Jul 31, 2023

Has Nigeria’s democracy achieved anything? 

July 27, 2023Matthew MaOpinion0

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“Democracy also needs a stable political environment to flourish. It includes recognizing the fundamental value and dignity of every person, respect for the equality of all persons, and individual freedom. Sadly, the arrogance and atrocity that crushed the hope of the 1993 election are still evident in governance. Today, we suppress protests violently while fundamental rights, especially freedom of speech, are under state repression.”

Last month, we celebrated Democracy Day. Nigeria declared June 12 a public holiday to mark the anniversary of the day when Nigerians trooped out en masse to elect Bashorun Moshood Kashimawo Abiola (MKO Abiola), a South Westerner and Yoruba man, as President of Nigeria. On that day, Nigerians discounted primordial sentiments and ignored the centrifugal forces at the heart of the Nigerian question. For the first time in the history of Nigeria, the usual divisive factors of religion, geography, and ethnicity did not matter. Abiola was a Yoruba man. He won convincingly in more than two-thirds of the states required by the Constitution. He beat his opponent, Bashir Tofa, of the then National Republican Convention (NRC), in the pre-election debate and campaigns and trounced him in his ward and state of Kano. It is instructive that Bashir Tofa has remained a footnote in Nigerian history since then. We can confidently say that no Nigerian has ever matched MKO Abiola’s charisma, and not even one has matched him in death. Abiola did something extraordinary. He presented Nigerians with a Muslim-Muslim ticket. His running mate was Baba Gana Kingibe, another Muslim from the north. Nigerians did not bother about that. They wanted change. They wanted to progress. They sought freedom from the shackles of military tyranny. Abiola preached a message of hope. Nigerians saw this time as the season of reformation and reconstruction. It was time to end the grip of corrosive, corrupt, and obnoxious military rule. It was the beginning of transformations across the nation.

Soon after the National Electoral Commission (NEC) began announcing the first election results, Abiola started winning by a wide margin. Almost toward the end of the exercise, he won 19 out of 30 states, including the Federal Capital Territory. In other words, he won all the states of the southwest, three of the seven states in the southeast, five of the nine northern states (including Tofa’s State), and four of the seven states in the Central Middle Belt. Of the 6.6 million votes announced, Abiola received 4.3 million and Tofa 2.3 million. If Abiola had been declared the winner, he would have been the first southerner to be elected president of Nigeria, breaking through ethnoreligious divides and having support from all regions of the country. But the military government had a different motive. They denied MKO Abiola’s victory on June 24, 1993. General Ibrahim Babangida (IBB), the military head of state during this time, annulled the election. Although he claimed he was not acting alone and that his hands were tied, the event of June 12, 1993 (an election won by a man he considered his friend), will remain a day of infamy, a symbol of betrayal, dishonesty, and political suicide in the history of the country. We may also recall that Senator Arthur Nzeribe, notorious for the Association for Better Nigeria (ABN), masterminded the June 12 annulment. On June 10, 1993, Nzeribe attempted to stop the presidential election by relying on a court order ABN got from a midnight ruling from the late Justice Bassey Ikpeme of the Abuja High Court. The ABN backed the military dictator Gen. Ibrahim Babangida’s regime, leading to the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election.

Following the annulment was series of violent protests in the southwest region. In an attempt to subdue riots, reports allege that security forces killed over 100 people. There were international condemnations of the annulment and the killings. The United Kingdom, the United States, and European Union suspended aid to Nigeria, and the Commonwealth condemned the cancellation. The military government, however, accused foreign governments of meddling in its affairs and attempting to destabilize the country. The national protest following the annulment forced President Babangida to step aside and hand power over to Ernest Shonekan on August 27, 1993, as the head of an Interim National Government. But weeks after handing over to Shonekan, late military dictator General Sani Abacha staged a coup that usurped the interim government to return Nigeria to military rule. Abacha dissolved the legislature and the state and local governments and replaced the elected civilian state governors with military and police officers. He also banned all political activities. We should remember that Abiola’s victory would have marked a second liberation for Nigerians. At first, we felt our liberator had come to liberate us from the shackles of military tyranny. Sadly, it turned out to be a nightmare. Abacha’s takeover remained a pain in the neck for Nigerians.

