Nigerian Democracy and Challenges of Nation Building – By Salihu Moh. Lukman



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In the book, King of the Mountain: The Nature of Political Leadership, the Psychiatrist, Arnold M. Ludwig, observed that ‘One problem in judging the political genius of rulers is knowing what they should get credit for. The situation for rulers is a lot different than for other kinds of professionals. With creative artists, scientists, military commanders, athletes, or surgeons, you have no trouble telling who should get credit for what. Creative artists paint, sculpt, build, and compose works under their own signature. Scientists conduct experiments and publish their results. Athletes compete against others in contests. Military commanders win or lose wars. And surgeons operate on patients and take responsibility for their lives. In contrast, political rulers often rely on expert advisors to help them formulate foreign, domestic, and economic policies. They also may delegate responsibility to their cabinet members, diplomats, and staff to implement these policies or even to start programs of their own. Also, unlike other professionals, they may be credited with the long-term effects of initiatives launched by their predecessors and be blamed for events beyond their control.’

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In the Nigerian context, like every other country, the politics of judging leaders is very attractive. Everybody, perhaps except the leader, is expert and know much better. Depending on disposition and affiliation, leaders are either condemned or celebrated. There is no middle ground. Once leaders are condemned, there is hardly anything good that can be associated with that leader. On the other hand, if the leader is celebrated, every decision and action is right and supported. This is a very elusive reality, which require caution. No leader can be a complete write-off or perfect. The inability to recognise the reality that no leader is a complete write-off or perfect further thickens the wall that separate citizens and governments. If democracy is to produce governments, which affirms the power of the people, the gap between leaders and citizens should be very small, in fact, ideally, it shouldn’t exist.

That is theory. Without any attempt to review theories of democracy, debate about performance of leaders are necessary realities, which needs to be engaged especially if the objective is to influence decisions made by leaders. Often, the issue of influencing the decisions of leaders is lost because the act of passing judgement on leaders is dominated by election mindset that narrow interest to whether leaders should remain in office or not. It is hardly about influencing decisions made by leaders. An important pillar of democracy is rule of law based on which tenure of leaders are clearly provided in the constitution of every democratic nation. But such provisions in the constitution will not resolve the challenge of ensuring that leaders meet the expectations of citizens, however defined. Ability of leaders to meet citizens’ expectation is an important requirement for nationhood.

Successful nations should have common purpose and strong national bond especially when created out of multiple ethnic and religious identities. Visionary and purposeful leadership are expected to facilitate the emergence of nations, leveraging on strong national institutions, good governance, equity and justice, which enable each group to fulfill its aspirations. After all, a nation is an imagined community of people who share a common aspiration, which is realisable through the principles of justice and the rule of law as enunciated in the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The major problem leadership in Nigeria, at all levels, borders on skewed inclination to question of nation building. How can we manage our diversity and build confidence of citizens across every part of the country to have a sense of national belonging? Admittedly, this is one area, which all leaders in the country seems to have common approach largely because all leaders approach the matter very defensively. Everybody cries of marginalisation, unfairness and injustice, but only in relation to group interests, predominantly ethnic. Hardly, one finds any leader who is raising issues of marginalisation, unfairness and injustice not based on protecting the interests of groups they belong. Consequently, every problem of the country become interpreted based on such narrow group interests.

If the Nigerian nation is to be developed, there must be leaders who are broadminded enough to campaign for justice, equity and fairness beyond narrow group interests. Therefore, a major challenge of nation building in Nigeria revolves around how to produce truly national leaders. Is Nigerian democracy oriented to produce national leaders? It was the British Actress, Barbara Kellerman, in the book, Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happen, Why It Matters, who made the point that ‘political theorists have been more interested in the question of how to control proclivities of bad leaders than in the question of how to promote the virtues of good ones. Influenced by religious tradition that focused on good and evil, and often personally scarred by war and disorder, the best political thinkers have had rather a jaundiced view of human nature.’

