By Michael Nwankpa
A Brief History of Democracy in Nigeria
Nigeria’s fledgling democracy boasts of six elections and three changes of government. All these have happened since 1999 when Nigeria returned to civilian government after 16 years of consecutive military regimes. Most describe this period as the Fourth Republic. The Fourth Republic is Nigeria’s longest democratic period since it became an independent nation in 1960. Nigeria practised the parliamentary democratic system of government in the first three years of independence (1960-1963) and continued the constitutional democracy for another three years (1963-1966), albeit as a full republic until the military coup d’état of 15 January 1966.
The first six years of Nigeria’s independence is described as the First Republic. Nigeria would briefly return to democratic rule in 1979 after a succession of military coups and countercoups. This period (1979-1983), known as the Second Republic, was short-lived as the military once again intervened forcefully in Nigeria’s democracy. In 1993, the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida annulled, arguably, the freest and fairest Presidential election in the electoral history of Nigeria. Scholars refer to this period of botched democratic transition as the Third Republic. The Fourth Republic therefore shows that Nigeria has made a significant stride in its democratic journey, considering the resurgence of military coup d’états in Africa. Yet, Nigeria’s democracy remains militarised.
Nigeria’s Fourth Republic: A Militarised Democracy
Although democracy in Nigeria, since inception, has been anything but truly democratic and placid, the Fourth Republic is quite notable for its pervasive military presence and ideology. This is characterised by the redistribution of resources and government funds away from socio-economic programmes into an increase in security budgets, a proliferation of weapons, active criminal, insurgent and non-state armed groups in virtually all the geopolitical regions of the country and internal military interventions and occupations. The Nigerian military is intervening in domestic conflicts in nearly two-third of the 36 states that comprise the federation including against Jihadist and religious extremist groups in the northeast (Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa Province), separatist and vigilante groups in the southeast and southwest (Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB), self-determination groups, oil theft and piracy in the Niger Delta region and bandits and Fulani militia criminal networks in the northwest.
Nigeria has turned into a de facto national security state where violence is institutionalised and rule of force, rather than dialogue, reflect everyday reality. The obscure and unaudited security votes (a special fund allocated to states battling with insecurity) creates an incentive for unscrupulous elements within the state to create and sustain conflict and insecurity. Typically, election in Nigeria and largely in Africa is a veritable source of violence and militarisation.
Nigeria’s 2023 Presidential Election
Nigerians will head to the poll in February 2023 to elect a new President. Although Nigeria practices multi-party elections, the real race, since 1999, has mostly been between the People’s Democratic Party, PDP (the former ruling party, 1999-2015) and the All-Progressives Congress, APC (the current ruling party comprising a coalition of three opposition parties, Action Congress of Nigeria, ACP; the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC; and the All Nigeria People’s Party, ANPP). However, the unexpected entrance of the Labour Party and the popularity surge of its Presidential candidate, Peter Obi, has thrown the Presidential race a bit wide open.
Interestingly, political elites in Nigeria have managed to, through constitutional engineering and consociational practices, curb the violence-prone and winner-take-all-mentality that often characterise elections in Nigeria. So, most people expect political parties to reflect the diverse identities that characterise the country making it difficult for particularistic ethnic-, religious-, region- and gender-based parties to emerge. Yet, voters continue to vote along ethnic and, to some extent, religious lines. Nigerian voters do not vote candidates based on real economic, social, and political issues. Political parties in Nigeria generally do not express any real ideology. Parties and their candidates have therefore been able to avoid the kind of issue-based scrutiny that are manifest in matured democracies.
Peter Obi and Democratic Change
The emergence of the Labour Party and its Presidential flagbearer, Peter Obi as a strong contender for the Presidency appears to have caused a seismic shift in the opinion and voting behaviour of Nigeria’s electorate, particularly the youth and young voters who are traditionally disenfranchised and disinterested in politics and elections. There seems to be a growing sense of heightened political consciousness among the Nigerian youth in the last ten years, as marked by ‘Nigeria’s Arab Spring’ (that is the 2012 ‘Occupy Nigeria’ protest against removal of oil subsidy and increase in price of oil pump) and the 2020 ‘EndSars’ protest (a protest against police brutality).
To some extent, candidates will campaign for the Presidency on ideological grounds and real issues. Yet, the threat of politicians charging and mobilising their ethno-religious political base for election-based violence remains. Nigerians still break down along fractured political and ethno-religious fault lines. There is however a glimmer of hope as a significant number of Nigerians of all walks of life and from its diverse ethno-religious groups coalesce against the old political order. The growing acceptance of Peter Obi, an Igbo man, by other ethnic groups as a unifying force of change offers hope of a new dawn. It indicates a transformation in Nigeria’s democracy. But Peter Obi is neither the only nor the major source of this democratic wave of change.
A Democratic Renewal?
The Fourth Republic, despite its overwhelmingly militarised nature, has witnessed some relevant institutional transformations. For instance, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the general body vested with the constitutional authority to conduct and regulate elections in Nigeria has often failed to conduct free and fair elections because of a lack of true financial and political autonomy which makes it prone to partiality. However, with several reforms, particularly the 2022 Electoral Amendment Bill that mandates the electronic transmission of election results and electronic voter accreditation among other useful reforms, INEC, for the first time, has a real chance of conducting a credible election.
Regardless of the election outcome, Nigeria would need to seriously rethink its adoption of liberal democracy, which is, according to Alison Ayers, ‘nothing more than a mechanism for choosing and authorising governments, not a kind society nor a set of moral ends’. The solution may lie in social democracy which emphasises social justice and socio-economic rights that extend beyond the individualistic civil and political rights that liberal democracy promotes.
Michael Nwankpa is Founding Director of the Centre for African Conflict and Development. He holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Roehampton, London, UK. He is the co-author of the seminal work on Boko Haram: The Boko Haram Reader: From Nigerian Preachers to the Islamic State and the author of the newly published book Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, 1999-2021: A Militarised Democracy. You can reach him on: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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