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2019: Nigeria needs a unity government

By Olu Fasan

NIGERIA will go through another four-yearly ritual of a general election next year. It will be the country’s sixth since returning to civil rule in 1999. Given its chequered democratic history, the long period of uninterrupted civil rule is a credit to Nigeria. Yet, true democracy transcends routine elections. It is about a social contract under which the elected improve the general welfare of the society and the electors. Democracy is seriously undermined when it is reduced to a tiresome routine exercise of just electing governments with no subsequent positive change. Sadly, that’s the nature of democracy in Nigeria.

In 2015, most Nigerians believed that President Goodluck Jonathan was utterly hopeless and beyond the pale, and saw General Buhari as the answer. In the end, they rejected Jonathan and elected Buhari.

Nearly four years on, Buhari has proved to be as clueless and rudderless as Jonathan. He is an ineffectual leader, presiding over a lame administration. Déjà vu: some Nigerians now think that Atiku Abubakar is the answer! But the purblind enthusiasm about Atiku is almost certain to end in tears, just as the undiscerning trust in Buhari has done. I am not being cynical.


The truth is that, even allowing for differences in leadership, the issue is bigger than Buhari or Atiku or any politician. It is structural. You cannot build an edifice on a weak or flawed structure.

Think of it, over the past 20 years, both under the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, for 16 years, and the All Progressives Congress, APC, since 2015, Nigeria has failed woefully to make progress or meet the basic needs of the people. The evidence is stark. This, for example, is a country with the second worst electricity supply in the world; the fourth highest youth unemployment in the world; the largest number of extremely poor in the world. According to the World Bank, 92.1 per cent of Nigerians (the highest percentage in the world) live at below $5.5 a day. In most of these global indexes, Nigeria is in the same league with failed states like Venezuela, Afghanistan and Yemen!

Inevitably, with the breakdown of the social contract comes the total collapse of trust between government and citizens. According to the World Economic Forum 2018 Index on “trust in politicians”, Nigeria ranks 130 out of 137 countries; in other words, Nigerian politicians are among the least trusted in the world. And, according to Heritage Foundation, Nigeria has the second lowest government integrity (of all world’s countries). Put simply, politics and governance are completely broken in Nigeria. Every successive Nigerian government, whatever its political colour, has lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the people. So, then, what is the purpose of routine elections that do not increase the general welfare of a country or improve the wellbeing of its citizens?

In a recent joint report by Oxford University and London School of Economics, the authors, Professor Sir Paul Collier and Professor Sir Tim Besley, argue that fragile states, such as Nigeria, should prioritise institution and nation building over winner-take-all elections. In other words, politicians should come together in the national interest, putting aside selfish interest and partisanship, and create an enduring political and constitutional settlement, consisting of the right governance structure and the building blocks of effective democracy, before holding winner-takes-all elections; otherwise such elections would simply perpetuate governance failure, deepen fragility and endanger the unity and stability of the country.

The truth is that Nigeria needs a political settlement that would remove structural obstacles to its progress. As the UK Department for International Development puts it in a study, “The political settlement is central to all development”, adding that “It explains the difference in performance between countries with apparently similar endowments or disadvantages”. In other words, Nigeria is underperforming, compared to countries with similar endowments or disadvantages, because it lacks a political settlement that ensures its stability, unity and progress. Which is why, as I argued in this column last week, Nigeria must be restructured.

But Nigeria cannot be properly restructured without a Government of National Unity. It is completely disingenuous for Atiku to say, as he did recently, that he can restructure Nigeria in six months, using executive orders! The restructuring that Nigeria needs requires cross-party, cross-ethnic and elite consensus and inclusivity.

That would not happen under a winner-take-all government. Elsewhere, creating enduring political settlements have required a unity government. For instance, the post-apartheid political and constitutional settlement in South Africa was created under a unity government headed by Nelson Mandela.

Similarly, following the post-election crisis in Kenya in 2007, it took a unity government to produce a political and constitutional settlement that has endured and stood the test of time, even during the recent disputed presidential election!

Next year’s elections will, of course, produce a winner and a loser. But in the interest of moving Nigeria forward, the winner should form a unity government and the losers should join it, with a joint agreement to restructure Nigeria and run a technocratic government in tandem. Without that, well,

Nigerians must brace themselves for another disappointment, whosever wins!


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