Nigeria’s democracy at 22: evading catch 22 scenarios
Today is actually the 22nd anniversary of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. If a survey were conducted, not many Nigerians would wholeheartedly wish the current dispensation happy birthday. There must be many reasons for such lowly appreciation of how far the country’s democratic dispensation has come. But, in all honesty, could what the citizens have been experiencing these past 22 years be called a democracy?
The confusion about the democracy day, which has been underscored by shifting it from May 29 to June 12, is ready pointer that what happened on May 29, 1999, was a quasi rather than full blown democracy.
Further, the fact that Nigeria has slid back to similar situation, which undergirded the return to presidential democracy from long military interregnum, shows that the country is yet to shout uhuru regarding constitutional order and inclusive governance.
We are, in many ways, back to where we started: A former military head of state is at the helm of affairs, just as it was in 1999. Has the electoral process become better over the years? What about the judiciary and legislature?
Over and above all real and imagined institutional shortcomings, the ongoing attempt to amend the constitution leaves the impression that the country has been moving round a circle: A ready sign of magnitude without direction and movement without progress.
Prior to the birth of the Fourth Republic, Nigerians were craving desperately for an end to tyranny and human right abuses, which military regimes espouse. The people were also neither consulted nor made to contribute to public policy or leadership selection.
The advocacy for a return to civil rule was strident and many pro-democracy groups sprung up to press home the clamour for a new system of government that has respect for the fundamental rights of citizens.
Perhaps, on account of the ugly event of the intervening years between the annulment of the 1993 presidential poll, which would have culminated in the final phase of the Ibrahim Babangida military to civil rule transition programme, Nigerians were united and urgent in the call for the military to retreat to the barracks.
Anything, But Military
In the direct aftermath of the annulment of a presidential poll generally adjudged to be free, fair and credible, Nigerians wanted any form of government except military. The death, in detention, of Chief Moshood Kayode Abiola, the undeclared winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential poll, and the sacking of the hurriedly formed Government of National Unity led by Chief Ernest Shonekan, compounded the woes of military rule.
Not even the sudden death of General Sani Abacha, who sacked the GNU of which he was a part, could assuage the national fervor for a return to civil rule.
Perhaps, acquiescing to the national pulse, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who became the next military head of state, announced a quick return of democratic rule. The rush to prosecute the programme made nonsense of the convoluted Babangida’s version that lasted for more than five years with periodic spasms of banning and unbanning different calibers of politicians.
Intriguingly, the hurry to get the military out of governance did not provide enough room for rigorous scrutiny of processes and persons aspiring to occupy the vacuum expected at the exit of the brass hats. While some public intellectuals and civil society advocates for constitutional order received the military’s offer to willingly subject itself to civil rule with circumspection, men of property rushed into public offices.
In a bid to propitiate the Southwest geopolitical zone for the inexplicable annulment and death of Abiola, the military corralled the two major political parties, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and All Peoples Party (APP) to select their presidential standard bearers from that zone.
Although it was evident that the military establishment was focused on using PDP as the SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) to deliver their ambush on the emerging democratic governance, the APP and Southwest-based Alliance for Democracy (AD) went into a hurried electoral understanding that birthed Chief Olu Falae of AD as compromise candidate, not minding the superior poll numbers of APP, which had nine states against AD’s six.
At the end of the day, former head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo emerged as presidential standard-bearer on the platform of PDP, while Dr. Ogbonnia Onu of APP stepped down for Chief Olu Falae, who became the compromise candidate of AD/APP electoral understanding.
It happened that the same process and military political machinery that was used to throw up Obasanjo as PDP candidate at the expense of Dr. Alex Ekwueme, were also deployed to return the PDP candidate as winner of the main election.
And so, while the people were insistent on anything, but the military, the same military used superior intelligence and cohesion to return a surrogate as civilian President.
Did the military succeed in fouling the clean waters of genuine democracy? A look at the electoral process, beginning from the party primary elections to the main poll, tends to answer that question in the affirmative.
Alarmed by the emergence of a former military ruler as Nigeria’s Fourth Republic’s President, three human right groups namely, Civil Liberties Organisation (Abdul Oroh), Constitutional Rights Project (Clement Nwankwo) and Human Rights Watch Africa Division (Peter Takirambudde), made a checklist in an open letter to the incoming President.
The rights bodies noted the absence of a democratically drafted constitution, sued for repeal of repressive decrees and general review of laws and pinpointed problems with electoral process. They also drew attention to the situation in the Niger Delta, especially the Ogoni trial, some recent detentions and need for the restoration of the justice system.
They urged the administration to focus, as a matter of urgency, on the restoration of respect for human rights and the rule of law in the delta region.
“In addition, your government should replace soldiers carrying out policing duties in the Niger Delta area and elsewhere with regular police with training in public order policing. We also urge you to institute an immediate, inclusive and transparent process of negotiation with freely chosen representatives of the peoples living in the Niger Delta to resolve the issues surrounding the production of oil.”
On the problem with the electoral process, the human right groups noted that although “most international and domestic observers of the local, state and federal elections in Nigeria welcomed their peaceful completion as an important step forward in the return of Nigeria to civilian government, they also noted serious flaws in the process at all stages.”
The irregularities, according to them, include, “inflated figures for voter turnout, stuffing of ballot boxes, intimidation and bribery of both electoral officials and voters, and alteration of results at collation centres.”
Experts had noted that political competition and participation are crucial to democratic consolidation. Perhaps, owing to the jackboot method through which he emerged as President, Obasanjo did not hesitate to employ imperial presidential powers to ride rough shod on the polity. His Presidency brewed the enabling culture of one-party domination, thereby removing every trace of political plurality and partisan competition.
Back To Old Future
Twenty-Two years, Nigeria is back to frustrations. Elections are still far from credible and representative. There have been calls for restructuring, devolution of power, fiscal federalism and state policing accentuated by secessionist agitations as well as demand for referendum as a critical stipulation in the constitution.
Will the country head into the next decade with a better system or continue to play patch up with governance? With insecurity threatening the corporate existence of the country amid frightening cost of living and inflation, it cannot be happy 22nd anniversary.
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