By Reuben Abati
What is the most compelling, most impactful and most remarkable issue in the year 2015 that has just ended? In my estimation, it is democracy: its contents and discontents, its hopes and impediments, and the forceful manner in which these have compelled us afresh to focus on our circumstances and destiny as a people and a nation.
In 2015, democracy shaped the national debate. The government of the people, as simply and poignantly defined, has been, in the last 22 years, such a central idea and a factor in the lives of Nigerians, after so many years under purely authoritarian rule, inflicted by the military for decades by subterfuge. In those years that the locusts ate, as described by George Ehusani, Nigerians suffered. Dictatorship. Abuses. Autocracy. Disregard for human rights and utter disdain for the people’s voice. The call for democracy, the insistence on it; the urge for the people’s rule, was the only solution that civil society clung to. Thrice in the last 22 years, therefore, democracy has been the people’s only hope of having a say in their own affairs.
The first turning point was in 1993. That year, the military junta led by military leader, President Ibrahim Babangida annulled a democratic election, which threw up late Bashorun MKO Abiola as the undisputed and undeclared winner. The military having been in power in one form or the other since 1966, with a short interregnum of the Shagari years (1979-1983), obviously did not want to leave or lose power. For the rest of that year and for the six years that followed, Nigerians fought a principled battle against the military. They insisted on the supremacy of the people’s will. By the end of 1993, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that democracy was the major issue of the year. The second turning point was in 1999. That was the year Nigerians gained actual victory over the military and succeeded in putting in place a democratically elected government led by President Olusegun Obasanjo.
The triumphalism of that year, and the fact that the military had been humbled again made democracy, the very fact of its return, the major issue of the year. Nigerians woke up on January 1, 2000, with a democratic government in place, with hope in their hearts that democracy will endure, and deliver positive dividends and value. The third turning point occurred in the year that just ended. It has been 22 years since the struggle for democracy began, and 16 years since the return to civilian rule: in 2015, democracy confronted Nigerians with new challenges and brought in its trail, lessons so significant they may affect the future of Nigeria and of the democratic process forever. It left fresh imprints on the Nigerian consciousness and delivered impactful outcomes. I have dealt in parenthesis, with aspects of this in an earlier piece (The Guardian, October 23), but as the year ends and another begins, we need be reminded of the phenomenon in a more expanded and specific sense, especially in the light of emergent realities.
In 2015, Nigerians confidently voted out a sitting government, and demonstrated that indeed, democracy is the triumph of the majority, right or wrong. It was the year when the political elite learnt a bitter lesson about humility. The then ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had been dominant consistently for 16 years, and had become so accustomed to power that some of its leaders once boasted that the party will rule Nigeria for 60 years or even forever. Whoever made that statement failed to understand that power is slippery and that in a democracy, nothing can ever be so certain. Successful Presidents have lost elections; less successful ones have won full terms and have been tempted to stay longer.
What has prevailed is the power of the voter. The Nigerian voter ended the year 2015, fully aware of his or her power to determine the fate of politicians in office. Members of the PDP started the year 2015, convinced that as a sitting government, in office and power, they would remain formidable. But by December, the party had been routed, its members are in flight, and those of its members that survived are in the minority, their voices muffled, their former supporters in disarray. No one is in any doubt any longer about the slippery nature of the political terrain, and how the only thing that is certain in a democracy as in military rule, is power itself.
It was also in the year just ended that Nigerians witnessed for the first time, the rare spectacle of a sitting President organizing an election, which he and his party ended up losing in a jaw-dropping-to-the-floor-manner. President Goodluck Jonathan went a step further by conceding victory and pledging to support his successor. This may have been a positive development for democracy in Nigeria and Africa, but given the aftermath in the last seven months, this may never happen in Nigeria again or rather, for a very long time. President Jonathan chose to respect the people’s will and show leadership, statesmanship and patriotism, but today, some other students of power are working hard to revise the story, and the facts. The transition from a ruling party to the opposition is in theory, good for our democracy, but the cost to the former ruling party and its agents teach a different lesson. The use of such phrases as “stupid”, “naïve,” “inexperienced” to describe what ordinarily should be a positive development has shown a posteriori that the model that is likely to endure in the Nigerian political space, may not be that of sportsmanship, but the model, sadly, of “do or die” political opportunism. When this concept was introduced afresh into Nigeria’s political lexicon around 2003, we all raised our pens and mouths in protest.