In the aftermath of the election, the Abacha government designated some organizations as terrorists. A broad coalition of Nigerian Democrats formed The National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) on May 15, 1994. They called on the military government of Sani Abacha to step down in favor of the winner of the June 12, election, M. K. O. Abiola, who became a target of oppression. Those who formed NADECO were prominent Nigerians, notably Tony Enahoro, a former minister of information; Abraham Adesanya, a former senator; Dan Suleiman, a retired air commodore; Ndubuisi Kanu, a retired rear admiral, and a host of other activists. They spoke truth to power. They risked all they had, including their lives, to confront Abacha. Inevitably, the Abacha government classified them as a security threat. Subsequently, President Abacha arrested NADECO members and killed others secretly. The Abacha administration laid out a murderous template for dealing with NADECO. They classify anyone who does not support their government as a NADECO. The outcome was neither a death sentence by a killer squad nor a phantasmagoria charge of terrorism and detention in underground cells or solitary confinement. Those who escaped arrest went into exile. So, among the founding leaders, Chief Tony Enahoro was forced into exile. Abiola’s wife, Kudirat, was murdered on the streets of Lagos. Mr. Adesanya, in his late 70s, mysteriously escaped an assassination attempt in Lagos. Alex Ibru, the publisher of The Guardian Newspaper, also survived an assassination attempt in Lagos. Nigeria became divided into two camps: pro-Abacha and pro-NADECO. The government bombed media houses and killed journalists on suspicion of supporting NADECO. Abacha clamped down on several media houses and seized newspapers and magazines. Many journalists and pro-democracy campaigners, like Nobel laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka, Bola Tinubu, and others, fled the country. Those who could not abscond from the country were abducted, tortured, and sent to jail. They sentenced Dr. Niran Malaolu, a journalist for the Congress newspaper, to life in prison. Other journalists, like Kunle Ajibade of The News Magazine, Chris Anyanwu of The Sunday Magazine, George Mba of Tell Magazine, and many others were sentenced to various jails by a secret military tribunal over their alleged involvement in the 1995 phantasmagoria coup. They classified the Guardian Newspaper as pro-NADECO.

At the height of the oppression in June 1995, a guerilla radio station, Radio Kudirat, was established. Radio Kudirat was originally called Radio Democratic Nigeria International. Activists ran Radio Kudirat to torment Abacha’s oppressive regime. According to the editor-in-chief and publisher of Ovation, a Nigerian magazine based in London, Radio Kudirat was formally Radio Freedom. It was a local pirate radio station, operating clandestinely in Nigeria, whose local transmitter was unknown. Sometimes in its operation, Radio Freedom changed its name to Radio Democrat. But when unknown gunmen assassinated Mrs. Kudirat Abiola in June 1996, the pro-democracy wing of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), the National Liberation Council of Nigeria (NALICON), demanded that the management of the radio change its name to Radio Kudirat in honor of the murdered wife of Chief Moshood Abiola. So, Radio Kudirat was transmitted worldwide on short-wave frequency and heard worldwide by listeners during the evening hours. The radio offered an alternative voice to the Nigerian people. It runs programs in Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, and English. The radio also plays revolutionary music. Its mission was to encourage Nigerians to resist the military dictatorship in Nigeria. With the location of its transmission unknown, there was a witch hunt by Nigerian authorities for some local people suspected of being associated with Radio Kudirat. Soldiers were deployed to the streets to ransack the homes of pro-democracy campaigners and journalists. There was palpable tension in the land, leading to fears of a civil war or a division of the country. The government arrested and tortured Pro-democracy activists, while some were killed or kidnapped, never to be seen again. In fact, many people were wrongly detained and questioned over suspicion that they had links to the radio. Many were accused of planting bombs, even when no evidence pointed to the crimes. Radio Kudirat went off the air on January 1, 1999. The presenter said in a January 1, 1999, broadcast that Radio Kudirat would be back, more powerful than ever. Since then, 21 years later, the radio has never returned.

