But there is only one thing, which gathers people into seditious commotion, and that is oppression,” once wrote an English philosopher, John Locke. Once again, as the country marks ‘Democracy Day’ on Saturday, the malignant ghost of the criminal annulment, 28 years ago, of the presidential election hovers over the land. In the struggle that followed the abrupt voiding of the result by the military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, hundreds of innocent people were killed, and media houses proscribed. It was, really, an ugly time for the country.
Yet, almost three decades down the road, Nigeria’s rulers, like the Bourbons, appear to “have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” Instead of the promised bright summer of liberty, unity and prosperity built around the June 12, 1993 election, anger, division, despair, and insecurity are palpably evident now. Chosen only last year as Democracy Day, June 12 will be celebrated amid mass discontent, devoid of the great hope of inclusive, participatory democracy that the election signposted.
Divided as never before in its history, the country is unsafe, wracked by rampant banditry and armed robbery, terrorism, ethnic strife, and random violence. Civil rule has delivered flawed elections, thrown up terrible leaders, ruined the economy and impoverished the majority. Instead of national cohesion, exclusion and alienation prevail, cleavages have widened, and mutual antagonism has seen ethnic nationalities shift gear to a war footing. The values of June 12 have all but vanished, replaced by the divisive forces unleashed by the annulment and its aftermath.
As expected, protests are planned across the country and abroad to assail poor governance and to canvass a radical restructuring or an outright disintegration of the political contraption as a solution to the lingering violence. Typically, the regime of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), has responded to both tendencies with threats, reflecting the widening chasm between the leadership and the governed.
Certainly, June 12 was a watershed. After a convoluted transition and political engineering that went on for 10 years, the Babangida-led ruling military junta organised elections ahead of the return to democratic rule that was truncated in 1983. Following successful state, governorship and parliamentary elections, the presidential election was held. But midway into the official verification of the results, the self-styled president, Babangida, annulled the election, citing spurious reasons. Protests, unrest, an “interim” government, and another coup followed. The long winter of military rule only ended on May 29, 1999, when another poll ushered in civil rule. Still, the positive lessons of June 12 were never imbibed.
Primarily, the election blurred some of the deep cleavages, especially religious and ethnic fault lines, hampering the country’s development efforts. The eventual winner, Moshood Abiola, candidate of the Social Democratic Party, and Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention, both Muslims, won support across ethnic, regional, and sectarian lines. Whereas election results in the First and Second republics largely reflected the ethnic and regional identities of the parties, Abiola, a South-Westerner, won handily in Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Anambra states. Penetrating the once insular far North, he carried Jigawa, Kaduna and Yobe states. Spectacularly, he floored Tofa in his home base, Kano, winning 52.28 per cent of the vote there.
Tofa, too, harvested enough votes to win in the southern states of Imo, Enugu, Abia and Rivers. He also secured significant support in the South-West and some minority North-Central states. It was potentially a momentous breakthrough in the quest for a sense of shared values and a giant leap in nation-building that had eluded the country since independence in 1960.
The deeply polarising factor of religion was demolished; ethnicity suppressed, and the north-south dichotomy vanished. Significantly, Abiola’s high-risk choice of a running-mate, Babagana Kingibe, like him a Muslim, was inconsequential in the election. Another lesson lost: many voters were enlightened enough to evaluate programmes and the perceived integrity and abilities of the candidates and parties over divisive ethnic, regional, and religious sentiments. Today, base sentiments run through government and society.
Another missed marker is the quality of elections. Democracy is anchored on the ability of the citizens to choose their leaders and representatives through periodic free and fair elections. Elections in Nigeria have hardly been free or fair. They are marred by violence, manipulation, and rancour. But June 12 is still arguably considered the freest and fairest of all elections ever held in the country. The Option A4 format adopted for choosing party candidates was largely fair, transparent, and inclusive. Candidates had to be endorsed from the ward level to state level. Today, ruthless godfathers and governors handpick party candidates. Internal democracy is absent in the parties and along with the attendant violence, this has kept many decent, public service-oriented citizens away from politics.
The Open-Secret ballot system was also transparent, enabling voters to queue behind party candidates or banners and be counted before casting their ballots. Results were known and transmitted from each polling station. This way, despite the junta stopping further official verification after results of 14 of the then 30 states had been released, interested parties had results of all the states, LGs, wards, and polling stations that confirmed Abiola’s landmark victory.
Also missed was the tantalising prospect of a stable two-party system. Despite initial misgivings on the military-decreed two-party format, Nigerians had gradually come to see its advantages. The SDP and NRC each provided an umbrella for left of centre and rightist ideologies. Undoubtedly, the democratic ideal is to allow the unfettered freedom of association to promote alternative views; however, the two-party system has been found to promote centrism and stability. Today’s dominant parties however lack any commitment to ideology or set of programmes beyond false presentations at election time. Although not decreed by law or cast in stone, several stable democracies are dominated by two parties or alliances; these include the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, South Korea, Australia, Jamaica, and emerging democracies like Ghana.
Beyond this, the values of June 12 — human rights, fidelity to democratic norms and inclusion — are missing. The political actors see democracy’s trappings, elections and fundamental rights, as mere props to gain power and access to the treasury. The fallout of these serial breaches of democratic ethos over the past 22 years is the country’s inexorable slide into state failure. Studies show that political instability often follows the annulment of elections until the people’s will triumphs to deliver democracy. Myanmar is now in turmoil; the Philippines in 1986 and Panama in 1989 boiled after stolen mandates until the popular will prevailed.
Where does the country go from here? The Nigerian state must re-engage with its diverse people; it needs to decentralise and devolve power and functions as befits its plural nature. Over the ages, federalism has been used as an effective tool of conflict resolution in multicultural societies. Nigeria cannot be an exception. The values of economic competition, political inclusion, and public consensus, properly harnessed, are sufficient to defeat the centrifugal forces, criminality and separatism tearing the country apart.
As Ahsan Butt, a political scientist, George Mason University, US, argues in his book, ‘Secession and Security,’ the Buhari regime should consider a “negotiations and concessions” strategy in dousing separatist tensions in the country. He said: “This strategy is aimed at satisfying, or satisificing, the ethnic nationalists’ demands. If it succeeds, this strategy maintains the territorial integrity of the state at the cost of decentralisation of certain powers and privileges to the regional nationalists.” That is just it.
However, building a nation in a plural society is a mountainous task. Democracy also needs a stable political environment to flourish. This includes a recognition of the fundamental worth and dignity of every person; respect for the equality of all persons; faith in majority rule and an insistence on minority rights; an acceptance of the necessity of compromise; and an insistence upon the widest possible degree of individual freedom.
Sadly, the arrogance and atrocity that crushed the hope of the people in 1993 are still evident in governance. Protests are violently suppressed while basic rights, especially freedom of speech, are under state repression. Unlike the trust citizens staked in Abiola’s truncated presidency, there is a huge deficit of political legitimacy in government today. And legitimacy, not power, is the basis of a stable government. It takes an exceptionally visionary leadership to internalise these basic requisites of nation building. During a crisis, Forbes magazine says, the role of a leader shifts, and those that are truly great prioritise and respond to the needs of the people that follow them. If they get it right, they — and their people — will emerge stronger and more resilient on the other side.
To put the country back on the path of national cohesion, Buhari should begin to act and be seen to be acting as a key elite integrator and the principal repository of public trust and confidence. Going forward, reforming the electoral process in such a way that it will allow competent candidates to participate and emerge winners in elections is imperative. With this, the positive values of the June 12 election; notably the HOPE of liberty, equality and justice will be restored in the land.
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