Columns

June 15, 2024

Nigeria’s frustrating democracy, by Ugoji Egbujo

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Ugoji Egbujo

Democracy is a vehicle for development. But Nigeria wears it as a toga and retrogresses. Rather than fashion a democracy that fits it, Nigeria wobbles on in a borrowed outfit, prioritising dubious conformity over thoughtfulness.

Those who grab power revel in conceit, lose sober reflection, and dwell in unbridled accumulation and arbitrary distribution of power and privileges. In a democracy, power should belong to the people and be used for the people. In Nigeria, democracy is a civilian government.

Public anger is mounting. Governments at all levels are mouthing platitudes. The cost of living is mounting. Expectations are crumbling. Disenchantment is spreading. The government must embrace hard truths. Transparency and honesty will save the government a million troubles. Democracy is losing its appeal. Which way, Nigeria?

The truth has to be told frontally. Our leadership election process is flawed. It’s now a crooked conveyor belt for recycling opportunists and charlatans, the greedy and the unruly. Without good faith, the electoral process is perpetually porous. The judiciary lacks moral conviction, and in the prevailing rapacious order, there is no motivation for nobility. The religious public is prayerful and superstitious rather than vigilant and demanding. Nobody has shown any urgency to reform and plug the holes that undermined the last elections. The message is that might is right, and the end justifies the means. The ills that truncated democracy in 1966 and 1983 are flourishing again.

The critical factor is the absence of hope. Anomie has set in. The young are fleeing the country. Big businesses have seen enough. Nobody can vouch for the credibility of any new elections. The cankerworms have been left to proliferate. Those to whom the process has been entrusted are in denial. So there is no preventive disinfestation. The saboteurs of our collective aspirations masquerade as patriots.

The major problem is that truth-telling has become outdated. People say and defend whatever pleases their egos and biases or furthers their short-term interests. Those who once said that devolution of powers was the only panacea now think otherwise. They are in power and wouldn’t want to reduce their powers. Those who once championed press freedom now hound innocent citizens with a nebulous cyberstalking law. Those who once valorised opposition politics now disdain and seek to undermine it, using moles.

While the nation reels in darkness, our leaders change the anthem. They are not in touch with reality. We deny the truth by focusing on triviality. Every government comes with new excuses and begins to engage in the same old frivolities. The APC came with Change and fashioned an Economic Recovery and Growth Programme. A few years later, a new APC government doesn’t even mention the Slogan and doesn’t talk about the ERGP. After changing the country for 8 years the APC returned under Continuity to Restore Hope.

Even at the level of slogans, these contradictions are comical.

Only the truth, constantly told, can set the country free. Many of the states are moribund. The presidential system of government is too exorbitant. Political parties are supposed to be enduring institutions that drive thought and development. Here, they are disposable instruments for pinching power and propagating cronyism. Those who come by power think of their families, ethnic groups and sections before the country. Only the truth, spoken freely, can break the chains. Recently, two government officials set caution aside for candour and spoke from the heart. First was the Chief of Defense Staff. Speaking on national TV, he asked why the European Union and Finland were permitting Simon Ekpa to use their territory to foment terrorism in Nigeria without consequences. He wondered why the EU, which was championing democracy in Nigeria, was hosting troublemakers damaging democracy in Nigeria. If the EU could sanction people who threatened election violence in Nigeria, why then was the EU condoning terrorism against Nigeria from Finland? He wondered if the EU would have allowed Nigeria to host a Finnish terrorist and allow him to orchestrate the destruction of Finland from Nigeria. That was a sharp piece of truth-telling. We must encourage it. Because the biggest problem we have in the country is that we are generally too sheepish.

That statement by the head of the Nigerian military must sink into the heads of The EU and Finland. It’s a message of frustration. If the EU is as interested in democracy in Nigeria as it professes, then it should treat that statement as an alarm bell. Our soldiers are frustrated. The EU should have learnt some lessons from the developments in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. France and the European Union were selling democracy while neglecting to lend a strong hand to contain the insurgency ravaging the region. The EU and Finland might have reservations about our military, but they cannot undermine the argument of the CDS by pushing the idea that those who live in their countries can use the right to freedom of speech to terrorise other nations and destroy democratic projects.

It’s a shame our politicians left it to the soldiers to raise this alarm. Nigerian political leaders should have been screaming it into the ears of international institutions at every gathering at every opportunity. Rather than deal with the elephants in the room, Nigeria sends international delegations to meetings to drink tea and engage in cheap, ineffectual talks. A man whose house is on fire should neither chase rats nor join others in tales by moonlight.

Our president and ministers for foreign affairs and justice ministers must sit up and attend to the frustrations of security agencies. The wanton slaughter of Military, police and DSS agents by insurgents and bandits can’t be acceptable. The masterminds must be sought out with vigour and vengeance no matter where they reside. Our politicians must own the responsibility to apply the heaviest pressures on countries that host insurgents tormenting the country. Those who champion democracy must not allow democracy to frustrate the people.

Recently, the Regional Director of the EFCC in Benin also poured out his heart. He was asked about the EFCC’s inability to arrest a former governor, Yahaya Bello. The man spared nothing. He said Yahaya Bello, who likes to call himself a white lion, was being protected by the system and that the shame of his elusiveness belonged to the country. Without mincing words, the EFCC officer blamed the failure of the agency to arrest Bello on the entire country. He was bold and honest. We have a president who is vested with the powers of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and who swore to protect the Constitution. Yet he allowed a wanted high-profile political associate to run rings around the anti-corruption agency with impunity. The president doesn’t know that the EFCC is a department of the presidency. Under his watch, while he is chiming about the restoration of hope, the War Against Corruption becomes a joke. He wants foreign capital but doesn’t appreciate that genuine investors don’t flock to where big men are bigger than the law. Then, there is an Attorney General, the federation’s chief law officer. He saw a governor break through an EFCC cordon and sabotaged the arrest of a former governor, and he did nothing.

A government that appointed many EFCC suspects into a bloated federal cabinet takes democracy for granted and must take responsibility for the Yahaya Bello situation. Because Yahaya Bello could have easily been a minister like the others. Western Democracy has failed Nigeria. Tomorrow, Simon Ekpa might return and become a minister. That’s how Nigeria runs. A ruling party might use him to get votes. There are no moral guard rails and no institutional memory. The EU and Finland know that. Perhaps that’s why they are not bothered, using free speech to deceive us. Because we live in self-deceit.