It is more difficult today to deconstruct the Nigerian state than it was in 1946 when the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, referred to Nigeria as ‘a mere geographical expression’. A state, after all, emerges out of a conscious decision by a people or its leaders to have one. Was the creation of Nigeria therefore, a conscious decision by its people or its leaders? Was it the candid and desired choice of Nigerians of their leaders to have a Nigerian state in its form, composition and character? If yes, how has the state evolved and served the ends of social, political, economic and cultural ends? If not, what forces and factors have sustained the Nigerian state hitherto? What developments have called to questioning, the relevance and usefulness of the Nigerian state? For who has the Nigeria state existed and for what ends? Can the entity called Nigeria pass the test of statehood in all the acknowledged features of a state? Does political independence exclusively suffices the characterization of an entity as a state?
The above questions are pungent enough to prompt us to ask; what constitutes a state? What makes a state? What are the criteria for statehood? And under what circumstance can statehood be lost or challenged? The three essentials of statehood are population, defined territory and sovereignty all of which Nigeria possesses. However, there are serious question marks on each of these elements of statehood. Nigeria no doubt has a population part of which intermittently agitate for the dissolution of the Nigerian state. Contemporary challenges of banditry, insurgency and other related cross-border challenges, have also raised questions on the capacity of the state to account for its actual citizens as opposed to many undocumented foreign elements involved in nefarious activities that undermine the sanctity of the Nigerian state. Secondly, Nigeria has a defined territory but does not exercise control over them due to the activities of insurgents in parts of the country. The country has demonstrated the inability to control, manage or secure its borders. The most crucial of these state attributes is sovereignty i.e., the ability to make independent decisions and exercise control over its own affairs. Sovereignty, which is exercised by the government on behalf of the people also means the ability to meet, at a minimum, the basic needs of human and physical security. Where a state is unable or unwilling to meet these needs, then, its sovereign power is in question. Sadly, the Nigerian state is one under siege from violent groups that seek to undermine its territorial integrity.
The legal conferment of statehood is never sufficient, a state must consistently seek to legitimize and justify its existence and necessity by meeting the basic needs of security, social, economic and political rights and opportunities and above all, a national spirit. When a state fails to deliver on this premise, its utility as a problem solving instrument is halted, it ceases to be functional and ceases to command citizen loyalty/allegiance. In fact, it could become the chief enabler of toxic and fiercely discordant tunes, the facilitator of rebellion and the promoter of chaos and disorder. Regardless, order and disorder could co-exist within a given state. Here, while the basic features/machineries of the state are in place, the capacity and capability to utilize them to achieve the raison d’etre (reason or purpose of existence) of the state is greatly diminished or completely unavailable. Such states like Nigeria are classified as dysfunctional. It is not yet a state on life support, but it is often rushed into the emergency room because it constantly shows symptoms of demise. It is not yet a failed state or on the precipice of collapse but it evinces all the signals of malnourished soul.
The persistence of the fundamental problems Nigeria faces overtime becomes the image around which the country is conceptualized as a state. However, much of the identified challenges are mere symptoms of a deeper and broader problem which has its roots in the arbitrary amalgamation of different ethno-religious political groups into what is now referred to as Nigeria. The marriage of circumstance, which has no link to any strong historical, social or cultural tie among the converging entities, has since continued to moderate Nigeria’s complex and complicated politics and identity. More fundamentally, is the inability to evolve a nation out of Nigeria’s profoundly diverse constituent units. Nigeria cannot by any means, be defined as a nation-state, but a multi-national state. It is a multi-national state held delicately together by the tripod of religion, ethnicity and greed. Indeed, both religion and ethnicity have given birth to greed as the currency of Nigerian politics.
While it is acknowledged that due to colonial legacies and machinations, the task of nation-building had been made more difficult for Nigeria and many of its African peers at independence, it is honest to admit that successive leaders, at important, historical moments in the evolution of the country, had not done enough to transit the country from a multi-national state to a nation-state. This is more so, given the enormous resources, human and material that the country is blessed with.
Nigeria is thus a state whose vast potential for greatness largely features in the realm of rhetoric and external (mis) adventures. With respect to the latter, Nigeria, on more than one occasion, had proved that one could give what it lacks. Strength is not what it seems when it is the exclusive preserve of the regime rather than the people. Would it be wrong to attribute the desperate attempts by some Nigerians to risk their lives to cross the long desert of the Sahara or the bumpy waters of the Mediterranean or carry illicit drugs to mostly Asian countries where the penalty of death is non-negotiable? Is it in any way accurate that the depressing figures on poverty and wants are primary factors driving insecurity and unrests in the country?
