By Ibrahim H. Suleiman
Since 1999 when civil rule returned to Nigeria, we have been enjoying uninterrupted democratic rule. Twenty years have now gone by and it is worthwhile to actually celebrate this achievement.
As a matter of fact, in spite of all the challenges posed as a result of the return to democracy, the fact remains that transition from one elected government to the other has hitherto been going on smoothly. For many of us who have grown up in the tradition of hearing interruptions of radio broadcasts with stern military voice announcing one military take over or the other, twenty years have come as a very long spell of uninterrupted civilian administration.
In fact, from 1966 to 1999 there were six successful coup d’etats and many more unsuccessful ones, which were usually the more bloody, because of the crack down on coup plotters by the military leaders. The trauma experienced by the people can better be imagined. The absence of genuine freedom of speech or freedom of association took its toll as the country continued to lose years of valuable time to deepen our democracy. It appears after twenty years that at last democracy has possibly come to stay in the country, even judging from the fact that out of the four presidents we had since 1999 two are former military rulers who were direct beneficiaries of those dark years of military rule.
Of course, Nasarawa State was also not precluded from the darkness that characterised military rule. Indeed, the state was created by the General Sani Abacha military junta in October, 1996 and for three years the youthful state was under military rule. For those years the people had no opportunities to elect their representatives down to the grassroots. The people had no voice whatsoever to negotiate in their favour on what they wanted. With the coming of democracy everything changed as the majority of the population gradually started becoming aware of their civic rights to choose their own leaders.
On whether democracy has really come to stay or not, a political scientist, Professor Alloysius Okolie, of the Department of Political Science, University of Nigeria, Nsukka stated: “For democracy to thrive there must be five basic features, which are periodic free and fair elections; a vibrant opposition; rule of law/supremacy of the Constitution; an independent judiciary; and respect for human rights.” Apparently, looking at these basic features it can be deduced that although some achievements have been made, the country as a whole still has a long way to go in comparison to what obtains in the advance democratic countries of the world.
Firstly, elections are still far from really free and fair. Cases of massive rigging, snatching of ballot boxes and stuffing of ballot boxes with already thumb-printed ballot papers are rampant. The good news is that generally the elections are conducted peacefully in most cases with only exceptional skirmishes which remain the exclusive reserve of the the security forces. Besides it must be noted that even in the so called advanced democracies of the world rigging has not been completely eliminated. Hence, developing countries like ours can learn by strengthening our democratic institutions and to instil more credibility to the electoral process for more transparency.
Nevertheless, looking at the presence of vibrant opposition as a prerequisite for democracy to thrive, the country has made considerable headway. The All Progressives Congress, APC effectively emerged victorious ahead of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, PDP during the 2015 general elections when President Muhammadu Buhari clearly won the election. This was an indication that the opposition has actually come of age in the country. In Nasarawa State an opposition party, Congress for Progressive Change, CPC had earlier in 2011 won the governorship election in the state. Governor Umaru Tanko Almakura defeated the incumbent governor Aliyu Akwe Doma of the PDP. It was an unprecedented feat in the political history of the country. Before then the PDP had ruled the state exclusively since 1999 when the party produced the first civilian governor of the state, Senator Abdullahi Adamu. The emergence of Governor Umaru Tanko Almakura was an indication that the people have the power to choose and decide who to be their leaders. In other words, power rests with the people and a vote for democratic process as against the might of the barrel of the gun.
At any rate, as far as other features that must be in place for democracy to thrive including, rule of law, independence of judiciary and respect for human rights, such features would become entrenched only as democracy gains more time and experience. Already, there are indications that the population is becoming most aware that democracy is the best solution – far better than the might of the barrel of the gun. There are however major challenges/problems for democracy, particularly at the states level; they include ethnic/tribal sentiments, corruption or money bags politics, godfatherism, illiteracy and poverty as well as religious politics.
The way forward is to encourage more active participation in politics and governance, experts assert that literacy and political education are veritable tools to enable citizens make political decisions. Furthermore democracy cannot thrive where the masses of the population are largely hungry. Hence, food security is essential for a durable democracy. Efforts have to be intensified by the powers that be to reduce poverty, ensure the security of lives and properties of the citizenry.
Above all, as the state and indeed the country move onto the Next Level corruption which has remained endemic in the society should be fought with increased vigour to a logical conclusion. Henceforth, states and local goverments have to be fully and directly incorporated in the fight against corruption. Any state government that shows lukewarm attitude towards the fight against corruption should be blacklisted by the federal government. Local government councils in the country have become more like state government ministries where anything goes at the behest of the state governors. Everyone says local governments are surfeit with corruption, but no one wants to do something about it. As Nigeria moves to the Next Level we expect all governors especially the APC governors (including our Governor-elect, Engr Abdullahi Sule) to allow the local government councils full autonomy so that they can receive their federation allocation directly and allow the guidelines of the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit to take its course. Democracy should be allowed to take its course.