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19 Years of Uninterrupted Civil Rule and the Struggle for Institutional Democracy

An offshoot of prolonged military adventure into Nigerian politics is the overhang of military rule. One writer put it in more graphic terms when he referred to it as the “military complex”. This military rule syndrome if you like, manifests itself in arbitrary actions of supposed democratic leaders who unconsciously go about executive functions of state, with a jackboot mentality and has with successive governments become the norm cutting across the full spectrum of Nigeria’s leadership infrastructure namely, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

Throughout the 19 years of uninterrupted democratic rule in Nigeria, the fundamentals of an ideal democratic state have remained in perpetual abeyance. With a centralised government; a yellow federal structure; a near fusion of executive and legislative powers; the absence of due process of law in executive functions to name a few, the fruits of democracy remain for the most part largely un-reaped.

In recent times, there has been a certain tendency to adap to this system of democratic anomie, such that some political scientists and commentators alike have attempted to create a democracy peculiar to the Nigerian circumstances. But can this be? Democracy as a model system of government derives its beauty and strength on its enabling institutions and as such cannot be subjected to any form of panel-beating to meet the demands of a reactionary ruling class. There is therefore no cherry-picking in the adoption of democracy as a system of government by any state. Indeed it would be most preposterous to say a state is a democracy, yet the freedom of the press is muzzled or the rule of law compromised.

To be sure, Democracy is derived from two greek words, “Demos”meaning people, and “kratos”meaning rule. Put in its definitive context, it is the government of the people and takes its roots from ancient Athens. Deriving its conventional form today from the great American political philosopher, Abraham Lincoln, at the iconic Gettysburg address, democracy is no mean system of government whose distinguishing features can be compromised for parochial considerations. But a one off look at the 19 years of democratic rule in Nigeria would bear out that not much could be said to have been achieved in the institutionalization of democracy.

Institutional democracy exists when all those with a major stake in an institution or network of institutions have significant decision-making power in determining its values and goals. It is a system where the institutions of state are so empowered that they drive the entire government framework. It has an inherent system to redeem and assert itself when subjected to compromise and only admits of the right people within its operation. It is not a shirt term fix; but a long term policy based on practicality and principle.

As against this standard practice of institutionalised democracy, democratic rule in Nigeria has rather thrown up strong men with weak institutions of state to thrown them overboard. In the process Nigerians have witnessed too much politics without governance; noise without action; motion without movement and a country of ethnic nationalities as against a nation. There is no implicit confidence in the capacity of the institutions of state to rise in defence of democratic ideals.

This much was writ large in the circumstances that brought President Muhammadu Buhari to power. Up until this day, the phone call of concession made by former president Good Luck Jonathan congratulating his opponent at the time, has been fingered as the sole reason why we were able to have the first transition of power from an incumbent to an opposition element.

It has been suggested here and there, that were the former president to have been an aggregator of political power, he would have deployed his political might to protest the result of the polls as has been the practice in most African states. Through all this, no mention was made of the capacity of the democratic institutions to rise up against such a move were it contemplated by the former president. Thus, the essentials of the ballot─a key element of any democracy has unwittingly been discounted in favour of the discretion of an incumbent. With a largely subservient police force; a sycophantic anti-corruption machinery; an often compromised electoral commission; a warehoused military and a centralised treasure trove, the engine of democracy grinds at the mercy of the commander in chief.

Whereas one of the enduring ideals of the democratic system of government is the principle of Rule of Law; a painstaking deconstruction of our democratic experience would leave behind a pathetic score card of non-compliance with constitutional provisions and a festival of impunity. Section 15(5) of the 1999 Constitution provides instructively that the state shall abolish all corrupt practices and abuse of power, yet, these two constitutional evils have since become the unwritten national ethos. And as though in a Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy; presidents, governors and local government chairmen carry on like proverbial Lords of the Manor while a beleaguered citizenry watch with trepidation.

We have seen this resort to abuse of power in our chequered history chiefly masterminded by the duo of the executive and legislative arm of government, with the judiciary rising up to stem the tide when it pleases the establishment to obey its orders. In the surreptitious impeachment of the then deputy governor of Abia state, now senator, Eyinnaya Abaribe, we saw the abuse of legislative power. But even that too was elevated to new heights in the impeachment drama of the then governor of Oyo state, Senator Rashid Ladoja before the judiciary came to save the day.

In the controversial impeachment of governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti state in his first ‘missionary journey’ we saw the abuse of political power to settle political differences. In Plateau state, we also saw this being perpetuated even with more conviction of purpose. In the Third Term gambit we saw the abuse of state power; in the impeachments of senators Adolphus Wabara; the late Chuba Okadigbo just to name a few, we saw wholesale abuse of power. Now, it would serve no purpose I think, to chronicle the resort to corrupt practices that has become a rule rather than exceptions in our democratic experience. The ugly records of the country’s performance on this score, are well documented by the periodic Corruption perception index of the German Non-Governmental Organization; Transparency International. But suffice to say that in all, the precepts of democratic rule remain for the most part elusive.

The institutional premises of Nigeria’s democratic rule are so faulty that it cannot be logically concluded that we practice the democratic system of government strictly so called. Ours is a higgledy piggeldy strewn democratic climate where the rule of any-thing-goes and not the Rule of Law is the raison d’ etere of governments both at state and the federal levels.

Only recently, in a state where the principle of Separation of Powers ought to be the standard of relations among the tiers of government, a Court of law interred with the right of parliament to amend a substantive law despite the unmistakable powers of the legislature as endorsed by section 4 of the 1999 Constitution. In like manner, we have an executive arm of government that has repeatedly disobeyed the orders of a properly constituted High Court to release a citizen who has been held without trial for upward of three years. We saw the raid in the house of senior ranking judicial officers on trumped up charges of corruption. And if that was not chilling enough, we saw over bloated expenditure of state resources by the executive without recourse to constitutional checkpoints so to do. In short, democracy has been so prostituted as to lose its majestic force and appeal.

Even as I write, we have a head of an anti-corruption agency whose appointment has been refused by parliament on justifiable grounds, yet carries on his activities in acting capacity for ever with support from the presidency. The head of a revenue agency would not appear before the senate in his official raiment; the head of the police calls the bluff of the National Assembly; political parties who promise to uphold the rule of law if elected into office upend their internal rules and regulations; a party chairmanship election at the ward levels throws up parallel congresses here and there; the civil service is comatose and lying prostrate; health workers are on strike for ever; the educational institutions are decrepit; unemployment statistics race for the triple digits; the citizenry are unprotected with human lives lost to the point of desensitization of the citizenry. It has been one democratic experience without its dividends as the cliché goes.

Yet, if Nigeria must get it right, conscientious efforts must be made at the strengthening of her democratic institutions. I think the cerebral authors of the masterpiece: Why Nations Fail dealt succinctly with the imperatives of an institutionalised system. Since it is agreed by all sides that at the core of Nigeria’s moribund governmental framework is the absence of an institutionalised system, a sure way to start would be by giving power back to the institutions and deemphasising the might of individuals as in the womb of this, lay all the solutions to the problems of developmental governance.

And so while many state governments starting from the presidency would today mount the rostrums to reel out the ‘achievements’ of their 3-year ‘democratic’ superintendence in terms of the number of roads that have been commissioned; the block of classrooms undergoing construction; the amount of megawatts of electricity that has been added to the national grid and so on and so forth, they must be told that the greatest threat to our democracy is not the absence of few patches of roads here and there, but rather the attitude of governments at all levels towards the preservation and respect for democratic institutions.

I wish all of us a Happy Democracy Day!

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