May 30, 2012

Nigeria’s Democracy at 13

When Time Magazine included General Olusegun Obasanjo as one of the persons that shaped 1999, it was an outcome of his victory at the polls to become the democratic President of the world’s largest black nation after a difficult period of struggle against military rule that lasted for more than a decade and half.

Obasanjo, though an accomplished military General, was involved in the struggle against military rule leading to his arrest and incarceration by the military regime of late General Sani Abacha in 1995. His struggle and tribulation during the era of Abacha was rewarded by a victory in 1999. As the new President, he declared May 29th as Democracy Day. On May 29th Nigeria again celebrated the 13th anniversary of Nigeria’s new democracy that held a lot of promises to the people in 1999 at its dawn. It is only natural to take stock to see the progress that has been made within the period.

The most developed nations on earth are nations that were built on a foundation of democracy, freedom and justice. Looking at those nations as proofs of the gains democracy can bring, Nigerians placed a lot of expectations of the good democracy can bring. Thirteen years after the journey, Nigerians are of the opinion that the new era has not lived up to their expectations. They have thought Nigeria will begin to close the gap between it and those models of democracy. Thirteen years after, the gap only seems to have widened. Most persons that should give account of how the resource of national time and money that have been spent so far insist that the democracy is still an infant from which nothing much should be expected.

Bamanga Tukur, the National Chairman of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in his anniversary message said the PDP has remained in power wining election after election because of the people’s acceptance of its leadership. President Goodluck Jonathan in his anniversary speech made further promises and went on to rename the University of Lagos as MKO Abiola University something that did not go down well with students of the institution who came out immediately to begin demonstration. Late Abiola is a well respected figure in the South-Western part of the country where the PDP has failed to establish a strong hold. The interpretation is that he was trying to buy the political conscience of the people of the region in preparation for the 2015 elections that rumors say he still wishes to contest against promises made to persuade northern political class whose turn it was to produce a president within the period starting from 2007 to 2015. Former President Obasanjo blamed the National Assembly who he referred to as ‘rogues and armed robbers’ for the failures of Nigerian democracy. President Jonathan in trying to defend his administration noted that his administration did not create the problems it is working to fix.

There is no doubt that the progress brought by democracy in other nations where not a result of luck. It is just that those nations recognize that democracy is not flawless and the players need to be cautious to ensure they play by the rule. Had Nigerian politicians played by the rule in the last thirteen years, there is no doubt that Nigerians would have had reasons to smile. It was former UN Secretary-General, Boutros-Boutros Ghali who said that democracy does not begin and end with the polls. Rather what happens at the polls is just the beginning and in the course of the journey care should be taken to ensure that all arms of the government truly remain independent. If Nigeria were to achieve just this in the first two years of our democracy and then sustain it, which would have amounted to a huge gain of democracy because once that is achieved all other things should fall in place with ease. The government would not have had to scavenge for what to present as proof of its good application of democracy.

The result of modest performance according to Nigerians is the failure of the government to provide just basic needs such as water, electricity, good school, satisfactory health care and the general improvement of the standard of living of ordinary Nigerians.

Normally, elected leaders should be able to think deep to understand what the problems of a nation are prior to mounting the seat of power or even aspiring for leadership. My secondary school teacher of history use to say, ‘understanding a question is part of the solution.’ Had the administration understood well enough the problems of the nation, the story would have been different. A critical part of the life of the nation that should have been given the desired attention, for instance, is the judiciary. During the long period of military rule, the judiciary suffered neglect and it was a first huge mistake for the administration not to have noticed that reforming it was the right step for an administration that truly wanted to reform a nation. According to Barrister Solomon Dalong, an attorney who also lectures at the faculty of Law at the University of Jos, a huge portion of the blame for the sad situation of the Nigerian judiciary should be placed at the doorstep of the executive arm of government for constantly rocking the boat of the judiciary to enable it to perpetrate illegality. This is in addition to the poor funding of the judiciary, he says. Dalong likened the judiciary to a pyramid whose base suffers as a result of what goes on at the top. To a lesser degree he says, members of The Bar have played their roles in throwing the judiciary into the huge and filthy ditch in which it has found itself. He said that in Nigeria, some members of the bar has put money high and above professionalism thereby polluting the pure waters of justice by unnecessarily working to delay and frustrate the delivery of justice in situations where they are aware of the guilt of the person they are defending. The police, according to him, cannot exempt itself of blame as far as the comatose state in which the Nigerian judiciary has found itself. The police sometimes deliberately fail to present a suspect in court against the instruction of judge as doing so will hurt their own personal and selfish interest. That is not to mention the police’s insistence of payment of bailing fee in a country where the constitution provides that bail of a suspect from the custody of the police shall be free. At times police deliberately keep a suspect in custody even for months just to allow time for his relations to raise the money for his bailing, even in cases where the detained person may be innocent. Sometimes the police even detain people just to give the society the impression that they are working. All these challenges are judicial issues that an emerging nation must tackle to demonstrate that it is indeed willing to remake itself.

