Obstacles to democratic rule in Nigeria

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Picture on the wall FabrianoBy Chris Odinaka Nwedo

Why are there obstructions in the deepening of culture of democracy in Nigeria and indeed in Africa and why is the democratic space contracting and devoid of credible dividends and hope notwithstanding the continuous investments? This is in contrast to America and indeed Europe. In Europe democracy is widespread and strong. Almost all European societies are considered to be democratic because the societies are founded on the principles of a sovereign citizenship, transparent decision making and accountable government.1 We talk of hope in the context of the fact that democracy can orchestrate a real change of fortune, inspiring the citizens positively and productively by drawing energy from the state that has become properly functional and thriving in its fundamental responsibilities. The goals of democratization are often summarised in the following framework: changing the authority structures of the power and the government, creating new procedures, new mechanisms and new forms of social participation, (ii) creating the socio-political conditions necessary for social development and consolidating the newly created procedures, mechanisms, structures of power and development.2

In the contemporary world, democracy is presumed to be the most progressive system of government. It is founded on fundamental platforms such as individual freedom and impartiality. Democratisation principles target the promotion of freedom and rights, inclusive participation in elections, the promotion of freedom of expression, multi-party politics, the emergence of productive political cultures and governance based on collective values “and the promotion of a rapid and sustainable economic growth that takes into account the social interest ranges of society. 3 However, “there exists not only one theory, concept or model of democracy, but clearly a pluralism (or plurality) of different theories and models. Partially these varying theories or concepts could be integrated by a meta-theory or meta-concept; at the same time, however, it also should be acknowledged that some of those theories and concepts of democracy clearly contradict each other. This undoubtedly complicates every attempt of trying to set up and establish on a meta-level a process of theory/concept integration.4 For Campbell David, “the key dimensions of democracy are freedom, equality and control. Quality of democracy models commonly emphasize an understanding of democracy that is broader than earlier concepts of primarily electoral democracies.5 The prevalent presumption is that, “the essential idea of democracy is that the people have the right to determine who governs them. In most cases they elect the principal governing officials and hold them accountable for their actions. Democracies also impose legal limits on the government’s authority by guaranteeing certain rights and freedoms to their citizens.6

The preoccupations of this expedition are examinations of primary elements affecting advancement of genuine democracy in Nigeria. The impression given, in the meantime, is that democratisation and democratic elections in Nigeria are basically instruments that confer illegitimate votes to tyrants and their malevolent politics. Elections at all levels in Nigeria are pulverized by systematic rigging, fraud, treachery, ridiculous violence and death. At every election the folks are robbed of their franchise using violent gangs and nation’s duplicitous establishments by those in-charge. Electoral laws are slanted to the advantage of the party in power while security agents are encouraged to frighten the citizens and to create kinds of violence that favour the triumph of ‘anointed’ candidates. 2015 general elections spoke voluminously of the denigrating situations, and the elections in Edo, Ondo and Rivers States demonstrated that political democratisation processes in Nigeria are profoundly impeded, impaired and the future is intensely miserable. Even when the only standard element in our national elections is voting, citizens are technically refrained from voting by depriving them access to voters cards, improper accreditation models, late arrival of voting materials and currently the phenomenon of dysfunctional voter identification machines. All these difficulties are noticed and hampers smooth processes in opposition strong-holds. And they are designed to reduce participation of voters from the major opponents constituencies. The factors such as vote cancellations are parts and parcels of taking advantages away from one party to another, a wholesome illustration of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Votes are cancelled or nullified on any pretext if they go contrary to the expectations of those dictating the tune. So far in most elections since the current dispensation voting rules are not followed to strategically disfranchise targeted populations thus much of the values and potentials of our democratisation are intentionally and profoundly wounded.

The word ‘democracy’ has limitless definitions as no one definition is able to fascinate and unified the disparities of ideas of the subject among scholars. Etymologically, the vocabulary, ‘democracy’ “comes from ancient Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratiā), which combines dēmos, the “people”, with crates, meaning “rule”, “power” or “strength”. Put together, the literal denotation of democracy is “rule by the people”, culminating in a popular form of government. The historic origin of democracy roots in the Ancient Greek city-states of the fifth century BC, with Athens as the most prominent example.8 Since demos can be translated as “the people” (qua “native adult male residents of a polis”) and kratos as “power,” democracy has a root and drew meaning in “the power of the people.” But power in what sense? In modernity, democracy is often construed as being concerned, in the first instance, with a voting rule for determining the will of the majority. The power of the people is thus the authority to decide matters by majority rule. This reductive definition leaves democracy vulnerable to well-known social choice dilemmas…9 Consequently, “democracy is often defined as ‘the rule of the people’, a system of making rules determined by the people who are to obey those rules.10

