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What’s strangling democracy in Nigeria? – Ayisha Osori


Democracy day has come and gone. The euphoria, if any, of 15 years of ‘uninterrupted democracy’ has long since faded in the harsh realities of our lives. The ravages of corruption lay waste to everything from the efficiency of our security forces to the lack of power and basic infrastructure. Millions have no access to pipe borne water and education and the grip of terrorists on our collective throat continues to tighten. Yet, politicians and those in government want a pat on the back for maintaining civil rule and executing the latest Aso Rock fad, the transformation agenda. But as laudable as kilometers of roads-soon-to-be-washed-away and the whitewash of aviation renovations may be, our assessment must go beyond the bricks and mortar of infrastructure to the soul of our democracy and our institutions.

The legislature and our political parties stand out for assessment because during military rule these key democratic institutions were banned. This meant that lacking the necessary growth through friction, trial and error these two institutions are more stunted than others. But 15 years is long enough to begin to see meaningful progress in the development of our political parties and the legislature and to ask: is our democracy deepening and maturing or are we treading water or maybe even sliding backwards?

The legislature is supposed to be a check on the excesses of the executive, providing oversight through the budget and law making with members of the opposition party working furiously to protect us. But in Nigeria the legislators are in the pockets of the executive. At the federal level, they sway to the tune of the president or governors, and in the states, their raison d’etre is to rubber stamp bills put forward by the executive as in the case of Akwa Ibom. If legislators were truly a check on the excesses of the executive then it is unlikely that the Akwa Ibom Governors and Deputy Governors Law would ever have been passed.

But that is not all. It is not enough that our legislators pass few bills of real relevance to addressing the high social injustice and inequality that millions of Nigerians live with. No, they are also known for shaking down the executive and other stakeholders– as the allegations of the Securities & Exchange Commission’s Arumeh Oteh and the Petroleum Minister, Diezani Allison Madueke suggest. Few if any of the investigative committees that have been set up in the last 15 years, from the Elumelu Committee on the $16B allegedly spent on power to the Farouk Lawan fuel subsidy probe Committee have resulted in a prosecution, firing or even clarity on the issue which was supposed to be under investigation in the first place. The cost of the National Assembly continues to rise though with the Senate gradually becoming the retirement home of ex-governors and tyrants. As for the states, loyalty and thuggery are the key qualifications required, lending a tragically ironic truth to Fayose’s alleged pledge to okada riders that as governor of Ekiti, he will make some of them legislators.

Nigerian Flag

This state of affairs is possible in large part because of our political parties and the lack of internal party democracy within them. Our parties are less about vision, programs, and like minds and more about platforms for getting into office to join the extractive system of government we practice. The main rhetoric of politicians in Nigeria shows that we are still largely trapped in pre-independence ethnicity and religion focused politics. Parties still operate the opaque membership system which forbids knowing how many people are members and who they really are, the better to not collect dues from them and have to rely on those in government who can amass public funds for party use. Time and again the parties prove that what they want are not people of ideas and principles but people who understand the way politics works in Nigeria: rigging, bribing, intimidation and increasingly by finance induced judicial activism.

Once dormant trains might be slowly chugging across the country but the pillars of our democracy were never set right and are now crumbling. Every election and every constitution review provides the opportunity to make changes which will dismantle current structures and build new, more inclusive ones. However, the quality of participation must improve. Until we get the legislature and political parties working the way they should, the type of change we want might never emerge.

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