Columns

June 17, 2024

Nigerian democracy as a pole vault, by Owei Lakemfa

Nigerian democracy as a pole vault, by Owei Lakemfa

Nigerians celebrated 25 years of Democracy last Wednesday, June 12. I did not mean to dampen the enthusiasm. I am not a killjoy. But democracy is not a declaration, it is a praxis. It is not what we wish, but what we live.

Is this something to voice out in a country that has rolled out the drums to celebrate Democracy Day? I remember a basic lesson I was taught in childhood: whenever and wherever a celebration takes place, join. So in my family we celebrate all festivals: Christian, Muslim and, of course, the rich African Religion which is usually rounded off with merriment and entertainment by itinerant masquerades.

Secular celebrations, such as a country turning 25 in a desired governmental system, surely qualifies as one for which rich robes are to be fished from the inner recess of the wardrobe and adorned in arenas of celebration. But is Nigeria also amongst the democratic nations? If it is not, is it something to be voiced out in the village square?

These played in my mind on the eve of the celebrations as I approached the magnificent edifice of the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies, NILDS, Abuja. I had been invited as a panellist to “reflect on the 25 years of seamless democratic rule” and assess the Renewed Hope Agenda of the Tinubu administration which has just spent one year in office.

The lecture, “Democracy and Development: A Viewpoint”, was presented by Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, Special Adviser to the President on Political Matters. He said the country has since 1999 witnessed seven elections but added that while they produced leaders, citizens have been alienated from the benefits of the democratic system. He regretted that the more democratisation has been practised in the country, the more the lives of citizens have been threatened.

Baba-Ahmed posited that the Renewed Agenda is a set of objectives which “does not capture the strategies that will be deployed to achieve the goals.” He sang: “Everyday, President Tinubu should hear these words: Nigerians are suffering. Life is very, very hard. Many die daily in the hands of armed criminals …”

In my contribution, I asked the rhetorical question: is Nigeria a democracy? I posited that democracy is a concept that presupposes the transformation from one level of development to an higher, sustainable level. I argued that in the Nigerian case, what we have experienced is marked degeneracy. For instance, under military rule in the 1970s, the country locally refined its petroleum product needs. Today, four decades later, it is not just that we do not locally refine, but the bureaucracy is even incapable of efficiently distributing imported petroleum products. I said the representative of Speaker Tajudeen Abbas who counted President Tinubu’s removal of fuel subsidies as an achievement, is patently wrong as that act had demobilised the citizenry, sky-rocketed the cost of living and sent millions more under the poverty line.

I recalled the government claim that in the first month of subsidy removal, the country saved N500m. If this were so, it means in the last one year, N6 billion had been saved. So, why hasn’t a new refinery, say of 60,000pbd, been built? Even the gigantic Dangote Refinery with a 650,000 barrel capacity, costs less than $15 billion.

I pointed out that in the 1950s and ‘60s, the race was to get every Nigerian child to school. Today, we have 18.3 million out-of-school children. Three decades ago, under the military regime, the country distributed less than 4,000KW. Today, 25 years later, we still distribute less. While in the 1970s, especially under the indigenisation policy, we raced towards industrialisation, now we are tumbling down the hill of de-industrialisation.

The Constitution, I said, states that the two primary reasons for the existence of government are the welfare of the people and their security. On both scores, I pointed out, the last 25 years have been a worse period for Nigerians. So how do we expect the people to be enamoured by a political system that does not deliver incontrovertible dividends for the people?

Baba-Ahmed had argued that the local governments had been “emasculated into non-existence” by state governors and argued for their autonomy as a federating unit. I agreed that the local governments have not been in a good health, but said the problem of that tier is not primarily the hijacking of allocations to them. First, there is the issue of lack of accountability at all levels of governance. This includes local governments where, in many cases, the leaders and traditional rulers meet monthly, set aside local government employee salaries and share the rest. I said Nigeria is declared a federation which presupposes federating units. The federating units of Nigeria were the regions, and now, their inheritor states. So, local governments, in reality, are not federating units. Rather, they are administrative centres in the states designed to bring governance closer to the populace. So, it is wrong for the centre to try to control them in any way, including by-passing the states. Also, the current local governments are impositions of Generals and not based on the needs of the people. If it were, Lagos, with its over 18 million people, would not have only 20 states or an economically viable Bayelsa State would not have just eight. So, the present local governments which are used primarily to corner national funds, should be dissolved and, each state given the autonomy to create and fund the number of local governments it needs and can afford.

One shock at the Democracy Day Lecture was the revelation by a student of the University of Abuja, UNIABUJA. He said a class of some 400 undergraduates was asked to vote between a preference for military rule or the present democratic rule. Those in favour of military rule were 70 per cent!

I responded that if such a large percentage of our youths prefer military rule, then Nigeria is at war; a war to win the minds of the youths so that there is no regression to authoritarian rule. The news from UNIABUJA merely reinforced my position that we need to get down to serious work.

So, democracy is not a pole vault in which you vault over a bar; it is a process. The act of Nigeria holding elections after 15 years of brutal military misrule, did not mean it automatically became a democracy. If anything, it was a transition from military rule to civil rule with democracy as destination. However, if at the onset of a journey, you assume you have arrived your destination, you have the option of either living a lie or living the reality that the journey is still ahead. Am I speaking Greek?