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SALIENT MATTERS ON DEMOCRACY DAY

By NBF News
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Eleven unbroken years of civilian rule is worthy of celebration by a nation and people who have spent 28 out of 50 years of nationhood under the jackboot of military usurpation of power.

The 11 years may not have witnessed democracy in its truest and untainted form, but it is still an achievement in a land where repression and autocracy had been the norm for half of the life of the country. As it is said, the worst form of democracy is still better than the best of military rule, and we, therefore, congratulate Nigerians on ensuring that the democratic journey we began on May 29, 1999 has lasted thus far.

There may not be much cause for chest beating, as many blatantly and patently undemocratic acts yet characterise our democracy, but then, democratic rule has served us well, compared to the totalitarianism of military rule. We are today numbered among democratic countries of the world, after previous attempts had been scuttled by the military in 1966, 1983, and 1993.

The occasion of the 11th anniversary of return to democratic rule today, affords us opportunity to consider salient issues about our democracy, and to take both retrospective and introspective looks, and determine whether we have acquitted ourselves well or not.

It has been rightly argued that the first eight years, from 1999, under the leadership of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, was pseudo-democracy, as the former military head of state still operated with the psyche, tendencies and predilections of a military leader. But our democracy was elastic enough, and survived till he left office in 2007, after a travesty called general elections. The succeeding government is now in its third year, albeit after many developments that have tried our democracy sorely.

An ailing president has died, we've had an acting president, who has since transformed into a substantive. Yet, the fabric of our democracy has held, and not torn asunder despite many provocations.

A poser: Have we had the best quality leadership in the past 11 years? Have we had the best the nation can muster occupying top quality offices, particularly in the executive and legislature? The answer, definitely, is no. The challenge, therefore, is for men and women of sterling character and stature, to rise up, and be numbered among those who play politics and aspire for elective offices. A nation where only roughnecks and brigands hold top political offices, is doomed and imperilled. If we continue to say politics is only for dirty and rough people, so will we continue to be led by fraudsters, confidence tricksters, thugs, and the flotsam and jetsam of the society. A soccer team that does not field its best eleven cannot hope to put up superb performance at top rate competitions.

Again, after 11 years, our electoral system is both rickety and decrepit. Does it do justice to the quality manpower this nation has been endowed with? Surely not. We go into elections without enabling laws being promulgated for such exercises. Votes don't count, and the electorate is treated with scorn and contempt. Three years into a four-year term, some cases arising from the 2007 polls are yet to be determined in tribunals and courts. Even as another general elections is just months away, our electoral body is in disarray, without a substantive chairman, and with many other vacant key positions. We have, indeed, made a mess of eating an egg, and our democracy has only succeeded by sheer luck and divine grace. After 11 years, the onus is on us to reverse the trend. Happily, we have a largely acceptable blueprint in the recommendations of the Justice Muhammed Uwais panel on electoral reforms.

The rule of law is a foundation on which democracy solidly rests. When there is no respect for the rule of law, impunity and haphazardness reigns, things are done according to the whims and caprices of some leaders. We saw this in bold relief in the Obasanjo years, but happily, there was some improvement under Umaru Musa Yar'Adua. The current and succeeding regimes must realise that democracy cannot be nurtured where there is contempt for the rule of law. It is a point worth stressing on such an auspicious day as this.

Free speech, freedom of association, respect for human rights and the dignity of man, are some other hallmarks and benchmarks of a thriving democracy. We must strive to build a nation where free speech is not stultified, where freedom of association is not denied, and where the rights and dignity of the populace are not abridged. Only then can we truly, and in good conscience, celebrate our democracy.

There's no gainsaying the fact that the 2011 elections will keenly test the fabric of our democracy. Will candidates still be imposed at party levels or free and fair primaries conducted? Will people still be disenfranchised in millions through spurious voters registers? Will votes count and be counted? Will electoral cases be despatched as expeditiously as possible so that public officers can concentrate on the purposes they've been elected into office? All these will matter, and make a difference between mere ritual and true celebration by the time we mark another Democracy Day next year.

Democracy, true federalism, and economic development, are interlinked. When one grows, the other also draws nourishment. Unfortunately, because our democratic growth is stunted, our federalism and economic fortunes are equally in the doldrums. It is cause for worry, and something to be paid due attention by all stakeholders in the democratic enterprise.

Equally, democracy is about people. In fact, the elementary definition of democracy calls it the rule of the people by the people, for the people. But sadly, in Nigeria, the people are being crowded out of our democracy. The so-called dividends of democracy are enjoyed by a select few, particularly those who hold public offices. They earn fat salaries and allowances, while the people pine away in poverty and destitution. The bills we see passed into law are those that cater for the interest of a few, while fundamental ones like the Freedom of Information, tax reforms etc are left to gather dust in the shelves of the National Assembly. What a lopsided democracy!

Eleven years down the line, there are still veritable threats to our democracy, and a day like this is good opportunity to reflect on, and resolve to tackle them. Political education, for instance, is almost non-existent. We're literate, but politically uneducated. That is why our people are docile before bad leadership, and cannot defend their rights. People sell their votes for mere pittance, since they've been rendered prostrate and beggarly by excruciating poverty.

Equally dangerous to our political development is a docile opposition. Today, we have a situation in which one party is dominant, and grabs all political positions by hook or crook, but rather than coalesce into a formidable opposition, other politicians either join the dominant party, or spread themselves too thin into other platforms to have any effect. Our political actors should, therefore, reform themselves, lest they unwittingly undermine this democracy.

Our democracy is probably the most expensive in the world. While the people are pauperised and impoverished, political actors wallow in obscene wealth, which they have awarded themselves through outrageous salaries and allowances. There should be creative ways of making our democracy less expensive, if it would stand the test of time.

We congratulate Nigerians on the occasion of Democracy Day, but stress again that democracy is all about service, and improving the lives of the people. Any democracy that does not do this is anomalous, ridiculous and abnormal. It's time to raise the stakes higher.