OPINION – How democracy dies in Nigeria

Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 per cent

By Emeka Alex Duru

Parts of this headline and substance of discussion, are from a 2018 publication on comparative politics by Harvard University political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, titled; How Democracies Die.

It is an expose on how leaders can subvert the democratic process to increase their power. The book advocates mutual toleration and respect for the political legitimacy of the opposition, including accepting the results of a free and fair election where the opposition wins. The authors also stress the importance of respecting the opinions of those of different orientations.

They advise against denial of legitimacy of the opponents, by which parties in power, cast their rivals as criminals, subversive, unpatriotic or a threat to national security or the existing way of life. In their words; “Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders – presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power”.

Soccer game is used by Levitsky and Ziblatt to illustrate how autocrats subtly undermine national institutions to achieve their desire. In it, power mongers compromise the referee, sideline at least some of other’s star players and rewrite the rules of the game to lock in their advantage. The institutions that are readily targeted, include the judiciary, law enforcement agencies and other regulatory bodies, that are ordinarily supposed to be neutral arbiters. “Capturing the referees provides the government with more than a shield”, the authors note.

Nigeria’s democratic experiments fit into the scenes in the book. In the frenzy to remain in power, the politicians in the country and their supporters often throw caution to the wind and carry on in manners that portray them as lacking in decency and decorum. Consequently, they undermine all known institutions of democracy, trample on their opponents in a carriage that suggests that they are the lords of the manor, before whom other Nigerians must genuflect.

Rather than responding to the call for service, the leaders scramble for the so-called national cake – a euphemism for looting the common wealth. To have their way, the opposition is rendered irrelevant, elections massively rigged at the state and centre by the parties in power. The 1964 general elections and consequent Western Nigeria crisis were the most nauseating of such antics by the leaders of the First Republic, necessitating the intervention by the largely idealistic young military officers in January, 1965.

Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, one of the principal actors, in announcing the putsch, clearly stated the reasons for their action. “Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 per cent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds”, he said in a dawn broadcast announcing the coup. Nigeria is yet to recover from that singular act and other upheavals that accompanied it.

Incidentally, whatever lessons that were supposed to have been learned by the military coming to power, were rubbished by the haughtiness of the politicians of the Second Republic of 1979 and 1983. As in the earlier experiment, leaders at the states and centre, walked roughshod on the people and the constitution, subverting the relevant principles that were supposed to guide them on the path of sanity. The oddities of the 1983 general elections, marked the height of impunity and disregard to democratic norms. It was therefore, not surprising to Nigerians when on December 31, 1983, General Muhammadu Buhari and his co-plotters, sacked the administration of President Shehu Shagari, opening the way for a long period of military administrations that ended in 1999.

Nigerians have subsequently been experiencing civilian democracy since 1999 but basically in name and not essence, hoping that it would get better. That hope of things getting better was what informed the enthusiasm of the masses, especially the youth in participating in the 2023 general elections. When also the departing President Buhari boasted that he would be leaving behind a legacy of credible elections, the people took him by his words. To add up, the national chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof Mahmood Yakubu, stated at various forums that his agency had put in place measures that would guard against rigging and vote manipulation. But when it mattered most, neither Buhari, nor Yakubu, was there for the people. They rather threw Nigerians under the bus. The country has not been the same ever since.

The judiciary has compounded the situation with its controversial judgements on critical issues. The Supreme Court judgement validating the election of President Bola Tinubu, against glaring instances of rigging, certificate forgery, identity theft and inconsistencies on personal data, is one outing that will haunt Nigeria’s democracy for a long time. Ignoring the substance of the issues and latching on technicalities to subvert justice in a case, is a serious disservice to democracy.

To be sure, elections cannot only be free and fair when won by the opposition. The ruling party can also come tops in a transparent poll. What matters is the fairness of the exercise and allowing the voter, the right to make his choice and seeing such, respected. That is why elections are seen as celebrations of democracy. And victory, not a do-or-die affair! Nigerians did not have that luxury in the February/March general elections. For the All Progressives Congress (APC) and its henchmen, it was a total declaration of war in which everything was thrown in. Unfortunately, the judiciary in affirming Tinubu, has endorsed the charade.

That was the message by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar, in describing the Supreme Court judgement of October 6, validating the election of Tinubu as a bad omen for the development of democracy in the country. Atiku who made the declaration at a press conference in Abuja on Monday, October 30, stated that the negative impacts of the judgement would reverberate beyond the Tinubu administration to future elections in the country.

Among the effects of the judgement, is the erosion of trust in Nigeria’s electoral system. Also, politicians will in future, do anything to win, knowing that the courts will uphold their victory. The judgement, will encourage resort to self-help by contestants, violence and anarchy. Any system that finds itself in such a situation, is in danger.

* DURU is the Editor, TheNiche Newspapers, Lagos (08054103327, nwaukpala@yahoo.com)

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