culled from NEWSWATCH, Monday, February 21, 2005
In the forty-four years of Nigeria as a nation, the dominant political system has not been democracy. Owing to various reasons and failures on the part of all stakeholders in the Nigerian project, attempts at enthroning and sustaining democratic political system in the country have only lasted for short periods of time. Towards the end of the 1990s, internal dynamics and international pressure and persuasion combined to push Nigeria again towards the embrace of a political system that is based on the global principles of democracy. That attempt initiated in May 1999 was again renewed through the democratic process of electioneering in May 2003. It is gladdening to say that following the 2003 elections Nigeria is still operating a democratic political system today.
However, there are questions and challenges, central among which is the challenge to sustain and maintain democracy and turn it into a culture and way of life acceptable and workable for the largest majority of our people. This involves managing internal tendencies, especially security issues and problems that could impinge on the survival of democracy. This is a matter of national importance that should be of concern to all stakeholders in the Nigerian state and one that requires comprehensive and committed contribution of all groups and interests that make up Nigeria.
In addressing the challenge to the survival of democracy in Nigeria, it is pertinent to consider security issues and problems that have affected or capable of affecting the attitude, confidence and cooperation of all groups and segments that make up the Nigerian federation. It is also necessary to explore the gaps and gray areas in the national constitution that are responsible for various problems and crises and how these gaps can be addressed. Some of the major security problems currently confronting the nation have been identified to include: political and electioneering conflicts, socio-economic agitations, ethno-religious crises, ethnic militias, boundary disputes, cultism, criminality and organised crimes. These problems individually and collectively constitute threats to the peace, security and development of the country. Invariably, they have implications for the continuity and survival of the nation's nascent democracy. On the other hand we also need to explore how democracy can itself be deliberately constructed as a positive response to these problems.
For the better part of the forty-four years of Nigeria as a nation, the country was under military administration resulting from military takeover of the democratic and constitutional structures of the state. The military takeovers are security breaches resulting from a wide range of reasons, sometimes a culmination of a number of security and political developments. The security, political and sometimes socio-economic developments are security concerns that were not addressed or managed by the existing state structure at the time.
Apart from military coups there are other security issues that have challenged, and indeed, rattled the democratic political system. Among them, is civil or organised rebellion resulting from a number of socio-political developments including ethnic disagreements and national resource contentions. The Nigerian civil war is an example of such security breakdown resulting from failure to manage ethnic and social problems. Recent international debates have also raised the need to see security in the broader sense as the struggle to secure the most basic necessities of life: food, fuel, medicine and shelter. This broader human security is important for the attainment of physical and national security and overall peace and development as social unrests arising from the absence of such basic human security can indeed lead to security problems and conflicts.
This position is attested to by recent social unrests in various African countries that have roots in the failure of government policies to provide or manage the basic human needs of their citizens. In recent times and especially since the commencement of the present political dispensation, Nigeria has witnessed increasing number of security problems and developments that constitute threats to the maintenance and survival of its democratic political system. These security concerns are diverse and complex, ranging from political disagreements to criminal activities with alarming dimensions and consequences.
It is an established fact that democracy in its essence implies the interplay of various interests and shades of opinions in the mode of political parties and pressure groups. This interplay must be undertaken in an open, free and fair atmosphere with adherence to such fundamental principles like tolerance, freedom of expression and freedom of choice. Unfortunately, the activities and conducts of past and present participants in the Nigerian democratic space have failed to adhere to these key principles. Desperate, intolerant and ruthless contests among political parties, political leaders and their followers have often resulted in violence, security breaches, killings and destruction which threaten the very democracy that they seek to partake in. It can be recalled that violent and desperate politicking among political parties was the cause of the problem in the Western Region in 1965 that set in motion developments leading to the unravelling of the First Republic.
Electoral fraud poses a major challenge to democracy in Nigeria and by implication, poses threat to the security of the nation. Electoral fraud desecrates the sanctity of democracy and weakens its capacity as an instrument for the mobilisation of national, human and material resources for the development of the people and the state. And in an environment where development is security, and security is development, the consequences of such acts catch up very quickly with the system.
One area in which electoral fraud in Nigeria manifests in an alarming manner is the area of voter registration. Voters are the ammunitions of elections and contestants win by amassing as many as possible. In a game where fraud is systemic, the strength and competence of the "referee" questionable, the dubious accumulation of the essential arms of the war is only natural. As Sunday Ochoche noted:
The extent to which this dimension can influence the outcome of an election must not be underestimated. From the 1991 governorship elections-- In Akwa Ibom State, the number of registered voters was 3,895,623 but according to the provisional figures of the 1991 census, the State had a total population (including children) of 2,359,736 and eligible voters of only 1,061,881. That means that the State had 2,176,824 (137%) excess voters-- Similarly, Imo State,- had a total population of 2,485,499 out of which 1,118,474 were eligible to vote. And yet the State had 2,541,962 registered for the 1991 elections, an over-registration of 1,423,488 (or 102%). In-fact nationwide, there was a total of 24,448,488 excess votes.
Indeed, as Ochoche went on to painfully point out, if it is noted that in the 1993 aborted Presidential elections, the total number of votes cast was about 14 million, then we can see that if a group effectively hijacks the voter registration system, it is possible to get enough "voters" and win an election without any person actually voting for the person.
This type of situation undermines the integrity and credibility of the democratic process and makes governance much more difficult. It generates resistance from those who believe they have been cheated out. The anger and frustration is worsened when there is no proper and just means of seeking redress. People will resort to violence. We experienced that in the Western Region in the First Republic.
