20 years of declining public confidence and reverse of liberal democracy
Within the past 20 years, the journey seems to be more rewarding for the military establishment, which exited in 1999, after prolonged interregnums, which marked a watershed in the country’s socio-political history.
Most observers argue that it was on the basis of giving the military a soft landing that one of theirs, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, was shooed into the presidency at the expense of civilian politicians that fought off military dictatorship under the aegis of Group of 34 (G34).
Between 1999 and 2007, Obasanjo tried his best to institutionalise democracy by setting up agencies and commissions to bring back public confidence into civil governance.
In his inaugural address, after taking the oath of office as Nigeria’s second civilian president, Obasanjo alluded to the draconian nature of military regimes under which he was also jailed for a phantom coup. He also stressed that the pervasive official corruption tended to stultify the country’s political progress and economic development.
He stated: “Twelve months ago, no one could have predicted the series of stunning events that made it possible for democratic elections to be held at the local government and state levels, and culminating in the National Assembly elections.
“Thereafter, you the good people of Nigeria elected me, a man who had walked through the valley of the shadow of death, as your President, to head a democratic civilian administration… I accept this destiny in all humility and with the full belief that with the backing of our people we shall not fail.”
Judging from the background of the prolonged military era that preceded his administration, there was nothing to rate Obasanjo’s eight years in office as a failure.
However, whatever was missing in the area of faithful practice of liberal democracy could be explained by his background as a former military head of state and training in the armed forces. But it should be noted that despite the dubious electoral processes and outcomes in 2003, Nigerians consoled themselves that the quasi-democracy in place was better than the burdensome and unaccountable military rule that yielded to the new dispensation.
Obasanjo had himself written off the military regime when he observed in his inaugural address as follows: “Instead of progress and development, which we are entitled to expect from those who governed us, we experienced in the last decade and a half and particularly in the last regime but one, persistent deterioration in the quality of our governance, leading to instability and the weakening of all public institutions.
“Good men were shunned and kept away from government while those who should be kept away were drawn near. Relations between men and women who had been friends for many decades and between communities that had lived together in peace for many generations became very bitter because of the actions or inactions of government.
“The citizens developed distrust in government, and because promises made for the improvement of the conditions of the people were not kept all statements by government met with cynicism.”
Recalling what he went through in the hands of the military junta under the late General Sani Abacha, Nigerians fell for President Obasanjo’s sanctimonious declamation, especially when he repeated the oft-rendered cliché of putschists: “Fellow Nigerians.” He accused the military of nurturing corruption, saying, “No society can achieve anything near its full potential if it allows corruption to become the full-blown cancer it has become in Nigeria.”
The president added: “One of the greatest tragedies of military rule in recent times is that corruption was allowed to grow unchallenged, and unchecked, even when it was glaring for everybody to see.
“The rules and regulations for doing official business were deliberately ignored, set aside or by-passed to facilitate corrupt practices. The beneficiaries of corruption in all forms will fight back with all the foul means at their disposal.”
Having laid the foundation for the work before him, Obasanjo urged Nigerians, “let us rise as one, to face the tasks ahead and turn this daunting scene into opportunities in a New Dawn. Let us make this the beginning of a genuine Renaissance.”
Twenty years after the former president made the call for genuine renaissance, Nigeria seems to have been encumbered by steady march to an old past of strong-arm politics of the military eras, coupled with double-speak in policy formulation and implementation, even as corruption remains a catchphrase and tool for political vendetta. Elections have continued to be determined by forces beyond the resolution of the voters with the power of force and funds being the deciding factors in the electoral process.
By the time the fourth republic witnessed its second election in 2003, the Nigerian electorate had started asking aloud whether the country’s style of democracy conforms to Abraham Lincoln’s definition of the system as ‘government of the people by the people for the people’.
Powerful individuals as officials of political parties hijacked the democratic process and government functionaries determined who gets what in the political space. All these culminated in rigged election characterised by thuggery, violence, and ballot box snatching.
While electoral offenses bore the fruits of voter apathy and citizens’ disenchantment, one of the institution set up by the Obasanjo administration to stem the tide of official corruption, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), became a vehicle for programming elected officials.
Nonetheless, the two election cycles after Obasanjo took over from the military exposed the contradictions between practitioners and their understanding of the enabling laws and due process.
Glimmer of hope
WITH the 2007 election popularly adjudged as the worst democratic election in the nascent fourth republic, the ultimate beneficiary, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (rest his soul), not only condemned the faulty process, but also resolved to review and rectify the observed anomalies.
Setting up the Justice Mohammed Uwais Political Reform Committee as well as declaring the rule of law as the core of his government were sterling initiatives from the Yar’Adua administration. And that signaled a stark departure from the preceding era that was more of quasi-democracy.
Nigerians were peeved and sorely pained that the administration could not run its full course following the death of Yar’Adua. However, his second in command, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, who took over from where he stopped did his best to sustain the tradition of genuine democracy governed by the rule of law.
