growing apprehension over the conduct of the 2023 general election because of unprecedented insecurity.

He noted that the inability of the government to keep the youth busy through productive jobs is another major threat to Nigeria’s democracy.

Jegede, who spoke with The Guardian in Ado Ekiti, said the government should convene a conference of all ethnic nationalities, if it cannot rely on the reports of the previous conferences, to find solutions to the problems bedevilling the country.

“There is no doubt that our democracy is facing serious existential threats to the extent that some people are now saying that there would be no election in 2023. What the government should do is to convene a conference of all ethnic nationalities if it cannot rely on the reports of previous conferences.

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“Let the Nigerian people address the issues on the ground. The National Assembly, as presently constituted, can’t address the issues. There was a report in the media recently that suggested that federal lawmakers are very much detached from the people. 

“I think there must be a kind of discussion by the various ethnic groups on the various issues affecting the country with a view to finding an amicable solution. The people to dialogue must not be handpicked. 

“There is no way the country can achieve the kind of peace we need without some form of restructuring before the 2023 election, otherwise the situation may be compounded. The country does not have much time on its hand to dialogue.

“The government must also find a way of keeping the youths busy. In other words, youth unemployment has contributed to the high level of criminal activities. 

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“The death of textile industries in the country should give the government concern. That sector was employing thousands of youths, especially in the North. Even the southern part of the country is not left out. Government may give a kind of bailout to revamp the textile sector.

“If the government invests 20 per cent of what it spends to confront bandits and Boko Haram on youth employment, the country will be better for it. I think the government should do something serious about this.”

Let’s Secure The Nation And Save Democracy, Says Delta Speaker
From Monday Osayande, Asaba

SPEAKER of Delta State House of Assembly, Chief Sherrif Oborevwori, said the nation’s democracy was being threatened by ravaging insecurity and other social vices.

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According to Oborevwori, the only way to rescue the nation’s democracy is to ensure the security of life and property.

“I believe peace is the only solution to all the problems facing Nigeria. But without security, there will be no peace. So, for democracy to survive, we have to secure the nation first,” he argued.

‘Nigerians Should Have Access To Their Representatives’
From Charles Ogugbuaja, Owerri

CHAIRMAN of the Body of Retired Permanent Secretaries of Imo State, Mr. Fabian Agba, deplored Nigeria’s version of democracy, declaring that the country is not practicing democracy.

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“As far as I am concerned, we are not practising democracy in Nigeria. Democracy is the government of the people by the people and for the people. Members of the Houses of Assembly, judging from Imo and Abia states that I know very well, are not accessible to their constituents. We should have access to our representatives.

“You cannot talk about democracy when you don’t abide by the rule of law. In Nigeria, they said they are fighting corruption, how can you do that without the rule of law? The governors swore to protect the constitution, but they don’t observe the rule of law. So, if we want to practise democracy in Nigeria, we must obey the rule of law. They must start having respect for the people.

“In a democracy, the opposition is respected. Opposition is supposed to be an alternative government. Over here, they see the opposition as an enemy. In my summary, we have a military government in agbada.”

On the way forward, Agba urged Nigerians to jettison hate speech and obey the rule of law.

“Obedience to the rule of law is important. Our leaders should have the political will to truly practisse democracy.”

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