Opinion: Democracy, leadership, and the future of Nigeria


By Sam Amadi

Opinion, Nigeria is falling apart. It is falling apart fast. Nigeria needs to be rescued. It needs to be rescued quickly.

Nigeria’s basic indicators are bad. Youth unemployment is about 23% and growing. Half of Nigerians are extremely poor, according to Nigeria’s official custodian of social data, the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

This means that about 100 million Nigerians live below poverty level, with less than two dollars a day.

Nigeria is now the poverty capital of the world. With about 200 million people Nigeria has more poor people than India with 1.3 billion people. Horrible. With inflation at 14.4 and rising, Nigerians will be poorer in 2021, except a major tide turns the economy around. Life in Nigeria is even more wretched than this.

There is no security of life in Nigeria.

Nigeria ranks third in the global terrorism index. Only Iraq and Afghanistan are more terrorized.

Nigeria hosts three of the five deadliest terror groups in the world. On the average, more than 100 people die monthly in Nigeria of banditry, terror attacks or extrajudicial killings by security agencies.

One can say that in Nigeria life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. But these are avoidable. Nigeria does not need to be like this. In 1960, at independence, the nations of the world looked with confidence to the future of an African rising star.

Time Magazine reflected the mood when it celebrated the birth of Nigeria with a cover story. “The Giant of Africa”, the magazine proclaimed. It did not take long before the country disappointed its well-wishers.

As Nigerian leaders squabbled for religious and ethnic dominance, it did not take long before the country slipped into civil war, long military dictatorship, and emerged with a ‘democracy’ that can neither satisfy the material needs of the citizen or ensure peaceful and legitimate selection of political leaders.

In place of euphoria, friends of Nigeria are worried about its future. No one is banking on the country’s future. Everyone is agitated.

Is Nigeria going to survive? How will the country survive? Is Nigeria at the precipice? Will the country fail or will it pass through this terrible period, like it has done many times in the past?

If there was any doubt that Nigeria was distressed, the events of the #EndSARS protest have cleared it.

That long-lasting peaceful protests that turned violent towards the end shows clearly that the Nigerian states is gravely sick.

As young men and women took to the streets across many Nigerian major cities, as they protested the brutality of the Nigerian state and its insensate indifference to the poverty and deprivations ravaging the country, as they raised their voice and temper at the noisome pestilence that has become leadership, many doubting Thomas, many privileged and indifferent elites, could no longer hide their despair of the Nigerian situation.

The protest raged for weeks. At the end, Nigeria failed the leadership test again. Instead of the protests leading to a moment of awakening and awareness, it led to a return of gestapolike brutality.

Security officers, in the disguise of darkness, mauled down peaceful protesters in hale of bullets.

The protests turned violent leading to ogre of unbridled looting and burning of private and public enterprises and homes.

When the windstorm died down, many police stations have been burnt and tens of police officers killed.

Across the country, soldiers and police shot dead many citizens. To further highlight the pathology of the Nigerian state, as government praises the organizers of the protests and sues for peace, it continues to brutalize suspected promoters of the protests.

The Governor of the Central Banks surreptitiously secured court orders to freeze the accounts of some of the promoters who are also placed on ‘no-fly’ lists.

The angry and faithless state walks back on its peace talk and pursues vendetta against youths who showed it the mirror.

Democracy and its Failure: What does Nigeria’s failure say about democracy, its democracy? This is Nigeria’s third experiment in democratic governance.

The first two attempts ended badly. They were shut down by the military. Those experiments failed largely because democracy did not deliver the goods. Democracy did not create social peace.

Democracy did not produce prosperity and quality of life for the people. In 1966. The first experiment in democratic governance ended in ethnic violence, corruption, and military coup.

In 1983, military adventurists shoved away a tottering civilian administration whose malfeasance and ineffectiveness choked the people. Now, the third experiment is headed in the same direction.

Political leadership is self-serving, grossly incompetent, and unresponsive to the storms of violence and misery convulsing the ship of state.

The only difference is that there are no military adventurists this time around to relieve the people of the misery and drudgery of corrupt and incompetent political leadership.

So, even as Nigerians clamor for democracy, democracy has failed in Nigeria. Why is it so? Is there something about democracy that means it will never flourish in the Nigeria soil?

Or it that we are not able to nurture the seed of democracy? Democracy has a long and confusing history.

It could be defined in different ways. But today, it has been accepted as an electoral system that allows the people- all adult citizens- to periodically elect their leaders.

Through democracy the people rule themselves and therefore protect their interests.

The minimum requirement of a democratic system is that it institutionalizes free and fair electoral systems and creates enough incentive structure to encourage those elected to public officer exercise political power to the benefit of the people.

These two features of democracy- free and fair election and accountability- are what makes elections worthwhile.

If any or all of them are absent, then democracy means little and achieves little. It is easy to understand why democracy has failed twice in Nigeria and failing the third time (the third experiment is not a complete failure because we still have the chance to rescue democracy).

The continuing failure of democracy in Nigeria is because of the failure to institutionalize a system of fair and free elections and a structure of governance post-election that constrains the exercise of political power towards political stability and socioeconomic wellbeing of the people.

If there is a secret code of these many failures, here it is.

If you crack this code, you reset politics in Nigeria and ensure the survival of democracy in Nigeria. Note that I use the verb ‘institutionalize’.

This brings up the primacy of institutions in sustaining democracy. I emphasize the definition of institution from Nobel economist, Douglas North, who defined institutions as norms, rules, processes, and procedures that enable and constrain actions.

What is paramount about institutions is that they are humanly created, they are human devices.

Again, institutions include norms- social and moral norms. So, when we speak about institutions of democracy we do not mean only or necessarily the different branches of government, the state institutions like the courts, parliaments and police and other security agencies.

We also mean values and norms that shape what people expect, how they behave and interact with one another and how they assess the performance of those in public office.

Therefore, institutionalizing democracy requires that we have or develop the values and norms that generate the social behaviors that nurture and sustain democratic practices.

Democracy fails in Nigeria because the Nigerian social environment does not sufficiently produce the norms, values, rules, processes, and procedures that engender democratic practices. So, a democratic way of life is necessary for a democratic practice.

Now, it is clearer why the experiments in democracy have failed. Recall the two definitive features of democracy: free and fair electoral system and effective incentive structure for accountability.

Democracy requires people to elect those who will govern them in an environment where they can make free and clear choices.

It is believed that because the people have the votes, they will choose those they believe share their views and concerns and will promote their wellbeing when given political power.

Two assumptions are built into electoral democracy. The first is that the people understands the issues involved in the politics of the day. The second is that the people can freely express their choice.

The first requires basic education, a free press and freedom of expression and significant degree of public reason, that is, reason that is not based on divisive ethnic, religious or cultural sentiments not generally shared by large number of citizens.

Now, where the people are mostly uneducated or not capable of inquiring into public affairs or not disposed to form opinion on public issues based on publicly accessible and acceptable premises, then elections may not produce results that are good for democracy.

The quality of civic education and degree of consensus on important matters of public policy determine whether the choices citizens make about who leads will produce the socalled dividends of democracy.

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if the people do not know enough of the issues or are driven by divisive ethnic, religious and cultural issues and don’t focus on what contributes to their wellbeing, then they will not make electoral choices that promote their wellbeing.

If their choice is constrained by poverty, inducement, or violence, then they can’t choose those they wish to choose. In this way, democracy fails.

It fails because the people cannot elect those they wish to elect, those who care enough for their wellbeing and who have the capacity to promote their wellbeing when in public offices.

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