A diasporan commentator and friend of the house, who keeps regular tab on happenings at home from his UK base shared the following thoughts regarding the conversation on this page last week. He is passionately Nigerian and that prompted this follow-up.
He wrote: “On the question of an alternative political system for Nigeria and Africa as a whole, I will like to ask: have Nigerians or Africans seriously attempted absorbing the democratic principles? For instance, are ballot box snatching, stuffing of ballot boxes, killing and maiming of people, getting the judiciary to pronounce vile judgements, part of acceptable democratic processes?
“Please, let us stop this intellectual laziness. Nigerians must stop blaming the tools instead of blaming a poor workman. If Nigerians, seriously with their best endeavours, have tried to practice democracy and it fails because of the inherent weakness of the system, then we can talk about other alternatives. But we have not yet bothered to commit to the principles of democracy. Of course, liberal democracy is not the only system of government, but if reasonably practiced, it is much better than other systems in competition with it.”
Let’s face it. These are timely posers to assist the interrogation of whether liberal democracy is to blame for the leadership failure in Nigeria and across Africa. The principles of democracy can be as many as rightists, scholars and environmental peculiarities permit to stretch the debate. A general understanding requires that everybody is allowed to participate in all the processes that validate majority rule. That embodies the equality of all citizens.
Accountability and transparency help to bridge the gap, so that elected officials do not assume that they own the government and its resources. Apart from attending to the needs of the people, there is a place for regular feedback where voters assess quality of service in periodic elections. The opposition is expected to enjoy a level-playing field such that state machinery is not misapplied to unduly enhance the capacity of a so-called ruling majority.
How well have African democracies managed these principles for all the years they have adopted democracy as a system of government? Across board, the tendency for multi-party practice is popular on paper but the spirit to surrender to regular change of government through transparent elections is not a vogue.
For most years after independence, there has been a generation of sit-tight rulers across the continent, in Togo, Cameroun, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo, Eritrea and Djibouti, where rulers have spent decades in office. Rwanda has joined that league of recent. Gabon has just been excised from the list by the military, hoping their stay will be brief. These are extreme cases. In Cameroun, Paul Biya is now pampered like a school child to perform state duties. He is spent.
The tendency to hold on to power perpetually is a continent-wide affliction. What moderates other cases is perhaps the level of mass education, strength of the civil society and external pressures from the international communities. There are manageably regular elections in other countries now, such as Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Zambia and a few others, but the opposition has to be extra smart to take over government in these countries.
In 2015, the opposition coalition in Nigeria used all the tricks in their books to cajole voters. The former ruling party had vowed to stay in office for 60 years, but it turned out that former President Goodluck Jonathan did not summon courage to play the devious script of his party. It was counted for him as righteousness.
The takeaway in all of these is that the output of governance is paltry because winning elections at all cost steals the creative energy from the ruling class.
Poverty index in Sub-Saharan Africa is comparatively at same level with slight variations. And citizens’ deprivation is the reason there are agitation for change, either forcefully or otherwise. The level of hunger in some countries may not yield space to intellectual engagement to review what is democratic and what is not. And it gets absurd when the political class steals the lion share of the little that is available. Children of presidents live ostentatious lifestyles in choice cities of best countries.
They are not distinguished in any of the cranium abilities. But they have access to free dollars, which manufacturers desperately need in their home countries to produce goods and services. The wife of the deposed Gabonese President Ali Bongo, Sylvia Bongo Valentin, has been charged in court with money laundering and other offences. Their son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, has also been charged with corruption. Just a tip of the corruption iceberg in Africa.
The challenge therefore is if liberal democracy remains a good option for African countries, how can operators make it survive the threat of a quick-fix alternative? Is it true that operators have not stretched democracy to its uttermost before arriving at this point of seeking alternatives?
Coming back home where charity ought to begin. The 1998/99 political transition united politicians for the common purpose of ousting the military. Democracy was fought for with sweat and blood and it was thought that some hard lessons were learnt in the hands of the preceding military administrators. The first elections moderated by soldiers did not produce outlandish outcomes. The first three political parties did fairly well in areas they were thought to have grassroots support.
When the civilians began to moderate elections by 2003, the story changed. By 2007, ruling parties posted landslide victories in their domains and even in places where the opposition had some energy. Snatching and stuffing of ballot boxes, assault and murder became rife.
At that time, the desperation to win elections was still at infancy stage because the professions still fetched fairly good jobs. The private sector was fairly good and manufacturing paid good dividends to owners. Many could still look outside politics for decent sustenance. Such was the environment that some among the first set of governors were not persons of predictable and noble character. The pilfering of state coffers started with them. They stole like a swarm of locust on a green field, very wicked and rapacious. When they left, they did not leave any substance behind, just a pile of debts.
Now that the economy is strained, with the private sector struggling, politics has become the next available option for many, either for contest into elective offices or appointment into choice jobs. Competition is upped and with it the desperation to capture votes.
In terms of improving the culture of democracy and deepening its principles, former President Umar Yar’Adua set up the Justice Uwais committee to recommend ways to correct the defects in Nigeria’s version and remove several loopholes. The crucial one is the culture of a ruling party stealthily taking ownership of election management body and appointing politicians as election managers.
Persons appointed as chairmen of INEC and managers in states were at one time or the other members of political parties. If they did not openly parade with politicians, they are secretly affiliated to parties. Some could have been cabinet ministers. If by any chance they had no affiliation, they become absorbed because they needed to show gratitude.
Very central to the Uwais committee’s recommendation and fundamental to correcting electoral ills was the need to insulate electoral managers from the influence of political parties. To do that, the committee recommended that the president should no longer appoint the chairman of the national electoral commission. Instead, the appointment would be done through a public bid, after which short-listed candidates are processed by the National Judicial Council (NJC) and assessed by a cross-section of credible civil society operators before the final confirmation by the Senate.
The same process was to be carried out for the appointment of electoral managers at the sub-national levels. Of course, the politicians rejected that and the president has continued to appoint the chair of INEC with adverse consequences. If that recommendation were approved, perhaps, there would be improvement in the stamina of an INEC chair to look Mr. President in the eye and call his bluff.
The electoral confusion recorded in the course of the 2023 governorship election in Adamawa State took electoral heist to a new height. Such brazen illegality could only happen when a state electoral officer has the assurances of backers in Abuja to deliver a reckless fait accompli. It would have been daylight robbery but the plotters exhibited too much desperation. While the counting was still ongoing, they had used the social media to pronounce Senator Aisha Binani Dahiru of the All Progressives Congress (APC), winner. The plot failed woefully because of the prying eyes of the world. The INEC Resident Electoral Commissioner in the state, Hudu Ari, was disgraced. But getting the man to account for his sin is where the matter has k-leg. The judiciary will spend the next four years searching for evidence that the whole world has. No deterrence to tame future offenders.
The 2023 general elections generally posed a peculiar challenge to litigants in the sourcing of credible evidence. Whereas operatives of the Nigeria Police claimed they arrested over 781 persons for violating electoral laws during the 2023 elections, the judiciary does not get to see any evidence. They said they handed over 215 offenders to INEC for prosecution. But the tribunals don’t get to see any evidence. Beneficiaries of electoral crimes smile home with their stolen mandates. Didn’t they ask you to go to court!
The summary at this point and in response to aforementioned posers is that tolerance level in practice of liberal democracy is fully stretched in these climes and there could be room for more. Nigerians, and one could say same for Africans are very patient people. They are not rash and they weigh their options. It’s up to the political leadership to retrace their thieving steps and rescue whatever remains of the systems.