Understanding the democratic deficit

Sylvester Odion Akhaine

The way in which the return to civilian rule was organised in 1999 means that the democratic process is still falling short of delivering the expected benefits for Nigerian citizens.

After many years of authoritarian rule, Nigerians expected a better deal from the return of democratic rule in May 1999. The nation’s oil wealth would have seemed to make that practicable. However, after 14 years of civil rule, its democracy is still grossly inhibited.

The ‘pacted’ nature of the country’s transition to democracy has turned out to be its Achilles’ heel. Authoritarian rule had left Nigeria badly divided and also splintered the solidarity of the powerful military, which, in the words of one of its former chiefs, had become an “army of anything is possible”. After the death of the dictator Sani Abacha in May 1998, the military leaders were at last ready to look for a way out of the problems they themselves had created and so ordered the transition to civil rule as the solution.

The northern region had, for the most part, exerted central authority ever since Nigeria’s independence in 1960. And in 1993, the military, largely led by northern officers, had annulled a free and fair presidential election won by Chief M. K .O. Abiola, a Yoruba man from the south-west region.

A pact between the major regional power brokers had, in effect, become essential to restore stability. The one that emerged in 1998 did reduce the uncertainties of the transition process itself but it simultaneously underlined its deficit – the narrowing of democratic space in terms of participation and inclusivity. The transition process produced only two presidential candidates: General Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military head of state, and Chief Olu Falae, a one-time Finance Minister and Secretary to the Federal Government. Both were from the southwest, but it was only Obasanjo who could be trusted to guarantee the interests of the military. The transition arrangement managed to assuage the people of the south-west on the issue of the earlier annulment, while the military were indemnified by the constitution they themselves had approved.

The pact was, at best, a temporary solution in that it did not tackle the problems of skewed federalism, the fiscal emasculation of resource-bearing states and the issue of corruption. It was democracy by undemocratic means. Democracy, even of the authoritarian hue, does not run well without political parties, which should be the engine of the process. But Nigeria’s ‘political parties’ do not operate as elsewhere. They lack ideological content and are highly idiosyncratic. A discerning commentator, Dr Edwin Madunagu, captured this point when he said: “In Nigeria, most of the people who aspire to high-profile elective positions first announce their ambitions, and then seek political platforms on which to realise them.”

The shortcomings have brought a new phenomenon – the emergence of state governors as powerful players. With control over state resources, they have blocked any democratic deepening in the country.

Most elections held under the country’s fourth republic have not met minimum electoral standards. The 2003 electoral exercise was dismissed as a charade by Justice Sylvester Nsofor in a dissenting judgment at the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal. The 2007 elections were so tainted that the Commonwealth Observers Group said that Nigeria fell below the standard it set for itself. And the 2011 elections were not without drawbacks, being characterised by process-rigging, under-age voting, ballot-stuffing and violence which left several members of the National Youth Service Corps dead.

In spite of their disenfranchisement, citizens have continued to clamour for a share of the ‘dividends of democracy’. But how much of a democracy dividend is possible in a rentier economy where the informal sector preponderates and corruption holds rational planning to ransom? The country’s neighbours, like Ghana and Niger, have smaller reserves of crude oil but at least they have functioning refineries, while Nigeria’s four refineries are comatose and subjected to perpetual maintenance, which is often a conduit for siphoning public funds. The venality of politicians is deeply rooted and politics has become the only game in town. Public funds are misappropriated and misapplied with impunity. At best, those who steal public funds are either set free through plea-bargaining or given a soft landing with a conviction that involves the option of a fine.

Optimists would like to see the current setbacks as typical of a learning curve. With time, the rule of law will improve, politicians will take to politics with spirit of sportsmanship and the dividends of democracy will trickle down. Yet, the errors of Nigeria’s democracy are a deliberate subversion of a known path for self-indulgence. It will take more than optimism to transform the country that most Africans look up to for leadership.

About the author:

Sylvester Odion Akhaine, a former general secretary of the Campaign for Democracy, is senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Lagos State University


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