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Nigeria’s elections and the need for Africa to rethink its definition and practice of democracy

Governments that come into power through elections and fail to deliver dividends of democracy are no better than the military regimes we had before
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Nigeria's newly declared winner of 2023 presidential election, Bola Tinubu speaks at the National Collation Centre in Abuja, Nigeria, March 1, 2023. REUTERS/Esa Alexander

On 1st March 2023, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the winner of Nigeria’s 2023 Presidential Election. Characteristic of most elections taking place on the African continent, the declaration was met with claims from opposition political parties, their supporters, and some local and foreign observers, that the election was not free, fair, and credible. While it is easy to focus on the contest around the validity of this particular electoral process, we should not lose sight of the fact that the election offers an opportunity to (re)evaluate the democratic experiment that Nigeria and most African countries started to undertake three decades or so ago, seeing that it has failed to deliver the expected democratic dividends (i.e., significant improvement in people’s quality of living). This situation clearly calls for a rethinking of our approach to governance.

For starters, it is undeniable that governments that come into power through elections, whether rigged or not, and fail to deliver dividends of democracy are no better than the military regimes we had before. This raises questions about the beliefs we hold about democracy in Africa. It is becoming increasingly clear that elections, term limits, or the principle of rotation in power do not necessarily bring about democratic dividends; we should, therefore, not confuse processes such as elections with the substance of democracy. In fact, the confusion has led us to embrace nonsensical terms such as “democratic coup” in the face of election result manipulation and rigging where there was no democracy to begin with. If we truly desire democracy, then our definition of it must underscore the dividends of a democratic system, one whose purpose is to improve the living conditions of our people.

In fact, our definition of democracy should resonate with the aspirations of our disgruntled compatriots (they are the majority) that did not even bother to cast their votes. It is evident that Nigeria has been characterized by bad governance, lack of leadership accountability to the electorate, and destruction of public trust since 1999. It should not be difficult to see that this contributed to low interest and participation of citizens in governance and the electoral process as evidenced by the low voter turnouts for the past decades.

Democracy is hinged on popular participation and mandate. The fact that more Nigerians (about 14 million) voted against the candidate of the ruling party who won the election with about eight million votes raises doubts about his mandate from the majority of Nigerians. But most importantly, the low turnout of voters in this presidential election, and other elections before it, is a verdict on the failure of supposed democratic governments in Nigeria to meet the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians.

It is also crucial to understand that electoral violence, voter intimidation, suppression, manipulation of election results, and the lack of transparency by INEC are merely symptoms of a failing system. When the only purpose for power is to maintain the elite’s grip on the country’s resources, and broker behind-the-scene deals to that effect, while discouraging a change-yearning population from participating in their country’s governance, we simply cannot talk about preserving democracy. Neither can we talk about a “democratic” experiment any longer. The cancer is advanced. We have to engage in soul-searching as a nation and reflect on the changes needed to overcome elite capture.

It is intriguing, to say the least, that some of the civilians who saw themselves as heroes of democracy because of their participation in fighting the military regime in Nigeria are today the very powerful people fostering an anti-democratic culture and bad governance in Nigeria. Their desperate attempts to capture political power by all means, as seen in the presidential election, have left many Nigerians, especially the youths who actively participated in the election, bewildered about the true meaning of democracy.

In the aftermath of the 2023 Presidential Election, Pat Utomi, a Nigerian Professor of political economy, rhetorically asked, “If the powerful do not like how the people want to vote, should it not be easier to impose a dictatorship?” While I do not advocate for a dictatorial regime as a model of governance in Nigeria or Africa, it is essential for Nigeria and the rest of Africa to do away with the faux democracy it currently practises, which has failed to meet expectations and improve the wellbeing of its citizens.

In recent years, desperate attempts to address the seemingly intractable issues that stand in our way to the Promised Land have given rise to renewed calls for restructuring Nigeria across ethnic, political, and religious divides. Proponents of the restructuring idea argue that the best arrangement for Nigeria is a real federation with a finely calibrated balance of powers and responsibilities between the central and federating units. In this scenario, the federating units can look after themselves more effectively without the “feeding bottle” of the central government. According to Kingsley Moghalu, a former Nigerian presidential candidate and former deputy governor of the central bank, in a restructured Nigeria, the “centre becomes less powerful, but not weak, because it will retain core sovereign responsibilities such as the armed forces and security services, citizenship and immigration, foreign affairs, and the central bank.” But all these ideas will not yield the expected benefits if we remain obsessed with power-sharing in a decentralized system and do not address the elephant in the room: what’s the purpose of power?

Overall, as Nigerians and Africans, we must reflect on our journey so far and develop, adopt and deploy a governance model built on the foundation of the rule of law, citizen participation, accountability to citizens, equity, justice, fairness, inclusion, and protection of human rights and dignity. Our priority as Africans should be to have competent, visionary, and responsive leadership and governance structures that inspire hope, patriotism, a sense of nation-building, and identity, and improve the wellbeing of Africans.

What we have now is clearly not working.

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