Democracy Day - 19 Years After: So Far, How Far?

Celebration is in the air as Nigeria marks the 19th anniversary of the Fourth Republic. On May 29, 1999, Africa’s most populous country witnessed the dawn of civil rule. In place of the long, arduous years of military rule, elected public office holders were sworn in at the state and federal levels of government. In commemoration of that milestone, there will be festivities in government houses and public squares across the land. 

While the brutal repressions of military dictatorship have seeped into distant memory, the current situation is more like the peace of the graveyard.

Why is this the case?

Not that the politicians, who have enjoyed the limitless perks of public office, to the exclusion of the majority, really agree that under supposed democratic rule, the country is rapidly marching to the precipice. To the political class, the growth of the Fourth Republic is measured by almost two decades of unbroken civil rule. Deceived by the jumbo perquisites of office, their definition of success is that elections have been held every four years, no matter how crooked. They push the argument further by trumpeting the claim that, in 2015, the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, which had been in the saddle for 16 years, lost out to the then opposition All Progressives Congress at the centre.

This is plainly a narrow understanding of democracy; holding elections is just a finite peg. Primarily, it is a system of government meant to cater for the greater good of the greatest number. Without any doubt, only the elite and their hangers-on have something to show for a democracy that the activists and the masses made so much sacrifice to actualise. How are we getting it wrong?

Nigeria is convulsed by internal violence and can no longer deliver positive political goods to its citizens. In the eyes and in the hearts of a growing plurality of citizens, government has lost its legitimacy to govern. In the past 19 years, administrative ineptitude, terrible social services (particularly in electricity, roads and railway), and corruption have delivered poverty, unemployment and insecurity on a scale never seen in this country before. Unemployment and underemployment figure is currently at about 40 per cent. 

The African Development Bank estimates the poor at 152 million of the population. This group lives below $2 per day. Education and health services are awful. Hope has given way to despair at the mess Nigeria has become. This is in spite of billions of dollars in oil income made available to the three tiers of government. The worst-case is the aggravated level of insecurity.

In the hierarchy of political needs, none is as critical as the supply of security, especially human security. But our own form of democracy has absorbed more Nigerian blood and resources than any other period since the Civil War. The past decade has witnessed the rise of the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency, being closely followed by the Fulani herdsmen carnage. Their horrific campaign in Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa and Southern Kaduna has tipped the country dangerously to the edge of religious and ethnic conflagration. Add these to kidnapping, armed robbery and all manner of violent crimes that rank Nigeria as one of the world’s most dangerous countries.

The problem is that while federalism died in Nigeria a long time ago, hopes of correcting the inherent injustice in the dysfunctional structure have been repeatedly dashed. Federal arrangements are seen as practical solutions to accommodate differences among populations divided by ethnic or cultural cleavages, yet seeking a common, often democratic, political order. The truth is that there is separatist agitation in virtually every area in the country − underlying the fact that the foundation for Nigeria’s nationhood remains on shaky ground.

As had been demonstrated in the First Republic, fiscal federalism was able to instigate a healthy competition among the different regions that formed the federating units. This was the golden era of political and economic development of the country when corruption was significantly low. Federalism was able to spur development at a level that is yet to be matched more than 50 years after the model was forced to collapse by a military takeover and introduction of a unitary system in a false bid to force a national, albeit artificial, sense of unity.

With the regional governments as centres of development and wealth creation, interest in the centre was naturally subdued or unattractive and corruption was kept at bay. The centre was funded by the regions and not the parody of federalism that has turned corruption to a monster. 

Unlike the United States’ founding fathers that used the instrumentality of a federal constitution to establish a politically competitive and economically productive polity, Nigeria’s military rulers, in an attempt to entrench ethnic dominance and undue regional advantage, manipulated the constitution to create a politically unjust and economically destructive society. While the US has become “a melting pot,” Nigeria remains a “salad bowl” where ethnic nationalities remain sharply divided along religious, cultural and linguistic cleavages.

Unfortunately, previous attempts to correct the contraption ended in failure. There were the 1995 Sani Abacha National Constitutional Conference, Olusegun Obasanjo’s 2006 National Political Reform Conference and the Goodluck Jonathan’s 2014 National Conference. Events proved that they were all deceitful, sinister and unpatriotic moves.

Strikingly, there appears to be a growing consensus in the South and the Middle-Belt of the country on the urgency of a peaceful renegotiation of the Nigerian state structure. But President Muhammadu Buhari and the elite from the North-West and North-East remain unconvinced. Mischievously, restructuring is perceived as either a selfish sectional agenda or a route to national disintegration.

This is dangerous. The consequences of carrying on with this mangled polity are dire and some are all too glaring. On the political front, the desperate contest to control the all-powerful centre and the queer electoral configuration that places emphasis on ethnic origin rather than competence will continue to throw up mediocrities and the unprepared to lead the world’s most populous Black country.

The inherent lack of equity, undue advantages and disadvantages in the centralised system of today are seething with brewing rebellion beneath her deceptive calm. Exhibiting its weakness as a state, Nigeria harbours ethnic, religious, linguistic and other intercommunal tensions that have thoroughly become overtly violent. Wole Soyinka, a Nobel laureate, has called on the international community to intervene in the series of herdsmen killings across the country to avoid a repeat of the Rwanda genocide in Nigeria. He says the Federal Government is handling the killings like treating a malignant tumour with Vaseline. 

And when notable apostles and beneficiaries of contrived unity like Yakubu Gowon, a former head of state, who crushed the Biafra secessionist attempt (1967-70), and Theophilus Danjuma, one of his war commanders and Chief of Army Staff, take to warning of possible disintegration, or another civil war, then we should take notice. Both have raised the real fear of religious war. Another known pacifist, Enoch Adeboye, head of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, has also warned of the upshots of the sectarian attacks and the fissures they have opened up in the fabric of the country.

It is either Nigeria goes the way of Yugoslavia or takes the path of Canada. The breakup of Yugoslavia, the multi-ethnic nation born in 1918, happened in a flash. The country disintegrated after decades of intransigence by the Yugoslav federal leadership to accommodate the initially modest demands of the Croats, Albanians and Slovenes for a more equitable ethnic representation at the federal level. But Canada has managed to remain a strong, vibrant democracy today as a result of granting greater autonomy to provinces; more provincial control over taxation, international relations, immigration and cultural policy. “No country can survive a religious war,” declared Gowon. Danjuma adds that none can survive a second civil war.

To preserve Nigeria’s corporate existence and make democracy meaningful, the way forward is clear: Nigerians should vehemently demand a fundamental rearrangement of this retarded federation to a competitive, just and federal system. By going truly federal, states will be able to take advantage of their own natural resources to better the lot of their people.
- A Punch Editorial