Most debates or proposals about what to do to build the Nigerian nation is about what to do to control (proclivity) of leaders and hardly about promoting what they should do (good virtues). From all the public debates in Nigeria, leaders are already condemned, which weakened capacity of citizens to influence decisions they take. The conclusion therefore is that leaders are already bad. This is the reality. A nation cannot be built with negative attitude. Sadly, the preponderance of negative attitude further polarised the country. Even when problems of insecurity in the country reached the frightening reality whereby every part of the country is threatened, with grave danger to lives and property, public debate is reduced to passing negative judgements about actions or inactions of political leaders especially President Muhammadu Buhari and governing All Progressives Congress (APC), both real and imagined.

No doubt, both President Buhari and APC must be held accountable. But when issues of accountability are reduced to interpreting challenges to mean evidence of failure, it can only re-enforce the conclusion that leaders are bad, which may make it attractive for the campaign to remove leaders out of office. Most times, the debate about changing leaders is influenced largely by the frustration of getting leaders to meet expectations of citizens, often imaginatively constructed with hardly much clarity. So long as the determining factor in judging leaders is driven by the frustration that leaders are not meeting citizens’ expectations, prejudiced conclusions against leaders will be the case. What is it that need to be done to ensure that leaders meet citizens’ expectations?

The gap between the theory and practice of democracy will always be determined by the extent to which democratic leaders meet the expectations of citizens. Part of the indicators of weak citizens capacity to influence decisions of leaders should include the issue of whether the debate about failure of leaders is oriented to produce options in terms of policy choices. Once debates about failure of leaders are not substantively about policy choices, it highlights manifest weaknesses of democracy. The fact that Nigerian democracy is not able to overcome the manifest weaknesses of inability to debate policy choices, is responsible for why, for instance, candidates for elections at all levels continue to campaign for the offices they contested even after results are declared, and notwithstanding that they may have lost the election. Immediately results are declared, electoral contest moved to courts and the media. Victorious candidates and their parties and INEC, at best become respondents. And defeated candidates and their parties become the appellants. In the circumstance, the judiciary is then made to pass judgements almost coloured in partisan robes.

As things are, Nigerian democracy is imperiled to the extent that even the routine issue of day-to-day management of political parties in Nigeria has moved to the courts. Conflicting court orders are flying all over the place given by court judges. This has made the INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, while addressing the third quarterly meeting with political parties, on Monday, September 6, 2021, to exclaimed that the situation of conflicting court orders ‘is compounded by cases on the leadership of political parties, thereby making the exercise of our (INEC) regulatory responsibilities difficult. It appears that in a number of electoral cases in Nigeria today, the settled law is now unsettled and the time-honoured principles of ‘Stare decisis’ does not seem to matter any longer.’ In other words, what Prof. Yakubu was drawing attention to is the apparent looming danger of judicial anarchy in the country with respect to management of political cases.

This is not a matter that should be taken lightly. The positive development is that the leadership of the judiciary in the country are already alert to this danger given that the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad has given queries to many of the judges in the country involved in giving these conflicting orders. However, beyond these conflicting orders, the need to sanitise Nigerian judiciary should be broadened to cover issues of ensuring that judges with underlying political interests don’t preside over political cases in which their interest’s conflict with their judicial responsibility. Once judges with underlying political interests are allowed to preside over cases in which their interests is already in disagreement with their judicial responsibility, their decisions can be predictable. Just review must of Supreme Court Judgements on electoral matters since 2019, for instance, including minority judgements. There are judges whose political leanings can be confirmed by merely looking at the judgements. The need to insulate Nigerian judiciary from unethical influences of partisan commitment of individual judges is an important requirement for both the development of democracy and nation building.

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The challenge of nation building in Nigeria must be broadened beyond just the simplistic approach of merely passing negative judgements on political leaders in the country. It is important that citizens recognise the need to prioritise initiatives to influence the decisions of leaders at all levels. For instance, regarding the challenge of insecurity, what actions do Nigerians want the APC led government of President Muhammadu Buhari to do? Is the security challenge facing the country persisting because the government is failing to initiate the required actions? The encouraging thing about both President Buhari and APC leaders is that they are not in denial about the security challenge facing the country. This wasn’t the case under PDP especially when the problem of Boko Haram came up around 2010.