After the restoration of democracy in 1999, there were persistent calls for June 12 to be declared a public holiday. Unfortunately, the calls yielded no fruit as successive governments stuck to the May 29 handover date for years. Only the southwestern states of Lagos, Ogun, Osun, Ondo, and Ekiti declared June 12 a public holiday to honor heroes and heroines. Remarkably, former President Muhammadu Buhari decided to move Democracy Day from May 29, the traditional day for relinquishing power to a new administration, to June 12 to remind all Nigerians of the significance of that date. This eventuality has formed the substance of Buhari’s legacy at the level of simple common sense if not any heavy affluence.

In the past, people have raised questions concerning the significance of June 12 in the nation’s tortuous journey to democracy. Has Nigeria achieved anything? Democracy and Nigeria are like twins; though conjoined, they are uncomfortable and under intense pressure that could result in all forms of hurt, even death. Though democracy may not be strange to a great deal of Nigerians, what may be unfamiliar to them is the brand of democracy that invests, first and foremost, in human and material resources for political stability, economic viability, scientific advancement, technological breakthrough, educational development, and life-enhancing social services. Given the general optimism that Nigeria should be the bastion of democracy in Africa following her independence from Britain in 1960, one should expect that by now, democracy should be deeply rooted and institutionalized in the country. Ironically and unfortunately, Nigeria, as far as the practice and delivery of the dividends of liberal democracy are concerned, is still a crippled nation that can barely stand, let alone walk or run. While it is true that Nigeria has democratically elected leaders at the federal and state levels, we have yet to institutionalize democracy after a century of existence as a political entity. Some of the impediments to institutionalizing democracy in Nigeria after more than half a century of political independence are the background of the country, interspersed by deep-rooted ethnicity, complacent and wasteful leadership, ceaseless exploitation in the democratic process, electoral fraud, widespread poverty, and a high illiteracy level. In other words, Nigerian democracy is a brand of democracy that spends so much to accomplish so little (where and when it achieves anything at all). Second, it invests in the comfort of elites rather than human and material resources. In fact, the welfare of the ordinary person occupies the bottom rung on the ladder of the priorities of the anchors of Nigerian democracy. Third, Nigerian democracy has obsessive corruption that ensures the impact of any seeming good policy is negligible or almost nil. Hence, the pivot around which most of the factors listed above revolve is corruption, which has become a way of life in Nigeria. But while the balance sheet of democracy in Nigeria may be less than satisfactory, the desire for true democracy among Nigerians remains unassailably high.

The second question is, would there have been May 29 if June 12 had not happened? Would Obasanjo, who gave scant regard even in death to Abiola, have been President if MKO had not died in prison? I am a proud Nigerian because former President Muhammadu Buhari followed his promise by proclaiming Chief MKO Abiola the winner in the June 12, 1993, presidential election. With this declaration, he made June 12 our Democracy Day. Was former President Obasanjo enraged by this gesture? For eight years, Nigerians begged him to celebrate Abiola, but to no avail. Yet, if Abiola had accepted the annulment of June 12, there would never have been an Obasanjo presidency. He died, while Obasanjo became the chief beneficiary. And today, Obasanjo claims to be an idea democrat! Really? What an irony. Many Nigerians have argued that the events of June 12 are the actual Democracy Day. According to them, June 12 was the day Nigerians unanimously voted for MKO Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the 1993 presidential election, without recourse to religion, ethnicity, or ideology. Hence, the unity with which the multi-ethnic groups spoke and acted gives us hope for a better Nigeria. Thus, the significance of June 12 is that Nigerians understand that the worst form of democracy is better than the best dictatorship. For many of us who voted during the June 12 election, it is better to disagree and keep developing our democracy than to return to military rule. That is why, when some youths were more or less calling for an interim government and some unconstitutional interventions because they were disappointed over the 2023 election, I was astonished at what they were thinking. The idea is that they have no idea that they are playing with fire. The little stability in the democracy we enjoy today is attributable to the June 12 struggle. And that we should not take it for granted. There is, however, no perfect democracy anywhere in the world, and, as pointed out earlier on, the eagerness of Nigerians to participate in the electoral process, the relative stability and sustenance of the multi-party system, and the general realization in the country that the only acceptable and popular route to the acquisition of political power is the ballot box are some of the inspirations that suggest that all hope is not lost. There will always be light at the end of the tunnel.