How then do we conceptualize the Nigerian state? The Nigerian state is an ‘evolving one’. The proliferation of ethnic militias and the intensification of ethno-regional nationalism, demanding a re-negotiation of the federalist foundations of the Nigerian state have resulted into the escalation of ethno-religious conflicts in many of Nigerian’s urban communities. Foundational issues, which had hitherto been classified as ‘non-negotiable’ in the constitution-making process of the late 1980s, appeared to have been re-invented in recent times. These issues constitute the core of the ‘national question’, which had remained lingering and unresolved since independence . The national question generally refers to the issue of the composition of the nation-state or the fundamental basis of the political existence of a nation as an entity. The debate on the national question has been an engaging issue for many Nigerians.
Political Evolution in Nigeria
The Nigerian state, just like other states in Africa was conceived, nurtured and sustained largely by force. As an ‘entity’ brought into being by the instrumentality of foreign military force, and administered for close to a century by a combination of coercion and co-option, the colonial state did not represent the sovereignty of the people but rather the abrogation of it. In essence, British Colonialism put the Nigerian state in place for the realisation of its imperialist objectives. The Nigerian state, rather than emerging as a reaction to the wish of the people, strategically evolved as a colonial instrument for the administration and organisational control of the Nigerian people. As elsewhere in Africa, the colonial state in Nigeria was therefore a state lacking in natural legitimacy since it was an external imposition.
The problem of acrimonious existence among the diverse groups and interests in the federation of Nigeria has become endemic in the nation’s politics and has militated against the political stability of Nigeria since independence. Along this course, the situation has been that of political intrigues and bloodshed – nationalist aspirations turned into inter-regional, inter-ethnic and inter-party antagonism; the collapse of First Republic, coup and counter-coups; collapse of the Second Republic; unending barrack revolts; the aborted Third Republic, — of which there have been obvious signs of reverses in some, if not all aspects of national development. This problem seriously hampers efforts at national integration as it applies to the building of a nation-state out of the disparate ethnic, geographic, social, economic and religious elements in the country.
A major task of every state is to adopt, build and strengthen political institutions and processes that reflect the particularities of a given society at a given time. Political institutions are vital in creating desired political culture, norms and values. They are the lens through which the state is largely perceived by other states and by itself. Political institutions are shaped by ideas and they in turn, become the fulcrum through which political character is moulded. Thus, ideas produce institutions and strengthen them and good institutions are themselves factories for new and tested ideas that help to achieve a functional state, functional in the sense that the state is able to justify the rationale for its own existence. Good and effective institutions are those able to adapt to environmental changes, respond to emerging complex issues and able to instill confidence and inspire citizens towards the onerous task of national development and integration.
For the post-colonial state, with its characteristically diverse composition like Nigeria, the crucial and immediate task of nation-building was overwhelming. Developing inclusive, broad based and sustainable institutions was an existential priority at independence. However, the form, structure and character of these institutions were largely patterned after the British Westminster institution. There was a pervasive influence of British ideas on the country’s military, political and economic institutions. To be clear, the British parliamentary system did serve some purposes while it lasted. With the shared identity, it allowed for some of continuity in Nigeria’s relations with Britain as opposed to some toxic relations that marred some newly independent countries and their former colonial lords. It promoted representation from the widespread constituents, encouraged quality legislative debates, officially recognized the opposition party and is generally less costly when compared with the Presidential system.
However, one of the most distinct features of the first six years following independence was the regional political structure. Regionalism permitted progress at a pace desired by the people of each region with little or no interference from the centre. While it promoted healthy rivalry and competition among the regions especially in the economic sphere, it also created regionalized politics and identities that saw the regions drift further apart thereby, stalling national integration. The practice of multi-party democracy did little to encourage inter-ethnic political interaction (with a slight exception in the West) as ethnic-based political parties held sway in each of the dominant regions.
With the festering political crisis and culture of violence dominating the political space, the first military intervention took place which replaced the federal system with a short-lived unitary system only to be reverted by another military regime just under six months. These actions were political imperatives construed to have been primarily motivated by the desire to protect national interest. In the end, the disruptive interventions helped to reinforce ethnic divisions, compromised the psyche/perception/credibility of national institutions, sowed the seed of distrust and mutual suspicion that stunted the functional growth of existing political institutions and facilitated the violent outcomes including the pogrom and the Civil of 1967 to 1970. With the decentralization of the regions into states in 1967, the eve of the Civil War, Nigeria’s political architecture was profoundly altered. Side for a few other efforts, the creation of states hence became the only political answer to the national question.
