For 19 years successively, Democracy Day has become a special day in Nigeria. It is held annually on May 29. The day commemorates the restoration of democratic rule in Nigeria, when former President Olusegun Obasanjo assumed office on May 29, 1999. This ended multiple decades of military rule that began in 1966 which had been interrupted only by a brief period of democratic rule.
After attaining independence in 1960 from Great Britain, Nigeria fought a civil war following the first of many military coups in 1966. Democracy was succinctly restored from 1979 to 1983. But for most of its independent history, Nigeria was ruled by a series of military juntas. The last noticeable military dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, died on June 8, 1998.
His successor, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, promised a one-year transition to democracy, and accordingly a new constitution was adopted. Elections were held and retired Gen. Obasanjo, who had previously governed Nigeria as a military ruler, was elected the new president.
The end of military rule ushered a new era of regular elections as well as the return of civil liberties, free press and an end to arbitrary arrests and torture, although human rights violations still occur regularly. Nigeria also began a long campaign against corruption that had paralyzed its economy and severely tarnished its international reputation.
Since the inception of democracy and civil rule, how have we fared as a nation? Have we accomplished the goals and objectives we set out to achieve when we aspired to have sovereignty?
In spite of the ups and downs of our democratic experience, one believes that there is at least something to celebrate in that in our 57 years of existence, this is the first time the country has experienced uninterrupted democratic practice for 19 years.
Besides, a feat was achieved in 2015 when for the first time an opposition party took over power after emerging victorious in a general election. This was something thought to be a phantasm. The result of that election improved Nigeria’s image globally and confounded nations which hitherto taught nothing good could come out of the country.
Regardless of such accomplishments several of which are not specified, there are multitudinous challenges confronting democratic consolidation and good governance in the country.
Corruption constitutes one of the greatest challenges and threats to the democratic unification. It reached its zenith when Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perception Index report projected Nigeria as the second most corrupt country in the world (132nd out of 133 countries surveyed).
Since the return of democracy in 1999, election and democratic practice have been more of a thing of ‘war’, vendetta and violence. In other words, voting became for most Nigerians a matter of ritual performances than the actual election of leaders.
Elections and democratic practices are personalised by electoral malpractices, political intolerance, economic mismanagement, use of political office for personal enrichment, political thuggery, lack of intra-party democracy, insecurity, manipulation of religion and ethnicity to achieve selfish political ends, among others.
Poverty is another factor that constitutes grave challenges to democratic coalition and good governance. Ironically, Nigeria is blessed with abundant human and natural resources, yet its people are poor. The nation ranks among the world’s poorest countries.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (2009), most Nigerian citizens contend with a life of abject poverty. Thus, about 70% of the population are poor. The average Nigerian lives in self-alienation as they lack the wherewithal to afford the basic necessities of life.
The behaviors of the political actors have remained an immutable cause for concern. Like it has been since the First Republic in 1960, political parties are riddled with one crisis or the other. Even with the nearly two decades of democratic practice, indications from the political parties are to the effect that many of them are on ‘life support’.
In advanced democracies, for instance, democratic culture is entrenched through the instrumentality of political party ideologies. But in our clime there is complete absence of party ideologies. That is why political scholars have severally described the character of political parties in Nigeria as a mockery of an ideal democratic system.
Another daunting challenge of the present democratic dispensation is insecurity. Since the return of democracy, the country has been experiencing ethno-religious crises and sectarian clutches exemplified by the Boko Haram onslaughts and the recent herdsmen activities that have claimed several lives. This is a veritable threat to the unity of the country.
There is a presumption that despite multiple expropriations, Nigerians can take solace in the knowledge that they practice democracy. But the kind of democracy practised by Abuja and the states has delivered neither improved standards of living nor abstract benefits such as press freedom or human rights; instead it provides the perfect cover for massive corruption.
I have sensed a disturbing smugness in Nigerian politicians and intellectuals as they attempt to foist democracy on the rest of us. They assume that the mere practice of the system is sufficient for us. Meanwhile the concept as modified in the country stands empty of its substantive content. This misjudgment is indeed disturbing, obscene and offensive.
With such a low dividend on democracy, and with democracy being so costly and toxic to the body politic, it is no surprise that many Nigerians have begun to question their loyalty to the received notion that democracy is superior to its alternatives.
Since democracy brings development and improved living, Nigerians should expect much from it. Therefore, it is time they began to see some of the promised returns. If they don’t, they have a right to question the assumed connection between democracy and development and to become disillusioned.
The truth is that Nigeria’s democracy is fatally flawed and we are all headed for an implosion if nothing is done about it. The disenchantment with our own democratic practice and its many failures is real. We ignore this reality at our own peril.
If we remain averse to the advancement of popular democratic tenets, we will be frequently confronted with crises that endanger the very foundation of the union. After all, what is democracy worth if the way we engage in it imperils our country and its people and widens the crevices that divide us? Would we rather preserve a pretentious democracy and lose the nation?