Bühlmann et al., 2008; Schmidt, 2006). Michael J. Sodaro (2004) noted that “the essential idea of democracy is that the people have the right to determine who governs them. In most cases they elect the principal governing officials and hold them accountable for their actions. Democracies also impose legal limits on the government’s authority by guaranteeing certain rights and freedoms to their citizens.11  Freedom is possible only in democratic political systems in which the governments are accountable to their own people; the rule of law prevails; and freedoms of expression, association, and belief, as well as respect for the rights of minorities and women, are guaranteed.12

 ‘Democracy’ is specific in terms of “type of society as well as a particular form of government. A democratic society provides the fairest method of governance for most people and the most equality, with the majority of the people playing an active rather than a passive role. It is characterized by a moral imperative to protect and promote the human rights of every individual, every group and every community of society. Because a democratic society is constantly seeking to solve social questions for the benefit of the greatest number of people, these decisions are most likely to be respected by the people.13 Democracy is distinguished from other forms of government. For example, an oligarchy is rule by a small, privileged group distinguished by some quality such as wealth, family or military powers. In a plutocracy, government is controlled by the wealthy and in a dictatorship by a single all-powerful individual.  These forms of government violate principles of individual ‘autonomy’- that no-one should be subject to rules imposed by others; and the principle of ‘equality’- that everyone should have the same opportunity to influence the decisions that affect people in society. Here, neither individual autonomy nor equality is respected as power is held by a certain person(s) or social classes who then take decisions on behalf of the rest of the population.14


Democracy takes many forms, in direct democracy citizens personally participate in decision making. But the most extensive form of democracy is liberal or representative democracy, in which citizens elect representatives who create laws and policies and appoint the government officials. In theory, representative democracy involves the free and fair election of a government by a majority vote of the people being represented. A liberal democracy is characterized by the rule of law, separation of powers, protection of human rights and protection of minorities. The rule of law is the principle that the government and judiciary function only in accordance with written rules. It is closely linked with the principle of separation of power, according to which the legislative (parliament), executive (government) and judiciary (courts) act independently of each other. In a democratic government human rights provide a common value system. Accordingly, underrepresented social group of any kind, such as children, women, migrants, religious or ethnic minorities, are protected from discrimination and their identity and participation are promoted.15

The collapse of non-democratic communist regimes in Central Eastern and Eastern Europe critically marked a crucial watershed for the advancement of democracies. Thus 1990s was a turning point in the wave of democratization and represents the dominant global regime type.16 The claim is that in the world of ideas there is no more real alternatives or challenges to the concept of “liberal democracy”. In this understanding liberal democracy has finally prevailed ideationally. According to Francis Fukuyama (1989) “the twentieth century saw the developed world descend into a paroxysm of ideological violence, as liberalism contended first with the remnants of absolutism, then bolshevism and fascism, and finally an updated Marxism that threatened to lead to the ultimate apocalypse of nuclear war. The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.17

Perplexingly, the feverish waves of democratic changes that astounded and swept away in absolute terms the capricious controls of authoritarian regimes across continents have not significantly impacted most states in Africa. This is with reference to the fact that in these states democracy is only given lip service in the forms of multi party political events and the holding of regular elections. Regular elections ideally should be credible platforms for free and fair selection of political representatives. These elections though fundamental in the democratization processes do not automatically make everything about democracy right. In some instances, elections are strategized paraphernalia of bequeathing legitimacy to authoritarian structures and practices. This coherently demonstrated that political pluralism and regular elections are just important elements of democracy, but not sufficient for the realization of genuine democracy. Genuine democracy must be based on the broad acceptance of the principles of constitutionalism, rule of law and good governance. The above are the fundamental elements in identification of democratic processes, however, models may differ. This is to say that democracies are different from each other and none can be considered a standard for the others. Democratic governments can take several forms, including presidential (as in Nigeria, most states in Africa, America, France,) or parliamentary (as in Italy, United Kingdom, Slovakia or Spain). “Others, such as Germany, have federal governmental structures. Some voting systems are proportional while others are majoritarian. The common principles, however, are the equality of all citizens and the right of every individual to some degree of personal autonomy.18