In 1979, the Presidential system was introduced as the country retuned to civilian rule after about 13 years under successive military rule. The new political structure based on states and the 1979 constitution facilitated the gradual concentration of power at the Centre. As new states were created, so were new majorities and new minorities. In any case, the rational for the creation of the states in Nigeria is for political reasons. With the country’s return to democratic rule in 1999, institution building remained at the core of the Obasanjo administration. The optimism raised by the return to democracy was soon dashed by the inability of the government to meet the yearnings of the teeming population. Cries of marginalization from the Niger Delta, to Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), MASSOB, IPOB etc formed a resistance movement that frequently demanded resource control and secession. The myriad of problems prompted the Obasanjo administration to organize a National political confab in 2005 with a similar one again in 2014 under President Goodluck Jonathan. These conferences, aimed at addressing critical national issues and interests of the Nigerian people from the major regions and ethnic group achieved very little due primarily to lack of political will and conviction of the part of the presidents in power then.
The twenty-three years of military incursion into the Nigerian political space fundamentally affected the country’s political orientation. Democratic institutions were intermittently suspended and numerous anti-human right laws decreed into existence. The military culture of aggression, harassment, and brutality has remained a fact of Nigeria’s national life despite transition to Democracy. Despite the hostile environment, the institutions of higher learning, media, trade unions and other pressure groups played defining role on shaping major national discourse and applying pressure on military dictators on many occasions, at the expense of their very lives or the lives of their loved ones. While military government is an aberration and remains so, however, their legacies remain with us. Their images loom large over the political choices we have been making since 1999. With the exception of a few, all the military leaders, who may have had some good reasons for intervening at different times, derailed and in fact, left the country worse than they met it.
Military dictatorships have enthroned militarism as a means of governing the society. Military rule placed a premium on violence and force. Dialogue, bargaining, and compromise – all essential elements of democracy were de-emphasised and instead, Nigerians were compelled to submit to the ‘jackboot of military command’. Militarism encompasses more than just the armed forces of a state and their activities, but implies dominant influence of military values, symbols and language on the political, social and economic affairs of the state. It manifests in the establishment of ubiquitous state security outfits, the militarisation of the society and institutions, excessive preoccupation with security, arbitrary arrest and detention of persons, elevation of violence and repression as indispensable instruments of governance, human rights violation, and disregard for the rule of law. Having monopolised the political space for most of the nation’s existence, militarism has become pervasive that the vast majority of civil society has come to regard it either as normal or simply inevitable .
Despite the destabilizing effect from the interventions by the military which hugely affected the growth of democratic tenets, institutions and norms, there is little credit that can be given to democratically elected leader in the first, second and fourth republics. They had the support of the people to institutionalize democratic practices, deepen the rule of law and pursue meaning and inclusive development. However, much of the democratic administrations were devoted to frivolities, rhetoric and corruption. The inability of the first generation leaders to seize the momentum of the early years after independence was a greatly missed opportunity that continues to hunt the country today. While they demonstrated that the country had come of age with the republican constitution of 1963 and other sundry independent decisions, the same decisiveness and passion have not be given to developing the country.
An often less analysed factor in the country’s political evolution is the role of opposition political parties. There is no doubt that robust, constructive opposition is a necessary ingredient for the growth of democracy. Opposition act as watchdogs and help in putting political leaders on their toes vis-à-vis the electoral promises they made. The role of the Action Group at the federal level between 1960 and 1965 is well documented. The UPN during the second republic was also a formidable alternative voice on crucial issues of governance. Although, there were checks from opposition parties across the regions, it appears that opposition to the government in power at the centre has historically been more pronounced in the South. Even the more recent history of political party opposition, represented by the Alliance for Democracy (AD) – Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) – Action Congress (AC) can be traced to the ideals and identity of the Action Group party of the 1960s. Activities of opposition political parties are certainly one way of measuring political evolution in any given democracy.
How well has opposition political parties contributed to governance or shaping governance discourse? In what ways have the many years of opposition politics during the military era affected the nature and form of opposition politics under democratic rule? How true is the claim that opposition parties have yet to purge themselves of the anti-government posture or the perception of the government as an enemy or the ‘pull him down’ syndrome? Is opposition politics simply a means to gaining political power by perpetually undermining the ruling government? How has multi-party democracy shape the role of opposition parties in Nigeria? This is my take. Opposition political parties are a necessity in nurturing democracy. Oppositions can be aggressive and combative but the national interest should drive their approach to issues. Unfortunately, they may continue to exploit divisive tactic, appealing to religious and ethnic sentiments to reinforce their relevance as opposed contributing meaningfully to shaping policies and actions.