But in retrospect, many Nigerians may consider that commonsensical aphorism, a nugget of political wisdom and pragmatism, and this may be the attitude that will govern future political behavior at the centre in Nigeria. When you hold power, control the institutions and you are in charge, it is better to avoid any jaw-breaking outcomes. I don’t for example, imagine the ruling APC, handing over power to an opposition party in 2019! The APC in seven months has demonstrated such pragmatism that has elevated the do or die principle to a guiding compass. Even the most apolitical among us, has learnt that even in a democracy, especially in Africa, you can only allow power to slip away at your own peril. You can moralize about this as much as you wish, but by 2015, Nigerians have seen clearly that politics is not always about good intentions.
They have seen, for example, that the professional political elite can indeed over-promise, and that honesty is a scarce virtue in politics. Above all, democracy is not a deus ex machina, a kind of magical process that resolves all problems; it certainly does not work like that in a developing country still grappling with issues of being and becoming. And so in the year 2015, Nigerians went from voting out a sitting government, to months of expectation, and ended the year on a note of disbelief: how there is so much difference between promise and delivery, governance and accountability, power and service, truth and falsehood and all the contradictions that the use and abuse of power by those we have elected to lead us, can possibly throw up. The effect is that the gap of distrust between the people and the political elite is further widened. In the year 2015, Nigerians experienced massive change in the political terrain, but by December 31, they were neither more confident nor better reassured about the future or their circumstances.
In 2015, Nigerians further saw on display, how change can be brought about in a multi-party democracy through alliances and coalitions. To dislodge the People’s Democratic Party, a determined opposition elite had to sink their differences, and unite under one mission, one vision and one umbrella. This multi-party coalition achieved its objective, and whereas the differences among the key players may have become evident, the strategic visioning that brought about change in 2015 is remarkable. The only caveat can be traced to the political vulnerability of the minority groups in Nigeria: with the coalition dominated and supported by the two major ethnic groups in Nigeria, with key politicians drawn from the third major ethnic group, the battle was obviously won and lost. The potency of a majorities-conspiracy in Nigeria reinforces politics as a game of numbers, but it further erodes whatever may have been achieved with the emergence of a President of South-South extraction, and has only further deepened feelings of alienation and marginalization. In securing victory in 2015, therefore, the majority may have sown the seeds of greater troubles to come.
The people’s faith in democracy remains strong nonetheless. It is the form of government that has given them presence, voice and influence over their own affairs. It is the form of government that has taken them away from military rule: even if traces of militarism continue to manifest in the democratic process, the people are still confident that in the long run, only their will can prevail. Democracy is the platform and the weapon that has made it possible for the ordinary Nigerian to ask questions and to pass judgement loudly and openly and get away with doing so. It is this same form of government that has guaranteed free and widespread access to different modes of electronic and social communication, which taken together have deepened collective participation in the country’s leadership process. Nigeria’s democracy has grown to such a level that even the farmer in the village is keenly aware that the purpose of government is to serve the people and ensure their welfare and that where this fails, every citizen has the right and the opportunity to protest or raise an alarm. If the military conducted themselves as overlords, Nigerian politicians today are constantly reminded that they are the people’s servants and that the people are entitled to their freedoms under the law.
In all, the shape and the health of Nigeria’s democracy remain key concerns, and the matters arising as the year ends, are many: how best can elections be improved upon, to deepen integrity and limit gerrymandering, from the introduction of PVCs, to the declaration of results at each polling unit? How should political parties be funded? Should a ruling party deploy state resources for its own purposes or not? And should incumbent governments play games with the promises made during campaign season? Who is best suited for public office? What happens when public opinion shows a growing disillusionment with the pace/depth of change? When for example, will N1 exchange for $1? And when will democracy finally deliver on its promise to end infrastructural deficit, the non-payment of salaries, an economy that rises and falls at will, and a leadership elite that huffs and puffs? As the people enter a new year, with so many expectations about the choices they made in 2015, finding meaningful answers to these questions will further define the shape and health of our democracy.