In recent times, especially during the present democratic dispensation, traits of similar intolerant and ruthless contest for political office have manifested. In addition, the use of illegal arms and weapons by political party contestants and their supporters has assumed very alarming dimension. Some states of the federation are presently experiencing various security breaches and violence involving groups that were allegedly armed by political party contestants during the 2003 elections. Therefore, in order to grow and sustain democracy in Nigeria, it is important that political players and institutions embrace the principles of true democracy and allow open, free and fair competition, which are essential in the process of aggregation of national opinions and development choices. There is the need to evolve relevant constitutional and legislative mechanisms to address areas and issues that will promote open, free and fair competition among political parties. The culture of tolerance and equity should also form part of political education targeted at political leaders as well as the entire citizenry.
Nigeria is a political unit made up of over two hundred ethnic and diverse religious groups. The consent and cooperation of these ethnic nationalities and religious groups is important to the existence and continuity of Nigeria as a nation. Unity and peaceful cooperation among these groups is even more important as frequent crises and violence among these groups will lead to divisive politics and loss of confidence in the system that will hurt the progress of the nation and indeed affect the consolidation of our democracy.
There have been several ethno-religious conflicts in the history of Nigeria, but in recent times, these problems appear to be escalating at an intolerable scale. Ethnic and the foregoing problems and criminal activities individually and collectively create insecurity and breach of the peace that are likely to or indeed affect legitimate social and economic activities in the country. These problems also have the very damaging consequence of giving the signal to the rest of the international community that Nigeria is not a safe and secure place and as such not suitable for economic investment and activities. This is particularly important in view of the efforts being made to create the desired atmosphere to attract foreign investment.
Beyond the effects of security concerns on the economic fortunes of the country, the nature of the security challenges facing the country also have implications for the country's political system. As mentioned earlier, social cohesion among various groups and interests is important in the process of national political development. Therefore, the constituent parts of the country must be and indeed feel that they are being carried along in the process of national governance. Experience has shown that widespread discontent and loss of confidence in the system have ways of affecting national political stability. Invariably continuing escalation of violence and crises across the country will impinge on the survival of our democracy.
Accordingly, there is the challenge to rethink and improve on policy and institutional means of dealing with security concerns arising in the country. At the political level, the federal, state and local governments should evolve programmes of cultural and political education and orientation that seek to enthrone the fundamentals of democracy so that the political contestants as well as the generality of the citizens imbibe principles and practices essential for sustainable democracy. Such programmes must also address specific tendencies that create security breach and concerns in the country.
In addition, a process of legislative and constitutional review should be initiated to assess the country's constitution and amend or expunge as necessary areas that have been found to give rise to conflicts and security problems. The process should also introduce new provisions and legislations that will ensure better and more effective interplay of interests among all groups and stakeholders in Nigeria. Such exercise should also embrace ways of making the country's democratic space more open, free, fair and tolerant as exists in other democracies around the world. Among specific lingering political issues that should be addressed are: the laws relating to political parties and their activities; the establishment, funding and activities of the electoral body; local and state government relationship; allocation of national resources and revenue; citizenship rights; devolution of security powers to states and local governments. In addition, the legislative and constitutional review should also embody security sector reforms that will make the security agencies and institutions more effective in combating crimes and other threats to national security and make them accountable to the democratic political system and structures. These democratic structures include the states and local governments. I believe that we need to give a more concrete understanding to the definition of governors as the chief security officers of the state.
Democracy is a sought-after value. It is not a perfect system of governance, even conceptually. But as Aristotle argued, it is the least evil of all possible governments. The strength of democracy is drawn from the fact that it is supposed to be the product of the will of the majority of the people. Government is held in trust for the people. The citizens feel a sense of ownership of the state for they can identify with it as vital stakeholders whose will gave existence and legitimacy to the state and the government. As shareholders of the common-wealth, the citizens will not only avoid such behaviours that hurt and sabotage the system, but join forces to resist any such attack on the collective interest. That in-fact is the real basis for the development of grand strategy, the mobilisation of the entire national asset for the protection of the nation, which I believe can work best in a democracy.
Meanwhile, because of the opening up of the political space and its encouragement of competition in an environment where the institutions for the management and regulation of the competition are weak, the tendency for competition to escalate to violent conflict is high. There appear to be disequilibrium between the demands for the benefit of democracy and our capacity to respond individually and institutionally to these demands.
Given our experience and where we are coming from, I agree that we can do better, but how much better can we realistically expect to perform? We have a vast array of persons, groups, and institutions that for long were schooled in a particular way, and have never known any other way of doing things than the non-accountable, non-democratic, and non-people friendly style. We as a nation are in a major transition, a major journey away from a past we cannot ignore, to a future that must be better. Along the way, there will be frustrations caused by perceived sluggishness of the pace of the journey. There will be resistance from those who benefited from the old order and for whom the new means loss and reduction to irrelevance.
The demand of moving such monumental bureaucracy and people from the state of inertia forward could cause so much pain that for some they might even prefer returning to the old order. Democracy cannot come easy. We must be driven by the comfort that what lies ahead is good. We must also admit to ourselves that this is a journey in which there is no point of arrival, but each step we take, takes us to a better and more secured ground. There is a challenge before us and I am confident that we will not be found wanting both in the means by which we confront it and in the certainty that at every stage we can be assured that we are better today than yesterday, and tomorrow will still be better than today if we don't give up.
*General Abubakar is a former Nigerian head of state. This was excerpted from his guest lecture at NIPSS, Kuru, on November 26, 2004.