Ekiti State Governor, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, at the weekend warned that there was nothing irreversible about Nigeria’s democracy. Fayemi said the idea of a democratic system should not be tied only to elections, to the detriment of other critical elements of an egalitarian society.
The governor made the assertions at a conference on 20 years of democracy in Nigeria at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, the United Kingdom, where he was a special guest speaker.
He said, “What we established in 1999 is the right to choose our leaders via the ballot. What we must not do is assume a teleological link between elections and democracy.
“The notion that once you have elections, all else will follow is no doubt a pipe dream that is now obvious to all and even now, there is nothing irreversible about democracy in Nigeria.”
Speaking at the same forum, Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal, who was also a special guest, identified lack of dependable institutions as the biggest flaw in the country’s 20 years’ democratic journey.
Shedding light on his point regarding the reversibility of Nigeria’s democracy, Fayemi said, “It’s also why our theory of change must not assume that democracy is a destination with a clear road-map. The deepening of other factors like the economic wellbeing of the citizens, ultimately, developing and strengthening the political culture or the civic community that can stand between populism and dogma is the most critical success factor.”
Although he contended, “A cursory look at our current electoral journey in the last two decades clearly point to elements of consolidation and deepening of our democracy,” he maintained that “other aspects of the journey raise serious concern.”
According to the governor, “For example, in 2015, we crossed a major turning point with the first alternation of power since 1999. Political science literature regards this as a clear evidence of democratic consolidation.
“In that same election, the opposition – APC – won election in two thirds of the 36 governorship elections, wresting power from PDP in no fewer than 12 states. In fact, PDP only managed to retain two governorships in the entire northern region of 19 states – Gombe and Taraba.
“By 2019, although the APC retained the Presidency, it had lost six critical governorships in Adamawa, Bauchi, Benue, Imo, Oyo and Zamfara states and nearly lost the most populous state – Kano – which went into a re-run, and only gained Kwara and Gombe. In the 29 states, where elections held in 2019, APC won 15 and PDP won 14, a much closer contest than the picture often painted.”
The chairman of the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF) also noted, “Clearly, the election management body is improving in the technical aspects of its operations but elections are not simply technocratic, they are inherently political.
“It is about who gains power, who loses power and a lot happens in that cocktail. But we all should also be worried with what we do with power, once gained. So, democracy is more than just the ability to choose one’s leaders.”
He said the current phase of the democratic struggle was not just about maintaining the sanctity of the ballot, but also holding those elected accountable and stimulating civic engagement in the public realm, in a way that democratises ownership and improves the quality of life of the people.
He stated, “We must banish the idea that governance is something performed by a team of gifted performers or strong men, while the rest of the citizens are spectators or complainers.
“During the days of military rule, some soldiers declared with more than a touch of hubris that politics is much too important to be left to politicians. By this they meant that the military had the right to be political players since politicians had generally proven inept.
“Ultimately, the military proved to be no better at politics and governance themselves. But there is a fundamental truth to the saying that politics is too important to be left to politicians.
“It is about redefining politics itself, transforming it from a rarefied craft reserved for a select few professional politicians, to the protocols and relationships that undergird personal, communal and social wellbeing. In other words, politics is the management of human relationships, interactions and aspirations in the service of the common good.
“It is not something mysterious that only “politicians” do; it is how citizens operate. Politics is a civic responsibility. It is how we engage with each other. The pursuit of good governance means that politicians can no longer be left to their own devices.
“Seen in this light, the mutual estrangement of government and civil society will end. The civil society will continue to express the communal instinct to regulate power but the chronic antagonism that poisons relations between the state and civil society will be replaced by mutual respect and positive tension.
“Civic engagement means that the state can access a much larger pool of wisdom and knowledge made available by a new rapport with civil society. In return, participatory governance will become much more practicable across all levels of governance.”
Tambuwal, while reflecting on his personal experience in the last 20 years of democratic rule, said only by building strong democratic institutions, rather than strong individuals, could democracy be sustained in Nigeria. He noted that despite two decades of sustained democracy in Nigeria, elections in which citizens could vote and be voted for had hardly been free and fair.
“I refer to institutions, I refer to the only base on which we, like any other truly democratic society, can build upon and the cover under which we, like any other truly democratic process, can get protection from the whims, madness or even cleverness of any single individual, who might have his or her own interests or flaws,” the governor stated.
He added, “Institutions, not individuals, protect collective interest and grow the commonwealth in a fair, legal and lasting way. The best individual can do is to help build institutions. The lack of institutions that one can truly trust and fully depend on, perhaps, is the biggest flaw of our 20 years of democracy.
“I can tell you that building systems that take all voices into consideration is hard work and it can be frustrating. Believing in democracy means taking time to persuade and build consensus rather than seeing those who disagree as enemies to be overpowered.
“It means agreeing to accept the will of the majority, when your side does not win. The temptation to circumvent the process through violence will always be with us and must be fought.
“I am, however, optimistic, because my experience first as a lawyer, later as a legislator, and then as a governor has given me the rare opportunity to mix with people from all areas and persuasions of Nigeria and part of what this experience has shown me is that we have people that can build institutions.”
According to the former Speaker, House of Representatives, “We have peoples that understand the importance of strong and legitimate institutions that can work for all. The other important thing that my experience has shown me is, thanks to my mental curiosity and physical travels to meet Nigerians across Nigeria and, indeed, outside Nigeria, is that our fears, our desires and aspirations as a people are more similar than some want us to believe.”
Tambuwal called for the exclusion of partisan politics from tertiary institutions, saying, “l am of the opinion that spaces of learning should be areas immune from partisan politics and I also feel that discussions in these places should never be based on or motivated by pure partisan affiliations.
“It is my view that a university or any other citadel or institution of learning should be dedicated to, and should accommodate only rigorous rational reflections that can illuminate the minds of all, to the betterment of the society.”
Supported by Professor Wale Adebanwi, the occupant of the Rhodes Chair in Race Relations at the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, the conference attracted diverse speakers, such as Professor Larry Diamond of the Stanford University, USA, who was the keynote speaker; former Vice Chancellor, Igbinedion University, Eghosa Osagie; director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, Abuja, Dr Jubrin Ibrahim; Professor Peter Lewis of John Hopkins University, USA; Adigun Agbaje of the University of Ibadan; and Okechukwu Ibeanu of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Also in attendance were a former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Aliyu Modibbo Umar, who is also a Visiting Fellow at Oxford University; Zainab Usman of the World Bank; former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Kingsley Moghalu; a former aide to President Olusegun Obasanjo, Professor Akin Osuntokun; Professor Ebenezer Obadare of the University of Kansas, USA; Publisher of the Ovation Magazine, Bashorun Dele Momodu; and Senator Tokunbo Afikuyomi, among others.