Image: The author, Reuben Abati
The democratic experience in Nigeria has definitely been a continuing learning curve, and the more lessons we learn at various active centres: people, platforms and processes, the richer our democracy, the stronger the society evolves to deliver a brighter future for the sovereign. The greatest residue of our democracy in the last 16 years (1999–2015), I think, is the manner in which our community has been enriched by lessons that have practically changed our lives.
The democratic deficit is less than the gain; for us, democracy is essentially liberative and should endure. It is partly the reason why no matter the observed shortcomings of the five-month old Buhari administration, the Nigerian people remain optimistic about their belief in the viability of the democratic option. They know that they have been empowered in such a manner that succeeding governments will always be held accountable to the electorate. Thus, democracy has reframed the national dialogue and the people’s expectations.
In 1999, with the return to civilian rule, the Nigerian people secured victory against a military establishment, which had exercised political authority, formally and informally, for about 33 years. They fought for six years to insist on democracy and the people’s right to choose. Sixteen years later, after many seasons of trial, we have reached a point in our romance with democracy, whereby no other form of government appeals to us. It is clear to every discerning person that only democratic rule is now acceptable to Nigerians. For it has shown us, how powerful we can possibly be. No other event has proven this to be true, more concretely than the last general elections. It should not be lost on Nigerians, the significance of the removal from office of an incumbent President.
In 2015, the power of the vote turned the Nigerian voter into the ultimate political authority, resulting in a greater sense of public ownership of the democratic enterprise. He or she knows that elected representatives can be held accountable through the ballot box. Democracy, building on the increased access to information and social interactions, has thus given Nigerians of voting age a voice and power that they never imagined possible. Military figures still show up and occupy high positions, but they do so only through the democratic process and it is only a matter of time before the myth of the military strong man being fit for public office will be completely exploded and laid to rest. In reality, the military’s political authority is diminished as old soldiers seek legitimation through the people. It is a great achievement for Nigeria.
Secondly, in 2005, an attempt was made to bypass the Nigerian Constitution and extend to a third term, the tenure of the then incumbent President. This alleged plan against the people was to have been hatched with the imprimatur of the national legislature, but again the people rose against the planned subterfuge. Pierre Nkurunziza may have succeeded in executing the same anti-people ploy in Burundi, and Paul Kagame may be toying with it in Rwanda, but it is not the kind of folly that anyone will ever try again in Nigeria and hope to succeed. The people have learnt that those in positions of power at the highest level may not be trusted to respect the laws of the land or the oath of office they took. Having stopped one former President from transforming into a monarch, the phrase – third term remains in our political lexicon, a reminder of what is constitutionally unacceptable. And for Nigerians, “stayism”, sit-tightism” or the Biya disease is definitely risqué. When people are elected to high office, they will not be allowed to change the rules of the game to suit their own purposes.
Third lesson: Nigerians have become very conscious of the implications of the health of their leaders for the stability of the polity. They were taught that lesson during the three-year rule of late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. At the time, the key subject was the mortality of the President. From that point onwards, any sign that a potential President could be nursing a terminal disease became a major campaign issue. President Yar’Adua’s death threw up other sub-lessons about the supremacy of the Constitution and the right of other Nigerians to aspire to the highest office in the land, but the people would have preferred to have him healthily alive and not to have a Presidency dominated by morbidity and remembered, and excused, largely on that score. It is therefore not surprising that in the last elections, physical fitness and mortality became key issues of campaign.
Fourth lesson: Any Nigerian child regardless of the manner of extraction can aspire to the highest office in the land. With his emergence as Nigerian President in 2010, Goodluck Jonathan laid to rest the myth that to occupy that office, the candidate must be a person of privilege. His parents were ordinary folk. He was himself like the guy next door; his life a replica of the life of any struggling Nigerian of his age who had attended university, gone through national service, hustled for employment and was like the rest of us.
Hitherto, Nigerian leaders had elite connections or bearings and they wielded authority as if it was their birthright to do so. This claim to leadership birthright is now a subject of inquiry. It explains why in the last general elections, it became clear to all and sundry that there are now certain minimum standards being set nationwide in terms of personal attributes, experience and exposure with regard to public office. That is precisely the way our democracy has turned out: it has built confidence at all levels, and every Nigerian imagines himself to be a potential President. This is good, for as many people as imagine themselves to be national problem-solvers, the better for our community. However, President Jonathan was the first to prove the point that any citizen whoever he or she may be, can aspire to the highest office in the land and receive popular support.
Fifth lesson: when President Goodluck Jonathan conceded victory to President Buhari after the 2015 elections, he raised the moral bar of our democratic process. Nigerians have taken to heart the fact that the people have the power to change a sitting government at all levels and that the power of incumbency even at the centre is at the mercy of the electorate. These days, it is not unusual to find an average Nigerian of voting age holding an elected person accountable and swearing that any form of misconduct will be questioned. Good news!
What prevails in Nigeria today therefore is not merely voter confidence; it is best described as voter arrogance or voter dictatorship. In Ekiti, they voted out a well-educated, cerebral Governor and replaced him with someone with a popular touch, and they have stubbornly defended their choice. In Abuja, they replaced a young Ph.D. holder with a retired old man, called back to serve and “restore.” With the way the Nigerian voter has seized power in the public sphere, only his or her wishes can prevail. And so in the future, with the Jonathan example and experience, no incumbent can hold on to power once the people have spoken.
The Nigerian voter is further empowered by digital revolution. He votes on Election Day with his card, but he votes every day with his phone, with his access to internet platforms, and he speaks loud and clear, honestly or mischievously depending on his or her constitution. The Nigerian people can no longer be ignored. Positive development? Certainly. But all of what we describe has been made possible by the strengthening of the electoral institutions and processes. It is hoped that successive administrations will see the need to protect and preserve the integrity of electoral bodies, and thereby deepen emergent confidence in their capacity to deliver free, fair and credible elections.
Sixth lesson, and this is probably the most important: Nigerians have learnt after 16 years of democratic rule not to place implicit trust in politicians without asking for accountability. They know that professional politicians are capable of lies, they deceive, they over-promise in order to secure their mandate, and also, that there are no true saints in power-ville. They are also learning that election campaign is different from governance, that governance is complex, politics is treacherous, and that politicians will say anything to win the votes and get into power. A corollary lesson: to resolve the cleavages that trouble Nigeria and render institutions ineffectual, government must be effective and our democracy must become more liberal and less of a mechanism for class formation and ethnic competition.
Five months of reverse ratiocination by the Buhari administration should make that clear even to the most naive. The people should also know that politicians have no differences on matters of self-interest; and they choose to exploit our many fault lines to achieve their objectives. They can be in this party today and move to the other party tomorrow – which we may see again in 2019. Nigerian politics is therefore not about ideology or principles; it is about power and who gets into the arena.
But the people have also learnt one more thing: that change is possible, no matter the shape. And the power to effect change lies in their hands, for we have in 16 years managed to create a citizenry that is both deliberative and participative, whose notion of the state is that it must be affirmative, competent and constructive. This is a major victory for Nigeria and for democracy.