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25 years of ‘Afrodemocracy’ in Nigeria

Time flies. It does. Our latest experience of democracy is almost a quarter of a century old. I was in Abuja on May 29, 1999 when Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar handed over power to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. Well, I was not at the Eagle Square. I was in the THISDAY backroom team that coordinated the coverage. From a hotel room, we monitored proceedings on TV. That was the second military-to-civilian transition, the first having taken place on October 1, 1979, when Gen Olusegun Obasanjo handed over to Alhaji Shehu Shagari at the Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos. The parade commander at the 1979 handover ceremony was a certain Lt Col Abdulsalami Abubakar. You can’t make that up!

I was born under military rule and started primary school under military rule. Although Shagari was president when I entered secondary school, the military was soon back in power and I spent my teenage years as a subject of military dictatorship. I did my national service under military rule. I started my journalism career under military rule. The long and short of it is that for most of my life until 1999, I had known no other form of government apart from military rule. I was brought up hearing command-and-control expressions like “order” and “with immediate effect”. I was used to seeing Nigerians being chased off the road for convoys. I was used to curfews on election days.

At the handover, which the CNN took live, Obasanjo promised to fight corruption. I liked the determination on his face, but that was probably where he, or we, began to get it twisted. Whereas the president, as the country’s leader, has to set the right tone and signal in the anti-corruption war, it cannot be entirely on his shoulders. In a country that has 36 governors, 469 federal lawmakers, 993 state legislators and 8,809 councillors as well as thousands of federal and state judges, how did fighting graft become the duty of one person? It was probably because of the “strongman” mindset that we had. This later became a powerful weapon that helped install Afrodemocracy in Nigeria.

Afrodemocracy is the pseudo democracy widely practised in many African countries. It imitates core features of popular democracy such as elections and representation. In reality, Afrodemocracy is a glorified monarchy, with the president sometimes referred to as “Baba” — roughly translated “father” or, more appropriately, “demigod”. This “babarism” enables despotism. Afrodemocracy easily falls under what Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, political science scholars, call “competitive authoritarianism” where “formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority” but is effectively a diminished form of authoritarianism.

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I have quoted Levitsky and Way a number of times in this column because their words are so spot on, and I will do it again: “Although incumbents in competitive authoritarian regimes may routinely manipulate formal democratic rules, they are unable to eliminate them or reduce them to a mere facade. Rather than openly violating democratic rules (for example, by banning or repressing the opposition and the media), incumbents are more likely to use bribery, co-optation, and more subtle forms of persecution, such as the use of tax authorities, compliant judiciaries, and other state agencies to ‘legally’ harass, persecute, or extort cooperative behaviour from critics.” Touche!

In Afrodemocracy, elections are mostly superficial. They are meant to impose legitimacy. Elections are patently incomplete without rigging, vote buying and varying degrees of violence, including killing. State institutions often compromise the process, based on either “instructions from above” or financial inducement, or both. Many voters expect some form of inducement or reward too. The electoral system is stained from start to finish. Virtually all the political parties rig in their strongholds. Indeed, the competition is always about not being outrigged. But we have successfully deceived ourselves into thinking it is only the winner that rigs and the losers are saints. So it goes.

Conversely, in a mature democracy, every vote counts, at least in most places. Elections, by and large, reflect the wishes of the majority. Democratic institutions, such as the legislature and judiciary, function without being subservient to the executive. There is freedom of association. State institutions do not make themselves available to be used to persecute citizens because of political affiliation. There are enough in-built guarantees of independence in the system, faithfully and patriotically implemented by the operators. There is freedom of speech. The voice of the people is heard loud and clear. Press freedom is recognised and respected as a major plank of democracy.

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May I swiftly add here that “liberal” democracy is not perfect — we can all see how President Donald Trump is stretching American democracy to the limit — but the system is robust enough to take care of the shenanigans. Moreover, the concepts of separation of powers (in a presidential system) and checks and balances allow democracy to self-correct its own ills. The good thing is that the people have a voice that cannot be stifled and the elected representatives are constantly on their toes. Everyone with power knows that it comes with responsibility. Above all, there is rule of law and constitutional order. These are not the sort of practices under dictatorships or military rule.

Like millions of Nigerians, I looked forward to the propagation of democracy in our land with the exit of military dictatorship in 1999. Regrettably, what we ordered was not what we got. Nigeria started descending into Afrodemocracy during the first term of Obasanjo, who started taking a number of unilateral actions, disobeying court orders and infiltrating the National Assembly to install and uninstall the leadership. During his second term in office, he found a legal leeway for repression by setting up the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to witch-hunt those who were not in his camp. Dissenting governors were regularly removed — against the constitutional order.

The EFCC template became a tool for subsequent administrations: going after political opponents or those considered to be politically expendable. This sits well with many Nigerians who love media trial and jungle justice, even if the corruption allegations are weak or spurious. It also helps that the politicians themselves are not above board, so everything done to them is kosher in the eyes of many Nigerians. Afrodemocracy takes root under such circumstances, as a despotic president will simply cow opposition into submission. It is not uncommon for opposition figures to defect to the ruling party — some for economic reasons, some out of fear of being targeted by the EFCC.

