20 years of democracy, By Jibrin Ibrahim

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#TrackNigeria: In celebration of Nigeria’s twenty continuous years of democratic practice, the Centre for Democracy and Development organised a symposium this week to reflect on where we are on the journey for democratic consolidation. It was also an opportunity to mark a decade since the demise of the Centre’s pioneer Chair, 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 powered 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 the Second and the Third Republic, which was inconclusive. He noted that this year, 2019, marks the twentieth anniversary of Nigeria’s return to civilian rule and the country longest uninterrupted run on democracy since independence. This is a milestone for Nigeria, considering her 58 years of independence have only experienced democracy between 1960-1966, 1979-1983 and proudly now 1999-2019. Between 1999-2019, the country has conducted six consecutive elections with some forms of improvement in election administration. The twenty years have witnessed an increase in the numbers of political parties, a massive youth bulge, significant opening of civic spaces and 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 the 2003 and 2007 have not recurred. Democratic culture has been developing in a steady, even if uneven manner and citizen’s capacity for mandate protection, in particular, have 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 considerably 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 do have freedom from military dictatorship and while it’s normal that we should lament 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 over the challenges of the past twenty years. We had hoped that the June 12, 1993 elections was a turning point away from the ethno-religious politics 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 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 recent 2018 Afrobarometer survey, opined that the country is going in the wrong direction. It 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.

A Human Rights Practices report by the United States on Nigeria in the last two years (2017 and 2018) have consistently exposed large-scale theft of public funds by government officials. Also, the 2018 world report released by Human Right 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 400 billion naira was paid as bribery to government officials which is equivalent to 39 percent of the 2016 budget for education sector of both the Federal and State governments combined.

Unlawful arrest and detention, human rights abuse and extra judicial killings continue unabated. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) gave a frightening account about 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 periodic harassment and detention of journalists in the country.

The country’s health sector has regrettably suffered a neglect. Nigeria has an unviable record of having one of the worst cases of health care delivery in the world and one of the most dangerous places in the world to give birth. On 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 putting the country as the second worst country in terms of child mortality and under-five mortality in the world. 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 as ranked by Brookings Institution’s World Poverty Clock. The damning state of poverty is further corroborated by a joint research by Oxfam and the Development Finance International ranking Nigeria 157 out of 157 countries surveyed in the commitment to and progress in addressing poverty. 

The situation report on insecurity is frightening. Apart from Boko Haram’s insurgency that has resulted to killing and displacement of thousands of innocent citizens in the Northeast, herdsmen-farmers crisis, armed banditry, kidnapping and other criminal activities have been widespread in many parts of the country. Sadly, the media is replete with news of death of Nigerians on a daily basis. The country’s human development indices are worrisome. Nigeria remains at the lower ebb of human development category, placing 157 among 189 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index in 2017, compared to Brazil at 79, South Africa 113 and war-ravaged Iraq 120.

This situation imposes on us a number of interrogations. Is democracy bad for Nigeria? Were our struggles for the return to democracy 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 considerably 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 citizen’s 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 away of military dictatorship 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.

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