20 Years of Democracy, By Jibrin Ibrahim
There are indeed many negative stories to tell about the challenges of the past twenty years. We had hoped that the June 12, 1993 elections was a turning point away from ethno-religious politics in the country but that has not been the case…The stories Nigerians are talking about today are focused on deepening poverty, widening inequality, growing insecurity…
In celebration of Nigeria’s twenty continuous years of democratic practice, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) organised a symposium this week to reflect on where we are on the journey to democratic consolidation. It was also an opportunity to mark a decade since the demise of the pioneer chairman of the Centre’s governing council, Dr. Tajudeen Abdulraheem and the late board member, Professor Abubakar Momoh, who died two years ago. In his opening remarks, the chair of the occasion, Professor Bayo Olukoshi lamented the fact that the current generation of young Nigerians have no selfless heroes who have contributed to public service to look up to. The only agency they have seen in centres of power are driven by greedy looters of the public treasury. The youth must therefore find and fulfil a wider mission that goes beyond self-interest.
The keynote address at the event was given by Mallam Mahmoud Jega, a veteran journalist who made a tour de force of the multiple crises that have dogged Nigeria’s politics from the First to Second and Third Republics, which was inconclusive. He noted that this year, 2019, marks the twentieth anniversary of Nigeria’s return to civilian rule and the country’s longest uninterrupted run of democracy since Independence. This is a milestone for Nigeria, considering her 58 years of independence had only experienced democracy between 1960-1966, and 1979-1983, before what we proudly have now that has stretched from 1999 to 2019. Between 1999 and 2019, the country has conducted six consecutive elections, with some forms of improvement in its electoral administration. The twenty years have witnessed an increase in the numbers of political parties, a massive youth bulge, significant opening of civic spaces and the broadening arenas for communicative action in the traditional and social media.
The positive narrative of the past two decades is that there has been significant improvement in the integrity of our elections and the massive fraud that accompanied those that happened in 2003 and 2007 have not recurred. A democratic culture has been developing in a steady, even if uneven, manner and citizens’ capacity for mandate protection, in particular, has grown considerably. The judiciary, in spite of all its problems of corruption, has also played a significant role in reversing some practices that supported electoral fraud. Legislative autonomy has grown substantially over the period and the principle of the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution is beginning to have an impact. One of the panellists, Governor Kayode Fayemi made the point that the greatest positive of the two decades is that we have freedom from military dictatorship and while it’s normal that we should lament about the numerous negative developments that have occurred over the period, we must not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
There are indeed many negative stories to tell about the challenges of the past twenty years. We had hoped that the June 12, 1993 elections was a turning point away from ethno-religious politics in the country but that has not been the case. Corruption has continued to grow massively. The stories Nigerians are talking about today are focused on deepening poverty, widening inequality, growing insecurity, massive unemployment, poor healthcare services and education facilities. We are also witnessing the coercion of the media and the shrinking of the civic space. In other words, Nigerians are not enjoying many of the dividends of democracy they rightfully expect. Almost two-thirds of Nigerians, according to a 2018 Afrobarometer survey, opined that the country is going in the wrong direction. The survey cited an instance where a large proportion of Nigerians who tried to obtain public services complained that it was difficult, took longer time and required the payment of a bribe to obtain such services.
The country’s health sector has regrettably suffered neglect. Nigeria has an unviable record of having one of the worst cases of health care delivery in the world and is one of the most dangerous places in the world to give birth. On a daily basis, close to 2,300 under-five year olds and 145 women of childbearing age lose their lives in Nigeria largely to preventable deaths…
A Human Rights Practices report on Nigeria in the last two years (2017 and 2018) by the United States consistently exposed the large-scale theft of public funds by government officials. Also, the 2018 world report released by Human Rights Watch on Nigeria depicted and denounced the continued rise in corrupt practices in spite of government’s anti-corruption efforts. The 2017 National Bureau of Statistics report stated that in 2016, about N400 billion was paid as bribes to government officials, which is equivalent to 39 per cent of the 2016 budget of both the federal and state governments combined for the education sector.
Unlawful arrests and detention, human rights abuses and extra judicial killings have continued unabated. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) gave a frightening account of the level of human rights violations in the country. Between 2017 and 2018, the NHRC claimed that there were about one million documented cases of human rights abuses. The media, as the fourth estate of the realm, has not been fully free in the discharge of its duties under democratic government. There have been the periodic harassment and detention of journalists in the country.
The country’s health sector has regrettably suffered neglect. Nigeria has an unviable record of having one of the worst cases of health care delivery in the world and is one of the most dangerous places in the world to give birth. On a daily basis, close to 2,300 under-five year olds and 145 women of childbearing age lose their lives in Nigeria largely to preventable deaths, thus making the country the second worst in terms of child mortality and under-five mortality in the world. A poor educational system has triggered the growing rate of illiteracy and ultimately limited the power of citizens to participate effectively in the making of political decisions.
Studies about poverty and unemployment in Nigeria paint a shameful picture. The country has displaced India as the global poverty capital, with 91 million extremely poor people as ranked by Brookings Institution’s World Poverty Clock. The damning state of poverty is further corroborated by a joint research of Oxfam and Development Finance International, ranking Nigeria as 157 out of 157 countries surveyed in the commitment to and progress in addressing poverty.
This week, Nigeria’s government finally got our message that if there is one day that is symbolic of our collective struggles for democracy, it is June 12. It took them a long time to get it but they did finally, leading to the celebration of our democracy-day last Wednesday.
The situation report on insecurity is frightening. Apart from Boko Haram’s insurgency that has resulted in killings and the displacement of thousands of innocent citizens in the North-East, the herdsmen-farmers crisis, armed banditry, kidnappings and other criminal activities have been widespread in many parts of the country. Sadly, the media is replete with news of the death of Nigerians on a daily basis. The country’s human development indices are worrisome. Nigeria remains at the lower ebb of the human development category, placing 157 among 189 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index in 2017, in comparison to Brazil at 79, South Africa 113 and war-ravaged Iraq at 120.
This situation imposes on us a number of interrogations. Is democracy bad for Nigeria? Were our struggles for the return to democracy based on the wrong approach? We do not think so. The exercise of human and civil rights over the past two decades have improved considerably in comparison to the situation under military dictatorship. The exercise of the franchise by citizens has improved tremendously over the period. We should therefore avoid a completely negative appreciation of two decades of democracy in our country. What we have learnt over the period is that regime change in itself does not give democracy. Democracy grows and consolidates as citizens engage in daily struggles to protect their rights and freedoms. Citizenship is the practice of translating constitutional rights into political practice and Nigerians are gradually finding the pathways that citizens’ struggles could map in converting demands into desired policy outcomes.
The symposium offered a great opportunity for advocates of democracy, activists, policy makers, civil society actors, scholars, the media, development practitioners and citizens to interrogate the struggles for democracy, its dividends and challenges over the past 20 years. Many of the activists were on the frontline during the struggle for the actualisation of the June 12, 1993 election result. Many thought it was an unrealistic struggle that could not bear fruits. As we all know, the struggle led to the chasing of military dictatorship away from the political terrain. This week, Nigeria’s government finally got our message that if there is one day that is symbolic of our collective struggles for democracy, it is June 12. It took them a long time to get it but they did finally, leading to the celebration of our democracy-day last Wednesday.