However, personal autonomy component, does not mean that everyone can do whatever she or he likes. It implies that the governmental system allocates an equal vote to each citizen and recognizes that each individual is capable of independent choice and entitled to have that choice taken into account. After that, a great deal depends on the initiative and participation of individual citizens. Democracies differ greatly in the degree to which the applications respect equality and allow the citizens to influence decisions. People who live in poverty may have a weaker voice. Women, who are less present in the public arena, may have fewer opportunities to influence decisions, even those decisions concerning women specifically. Some social groups, such as children and foreign workers, may not be allowed to vote. At the same time most people believe that rules have been imposed on them by elected officials who do not represent their interests.19 The development reaffirms the notion that democracy is never perfect and never complete, indeed as defective as the human society that operates it. According to Karl Popper, “democracy is the word for something that does not exist”. This may be an exaggeration, but it is true that genuine democracy is an ideal model. It is up to the people to determine how close their society can get to this ideal state.20

Democracy is not simply bureaucratic in terms of electoral competitions, decision-making processes, free conversations on bills of rights and methodologies of power distributions. Democratic system is about security and good governance. In Nigeria and some other African states, democracy is yet to be consolidated for the decades of its practice because there is nothing tangible to support the system. It is spiteful that democratic model is continuously failing in every aspect with widespread political repression, dictatorship, denial of rights, disfranchisement, conflicts and insecurity and lack of transparency in the institutions of the state. Political intolerance, corruption and continuous violence demonstrate the malevolent development. It is a disappointment that after many decades of democratic experimentation, the model has disastrously failed to inspire Africans with positive leadership. Positive leadership in context of headship with the will and capacity to affect, really, the critical aspects of peoples’ national lives, in areas of individual freedom, stimulating economy and constructive politics. The experience is that after what seemed like democratic elections politicians surface and cease control of government and begin to manipulate national institutions in favour of discriminatory interests. This is mostly why the peoples’ dissatisfaction and distrust are prevalent. Consequently, politics and politicians are disparaged and considered nasty. Freedom as an idea is ubiquitous in all discussions and debates on democracy, unfortunately, it is hard-hit and subjugated as the leaders pursue the anti-people policies.

Freedom is a sub-structure on which democracy is founded and the quality of this freedom is the determining element. According to Bühlmann et al., (2008), the relationship between freedom and democracy obviously is complex. Freedom is interpreted as a crucial and necessary dimension of democracy. Thus, without freedom, democracy cannot exist. This, however, does not automatically determine in conceptual terms, whether or not there is a need for dimensions in addition to freedom for qualifying a country or a political system as democratic. In several theoretical and/or conceptual understandings of democracy, freedom alone would be insufficient. Often equality also is regarded as a crucial additional dimension for democracy.21

Affirmatively, freedom is not alone but it has qualities on which to look at in the characterisation. And it draws a line between where it exists and productively supporting democratisation and where it is refuted and replaced with repression, corruption, intolerance and upset.  In context of this, nothing works properly as the society is inclined to destabilisation with little to work or hope for. Nigeria specifically, has not experienced the level of physical and social infrastructure development that befits a nation awash in petro-dollars. The absence of commensurate development can be directly attributed to lack of good governance and the freedom to challenge and change the statuesque. Bad political leadership has been the most acknowledged bane of Nigeria’s national development. This is because good leadership is expected to regulate all aspects of society’s life and therefore provide leadership for moral and physical development of the nation.22 Today all the ills ravaging the nation is blamed on the national brand of democracy, thus, Nigeria has become injured and unable to respond and deal proactively with the tribulations. While Nigeria leads, in most instances, all the countries in West Africa and indeed beyond, the country’s inability is not the ability of the others.

Struggles for independence in Africa were not predicated on the logics of mere political change but on the imperative of the people’s needs. The motivating factors in the agitation for independence have today become relegated and negated. The emphasis has unfortunately shifted from improving the deteriorating living conditions among the indigenous peoples, the capturing and arming of the apparatus of government for dealing effectively with poverty and other forms of insecurity to repression, oppression and marginalization which are today breeding violence profusely, war and death. On the contrary, departure of Europeans were expected to “allow Africans to take charge of their own destiny, manage their own social, political, and economic affairs, and take responsibility for the design and execution of policies affecting their lives.23 Understandably, as part of the false-start, democratization of political space was not integrated into the ideology of the national political struggle, thus the deepening crisis which in the last decades and today have continued to syndicate, empower and dispose political tyrants who in attempts to cleave to power plant insecurity, poverty and underdevelopment.