It is public knowledge that former President Goodluck Jonathan and many PDP leaders, at the time, alleged that Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East was sponsored by opposition politicians. Recall that when the Chibok abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls happened in 2014, the position of former President Jonathan led Federal Government was that it was a setup, based on which PDP led Federal Government refused to mobilise the needed security responses for the rescue of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls. Also recall some of the recent wild goose allegations made by Commodore (Rtd) Kunle Olawunmi and Dr. Obadiah Mailafia to the effect that some people in government, including a Northern Governor are the sponsors of Boko Haram and banditry. These were the dominant narratives officially adopted by the PDP led Federal Government of former President Jonathan.

With all the lamentation about alleged inability of the APC led government of President Buhari to mobilise response to end the security challenge in the country, around the second week of August 2021, the narrative is beginning to change. In line with the instructions of President Buhari, the security agencies are speaking the language best understood by the bandits and insurgents. All arms of the security agencies are fully mobilised and are working in a coordinated way to crush the bandits in Zamfara, Katsina and Kaduna forests. Interestingly however, there are Nigerian leaders who have dismissed the military campaign going on to crush the bandits. So-called media commentators, religious and other leaders have discredited decisions of government to shut down communication services, markets, etc. in the states where the military operations are taking place. A religious leader has already proclaimed that the military operations against the bandits will fail.

What a jaundiced view. May be Nigeria should return to the era when hundreds of millions meant for arms procurement to fight insurgency, banditry and other criminality will be diverted and given to religious leaders for prayers. Instead of mobilising security agencies to fight the criminals, resources being deployed to fight insecurity in the country should be given to religious leaders to pray for the bandits to come back to their senses. This is perhaps what Sheikh Ahmad Gumi is preaching when he insists that government should grant amnesty to bandits in the North just the way the administration of late President Umaru Yar’Adua handled Niger Delta militants. Anybody who argue this way is already part of Nigeria’s national security problem. Nigerians need to rise to the challenge of regulating the conduct of so-called leaders, including religious clerics. Being jaundiced makes most of these leaders to be antagonistic to initiatives towards nation building.

Beyond religious clerics, there are other category of leaders in the country with similarly jaundiced views. Individuals, who in their own rights count as elders and have paid their dues to this country have become very vocal almost virtually against every decision and action of government. Ideally, elders should speak with strong moral voice based on capacity to say more than the ordinary on account of their lived experiences. But when elders speak with the same voice as that of politicians, it weakens their authority and diminish their influence in society. If the weakness of politicians is that they are unable to project a national identity, how different could elders whose mission only seek to entrench divisive politics in the country? The hallmark of being elders should be to bring something completely different from what the political class are offering. In which case, instead of claiming to be speaking as elders, so-called elders who promote Nigeria’s fractured reality should just honestly disclose all their political objectives.

However one looks at it, there is no way a nation can be built with leaders and elders whose views are antithetical to national development. Nigerians cannot be facing the challenge of insecurity and some leaders are working to undermine the efforts of government to crush the criminal elements responsible for all the pains citizens are going through, including loss of lives of citizens. Anytime leaders dismiss actions of government against bandits and insurgents, they embolden these criminals to continue with their nefarious activities. Yes, Nigerians may be angry with government and our political leaders. On no account should anyone take advantage of the anger of Nigerians to furtively support criminal activities. There must be some defined boundaries to these debates, if at all the Nigerian nation is to have a common purpose and a strong national bond.

The good thing is that there are some inspiring exceptions that gives hope that notwithstanding all our challenges, there is a good prospect for a Nigerian nation. One of such exception was demonstrated by Mr. Allen Onyema, the CEO of Air Peace, who on Monday, September 6, 2021 addressed Super Eagles player onboard Air Peace to Cape Verde for their World Cup Qualifying match. Mr. Onyema told the players that ‘you are not just going to play a football match, you’re going to carry on your young shoulders the aspiration and the hope of a nation almost in distress.’ He appealed to them to do everything they can to win the match for the country. He pledged an award of N20 million once they win the match. Mr. Onyema’s inspiring words of encouragement to those young Nigerian players, among many other positive factors, must have contributed to the 2-1 victory of the Super Eagles against Cape Verde on Tuesday, September 7, 2021.

