Democracy at 20: Strength as Weakness, By Issa Aremu

One notable strength of Democracy is the freedoms that come with it; freedoms of expression, of assembly and associations. Amartya Sen was the 1998 Economics Nobel Prize winner. In his book Development as Freedom, he argues that development entails “a set of linked freedoms,” the most critical being political freedom. As a participant at the 17th edition of the Daily Trust Dialogue, I bear witness that with respect to freedom of expressions, Nigeria is a democracy destination. Former Governor of Borno State, Senator Kassim Shettima commendably maximized the Democratic space to offer the most constructive and objective, (albeit passionate) assessment of the process since 1999. He truly owned his presentation as he spoke from the heart and head. His conclusion was also audacious: that despite the achievements under the democratic dispensation, “Nigeria’s 20 years of democracy has more weaknesses than strengths”, the listed weaknesses that include “selective adherence to the rule of law, poverty and insecurity and low women participation in politics”. Shettima was on point by saying that Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999 created an atmosphere for freedom and opportunities. One of the star speakers, Chairman, Governors’ Forum, Gov. Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State (JKF) also puts it better: “We live in a far more conducive climate of freedom than those of us who came of age during military rule can recall. The demilitarization of politics has widened the space…”! In 1998 when the military held sway, nobody could have imagined the open contestation of ideas on issues of governance, public weak fare and security as witnessed over the years at Trust Dialogue. The Trust newspaper is also a product of the last two decades of constitutionalism: established “in fullness of time”, firstly as weekly in March 1998, gone Daily Trust in January 2001. Lest we forget, there was once a Nigeria, in which political party formation was at the behest of the military dictators. Today Nigeria has 91 registered political parties with some almost with identical names. Nigeria has turned 360 degree from political regimentation to footloose political liberalization. In 1988, senior electricity workers went on strike over conditions of service. The military dictatorship slammed them with life imprisonment as if industrial strike was a treasonable offense. The life imprisonment was later reduced to 10 years. The jailed workers were later “freed” from Kaduna prisons on November 11th after spending over one year in captivity. Over a month ago after a 21-day ultimatum, electricity workers in Nigeria went on a one day legitimate strike (on December 11), to press home demand for unpaid severance allowances, salaries and pensions owed 50,000 former employees of the defunct Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) before the country privatized its power sector in 2013. That is the strength of democracy. Compared this to what Amartya Sen calls “unfreedom”. To organize for alternative views was criminalized by the military. In 1989 the late senior Advocate Gani Fahemihm together with some activities stormed Micheal Imoudu Hall of NLC labour House at Yaba Lagos to offer alternative policies to the notorious SAP (Structural Adjusment Policy). The reaction of the military dictatorship was predictable brutal: armed policemen sealed up NLC Secretariat and the Hall of discourse. Many newspapers notably the Guardian and Punch newspapers were arbitrarily shut down under the military regimes. The point cannot therefore be overstated that 20 years of democracy has promoted freedom. We must keep the memory alive not just for the young but not- so-young -to -forget that: Never again should any group trample under feet constitutionalism and rule Nigerians without their democratic mandate. It’s not just that military rule is not fashionable (as apologists of dictatorship want us to believe!) but precisely because it’s undesirable because it denies freedom, the basic success factor for sustainable and participatory development. The critical question however is what we make of democracy. Freedom (democracy) must be means to development as much as an end. The immediate past National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief John Odigie- Oyegun, at the Dialogue put it even better. He said there was no doubt that democracy has come to stay but at “… the risk of being misinterpreted, … there is hardly a single administration in those 20 years that has not left office unpopular and unheralded,”. “We have never asked ourselves the question why are our people getting increasingly unhappy with their governors within those 20 years. Why are they getting poorer, why are they losing hope, those are the questions I think pose a threat to our democracy because today we are beginning to hear rumblings that we didn’t hear before”.

The strength of democracy is proving to be its weakness! Democracy must go with the responsibility to deliver good governance. People are angry not so much because of harsh policies but the insensitivity with which they are imposed on the people. Policies should be by the people for the people not at the people by governors and presidents notwithstanding the good intensions . Nigerian governments at all levels must adopt consensual participatory gradualist approach to policy reforms instead of the current shock therapy approach creates more problems and even policy doubts. The recent controversies that trailed the attempt by Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) to increase end-user tariffs for electricity, application of Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) in the Universities, proposed reintroduction of toll gates by Ministry of works and the insistence of Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) that candidates for the forth-coming 2020 must acquire National Identification Number (NIN) or forfeit their chance of sitting for the examination, are examples of shock therapy approaches to reforms. I hail the decision of the Registrar of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), Prof. Ishaq Oloyede on Saturday, to suspend the use of the National Identity Number (NIN), for the 2020 Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME). Other agencies should demonstrate similar sensitivity to the plight of stakeholders in policy formulation and policy implementation. The lesson from JAMB/NIN saga is that Nigeria must sequence reforms with time lines for stakeholders to appreciate rationale for policies and even make their inputs known. Public Policies should be for Stakeholders by Stakeholders with genuine partnership at all levels as envisaged by Sustainable Development Goals of 2030. The recent controversies following the ‘Operation Amotekun’ by south west states underscores the need for participatory democracy. Why should bills and laws not precede establishment of any security outfit that have far reaching implications in a diverse Republic?

Issa Aremu, mni