Formation of parties and recurrent elections in Nigeria, specifically, created disposition for relatively free choice of representatives. However, the extent to which the political elites actually act on behalf of citizens is questionable, and meaningful participation in political life amongst the majority of citizens appears to be declining significantly due to many unnatural situations. Chances are that many African states can be paralleled to some Asia-Pacific countries which according to Horner and Puddephatt (2011) have shrinking and fragile democratic space. According to the scholars, the main reason for this is that democratic system of order has never been deeply institutionalized or made meaningful for the poor and marginalized groups. This is because ‘democratic transition failed to shift the political settlement of power relations and incentive structures that underpin society. Again, state structures have continued to be dominated by tyrant elite groups, and democratic institutions have been rendered meaningless or manipulated to serve subjective interests predominantly.24

Some of the definite indicators of the deepening crisis are the weaving of the political space to the whimsical choice of one man who provides the models of political behaviour and sets the tempo devoid of accountability. For instance, we have the Buhari factor in Nigeria that has became an overt hoax in terms of fighting and decimating corruption and mis-governance. The general credibility of the one-man has become disparaged by lull, indecisiveness and endless blunders that give the government impression of incompetence. The ‘high hopes’ of the change for the better at this moment is hallucinatory. The whimpers of hardship on the part of the masses are deafening while the corruption narratives are becoming scathing. From crisis of leadership in the parliament, budget-padding to diversions of billions designated for internally displaced citizens in the north-eastern Nigeria. In the senate confirmation of EFCC chairman, the storylines painted graphic pictures of  armed robbers chastising common thieves. In fact, we have our institutions subordinated and denigrated in this personality cult. At the beginning, the executive branch at the behest of the commander- in- chief chastised every arm of the government without reference to the provisions of the law. The Buhari was raised beyond the institutions and was implicitly encouraged to rule freely according to his styles, being ‘tasted’, ‘trusted’ and ‘incorruptible’.

 We have been in situations where the poor and the marginalised citizens are devoid of both capacities and opportunities to influence the behaviour of the state and those who manage it. Essential to the rule of law is the idea of horizontal accountability, or the concept that the powers and branches within a democracy are kept in check by their counterparts. These legal checks and balances ensure that the interests of any government branch, with varying responsibilities toward the body politic, will not take precedence over any other branch and impose an unaccountable form of political leadership upon the citizenry or engage in corrupt practices. While government agencies and branches should be accountable to citizens in the form of elections, they must also be held accountable to each other.25 Studies suggested that many of Africa’s post-cold war states failed in reconstruction projects to produce institutional environment capable of deepening democracy and enhancing popular participation, transparency and accountability, renewed interest in constitutionalism and democratic governance. There is a general feeling that the people are now fed up with the suffocation of the society, repression, corruption, and economic mismanagement.26

It is no more disputed that Africa’s pro-democracy movements have continued to face enormous constraints imposed on them by “the legacies of authoritarianism and military dictatorship, decades of economic mismanagement, and the subversion of the popular will,” as well as “the ruthless asphyxiation of civil society and programmed closure of political spaces by Africa’s dictators and the rabid politicization of nationality and identity platforms that precipitated violent conflicts and pogroms….27 It is also claimed that the constitutional rules that most African countries adopted at independence are not legitimate. These rules failed to reflect the values of the people to be governed by them; for one thing, constitution making at this time was top-down, elite driven and not participatory. The process was not democratic, bottom-up or people driven. The critical issue was that these constitutions did not reflect the values of the relevant stakeholder groups.28

Democratization processes are evidently inhibited in Nigeria  by the choices forced on the people by the domineering will of her imprudent elites. The society is thus configured to lack the characteristics compatible with democracy. The recent upsurge in destructive violence in Mali and Boko Haram predicaments in Nigeria were predicated on some of the factors of the above hypothesis. The Nigerian Islamists considered western education evil and are dedicated to destruction of all schools even as the confrontational Islamists were determined to impose Islam as national religion. Malian Islamists with active support of Al-Qaeda have not spared anything they considered Un- Islamic in the area they are struggling to gain control. Boko Haram and the conspiratorial sponsors denounced the government elected by Nigerian majority in ‘free, fair and credible’ election. The rampaging militant religious group is passionately against the bills of rights, universal suffrage, the equal rights to elective office, freedom of expression and freedom of religion or association. In practical terms the bills are factors prerequisite in demonstration that democracy can function even at a minimal level. The negation of the basic factors for democratization solicits direct reversion to authoritarianism, tyranny or dictatorship. In Nigeria, the Islamist sects have been implicated in bombs attacks of churches, government offices, banks and police posts with tens of thousands of innocent citizens insensitively massacred. They claimed responsibilities for suicide attacks, kidnapping and abductions. The states infested by the group in Nigeria are considered lawless, risky and retarded. Democracy is endangered in all Boko Haram endemic states. Fair and consistent application of the rule of law is vital for democracy to flourish.