It is quite therapeutic hearing those words from Mr. Onyema. We need more leaders in this country like Mr. Onyema. In particular, we need more leaders like Mr. Onyema in politics. If Nigerian democracy is to develop the capacity to drive processes of nation building, our political parties must develop capacity to recruit leaders like Mr. Onyema. There are many leaders in Nigeria in the mold of Mr. Onyema from every part of the country. The big barrier against recruiting them into politics is that debates about expanding membership of political parties is limited to protecting the personal ambitions of political leaders. Largely because political debate is almost all about ambitions of political leaders, nationalists of the mode of Mr. Onyema may just be limited to being financiers and sponsors of candidates for elections, and in return get rewarded with contracts, etc.

It was the US Republican Party member and former Congressman, Edward Royce, in the book, Classical Social Theory and Modern Society, while recalling Emile Durkheim’s teachings of political sociology, who argued that ‘One reason democracy is the dominant political system in the modern world, …is that it fulfills a pressing societal need. Under the governance of pre-modern regimes, society’s affairs are carried out according to habit, tradition, and “blind routine.” But given the complexity of the modern world and the everpresent necessity to introduce changes and enact reforms, society can no longer function effectively without the heightened capacity for reflection, deliberation, and innovation that democratic government makes possible. In the simpler period of the past, “things go on happening in the same way.” But survival in the modern era depends on the state being able to make constant adjustments, respond thoughtfully to the flux of circumstances, and plan for the future with intelligence and foresight. Democracy is the government of choice in the modern world, … because of its superior capability as society’s brain.’

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Our politics in Nigeria starts and end with who will be the candidate for election. More clearly stated is which part of the country will the candidate come from? Promoted largely by Nigerian elites who most times position themselves to emerge as the main beneficiaries of such campaign, the major focus is reduced to which region of the country produces the President. Whether such President can respond to challenges of the region he/she comes from is another matter entirely. Champions of group interests then suggest that such candidates can ‘fulfill’ our pressing needs. Questions of justice, fairness and equity are confined to rationalising group interest even when for instance upholding the group interest means higher levels of injustice against other groups (blind routine). Nigerian democracy needs to evolve new political negotiating frameworks to guarantee that electoral contests facilitate constant adjustments to respond to the state of instability Nigeria finds itself.

While it is true that ethnic politics will always be part of our national life, it is important that Nigerians are able to engage these issues based on the recognition for a superior commitment to building the Nigerian nation. The underlying issue is to ensure that beyond condemning or celebrating leaders, Nigerians should come up with specific governance and political reform proposals aimed at facilitating regional developments as part of leadership negotiations. A situation whereby regions or ethnic groups produce Presidents and at the end of their tenure nothing in terms of physical development of the region to justify the emergence of President of Nigeria from such region is simply unacceptable. For instance, what was the benefit to the South-West throughout the eight-year of former President Obasanjo? Or what was the benefit to the South-South to justify the six-year tenure of former President Goodluck Jonathan?

May be the current anger against President Buhari is because development initiatives of APC government is skewed in favour of the North. If that is the case, then most of the 900 active road contracts, covering the construction, reconstruction or rehabilitation of more than 13,000km of Federal roads and highways across the country most have favoured the North. Specifically, Loko-Oweto Bridge, Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Sagamu-Benin Expressway, the Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway, Onitsha-Enugu Expressway, Kano-Maiduguri Expressway, Abuja-Kaduna-Zaria-Kano Expressway, Obajana-Kabba Road, Ilorin-Jebba Road, Apapa-Oshodi-Oworonshoki Road, Bodo-Bonny Road in Rivers State, Keffi-Akwanga-Lafia-Makurdi Road, and several others should evidentially confirmed preference for the North.

Additional confirmation should include the 156km Lagos-Ibadan Standard Gauge Rail, the first double-track Standard Gauge Rail project in West Africa (and the first Standard Gauge Rail project in Nigeria to be started and completed by the same administration). Also recall that the 327km Itakpe-Warri Standard Gauge Rail was completed by the Buhari administration 33 years after construction began. The 168km Abuja-Kaduna Rail project, and the 42.5km Abuja Light Rail project, both inherited from previous administrations, were completed in 2016 and 2018 respectively. The second Niger Bridge, originally conceived decades ago, is now more than 50 percent completed, and scheduled for commissioning in 2022.

