As the Fourth Republic rolled on, Nigerians have become increasingly concerned with the abusive relationship they have had with their elected leaders. According to the fake saying: “People get the leaders they deserve”. For the most part, Nigerians are democrats and have repeatedly elected leaders they believe will play by the democracy handbook, that is, provide the services they promised to those who voted them into power. Repeatedly, Nigerians have discovered that it is a deceitful and abusive relationship in which the people are denied the outcome they had hoped to get from their civic engagement – the dividends of democracy. That is, that Nigeria is governed in the interest of all citizens.
The stark reality today is that the Nigerian State is not performing its duties and citizens have been consistently forced to provide for themselves services their elected leaders had sworn to provide. The core of the problem is deep. The state no longer protects the lives and property of Nigerians. It cannot even protect the territorial integrity of the national territory as increasingly, non-state actors takeover ungoverned territories. 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 end this abusive relationship with elected leaders by voting in a new breed of leaders that are ready, willing and capable of governing in the interest of the people.
The two and half decades of Nigeria’s experience with democracy reveal clearly that what has been in practice is a distorted and dysfunctional 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 have had a negative impact on the process and many of the elections were hijacked and the ordinary citizen has had little say in electoral outcomes. The elites 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.
How then can Nigerians salvage the country’s democracy from vested interests, which conflict with the interests of the majority of the people? First, Nigerians must address the crisis generated by our collective failure to recruit successive leaderships that are good and competent. We must change the reality that Nigerian politics is the only profession or vocation that people can enter without any capacity, ethics, training or qualification. Even a cursory review of the politics of the Fourth Republic will scream out the anomaly that people that are too sick, too old or too weak to govern have taken over the reins of power, which is immediately seized by the cable around them. The very simple question of whether those who seek to govern have the strength to govern must be placed on the ballot because that is what our experience has shown us is a critical first step to inducing change.
The second issue is competence. 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. The issue here is that if they have passed the first test of the strength to govern, the next step is to find out if their strength would be used to govern in the interest of the people. The fact of having made a lot of money, usually through corrupt means, should disqualify people from leadership in a democracy. Liberal democracy is constructed on the basis of a promise from the leader to citizens that if elected they will keep to the word they have given of fulfilling the promises they have made to the people. The ethics of the players is therefore a central element of the edifice. The candidate must have the ethical standard to keep to their oath and if that does not happen, the citizens must have the moral courage to remove them from power irrespective of who they are – members of the same ethnic, religious or cult group. For the equation to work, both sides must play their roles.
Citizens should recognise that 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 their 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 groups or the other religions 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.
The campaigns for the 2023 elections have just opened and the moment has arrived for Nigerians to deliberately begin the work of ending the abusive relationship with elected leaders. We must open our eyes and look carefully at the criteria for leadership and assess all the candidates on these matters – the strength to govern because governing a large, complex country with a track record of bad governance is difficult and requires high capacity. Secondly, whether their experience shows that they have both the competence and ethical standards to be trusted with the task. This requires no training in voodoo methods. The candidates and their track records are known. We must begin to learn to act on our knowledge. Finally, we must outgrow the sentiments of promoting people simply because they are “our own people”. The knowledge we have is that those in power have not done well for the members of their ethnic or religious groups, they have done well for themselves and their cabals. The people are not in any cabal. We must become objective and go beyond ethno-religious stereotyping. It is not easy but that is the pathway we must take if we are to end the abusive relationship between our elected leaders and we the people.