It was based on the liberal democracy at play during Jonathan’s era that another former military head of state, General Muhammadu Buhari, contested the presidential election as the standard bearer of a conglomeration of opposition political parties and won.
Signs of distress
AS democratically elected president, Buhari had on several occasions and at different fora spoken with amazement about Jonathan’s decision to let go of the presidency despite enormous constitutional powers available to him to cause mischief. However, barely two years after he mounted the saddle as civilian president, Nigerians began to complain about the disdain for rule of law and due process of governance.
President Buhari was accused of breaching the federal character principle while appointing his aides. Apart from that, the trial of Dr. Bukola Saraki at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) shortly after he emerged as president of Senate against the designs of the ruling party raised alarm bells further about possible threats to democracy.
Animosities reigned between the executive and the legislature for a greater part of the last four years, just as continual schisms between the presidency and the National Assembly saw to late budget presentation and passage.
From allegations of missing budget and accusation of padding, Nigeria’s democracy witnessed steady distress, compounded by economic downturn. In the midst of those woes, Senate decided to withhold confirmation of appointment of Mr. Ibrahim Magu as Chairman of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on the basis of an uncomplimentary report from the Department of State Services (DSS).
The infighting between the legislature and executive continued and led to the president’s disinterest in endorsing bills passed by the National Assembly. But the most intriguing aspect of the lack of cooperation between the two crucial arms of government was when Buhari withheld assent to the Electoral Act amendment bill, which was intended to advance the cause of credible elections in the polity.
Against the backdrop of the seeming desperation of President Buhari to replicate the Obasanjo years, the 2019 general election approached. Despite the differences, however, the National Assembly approved the election budget set out by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
The assault on the judiciary weeks before the election, which was the second of such violation of the third arm of government seemed to have dampened what remained as public enthusiasm and hope for democracy.
From distress to decline
But regardless of assurances of its preparedness, when the election held, INEC was caught napping, as it had to postpone the election midway for one week. In the end, the 2019 election showed the overbearing influence of the military in Nigeria’s democracy.
Of the two major electoral offences that trailed the 2019 poll, including vote buying and violence, the use of soldiers to intimidate voters was about the most acute. In Rivers State, for instance, the most outstanding perpetrators of electoral violence and malfeasance were the security agencies, particularly the army, which was accused even by INEC and observers, of disrupting collation of election results in all the elections.
It would be recalled that with just three days to the Presidential and National Assembly election of February 23, 2019, a chieftain of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Ferdinand Anabaraba, disclosed that the army, for inexplicable reasons, had occupied his property at his hometown, Abonnema, headquarters of Akuku-Toru Local Government Area.
Not only that, former Nigerian ambassador to South-Korea, who was also Director General, PDP campaign council in Rivers State, Desmond Akawor, also claimed that the 6 Division of the Nigerian Army and Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (FSARS) were going to be used to destabilise, rig and abort the peaceful conduct of the 2019 elections in the state.
However, based on the political affiliation, the claims of military interference were dismissed as sheer propaganda days before the polls. But the doomsday worries played out during the Presidential and National Assembly elections.
In the same Abonnema, an attempt by voters to resist the snatching of electoral materials from the Registration Area Centre at Abonnema Girls Secondary School resulted in a bloody confrontation between All Progressives Congress and PDP members. It was alleged that the army, which provided cover for APC supporters at a point to take sides by repelling PDP supporters.
Eyewitnesses and Red Cross source narrated how, in the fierce gun battle that ensued, an army lieutenant and over 40 persons were killed in Abonnema, but the Acting Director of Army Public Relations, Colonel Sagir Musa, claimed the army only killed six persons.
Yet, an INEC Electoral officer for Ikwerre LGA, Mrs. Mary Imawuya, revealed that after the Presidential and National Assembly elections, military men stormed INEC’s office at Isiokpo and laid siege. She said they first blocked the gate and prevented electoral officials from leaving the premises.
Mrs. Imawuya noted that because of the tense political atmosphere caused by fierce argument between supporters of APC and PDP, she had sought the permission of the State Resident Electoral Commissioner for collation to be done at the INEC office.
She had stated: “As the presiding officers were coming, the collation officers will identify them. In the process, the military invaded the office, chased everybody out of the premises, chased all the corps (NYSC) members out of the premises amid rainfall.”
Most observers noted that the 2019 election was marred by apathy and military high-handedness, just as they described the military involvement as evidence of their reluctance to allow democracy to grow in the country.
Having encouraged two former military heads of state to lead the country in the capacity of civilian presidents, it is left to conjecture whether the citizens would have to accommodate their excesses any more in the democratic progression.
Already, many see President Buhari’s next four years with some foreboding. If he could so undermine the judiciary, rights of Nigerians, and the electoral process in his first four years, what happens when he has no election fears to face? Would he change his style of leadership and let the country slip down the slope?
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