The narrow focus on individual candidates and where they come from has so far created a situation whereby political parties are nothing more than platforms for contesting elections. Specific commitments of parties to issues of nation building are taken for granted. Consequently, the true substance or content of politicians and how they will handle the task of building Nigerian nation when elected, which will determine policy choices may only be speculated based on estimation of past experiences of candidates. The truth, however, is that the dynamic of public life is completely different and no matter the level of experiences, factors that would influence decisions of political leaders when in office are far more complex than what their past suggest.

Part of the assumptions that democracy is founded on the logic that political parties should have manifestos, which should highlight ideological orientations and commitments of leaders and members, is just redundant in our context. Any close observer will recognise that although there is a document called party manifesto, party members, including leaders are hardly committed, in fact, many are hardly conversant with provisions of their party’s manifesto. To a large extent, this account for why initiating policies and programmes based on provisions of the party’s manifesto is weak. How many party members, including leaders have gone through the party manifesto? How many party leaders can develop perspectives, which will highlight policy choices in lines with provisions of the party’s manifesto?

The consequence is that the only political contest that take place is personality contest. To go beyond personality contests means that debate on perspectives should highlight possible choices open to governments. To what extent are political parties able to project the demands of Nigerians especially in terms of regional representations? Beyond the personality of candidates and their ethnic or regional backgrounds, what are the other demands of Nigerians from the other six regions? How can any candidate from any of the regions reconcile all these demands and make Nigeria home to all ethnic groups in the country?

If Nigeria is to emerge as a nation with common purpose and strong national bond, Nigerian politics must be developed such that political parties prioritise interest negotiations beyond the narrow electoral contest focusing on regional and ethnic representations. Specific regional demands for developments should be integral parts of any demand for regional or ethnic representation in the leadership of the country. Clear policy choices reflected in commitments of political parties based on provisions in their manifestos should be the driving factors for leadership negotiations. Opposition to leadership should not be simply about opposing ethnic and religious identity. Once politics is oriented around ethnic and religious identity, it will undermine capacity of leaders to mobilise Nigerians to have common purpose and strong national bond.

It is necessary Nigerians recognise that political parties are the most important democratic bodies to facilitate processes of nation building. All political parties should be able to have clear positions in terms of how they intend to mobilse Nigerians to have common purpose and strong national bond. Specific details of how that can guarantee justice, equity and fairness should be clarified beyond the personalities of prospective political leaders. Frameworks should be developed within political parties to ensure that elected representatives are committed to implement positions adopted by political parties. Eventually, Nigerian democracy should graduate from situation whereby electoral contests is all about personalities, to the level that policy choices are integral parts of electoral contest.

Accordingly, if the narrative is that APC has failed, what is the alternative being offered by the opposition, including PDP? As part of the introspection required to strengthen the capacity of our parties, our leaders, and governments, we need to engage the debate based on assessment of what we must do to rebuild the confidence of Nigerians and regained their trust. In doing that, we need to restrategise and more effectively present the objective scorecards of governments at all levels since 2015 in ways that can truly demonstrate to Nigerians what has been achieved, and why despite what has been achieved we are having the challenges facing us as a nation. Nigerians need to rise above cheap campaigns of ethnic politics, which is now being used to promote hatred in the country.

Any leader or elder – politician, religious, traditional, irrespective of gender, age, and social class, who is promoting politics of ethnicity or campaigning against initiatives of government to fight criminality, especially in cases where activities of criminals are destroying lives and properties of innocent citizens, such a leader or elder is also a security risk. As part of Nigeria’s common purpose, strong national bond to eliminate criminal activities of bandits and insurgents is irreducible minimum. The act of judging leaders, however well intentioned, must not serve as a cover to protect criminality. On the other hand, leaders who inspire national hope should be celebrated in the country and political parties must take steps to recruit those leaders into politics. The only guarantee that Nigerian democracy can facilitate nation building is when political leaders are able to graduate from being champions of small group interests to being torchbearers of our common purpose and strong national bond.

Similarly, our common purpose as a nation must enthrone high ethical conducts, especially in our judicial institutions. The integrity of judges must be revered such that Nigerian justice system is insulated from partisan meddling, which then undermine fairness in granting orders by Nigerian courts with respect to political cases. Once Nigerian judiciary is compromised, rule of law will be undermined, which can only further widen the gap between political leaders and government, on the one hand, and citizens, on the other. If political leaders and governments are disconnected from citizens, potentials for common purpose and strong national bond will be weak.

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