So, what are we celebrating? As we mark Democracy Day, I want to acknowledge the sacrifices made by our past heroes who fought for democracy in our land. Their struggles and sacrifices have paved the way for the democratic government we enjoy today. We must never forget their efforts and their contributions to our freedom. In a time like this, we also remember the annulment of the free and fair election of Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola as president on June 12, 1993. That event is a watershed in our nation’s history. Hence, it should remind us of the need to uphold the principles of democracy, justice, and fairness at all times as responsible citizens. As Nigerians, we must learn from the lessons of June 12 and strive to build a nation where democracy is genuinely entrenched. We must put aside our religious and cultural differences and work towards a common goal for a better Nigeria. Let June 12 remain a political signpost in the history of Nigerian democracy. Let us pray for our nation and work together toward a brighter future.

As we celebrate democracy, we must recognize that we still have much work to do. But first, we must address the issues of insecurity, corruption, poverty, and unemployment in our country. These problems affect all Nigerians. Hence, we must tackle them with urgency and sincerity. One interesting debate we have been having in Nigeria since 2015 is: is our problem corruption or the economy? Many Nigerians believe that our presidents prioritize fighting corruption above the economy. Some even argued that anti-corruption is not an economic policy. But others disagree that without eliminating corruption, the economy will remain stagnant, while poverty will worsen. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda once said it is not enough to fight corruption; first, create wealth to fight poverty. Let us help the new president get the message. Shared economic prosperity can help the anti-corruption war.

Another lesson is that the Nigerian political class can be shambolic. The National Republic Convention (NRC) behaved poorly after losing the election. Rather than join forces with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) to defend our democracy and confront the military (the life-threatening enemy), it became, If I do not have it, nobody else should. The NRC quickly withdrew from the fight. To make matters worse, aggrieved SDP members who felt Abiola got a Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket in the first place were eager to negotiate away the mandate. SDP leaders soon engaged the military to set up an interim government to save Nigeria from the precipice. This notion is what we call political football.

The next lesson is that Nigerians are too quick to forget. Many of those parading themselves today as heroes of democracy were dining with the enemies of democracy who annulled the June 12 election. They struggled vigorously to make sure the government maintained the annulment. They said and did despicable things for political gain and profit. But none of them remembers. They now organize lectures and seminars on democracy and the resistance to military rule. They are receiving credit as lovers of democracy against those who fought for our freedom. If you would like a list of these villains-turned-heroes, please get a copy of Olusegun Adeniyi’s book, The Last 100 Days of Abacha. You will marvel at the conduct of the sycophants who have become latter-day saints of the democratic era.

For lovers of true democracy, the June 12 election represents the voice of all Nigerians. It was to the Hausa what it was for the Igbo and Yoruba, Nupe, Ijaw, or Tiv. It soared above religion, tribal social status, or personal ambition. The struggle for political power in a neocolonial country requires mass mobilization beyond religion, tribe, or social status. Hence, we must demolish the deeply polarizing factors of religion and ethnicity. We should make efforts to suppress the north-south dichotomy. Significantly, the high-risk choice of a running mate based on religious and ethnic sentiments must be inconsequential in the election. So, what can we do, then? We must endeavor to enlighten voters enough to evaluate candidates based on program, integrity, and abilities over divisive ethnic, regional, and religious sentiments. Today, base sentiments run through the government and society.

