President Muhammadu Buhari has kept his promise to give a new level of historical relevance to June 12 by making it the new Democracy Day. Hitherto, May 29 has been recognised as such since our return to constitutional rule in 1999 after many years of autocratic rule. June 12, 1993, appeared to be a new dawn in Nigeria’s quest for credible elections and democratic governance. On that day, Nigerians trooped out enthusiastically in their millions to the polls to elect their President. Chief Moshood Abiola, who flew the flag of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) with Babagana Kingibe, was sprinting to a roller coaster victory when President Ibrahim Babangida threw a spanner in the works and terminated the release of the election results midway.
That election was considered by local and foreign observers as free, fair and credible. Nigeria erupted with the anger of a people that had for long been starved of the benefits of constitutional democracy. There were demonstrations and riots and Abiola took the bull by the horns and announced himself President at the famous Epetedo Declaration. He was picked up and put in detention where he died in very mysterious circumstances. Even with his death and the nonchalance of three elected Presidents, June 12 refused to die. It remained a big bone in the nation’s throat. Then last year, Buhari revisited the matter in a decision that I described as a “master stroke.” Some others thought he was playing politics because his government was getting unpopular. Others thought his decision to revive June 12 was his own way of hurting his foe, Babangida, who overthrew him in the coup of August 1985. On June 12, 2020, he made good his promise by making that day a national holiday, aka Democracy Day.
For several reasons, the significance of that election cannot be underestimated. That was the first time that Nigerians voted for two candidates from one religion. In 1979, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, presidential candidate of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), a Christian, had also chosen another Christian, Chief Philip Umeadi. Both of them were from the South. They both lost the election. When Abiola, a Moslem, chose Kingibe, another Moslem, though from the North, there were misgivings in some quarters but Nigeria’s religious polarisation had not reached a stage of severity then. Besides, Chief Abiola, a well known philanthropist, was a broadminded Moslem who built both mosques and churches for various communities. He also donated hundreds of Korans and Bibles to various religious bodies in the country. His running mate, Kingibe, was also not a fanatical Moslem. That combination of two broadminded individuals made it easy for Nigerians to believe that, if elected, they would manage Nigeria’s religious diversity with great aplomb and evenhandedness. Since the election was annulled, Nigerians lost the opportunity to see if they would have lived up to their expectation.
The second significance of June 12 was that the election was generally accepted as free, fair and credible. That was a first in the history of Nigeria. In the past, almost every election always ended in a big drama in the courts and in the streets, the sort of drama that often threatened the very foundation of the country’s unity. After the June 12, 1993, every election was full of mago mago and wuru wuru at almost all levels. After the messy 2011 elections, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua decided to set up the Justice Mohammed Uwais Committee to look at possible electoral reforms. That eminent committee produced a very good report, which has been gathering dust somewhere. There have been no reforms. All elections since then have been the equivalent of abracadabra, consisting of vote buying, ballot paper and ballot box snatching, fictitious results and winning by violence.
Nigeria’s political elite are just not interested in free and fair elections, which reforms can bring about. Many of them know that, if elections are free and fair, their chances for success are probably dim. In the real sense of the word, our democracy is no democracy at all. It is a misnomer to call it democracy. The better word for it is perhaps demoncracy. Take a look at our rich rigging culture, the candidate imposition; the godfatherism menace; the unfair, unorthodox impeachments in hotels at midnight; the huge sums of money paid for impeachment and for the passage of obnoxious bills; the absenteeism by parliamentarians; the huge sums of money paid for so-called oversight functions; the monies given and received for budget padding and for commanding positions in various parliaments, state and national.
Take a look at the rule of law breaches; the detention of people for years without trial; the failure to release people granted bail for years; the harassment of judicial officers and journalists and human right activists; the selective persecution of political opponents for corruption; the placement of the President, Vice President, Governors and Deputy Governors above the law by virtue of an all-embracing immunity, a privilege you cannot find in America where we borrowed our presidential system from. Take a look at the local government elections, which are only held if the governors are tired of having interim or caretaker committees. Then they put together a farce, which they shamelessly call elections. Wherever these so-called elections take place, the party in power in the state scores 100% victory or if it wants to be kind it dashes 1% to the opposition. So it then becomes 99% versus 1%. A very thoughtless rigging formula, if you ask me. You have a lot of buzz about constituency projects and humongous monies approved and siphoned for them.
Do a simple check and see whether those projects actually exist on the ground or they just exist on paper. If they exist, do they match the money voted for them? It is largely a hoax, a trip to sham-land, a brazen, unblushing act of public deception that is enacted year after year. The amount of fraud in this system has paralysed, rather than galvanised, our so-called democracy. For our legislators, parliament is a bazaar. You grab as much as you can, salaries, cars, allowances, freebies, etc, without the slightest thought about the country’s survival. Last year, Italian parliamentarians decided on their own to vote for a reduction by one-third of the number of parliamentarians in their upper and lower chambers. That would bring a substantial reduction in government’s expenditure on the legislature. That cannot happen in Nigeria because, despite our depressing financial situation, it will be difficult to bring our legislators to the circle of reason.
Even in these very difficult period for the country, our legislators at the national level are asking for N37 billion for the renovation of their buildings, as if they have been living in a collapsing pigsty before now. The President thinks that is one way of buying their favour and has generously approved N20 billion for the project. All of these shenanigans are solid roadblocks to genuine democracy.
We are not helped by the unitary constitution that the military government handed over to us. Since 1999, there have been several half-hearted attempts by our legislators to tinker with the Constitution and give us a little leeway to practise democracy the way it ought to be practised in a country with heterogenous biometrics. People have pointed out all the flaws in the Constitution, written memos and held hearing sessions at town halls and at a 2014 national conference, all aimed at finding a workable formula for our federation. The governing party, APC, has even proposed, against their initial wish, some reforms that can lead to some kind of workable structure that can move the country forward but the forces of retrogression are hell-bent on keeping the country down. Another drawback has been the country’s lack of quality, transformational leadership.
The country can only be as progressive as its leadership. A leadership that fails to accept Nigeria’s diversity, the need for fairness, equity and inclusivenesss in governance, is likely to lead the country to a cul-de-sac from which it will difficult to exit. In the zero-sum ecosystem of politics, that is a disaster. That is why our democratic life is in a dramatic free fall. That is why hooded armed men can invade our parliament in broad daylight to stop the legitimate business of lawmaking. You call that a genuine democracy? Does that happen in America from where we borrowed the system? How can we find a fig leaf to cover our democratic inanities when our people are poor and pauperised and are paying little or no attention to what the politicians are doing with the country’s present and future?
Because our people are nonchalant and even complicit in the gradual mortgage of their right to the benefits of genuine democracy, the politicians have had the freedom to do as they please. They have chosen to define democracy in their own wayward image. For those of us in the civil society and media who put our lives on the line by confronting the military governments that had no interest in returning to their barracks, this is not the place we wanted to be. It is not. This is the wrong place to be. There is a knee on our democracy’s neck. The knee is pressing its neck hard and it cannot breathe. Our democracy is choking. It is about being asphyxiated and yet we who brought this democracy with our sweat and tears are doing nothing to recover it. We have simply crawled into bed and pulled the cover over our heads. We can do better than that by raising our voices and our placards and asking that the knee be lifted so that our democracy can breathe.