Victoria Ngozi Ikeano
Recently, we celebrated our “Democracy Day” in Nigeria, a day declared a holiday by the military authorities who handed over authority to a civilian regime after decades of jackboot military regimes. This is the 4th Republic, so designate the intervening periods when we had interruptions from the military in our political system.
The first Republic – a political system with elected representatives – came on the heels of the country’s independence from Britain, our erstwhile colonial master and was interrupted in 1966 when the soldiers struck. And the soldiers ruled with different heads of state until 1979 when they handed over to Alhaji Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) whose election as president was contested up to the Supreme Court by the Obafemi Awolowo-led Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). Shagari’s administration (second Republic) did not see the light of a second term as it was truncated in its first tenure by the Buhari-Idiagbon military junta in December 1983.
Then followed a series of palace coups by the soldiers during which we had a contraption of elected National Assembly members with an unelected military president and an Interim National Government (ING) headed by Ernest Shonekan. This too was soon booted out by the soldiers with Sani Abacha becoming head of state, his sudden death paving way for General Abdulsalam Abubakar to take over. Gen. Abdusalam as he was generally called, unlike his predecessors, kept to his promise of handing over to a civilian regime and he did so by conducting elections in a record six months. Enter Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as elected president on May 29, 1999 and the 4th Republic. We have been at this our ‘new found’ democracy for some 19 years now and just next year, it will be 20 years since the 4th Republic was born. So, this democracy can no longer be said to be new or at its embryonic stage as it used to be described. But whether the country has learnt the ropes, has really imbibed the tenets of democracy and is practising it in toto is debatable.
Again the concept of a ‘Democracy Day’ holiday is not very clear to me. Public holidays are declared for landmark events, to commemorate or draw special attention to a special class of people and/or their special contributions to our society. Thus we have Independence Day holiday because October 1, marks a turning point in our nation’s life; Nigeria cut the umbilical cord that tied it politically to Britain on October 1, 1960, gaining its political freedom from that country.
May 27 of each year (the following working day where the day itself falls on a weekend) is a holiday for school children to focus attention on the importance of children; Ditto Workers’ Day which is marked on May 1 annually. But May 1 has not always been a work-free day all over Nigeria. It used to be a public holiday only in the “progressives” states of South-west before the federal government keyed in.
Whereas Children’s Day is a school free day for Nigerian children, the Day of the African Child (June 14) is not a holiday for children here though the Day is marked nationwide with activities. There are several United Nations declared days for ‘special’ class of people which are not public holidays, notwithstanding that the days are marked in Nigeria too and notwithstanding that these Days are also meant to draw special attention to the immense contributions/importance of these category of people to our society. An example is Women’s Day. Women’s role in shaping the future of a country cannot be overemphasised given that they, it is, who guide the first steps of the child, its formative years that have a telling effect on the child’s and nation’s future.
While one can make a case for Women’s Day to be declared a public holiday to further draw attention to their unquantifiable and unique roles, one is hard put to make a similar call for the Democracy Day. Come to think of it, what is the essence of calling May 29, a Democracy Day in Nigeria and declaring a nationwide holiday for it in addition? To reflect on our democratic journey and how far we have come? But after 19 years, democracy should no longer be a novelty to us or something we should hold in awe or be especially grateful for, so to speak. Why, because in this 21st Century ‘democracy’ is taken for granted, it is a given, it is the norm rather than the exception. To say that we are celebrating ‘Democracy Day’ on May 29 of each year in Nigeria is a misnomer, I think.
The country should instead be celebrating the anniversary of the government at the centre – the anniversary of the Buhari-led administration as is currently the case — and those of other state governments which anniversary falls on same day. Those with different anniversary dates as Anambra, Ekiti and Osun would celebrate on different dates and declare those days work- free days in their respective states. Thus we could have a public holiday by the federal government and another by states with different anniversary date. The point I am making is that we should no longer refer to May 29, as Democracy Day as that is superfluous. Rather we should see it as a public holiday to mark the anniversary of the federal government and other states.
Talking about our democracy, how do we assess it? Some 19 years after return of democracy to our land the country is still grappling with the basics of democracy, namely provision of basic infrastructure. After so many years at it, we ought to have moved to the next step which is industrialisation. But here we are, still stuck at the first rung.
And part of the reason why we have not advanced to the next level is corruption. Of course, there are other aspects of democracy such as freedom of expression and the participation of the citizenry in the entire democracy chain.
While we could give the country some pass mark regarding freedom of speech (Nigerians by nature cannot be gagged anyway), we have not progressed far enough with regard to citizens participation as many Nigerians still evince a nonchalant attitude to democracy processes. Our political parties too, have not really earned that name as they are acting more like associations than true political parties.
Ikano writes from Lafia via [email protected]