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Reflections on the future of democracy in Nigeria

There are three things about democracy in Nigeria. First, Nigerians are passionately committed to democracy, and this has been demonstrated numerous times by the Afro-Barometer…

There are three things about democracy in Nigeria. First, Nigerians are passionately committed to democracy, and this has been demonstrated numerous times by the Afro-Barometer polls on the subject. Secondly, Nigerians are deeply concerned that the quality of democratic practice is low and in constant decline, questioning even the idea of using the epithet. Thirdly, the bulk of Nigeria’s political class has no commitment to democracy and does not respect or care about the commitment of the people. These are the factors that are at the centre of inquiries about the future of democracy in the country.

The Forth Republic recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, and the expectation has been that with longevity, there will be democratic consolidation in the country. The First Republic lasted only five years, while the Second Republic had an even shorter life span of just over four years. The received wisdom in Nigeria has been that the military did not allow the first two republics to mature, and they did not even allow the third republic to take off. The significance of the longevity of the Forth Republic is that we can now see and analyse political dynamics and democratic development more clearly.

The main challenge to democratic development is the political party system, which has refused to accept the practice of internal party democracy and remains locked into a logic of serving the interests of godfathers and party barons rather than party members and citizens.

The result is that they have, for the most part, jettisoned the popularity principle that pushes parties to seek out the most popular candidates to enhance their chances of victory at the polls. Their nonchalant attitude is based on their capacity to determine electoral outcomes through non-democratic means.

Victory at the polls is often determined by money, thuggery, and the collusion of officials from the electoral management body and/or security agencies. In other words, it is grounded in a deep culture of electoral fraud, which makes nonsense of the vote. This culture has persisted even when the integrity of the electoral process began to improve in 2011.

The main change was that funds previously used to bribe officials were now used to directly bribe the voters themselves.

The transmission of power from the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015 has not led to a significant change in the country’s political party dynamics. The other parties are not different.

The greatest challenge facing Nigerian democracy is the absence of a real and functional party system. Virtually all parties have very little respect for internal party democracy. That is to say that they do not conduct their internal affairs based on the principles enunciated in their constitutions and rules.

Party officials and candidates for elections are not elected in accordance with the rules of the game. Party conventions become occasions in which governors and godfathers simply impose candidates of their choice rather than people voted for by members and delegates. The lack of internal party democracy weakens the internal coherence of most political parties and creates a situation where the judiciary becomes the arbiter of who the candidates are rather than delegates.

If Nigerians are losing hope in democracy, they are not the only ones. In April, the findings of an International IDEA survey revealed that voters in 19 countries, including three of the world’s largest democracies and three African countries, believe their political choices don’t matter and so they prefer a strong, undemocratic leader.

The report concludes that “democratic institutions are falling short of people’s expectations.” This is indeed a time when deep introspection is ongoing about democracy, as many of its values and processes are questioned around the world and analysts ponder about its future.

In West Africa, the interrogation has taken the form of four of the 15 countries—Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Guinea—opting out of the democratic framework following the coup d’état. Threats and sanctions from the regional organisation, ECOWAS, failed to bring them back. Today, it is ECOWAS that is withdrawing its sanctions and cajoling them to return without success so far.

Nonetheless, democracy has been the leitmotif for the development of ECOWAS and its normative system since the 1981 Declaration of Political Principles. ECOWAS as a political system must therefore continue to improve its capacity to cope, survive, and recover from complex challenges and crises that represent stresses or pressures that can lead to systemic failure.

The view is that the pursuit of democracy is a way to build resilience because of a number of factors. Democracy is, in its essence, a resilient system because it’s a normative system people value for its positive content: political and human rights, civil liberties, participation, equality, the rule of law, and so on. For this reason, there are always demands for democracy, and when countries move away from it, struggles for its return emerge.

This demand for democracy is often strengthened by the fact that democracies tend to be accompanied by strong media and civil society movements. Their vocation is to ‘protect’ democracy through investigation, information transparency, and advocacy that contributes to resilience.

Democracy’s resilience as a consequence of a strong civil society, and democracies with a strong civil society are more likely to be durable over time. Encouraging the strengthening of civil society is therefore the pathway to deepening the resilience of democracy.

Generally, the argument is that a vigorous civil society helps to create an underlying trust and social cohesion that in turn allows for contestation and contention in a democracy and strengthens its overall resilience when democracy comes under pressure.

What then is the outlook for democratic resilience in Nigeria over the next decade? It might not be as bright as it should be. A core challenge has arisen: reckless and rising levels of corruption by the political class that are making governance impossible. Even the country’s main source of revenue, petroleum, is stolen, and Nigeria is finding it difficult to generate sufficient revenue to carry out its governmental tasks.

It is getting worse. Increasingly, even the revenue that is available is being stolen by reckless officeholders. Kleptocracy is making governance impossible as monies for security, the provision of social services, and the construction of infrastructure projects are stolen, and governance is grinding to a halt. At the same time, current economic policies have created an unprecedented cost of living crisis at the same time that agriculture is becoming impossible due to rural insecurity. There is therefore a real risk of popular revolt and system collapse that could dismantle democracy and the political system. This is the outcome that all people of goodwill should play a role in avoiding.

The desired outcome is a change of gear in which the governing class wakes up to its sense of enlightened self-interest and takes the war against corruption seriously so that public resources can henceforth be used for the public good. This would create a new situation in which respect for democratic principles and practices return, and confidence in the system grows.

There is evidence that the resilience of democracy can be shown empirically. In their article in the Journal of Democracy, October 2023, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way argue convincingly that democracy faces challenges in many countries, but on the whole, it has proven surprisingly resilient in the twenty-first century.

In Africa, the number of de jure single-party regimes fell from 29 in 1989 to zero in 1994. Since then, poor governance, corruption, and the decline in the quality of elections have created grounds for the return of the military. Military rule and authoritarianism, however, also find it hard to sustain themselves in the new world because citizens start asking questions and making demands.

Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow, Centre for Democracy and Development

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