Critics of the powers that ruled during thirteen years of democratic rule blame the series of administrations within the period for taking for granted the need for an alternative source of revenue to supplement oil revenue and make more money available for state governments to carry out development programs. Agriculture, tourism and solid minerals development are areas that should have been taken seriously to generate the additional revenue and create the desperately needed jobs for the unemployed that are now reacting with extremely bitter consequences. In the last thirteen years, attempts have been made to exploit the huge economic potential in these sectors but no meaningful success has been recorded.

Education is another critical area that needs the attention of leaders who sincerely understand that the nation had retrogressed and the reversal of the ugly trend is the motivating factor that pushed them into politics. Good leaders should be able to understand that education is the only means that can change a mentality with the potential to hold a nation in the mire and if we must move away from the stagnation then education must be given its due recognition and treated as such. The history of neglect of education in Nigeria dates back to the early eighties and the trend has only gotten worse as the years roll by. The last thirteen years opened a new chapter in the neglect of the sector as it is during this period that wealthy and influential Nigerians started the culture of educating their children in other countries. This is an implication that hope has been lost on the possibility of good education in Nigeria. The sad thing is that even our leaders see it as a culture of the rich and influential for which they cannot be left behind. Some of the destination countries are even smaller and poorer nations of Africa. A good government that is committed to rebuilding its nation should be able to see beyond obstacles and able to overcome the urge to join trends that will hurt the nation.

Nigeria in the last thirteen years has grown to become more corrupt compared to the level of corruption prior to the coming of democracy. According to OPEC, Nigeria’s oil export in 2011 contributed 87% of total revenue for that year. The implication of this is that the Nigerian budget was largely based on oil revenues. This has been the case since the oil sector became fully developed in the seventies. In May 1999, when Nigeria’s reigning democracy was born, the price per liter of crude oil was $15.22 per barrel. As at April 30th 2012, a barrel of crude oil sold for $118.66 per barrel representing an increase of 679.63%. Despite this, children in Nigerian cities often go to school late due to time wasted in search of water, especially during the dry seasons. During the last thirteen years, the frequency of industrial actions has risen remarkably demonstrating that the period has been the least productive with lots of man- hours lost. Electric power supply has not improved, the trains are still not moving and so on and so forth. While the provision of social amenities has been unsatisfactory within the period, there have been a corresponding increase in cases of corruption within the same period that could explain the drain into which the staggering oil revenue generated within the period has been lost. Some of the most recent include the corruption case in connection with the stealing of pension funds where one of the suspect was found to have hidden N2 billion in his house, the oil subsidy scandal, the recent sentencing of the ex-governor of Delta State, James Ibori to thirteen years imprisonment in Britain over cases for which he was discharged by a law court in Nigeria. Other cases in the past are the Patricia Ette’s case in the National Assembly, the Police Pension Fund case, the $16 billion USD meant for the improvement of electricity supply during the Obasanjo administration. This is just to mention a few.

Thirteen years of civilian regime in Nigeria has worked to entrench a culture of violence that started during the clamor for the implementation of Sharia law in Northern Nigeria early within the period to the Niger Delta crisis, ethno-religious violence in the central part of the country and terrorism also in the north. Most of these can be tied to expression of frustration over the cycle of failure of the administration.

The ordinary man in the street of Nigeria has his own criteria for the appraisal of the progress made or otherwise within the period of active practice of democracy. Food prices have only gone higher, the streets have not become as brilliant as the ones they see on TV and the Super Eagles of Nigeria have continued to descend in FIFA rankings.

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