In the past decade or so, the question has been asked: Is Nigeria a democracy? My response to the question will be short and straight. Nigeria is not a democracy. By all indices of democracy, Nigeria has failed to operate as a democratic country and to uphold the key principles of democracy.
A democracy is a country that respects the human rights of citizens, a country in which the voices of ordinary people are heard, and a country in which people’s fundamental rights and freedoms are recognised and appreciated. It is a country in which everyone enjoys equal opportunities, and a country in which people have the power to scrutinise national leaders. A democracy is a country that holds regular free, fair, and credible elections. Above all, a democracy is a country in which there exist strong political parties and an effective media system.
Judged against these benchmarks, Nigeria does not qualify as a true democracy. A democracy is not a country in which citizens from a particular region of the country are privileged with national resources while the rest are treated as second-class citizens and denied their entitlements. A democracy is not a country in which people from one part of the country are granted licence to operate not only a radio station but also the freedom to roam about, invade and occupy other people’s farmlands, and kidnap citizens mainly for ransom purposes. A democracy is not a country in which one religion is regarded as superior to other religions.
It is quite edifying to watch democracy in practice in other countries. Although many countries claim to be democratic, in practice they violate the fundamental rights of their citizens, including the core principles that guarantee freedom of the press and free speech to people, as well as freedom of association and religion. Nigeria is one of the countries that claim to be a democracy. Political leaders are quick to point to the Constitution as evidence of democracy, as if waving the Constitution around is a standard for measuring democracy.
The extent to which Nigeria upholds democratic principles and policies is highly contested. As far as the practice of democracy goes, Nigeria is widely regarded as a work-in-progress. This view is perhaps true. I am not persuaded that Nigeria is a democracy in practice. There are reasons for this view.
One of the yardsticks for measuring democracy in every society is the ability to conduct free, fair, transparent, credible, and peaceful elections. On this criterion alone, Nigeria has failed woefully. We cannot raise our heads when African countries such as Ghana and South Africa that conduct relatively free and peaceful elections talk about the success of democratic elections in their countries.
When Nigeria conducted elections earlier this year, the entire country was like a battle zone or a country preparing for war. There was widespread animosity and mayhem everywhere. Rather than educate voters on their programmes that would convince citizens to vote for them, political parties plotted how to hinder the people’s right to vote and elect their political leaders. Ballot boxes were snatched from polling stations. Predetermined, thumb-printed ballot papers were used to replace authentic votes. Surely, that is not how elections are conducted in other countries.
On May 8, 2019, South Africans went to the polls to elect members of the National Assembly and provincial legislatures in nine provinces. There were hardly any reports of killings, street brawling, bomb explosions, and snatching of ballot boxes in polling units. Similarly, in India, the world’s largest democracy and second most populous country in the world, general election was conducted in seven phases from April 11 to May 19, 2019. Counting was done on May 23, 2019.
Despite the daunting logistics of holding election in such a vast country with a large population, the Indian elections were conducted mostly hitch-free. There was no violence, kidnapping of election officials or party agents, criminal use of thumb-printed ballot papers, and unlawful collusion between party agents and election officials. If India could hold peaceful and credible elections in the face of a large and diverse population and geographically isolated communities, why couldn’t Nigeria conduct elections that were free from criminality, open fights, and falsified results?
Australia, a developed country, held its general election on Saturday, May 18, 2019, to elect members of Parliament. Voting started at 8am and closed at 6pm. There were no soldiers or police officers wielding guns menacingly. Four hours later, precisely by 10pm, counting of votes had progressed to the point where it became obvious that the governing Liberal-National coalition would be re-elected and the opposition Labour Party would be defeated. In Nigeria, it takes INEC days to come up with highly compromised election results that are always challenged and often overturned at the election petition tribunals. Different countries, different traditions of democracy!
These examples are presented here to show how Nigeria, a self-styled democracy, has consistently failed to live up to its obligations to hold regular free, fair, and credible elections. Free and credible election is a basic requirement of every country that claims to be a democracy. In Nigeria’s case, as demonstrated in the most recent elections in 2019, dishonest political party agents, corrupt Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) officials, crooked election observers, disreputable and morally negligent security officials collude openly to annul the wishes of voters.
Why do we use soldiers, police officers, and other security agents indiscriminately during elections to intimidate voters, and to create an environment that allows criminally-minded INEC officials and party agents to manipulate election results? We are far from a democracy when political leaders are not elected freely, fairly, and convincingly.
Political leaders continue to delude themselves when they claim in international forums that credible and peaceful elections were conducted in Nigeria earlier this year. That is clearly an unsophisticated assertion designed to impress and deceive the international community. In the 2019 elections, there was nothing free, fair, peaceful, or credible about the way the elections were conducted. All the rules were broken in an audacious manner. What, for example, was credible about an election in which under-age voters were permitted to cast their votes? What evidence of credibility and integrity can the INEC boss pull out of his shirt pocket to convince anyone that he is incorruptible and has consistently performed to the highest standards expected of him?
The starting point of conducting a free, fair, and credible election in any country is by appointing a man or woman of integrity. Sadly, the current INEC leadership lacks that quality.
Re: Ngige facing public scrutiny
Remember that Dr. Ngige defeated some of the gods of Anambra State. He went to Okija shrine and returned safe, despite the fact that he broke the oath he willingly took. Despite (OBJ) presidential order and the burning down of Government House in Awka, Ngige escaped the brutality that was lined up against him. He went on and became one of the best governors despite the fact that he was put in office by thieves and election riggers.
Ngige later joined people from many other parties to form the ruling party. These wise men conspired and installed a saint as our President! Four years after, the gods are still very angry and the sins and evil of our politicians litter the entire nation: no NEPA, no employment, loss of jobs, insurgency, killer herdsmen, kidnappers, bandits, poverty, and many more.
We don’t have enough institutions to absorb our doctors. We don’t have enough health institutions to take care of our populace. Ngige is basically an African politician. He definitely does not know much about medicine anymore.
•Col. RN Oputa (Rtd.), Consultant endocrinologist/Fulbright scholar/lecturer, Owerri, Imo State