Tomorrow, May 29, leaders all over this country will be falling over themselves to utter words in praise of “democracy” and to beat their chests that for the first time ever, Nigeria has enjoyed 18 years of unbroken democratic rule. It is not my intention to pour sand into celebrants’ gari. Rural folks say that an onlooker in a wrestling match sees more chances for grabbing the leg than the wrestlers in the ring. From my perch on the sidelines, I see Nigeria’s democracy walking with a K-leg brought about by rickets. Its other leg is afflicted by elephantiasis caused by the filaria worm, which is spread by mosquitoes. Our democracy also has the protruding stomach of a kwashiorkor patient. Finally, it has the disproportionately large head of a chondrodystrophic dwarf.
Let us begin from the beginning. Nigerian voters, from whom political power supposedly flows out and who are supposed to hold elected leaders accountable, are hardly primed for the role. Most Nigerian voters elevate primordial issues over policy and programs; they hardly check the background and service record of aspirants; they ask no questions about programs and plans. Because too many Nigerians cut corners in their daily lives, from beating the red traffic light to jumping queues, they hardly see anything wrong when politicians cut corners in order to get elected. In fact, too many voters connive and abet them as thugs, ballot box snatchers and result alterers. Some Nigerian voters even went to the polling station with leaves on their foreheads, meaning they are for sale.
One thing leads to another. Since these are the kinds of voters we have, the politicians proceeded to form political parties completely bereft of ideology. No one is a right winger or a left winger anymore. No one is a centrist, welfarist or reformist in politics. Carpet crossing, decamping, anti-party activity and unprincipled alliances are the norm. Some Nigerian politicians have been members of many different parties in the last 18 years, sometimes leaving a party and coming back to it, only to leave again.
Not surprisingly, campaigns in Nigeria are not about issues. The last time anyone made education a serious campaign issue was Chief Awolowo in 1979. People have been elected to top positions in Nigeria when they never sat down and thought about a program, much less campaigned on the basis of one. I once told here the story of a governor-elect who asked me to produce a program for him—after he won the election. Before the 2015 election APC propounded a mouth-watering basket of promises of what it will do in the first 100 days, only for it to disown it after winning the election.
Politicians all over the world show a high level of determination to get elected but in Nigeria, replace the word determination with desperation. A politician here is not really concerned whether or not a majority of voters voted for him. What matters is for the Returning Officer to declare him elected and issue him with a Certificate of Return “by hook or by crook, mostly the latter,” as Richard Nixon once said. The judiciary does not kid itself that it can make a difference. A former Chief Justice of Nigeria once told me privately, “If you contest an election, make sure you are declared the winner and let your opponent go to court. Don’t allow yourself to be defeated and rely on the court to install you.”
The faulty nature of the election process allows this to happen. People strut about parading themselves as elected legislators or executives when everyone around believes that they did not win the election. There was a man who “won” election as a Local Government councilor and every voter in the ward swore that he did not vote for him. It is fair to say at least this one is on the mend; INEC moved from being a laughing stock in 2007 to an international celebrity in 2015. Despite the trial of 200 of its officials for massive bribe taking, its reputation is still very good as we approach 2019.
Ruthless political godfathers add to the mix and give Nigerian democracy its kwashiorkor-infested stomach. A state governor once signed a post-dated resignation letter and handed it to the godfather. Other aspirants have signed “irrevocable letters” directing the Federation Account Allocation Committee to automatically deduct state funds and channel them to godfathers’ companies. Godfathers place loyalty many notches above competence, and their insatiable demands have ensured that almost every godson installed as a governor in Nigeria later fell out with the godfather.
Nigeria’s democracy inherited from years of military rule a tradition whereby too much power accrues to chief executives. It gleefully elaborated it. Chief Executives have more power than the Constitution ever envisaged, including the power to ignore court orders, selectively implement budgets, spend money without appropriation and refuse to conduct local elections. Former FCT Minister Dr. Aliyu Modibbo Umar once described Nigerian state governors as emperors. With luck, he will become the next governor of Gombe State and we expect to see a Mahatma Gandhi, not a Napoleon.
Overbearing chief executives are complemented by lapdog state assemblies. In almost every state the House of Assembly is but a rubber stamp, exercising almost no watchdog role. That is why state assemblies have little news value, almost all their actions being entirely predictable. The best example I know of a state assembly asserting itself was when Governor Ibrahim Saminu Turaki travelled for two months and no one in the state knew where he was. Jigawa State House of Assembly then gave him a forty-eight hours’ ultimatum to come back and he took a direct flight from Singapore.
Unlike the state assemblies, the National Assembly has never had a reputation as the Executive’s lapdog. In fact, it is the most assertive legislature in Nigeria and has often tangled with presidents, especially the current one. But that is not to say that its public image is better than the state assemblies’; in fact, it is far worse. Nigerians generally think of the National Assembly as a collection of greedy fellas, not the least because it corners an annual budget of N150 billion, the scandal-prone “oversight visits” to agencies and the werewolf thing called “constituency projects.”
Things might have been better if the Nigerian civil service had some of its old character and competence. Back in the First Republic, civil servants regularly thwarted the illegal or improper ambitions of political rulers and insisted on the correct procedure. Not anymore. These days civil servants are more likely to connive, abet, collude and in fact point the way for political rulers to trample on the rules. Together they have made the public service a cesspool of corruption, and it is difficult to see how democracy or any other form of government will thrive in this situation.
The fact that 22% of the Federation Account is allocated every month to local governments suggests that they were envisaged to be a very important tier of government, one that takes care of needs at the grassroots level. But it didn’t happen that way. To start with they are not democratic; most times they are headed by unelected sole administrators. Even where they are elected, their tenure is often so short as to be laughable.
Finally, there is the impact of superstition. The modern democratic choice was supposed to be a very rational process of choosing between policy options but in Nigeria, marabouts, babalawos, clerics and assorted soothsayers and fortune tellers grab hold of the process and accorded Nigeria’s democracy the mental stability of a schizophrenic.