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CROSSROADS IN NIGERIA'S DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION

PHOTO: A 2007 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN BANNER OF FORMER VICE PRESIDENT ATIKU ABUBAKAR. Image: CHRISTOPHER BANGERT, THE NEW YORK TIMES.
PHOTO: A 2007 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN BANNER OF FORMER VICE PRESIDENT ATIKU ABUBAKAR. Image: CHRISTOPHER BANGERT, THE NEW YORK TIMES.
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Nigeria's democracy was 11 years on May 29 2010 with no great news of transformation and little cause for jubilation by the populace. The reality however is that within this period, the country has recorded modest achievements in maintaining political stability, creating and strengthening critical institutions to support democratic governance and pursuing economic policies aimed at improving human development. The major challenge still remains the institutionalization of our democracy.

The greatest obstacle to this is ironically the political class, to which the resources of this country have been entrusted, in order to serve the common good. There seems to be this gnawing gap between the high quality of policy designs and the sincerity of public officials to implement these policies for the good of the people.

Perhaps, the main consequence of this is the inability of government at all levels to deliver the dividends of democracy to the people. By dividends of democracy, I mean the institutional infrastructure of democracy like credible and independent judiciary, civilized and service-oriented police, constitutionalism, independent and competent electoral commission, strong vertical and horizontal accountability institutions, and provision of an environment conducive to the effective functioning of virile civil society organizations. It also includes the functional social infrastructure capable of facilitating human and economic development.

Ensuring that our governance institutions function properly will entail taking them out of the control of the powerful leading lights of the political class and enlisting them to the task of ensuring rapid national development. But the task of building the capacity of our critical institutions and that of stakeholders that work within them is a work in progress, and the one which can only be accomplished in a gradual manner rather than with the rapidity expected by intellectuals and civil society activists. Bad as it has been however, Nigeria's juridical democracy is still limping on, despite the fracture that has been inflicted on it by the political class.

Our democratic journey has proved to the world that courageous decisions by leading actors at critical moments can actually save any country from self-inflicted catastrophe and disasters. My argument is that within the last 11 years, Nigeria's democracy would have been truncated six times but for the determination of Nigerians. And my prognosis is that Nigerians have proved within the past 11 Years that if they want to, they can come together to safeguard our unity and common interests as a people; that Nigerians are capable of piloting the affairs of this country to be among the leading nations of the World in all its ramifications; and that if we are desirous of delivering to the people the dividends of democracy and ensuring human development, we need more of such courageous attitude by not only people at the helms of affairs but also from other categories of Nigerians. I will illustrate my point with the determination of Nigerians, demonstrated by their actions during certain decisive moments in Nigeria's democratic journey.

The first major litmus test for Nigerian democracy was the introduction of the Islamic Sharia law by some states in Northern Nigeria between 1999 and 2000. This event, which was dubbed “political Sharia saga” following the enactment of the Islamic law as a main body of criminal litigation in about nine Muslim-dominated states in Northern Nigeria led to a lot of tension, ethno-religious violence which claimed the lives of several thousands of people and of course, the amputation of a number of limbs. It also tested the tolerance and commitment of the people to federalism and democracy. It threatened to lead to centrifugal judicial confusion, given the fact that criminal litigations are not eligible to be heard by Sharia Courts under the Nigerian law.

The "political Sharia" however suffered setbacks after a few years due principally to the up-turning of the Sharia Courts' verdicts by appellate courts, pressure on the Northern States by the human rights community and the lack of support for the initiative by senior Islamic figures in Northern Nigeria. However, innocent lives, mostly of people from Southern parts of Nigeria, had been lost while the confusion lasted. Nevertheless, the incident did not lead, as expected in some circles, to the dismemberment of the country's young democracy. I have this feeling that the last may not have been heard about the Sharia issue as litigations bordering on rights abuse at the time by some Governors cannot be totally ruled out in future.

The second major crisis of Nigeria's democracy, in my considered opinion was the Obasanjo/Atiku Feud that blew into a national conflaragation starting from 2005. The conflict bordered on the struggle for political power in the 2007 Presidential Election. It also involved disputes over President Obasanjo's plan to "kill" Vice-President Atiku politically. The crisis led to the exit of Atiku from the ruling PDP, the whittling down of his influence and power, desecration of his office by Obasanjo and the eventual declaration of his office vacant following his defection to the newly established Action Congress (AC).

He only got a reprieve when the Supreme Court nullified the action of Obasanjo and his cohorts. However, the crisis had taken its toll on the Presidency, the political class and other institutions of governance in the country. The polarization was so deep that it was speculated in some circle that the crisis was a re-enactment of the Awolowo-Akintola feud during the First Republic that led to the demise of the country's pioneer democratic experiment. It further raised the stakes for the 2007 Elections but thankfully, while the crisis lasted, all the parties agreed on the sanctity of democracy as a system of governance and therefore did not do anything to truncate it. That the bitter rivalry between the two actors degenerated into an open war was a most unfortunate occurrence. Ironically, the crisis further raised the stake for the 2007 election as it made it a "do-or-die" for many of the gladiators. However, the crisis could be said to have enriched our democracy because it demonstrated how resilient our institutions are and it also enriched party politics in the country.