Persecution, repression and co-optation weaken competitive democracy because of the likely absence of robust opposition. This can, in turn, deprive the citizens of good governance since the basic elements of accountability and transparency will be virtually non-existent. How then can democracy dividends be delivered to the people? In most cases, citizens are reduced to nothing and they are ever ready to trade their dignity for crumbs from the table of power. What should be their right will be passed to them as a privilege. Politicians, unable to use their track record to win support, will prey on the citizens by playing up sectional interests to good effect, especially at election times.

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The good news is that what we call “liberal democracy” today also had elements of Afrodemocracy — such as rigging, vote buying and political violence — centuries ago. It has evolved to what it is today. That is why democracy is often described as a journey, a continuum. And that is why we should celebrate our progress in 25 years. For one, Nigerian presidents have not been able to reduce the federal judiciary and legislature to mere rubber stamps. This is a glimmer of hope. There is still the occasional nudge to put the executive in its place, even if often cosmetic. But that the nudge exists at all shows that we can yet liberalise our democracy. We can fan the flame into fire.

Another landmark to celebrate: in 2006, we survived a sinister self-succession scheme by truncating an amendment to the constitution. It was designed to give the president — and, accidentally, the governors — a third term in office. On the surface, the plan was to award Obasanjo an extra term of four years since the constitutional limit is two terms of four years each. But, as it goes with Afrodemocracy, changing the constitution is the first step to life presidency — one step at a time. The failure of the third term agenda was a major victory for the current democratic order. When we complain about how slow the democratisation project has been, we should not forget this win.

Without a doubt, the Nigerian people deserve better than what they are getting. Democracy is built around the people. In fact, the people are the object and subject of democracy. Conversely, Afrodemocracy is built around the political elite. They lord it over us. They become tin gods when they get into office and make themselves extremely comfortable first before remembering the purpose for which they were elected into office. But we still have the right to ask questions and we have used our power to vote them out in the past, be they president, governor, lawmaker, councillor or council chair. That is some comfort. We had no such authority or privilege under the military.

As we commemorate 25 years of democracy in Nigeria, our biggest challenge is how to make it work for the people. How can we demand and entrench good governance at all levels — federal, state and local? Our focus is always on elections, so our energies peak when it is time to vote. Thereafter, we switch off and begin to groan. Yet, we have to consciously organise ourselves to hold democratic institutions accountable and responsible on a daily, not seasonal, basis if we are going to help the process grow to our own benefit. It shouldn’t matter if our preferred candidates win or not. Nigeria belongs to us all. Good governance is not a gift to be home-delivered to us — we must demand it.

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AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

GAME OF THRONES

Alhaji Muhammadu Sanusi II has been controversially restored to his throne as Emir of Kano, four years after he was deposed by Dr Abdullahi Ganduje, then-governor of Kano state. I pity Alhaji Aminu Ado Bayero, his now deposed successor. He was a pawn on the chessboard. I think Ganduje went too far when he broke the Kano emirate into pieces clearly for political reasons. But the restoration of Sanusi could have been tidier given that there was a court injunction stopping it. No matter how bad an injunction is, it has to be obeyed until vacated or quashed. Ordering Bayero’s arrest, as Governor Abba Kabir Yusuf did, baffles me. I wonder what these governors will do with state police. Scary.

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ANNEXING BANEX

The Nigerian military has virtually relocated to the Banex Plaza, a favourite market for phones and computers in Abuja, after some traders assaulted two soldiers in uniform following a disagreement over a faulty mobile phone. I will say this again: under no circumstances should anyone assault uniformed officers. It is an attack on the state. If any civilian is wronged by soldiers, there are processes of seeking redress. But the same thing applies to the military: why shut down dozens of businesses because of the offence of a few? The culprits could have been fished out. For those canvassing a return to military rule, that is just a taste of the tyranny we suffered for decades. Brutal.

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2023 REPEAT

I know I am getting ahead of myself, but since we are already discussing the 2027 presidential election (evidently, Nigerians were created for elections), I am here to predict that it will be a rematch of 2023: Bola Tinubu vs Atiku Abubakar vs Peter Obi. Atiku has just said he will run for president for as long as he is healthy. He recently denied plans to endorse Obi in 2027. Obi himself is already playing retail politics in the core north, where he fell short in 2023. And Tinubu’s associates are openly talking about mobilising the president’s re-election. It will not be the first rematch. We watched Goodluck Jonathan vs Muhammadu Buhari in 2011 and the rematch in 2015. Intriguing.

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Hurray! The house of reps has passed the bill to return to the old national anthem: “Nigeria we hail thee/Our own dear native land…” The speed with which it was passed showed a sense of urgency and patriotism. The senate is still working on its own version. According to the proponents, ‘Arise O Compatriots’ has not helped Nigeria develop since 1978 when it was introduced. I am so excited by this development. Soon, ‘Nigeria We Hail Thee’, from my projections, will stop budget padding, blackmail, extortion, banditry, terrorism, kidnapping, unemployment and poverty in Nigeria. It will lead to a stronger naira (probably N1/$) and grow the GDP at 20 percent per annum. Wonderful.

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