Some lessons we have not mastered are about the quality of elections. A thriving democracy enables citizens to choose their leaders and representatives through periodic, free, and fair elections. Elections in Nigeria have hardly been free or fair. Usually, they are marred with violence, manipulation, and hostility. But June 12 is still arguably considered the freest of all elections ever held in the country. This notion arises because the way political parties selected their candidates was transparent and inclusive. Electorates nominated candidates from the ward level to the state level. Today, ruthless godfathers and governors anoint party candidates. Democracy is absent at the grassroots. Its absence has kept many decent, service-oriented citizens away from politics. The Open-ballot system was also transparent, enabling voters to queue behind party candidates or banners before casting their ballots. The results were known and transmitted from each polling station. This way, despite the dictatorship stopping official verification after the NEC released the results of 14 of the then-30 states, interested parties had the results of all the states, Local governments, wards, and polling stations that confirmed Abiola’s landmark victory.

Other lessons we ignore include the enticing prospect of a stable two-party system. Despite initial doubts about a two-party system, Nigerians gradually understood its advantages. The SDP and the NRC each offer Nigerians an ideological umbrella to choose from. Undoubtedly, the democratic ideal is to allow unfettered freedom of association to promote alternative views. However, the two-party system develops centrism and stability. Today, we have many political parties but lack any commitment to ideology or programs. Among the 18 registered political parties in Nigeria as approved by INEC for the 2023 general election, as against 91 Political parties in 2019, none was able to articulate their ideology and even manifestos to the understanding of the masses, which, of course, is very laughable and shows a sign of lack of seriousness. Before political parties start registering for elections, their ideologies and manifestos must be ready. The manifesto is not about the candidates. Rather, it is about the program of action of the parties. Today, I cannot say which party belongs to the left or right, whether capitalists, socialists, conservatives, or liberals. The APC pretends to be progressive and claims to be an offshoot of Awolowo’s ideology. But looking at the history of its formation from the Alliance for Democracy (AD), who among those members or the APC as a party can say it has followed Awolowo’s ideology, socialism, or democratic socialism? Is the PDP a capitalist party or something else? Are members of the PDP genuinely professing it? It has always been an issue in Nigeria’s political process that the political parties do not have an ideology. Today, our dominant political party lacks any commitment to ideology or programs. Although not required by law, some stable democracies have two political party systems or coalitions. These include the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, South Korea, Australia, and many other emerging democracies. Maybe it is time Nigeria’s democracy began to think in this direction.

Where does the country go from here? The Nigerian state must re-engage with its diverse people. It must decentralize and devolve power to suit its dual nature. Over the ages, federalism has been an effective tool for conflict resolution in multicultural societies. Nigeria cannot be an exception. The values of economic competition, political inclusion, and public consensus, properly harnessed, are sufficient to defeat the diverging forces, criminality, and separatism tearing the country apart. However, building a nation is a mountainous task. Democracy also needs a stable political environment to flourish. It includes recognizing the fundamental value and dignity of every person, respecting the equality of all persons, and recognizing individual freedom. Sadly, the arrogance and atrocity that crushed the hope of the 1993 election are still evident in governance. Today, we suppress protests violently while fundamental rights, especially freedom of speech, are under state repression. Unlike the trust citizens had in Abiola’s truncated presidency, there is an enormous disparity in political legitimacy in the government today. And without legitimacy, the basis of a stable government is absent. Hence, it will take an exceptionally visionary leader to internalize these many requisites of nation-building. Therefore, to put Nigeria back on the path of national coherence, we should act as defenders of the electoral process in such a way that it will allow competent candidates to participate and emerge winners in elections. With this, the values of the June 12 election, notably our HOPE for liberty, equality, and justice, will flourish in the land.

Rev. Ma, S.J., is a Jesuit Catholic priest and Ph.D. candidate in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the State of Missouri, USA.