The killing of the tenure elongation project spearheaded by some supporters of former President Obasanjo was arguably the golden moment in Nigeria's democracy. It was also the third critical moment, in my estimation, in Nigeria's democratic journey. The issue, which was dubbed "Third Term" by Nigerian analysts created the highest tension in the history of the country's democracy and was one of the remote causes of the Obasanjo/Atiku conflict. While the tension lasted, attempts were made to silence the opposition; the so-called constitutional amendment process was designed to shut-out people perceived as opponents of the third term bid. Almost all the governance institutions in the country were drafted into the battle.

Impeachment of some state governors was also linked to the struggle for political power in 2007, with some world leaders calling on Nigeria's President then to do the right thing and obey the constitutional provisions on the issue. However, in a demonstration of its independence and capacity, the Nigerian Senate voted to stop the constitutional amendment altogether, thus passing a death sentence on the third term project. The third term issue demonstrated that the Nigerian legislature had come of age and that its autonomy was not in doubt. The issue also demonstrated that the impact of the civil society on democratic outcomes should not be taken for granted. Thus, Nigeria narrowly avoided yet another crisis that could have led to the truncation of democratic governance in the country.


The 2007 General Election was the fourth litmus test for Nigeria's democracy. It also exposed the weaknesses of Nigeria's Election Management Institution, the INEC. It witnessed widespread irregularities and allegation of complicity on the parts of our law enforcement agents, especially the Nigerian Police, in the election malpractices recorded at the time. A credible indicator that the 2007 elections were manipulated is the high amount of victories up-turned by the law courts, at both the state and national levels, in spite of the inherent weaknesses of our judiciary. In fact, the late President Yar'Adua alluded to the flawed process that brought him to power and instituted an electoral reform process to address this challenge.

The opposition parties mulled a mass action at the aftermath of the elections- a sort of what the Red Shirts did recently in Thailand when massive protest were organized and the Government was declared illegitimate by the people. Knowing the Nigerian security forces for what they are, such a protest would have degenerated into anarchy and possibly to the death of hundreds of people. With the parties to the crisis not shifting grounds, democratic governance would have been sacrificed in a Zero-sum Game. However, this was prevented from the humble and conciliatory disposition, and honesty demonstrated by the late President Yar'Adua and his government's promise to respect the rule of law. Nigeria thus escaped another self-created landmine.

Midway into the Yar'Adua administration, it appeared that the unrest in the Niger Delta region would degenerate into a major insurgency and possibly a civil war. Gladiators in different parts of the country had started making inflammatory statements, with a member of the House of Representatives from the North calling for the military invasion of the Niger Delta region. In the unconventional battle taking place in the region, the patience of the Nigerian military was tested several times as it lost a number of its soldiers to the militants. It appeared at some point that some form of military actions was inevitable and in fact, some sources even claimed to have intercepted the Nigerian military's battle plan. Niger Delta leaders openly boasted that the unset of a military action would mark the end of the Nigerian nation, yet there appeared no exit strategy in the Nigerian statutes to deal with this kind of situation amicably.

Nigeria was losing billions of Naira on a daily basis and a number of oil companies have shut down their operations while several others were mulling over their losses. The militancy menace was spreading like wildfire to states hitherto unaffected by this problem and the military was forced into some unsuccessful assaults against the militants. Then entered the Yar'Adua administration with the doctrine of amnesty. Under the framework, the government gave a deadline for voluntary surrender of militants in return for a state-guaranteed amnesty from prosecution. The concept, though controversial, has at least guaranteed the restoration of peace to the Niger Delta and has saved the nation an avoidable civil war. As some commentator said that no country survives two civil wars, it is significant that the Niger Delta militancy was not allowed to degenerate.

The last critical moment in Nigeria's democracy was the absence of Nigeria's immediate past President, the late Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar'Adua due to live-threatening ailments. Yar'Adua's health issue first came to the fore during the 2007 Presidential campaign when he had to be flown abroad, midway into his campaign. Since then, it became a dominant issue in public discourse. However, the attempt to cover-up this issue rather than any other factor, betrayed the disingenuousness of his aides as Nigerians were treated to the harrowing and painful ordeals to which he was exposed every day of his three-year reign, through mainly internet sources. The apparatus of government was considerably slowed down while some government functionaries exploited the opportunity to feather their own nests. The problem came to its head early 2010 when government activities have almost become paralyzed due to Yar'Adua's health-related journey in November 2009 without handing over power to his Deputy, as stipulated by the Constitution.

The opposition parties openly called for his resignation or removal through impeachment. His supporters held tightly to the rein of power. A Minister tendered a memo requesting the President to step aside, other kicked and demanded her resignation. Some of Yar'Adua's supporters gave the issue ethnic and religious colouration, threatening fire and brimstone. The Nigerian parliament was in a quagmire. Rumours of coup plotting to restore some order were also in the offing. Then entered the Doctrine of Necessity which was invoked by the two houses of the National Assembly to allow the Vice President rule in acting capacity, pending the recovery of President Yar'Adua. The eventual death of the former President eventually paved way for Acting President Goodluck Jonathan to emerge as a substantive President in May 2010.

By surviving these incidents, Nigeria's democracy has indeed come a long way and is gradually becoming more institutionalized, a good reason for hope and for more support for the political system for all and sundry. In this period of political uncertainty, the will- power demonstrated by stakeholders should come in handy in amicably resolving whatever challenges that may come up in the run-down to the 2011 elections. More importantly such will-power should also be used in confronting the country's infrastructural, educational, healthcare, and governance challenges.

Kehinde Bolaji is an Abuja based Public Policy and Democratic Governance Analyst.

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