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June 16, 2024

Who are Nigeria’s true heroes of democracy? By Tonnie Iredia

Who are Nigeria’s true heroes of democracy? By Tonnie Iredia

IN 1987, the then Federal Military Government led by President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida IBB set up an electoral body – the National Electoral Commission NEC to midwife a robust transition to civil rule political programme. This columnist was deployed from the Nigerian Television Authority NTA, to serve as the pioneer Director of Public Affairs of the Commission.

This positioned me to observe a number of things about politics and elections in Nigeria. I once came across a pamphlet titled ‘future heroes of Nigeria’s democracy’ compiled by a non-governmental organization identifying some well-known politicians that would likely succeed the military. But from my interactions with several politicians, I had huge doubts that many of the listed political leaders would readily choose to undergo danger and pain for the sake of democracy.

One sign that my fears were real was how the political class managed the emergence of political associations that would later be registered as political parties. The anti-democratic practices by which our leading politicians implemented the subject were disheartening. For example, to establish a huge followership, the 13 associations presented several large boxes containing membership lists as part of the requirements for registration as political parties.

During the verification of samples of the lists, the electoral commission found bogus submissions populated by fake and ghost names. Even when two of the 13 political associations – the National Republican Convention NRC and the Social Democratic Party SDP were eventually registered as political parties, there was no evidence that our politicians were prepared to play the game of politics by its rules.

While there was a point in the criticism that the military’s transition programme was circuitous, I saw clearly that the political class largely abetted the meandering nature of the programme. For instance, the first of the party primaries held by the NRC and SDP which were won by Adamu Ciroma and General Shehu Yar’Adua respectively were cancelled by government only because on a daily basis, party members and defeated candidates came forward with reports of a plethora of unwholesome practices which they claimed aided the winners. Why did democrats introduce anti-democratic practices into party prima- ries which they themselves conducted?

The annulment of the famous June 12 1993 presidential election was no doubt an error by the military, but several so-called democrats were also active participants in the conspiracy. During the collation of election results, representatives of the NRC- the party that lost the election – were fully aware that Moshood Abiola, the candidate of the SDP was the clear winner of the election. Yet, many of their members colluded with ambitious soldiers to scuttle the election. In addition, signs that the annulment could happen were already clear to the politicians some 48 hours earlier when the electoral commission was stopped from further posting election results on the big score boards installed by its premises for public viewing. Painfully, the expectation that the political class would close ranks and thereby dissuade the military from annulling an election recognized internationally as Nigeria’s best, simply evaporated.

Instead, unlike principled democrats, they exploited the stalemate to pollute the environment with false allegations. Indeed, officials of the SDP, the victorious party, were themselves too scared to claim their own victory. It is thus quite laughable to see some of such officials claiming today to be heroes of democracy when they did not put up any opposition to the emergence of an unelected interim government led by Chief Earnest Shonekan. In other climes, true democrats would have unanimously and unequivocally denounced all the undemocratic activities especially the mandate of the convoluted interim government to arrange for the conduct of fresh elections.

A few months later, the military, in line with their own script, returned to government under the leadership of General Sani Abacha. Again, officials of the NRC and SDP accepted to serve as Ministers of such an anti- democratic government amidst the continued efforts by MKO Abiola to pursue his mandate fully given by the electorate. The arguments of such opportunistic appointees that they were advised to join the government so as to fight for democracy from within or that Abiola gave them his consent were ludicrous especially when compared with the upright stance of the irrepressible human rights activist, Gani Fawehinmi against continued military rule. In fact, Gani publicly revealed that he turned down General Abacha’s offer for him to serve as Attorney- General and Minister of Justice adding that he told the General to hand over power to MKO Abiola if he wanted history to be kind to him.

With many so-called democrats as willing partners, General Abacha stabilized as the new head of state of Nigeria from 1993 to 1998. He even organized a transition programme designed to succeed himself using many politicians as fronts and agents. Indeed, all the five registered political parties at the time agreed to nominate Abacha as the flag-bearer of each of them! If General Abacha had outlived his self-succession programme, Nigerian politicians would have happily crowned him the first elected civilian president after military rule. The point must however be made that as military head of state, Abacha ruled the country with iron fist. He arrested and detained MKO Abiola who eventually died in detention and harassed into exile, every politician who refused to support his transition programme just as the few who remained at home were greatly traumatized.

It is from this latter group that we can find heroes of democracy led by Abiola. But there is doubt if such heroes are as many as people claim or that many of them were actually altruistic. I am unable to accept, for example, that anyone who served in Abacha’s military government can be counted among heroes of democracy. It is similarly unfair to recognize as heroes, those who went into trenches to fight military rule but returned later only to become enmeshed in undemocratic practices. Such persons readily belong to a group that only struggled to get into government to garner materialism and other perquisites of office. It would amount to a substantial derogation of democratic heroism to by whatever imagination elevate such pseudo democrats to the position of heroes of democracy.

The first feature of democracy is the sovereignty of the people. Everything done in a democracy is expected to be done on behalf of the people to whom all power belongs. In a democracy, the people are the subject and never the objects of governance. Can Nigeria, where the people’s representatives live in affluence at the expense of the toiling masses be described as a democratic society? The rule of law, a second feature of democracy which presupposes the equality of everyone before the law has never happened in Nigeria. Instead, office-holders often criminalize political dissent using a variant of the obsolete colonial law of sedition to arrest and detain anyone who seeks to hold them accountable. On their part, those who lose elections that should energize democracy through robust opposition, merely decamp to the ruling party for appointments.

Free and fair elections which constitute another feature of democracy have remained unattainable in Nigeria. To start with, each ruling party always assaults the independence of our electoral body by including politicians in the body which is legally expected to be an impartial umpire in the game of elections. Why must huge sums of money that would have been better deployed towards societal development be unnecessarily squandered on phoney elections especially at local government level? Although the judiciary had held in 2014 that the military should not be part of elections, the situation is yet to change just as our police have continued to wrongly disallow pub- lic protests which are an integral part of democracy.

For putting a blind eye to legislators’ inexplicable sal- aries/allowances, fake constituency projects and budget padding, our executive branch is left unchecked by the legislature contrary to what obtains elsewhere. Even loans to be repaid by future generations are hardly scrutinized to identify their probative value before approval. In the Judiciary, many judges are entangled in conflicting judgments that put them far away from their traditional rating as bastion of democracy. Searching for true heroes of democracy in Nigeria is thus a herculean task. Those involved in the search must strategically apply empirical criteria so as to avoid the likely possibili- ty of an inadvertent mix-up of political gladiators with true heroes.