Yesterday, the National Working Group on Governance and Peacebuilding in Nigeria held a roundtable discussion on the imperative of building a national consensus on how to govern Nigeria in the interest of all citizens. The spirit of the meeting is that the Nigerian State is no longer performing its duties and citizens must rise to defend their future. The state can no longer protect the lives and property of Nigerians. It cannot even protect the territorial integrity of the national territory as, increasingly, non-state actors take over ungoverned territories. Finally, the state can no longer provide for the basic needs of citizens. The time for citizens to rise up to the challenge of the collapse of state authority has therefore arrived. The strategic objective of citizen action should be to return the state to the trajectory of democratic development.
In attendance at the high-powered roundtable meeting were their eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar, and John Cardinal Onaiyekan of the Catholic Church as well as the Bishop of Sokoto, Mathew Kukah. Others in attendance included Prof Attahiru Jega, Amb. Fatima Balla, Dr Nguyen Fesse, Aisha Mohammed Oyebode, Amb. Zango Abdu of USIP, Dr Chris Kwaja, Amb. Sani Saulawa Bala, Hon Aishatu Dukku, Chairperson of the House Committee on Elections, Dr Fatima Akilu of the NEEM Foundation, Pastor Ituah Ighodalo (President, Rebuild Nigeria Initiative, RNI), Dr Usman Bugaje (Rescue Nigeria Project, RNP), Dr Benson Olugbuo (Centre for Civilians in Conflict), Dr Kole Shettima, (MacArthur Foundation), Ms. Kemi Okenyodo (Partners West Africa – Nigeria), Prof Ismail Zango (Mambaiyya House, Bayero University Kano), Dr Garba Abari (DG/NOA), and your humble columnist.
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The roundtable reviewed over two decades (1999-2021) of Nigeria’s experience with democracy and was of the view that what has been in practice was a distorted and dis-functional form of democracy. Although there have been six general elections and transitions within the period under review, what is clear is that democracy has not been consolidated as expected. The Nigerian people believe profoundly in democracy but an irresponsible and anti-democratic elite has hijacked the process for its own personal interest. The elite has had a negative impact on the process and many of the elections were hijacked and the ordinary citizen had little say in electoral outcomes. The elite undermined the basic institutions of democracy – legislature, executive, judiciary, political parties, the election management body, the police and the media among others. These anomalies were perpetuated largely due to the absence of a common agenda for action by the citizens, which should have been inspired by thought leadership that is able to mobilise, aggregate and articulate the broad interest of the people as the repository of political power.
The roundtable also reviewed the series of conversations and concerns expressed across different strata of the Nigerian society, regarding how best to salvage the country’s democracy from vested interests, which conflict with the interests of the majority of the people. Three key issues that dominated these conversations and concerns were identified.
First, that Nigeria has failed to address the crisis generated by our collective failure to recruit successive leaderships that are good and competent. The roundtable drew attention to the fact that politics is the only profession or vocation that people can enter without any training or qualification. The key attribute of the Nigerian political entrepreneur appears to be possession of a lot of stolen money. This has placed us on the path to national disaster. We must ensure that those who exercise leadership in this country have cognate experience, are competent and, above all, are people of good character rather than thieves and crooks. We must have a political elite that resembles the typical good Nigerian.
Secondly, precisely because of poor leadership, we have failed in the management of our diversity and more Nigerians each day feel alienated from the Nigerian Nation. Essentially, all Nigerians repeat the same narrative of marginalisation but rather than see the problem as an attribute of poor national leadership, they are manipulated into remaining at the level of blaming the other ethnic group or the other religion for their situation. In this context, political education to rise above ethno-religious reductionism becomes important. Civic actors and leaders must close ranks and collectively address the challenge of lack of inclusion in our system. The solution is inclusive democracy which guarantees that all Nigerians can freely participate in the political process without unfair barriers.
Thirdly, political parties which are supposed to be the pillars of democracy have become profoundly anti-democratic structures because virtually all of them show no respect for internal party democracy. Parties are essentially under the control of godfathers and money bags who dictate who can participate in the process. The only solution is for ordinary Nigerians to flood all the political parties and turn them into structures for democratically political participation. It is this takeover of political structures by ordinary Nigerians that will create the conditions for the emergence of a new generation of leaders with competence, experience and good character.
Following the roundtable discussion, the National Working Group on Good Governance and Peacebuilding took on the assignment of fully developing a strategic action plan following the publication of the conference report. The plan will develop criteria for leadership selection and a strategy for engaging stakeholders for its widespread acceptance. The roundtable also expressed serious concern at the significant reduction in voter turnout figures in recent elections around the country. Voter apathy is developing and could be a real stumbling block to democratic consolidation. We must not give up. Leaders all over the country should speak up within their communities, urging Nigerians not to give up on democracy. The enemies of democracy are deliberately discouraging citizens from political participation by their actions. The culture of political apathy must be confronted and addressed as a precondition for the revival of democratic forces.