June 12th: Can we really Celebrate 25 years of Democracy? By Jibrin Ibrahim

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As we celebrate the great events that followed the annulled election of June 12th 1993, let us not forget that the event was a very long time ago, 31 years is ancient history for a majority of Nigerians where the median age of the population is 17.2 years. For those of us of a certain age and a tradition of democratic struggles, it was Nigeria’s rite of passage to becoming a true and enduring democratic society as President Tinubu declared in his address to Nigerians. Would young Nigerians accept the assertion that we now have a true and enduring democracy? The big issue is that the June 12 narrative is a story of great heroes and heroines, key names include the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Chief MKO Abiola, his wife, Kudirat, General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and Pa Alfred Rewane are often cited. But maybe the great heroes of June 12 were the millions of Nigerians who came out, contested military rule and literally chased them out of power gaining a historic victory over military authoritarianism.

The paradox is that the current generation of young Nigerians have difficulties seeing the evidence for defining such people as selfless heroes who have contributed to consolidating democracy and providing public service. They have literally no experience of seeing selfless heroes they can look up to. We ourselves can ask whether they were truly selfless heroes or birds of circumstances but that question is not for today. The lived reality of the current generation is that the only agency they have seen in centres of power are powered by greedy looters of the public treasury. Our praise singing about our democracy heroes may therefore bounce off the majority of young Nigerians.

Regular readers of this column would be aware that I often say that 2011, a positive narrative on Nigeria’s democracy has emerged. There has been a 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. I often tell this story to young Nigerians and they think I am delusional because they do not see what I see. Let us not forget that they did not see the 2003 and 2007 elections, so there should be no surprise when they assert categorically that 2023 is the worst election in Nigeria’s history. In other words, we are unable to write a consensual history of successive elections.

How can we, with a judiciary that has made it clear that its “Jankara” judgements they deliver are for sale to the highest bidder and their contradictory judgements are a constant affront on truth, character and justice. There is no surprise that our great positive story of June 12, the overthrow of military dictatorship, often bounces off the young generation. Is it not true that our generation had hoped that the June 12, 1993 elections was a turning point away from ethno-religious politics but that has not been the case. Has corruption has not continued to grow massively? The stories Nigerians are talking about today are about their lives reality focused on deepening poverty, widening inequality, growing insecurity, massive unemployment, poor healthcare and education services. At the same time, 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.   

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I have repeatedly made the point that the main challenge to democratic development is the political party system which has refused to accept the practice of internal party democracy and remains locked into a logic of serving the interests of godfathers and party barons rather than party members and citizens. The result is that they have for the most part jettisoned the popularity principle that pushes parties to seek for the most popular candidates to enhance their chances of their victory at the polls. Their non-challant attitude is based on the capacity to determine electoral outcomes through non-democratic means. Victory at the polls is often determined by money, thuggery and collusion of officials from the electoral management body and/or security agencies. In other words, it is grounded in a deep culture of electoral fraud which makes nonsense of the vote. This culture has persisted even when the integrity of the electoral process began to improve in 2011. The main change was that monies previously used to bribe officials were then used to directly bribe the voters themselves. Let us at least engage on some reflection on what we think we are celebrating.

My view is that democracy is in its essence a good and resilient system because it’s a normative system people value for its positive content – political and human rights, civil liberties, participation, equality, rule of law and so on. For this reason, there are always demands for democracy and when countries move away from it, struggles for its return emerge. This is the crux of the matter. What is Nigeria’s pathway to democratic reform? What is the outlook for democratic resilience in Nigeria over the next decade? Maybe it might not be as bright as it should be. A core challenge has arisen, reckless and rising levels of corruption by the political class that is making governance impossible. Even the country’s main source of revenue, petroleum, is stolen and Nigeria is finding it difficult to generate sufficient revenue to carry our governmental tasks. It is getting worse. Increasingly, even the revenue that is available is being stolen by reckless officeholders. Kleptocracy is making governance impossible as monies for security, the provision of social services and the construction of infrastructure projects are stolen and governance is grinding to a halt. At the same time, current economic policies have created an unprecedented cost of living crisis at the same time that agriculture is becoming impossible due to rural insecurity. There is therefore a real risk of popular revolt and system collapse that could dismantle democracy and the political system. This is the outcome that all people of goodwill should play a role in avoiding.

To repeat the concluding point I made while addressing President’s Tinubu’s first year of governance failure, the desired outcome is a change of gear in which the governing class wakes up to its sense of enlightened self-interest and takes the war against corruption seriously so that public resources could henceforth be used for the public good. This would create a new situation in which respect for democratic principles and practices return and confidence in the system grows. Fat chance! HAPPY DEMOCRACY DAY.

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