Rigging has historically been part of the problems of elections in Nigeria which cast doubt on the credibility of the electoral process and accounts for post-election violence and why, often, results of elections are rarely accepted by the opposition. With the exception of 2015, accepting the result of a national election in Nigeria was almost considered a taboo thus, the country hitherto, had a reputation for rejecting election results. Despite setting the pace in 2015, a lack of concurrent efforts to strengthen the electoral process to minimize incidences of electoral irregularities and fraud may encourage post-election violence and continued litigations at the court that often require the dissipation of time, resource and energy on court process rather than on governance.
In addition, the role of pressure groups, women, media, civil society organizations and other non-political entities in the political evolution in Nigeria cannot be overemphasized. These important players maintained sustained opposition to the military regimes both within and outside the country. The intellectual contributions of the media to the understanding Nigeria’s political narrative is particularly noteworthy and praiseworthy. They were the voice of hope in a protracted climate of despair under the military rule. Post 1999 has enlarged the political space for these important groups to keep adding value. Private media stations, a new found voice among women, proliferating number of NGOs and CSOs have broadened and enabled critical inputs from a wide range of stakeholders into governance in Nigeria.
Democracy and Its Characteristics
Democracy is conceived in this paper to mean the people’s participation in decision-making through the choice, accountability and change of their representatives and governments. Choice presupposes the presence of alternatives to choose from, and the right to information about these alternatives (whether they are political parties, individuals or political programmes). At the same time, it suggests the right of the alternatives to expose and introduce themselves not only by making their own policies and programmes known, but also by explaining how these differ from each other. Accountability also presupposes the right to information and to freedom of thought and expression. Choice, accountability and change can only be practised through free periodic elections. For the purpose of this lecture, democracy is conceptualized as broadly encompassing fundamental rights, accountable and participatory governance, rule of law, and credible and competitive elections. Democratization on the other hand, is the process of building, consolidating, protecting and promoting democratic institutions and processes.
Democracy and its Characteristics
Democracy is one of the most talked about, debated, referenced idea in the lexicon of politics and governance partly because of the appeal of certain embedded principles; its evolution across different time and space; its adaptive capacity to major complex social, economic and political changes; and the growing contradictions between theory and practice. Thus, attempt to conceptualize democracy must broadly take cognizance of these interwoven characteristics and the particular context within which its application is analyzed, evaluated and critiqued.
Firstly, the theoretical emblems of democracy are inclusion, participation, openness, accountability, and justice. Clearly, the intent of the early proponents of democracy, as far back as ancient Greece where it emerged, was to emphasize the centrality of the people as an indispensible component in the governing of a state or any form of political unit. These fundamental elements among other factors explain why democracy, as a form of government, and despite the many bumpy roads in its maturation, remains attractive and preferred.
Secondly, understanding the concept of democracy must extend beyond the realm of its universal definition or application and the complex changes in that environment to reflect the different peculiarities in its evolution in different societies. By society here, I do not necessarily mean individual countries but group of sovereign entities by common geography, history, values and/or institutions e.g. Western and non-Western societies.
Liberal democracy which stresses the process of exercising choice through regular elections.
Constitutional democracy – identifies the constitution as the people’s will upon which all political structures, human and artificial, derive their powers.
Direct democracy, practiced in ancient Greece, involved the direct participation of all citizens in the decision making process of the state
Representative democracy – involves the process of electing people from different constituents as representative of the people’s interest as the idea of direct democracy seemed practically impossible in increasingly expanding states.
Pretend democracy — is an attempt to explain the disconnect between democracy in theory and democracy in practice. It claims that some societies at best only reflect a cosmetic appearance of democracy without any real roots to advance its core principles. Democracy in such ‘democracies’ exists mostly in the realm of rhetoric and documented aspirations. Here, it is unclear who actually wields ultimate power, or how much power the citizens have. Even though, elections may be conducted regularly, and essential institutions such as the courts and the Parliament/National Assembly may exist, there is a wide gap between the people and the leaders and between the expected gain and actual benefits. This type of democracy is prevalent in most transitioning states with a legacy of colonialism, and ethno-religious problems.
There is likewise the broad classification of many states into mature and young democracies, stable and unstable, full and hybrid democracies etc perhaps in a bid to distinguish and explain the evident shifts in the practice and consolidation of democracy.
It is clear from the forgoing that even at a minimum, the idea that people created and own the government is implied in all the variants of democracy. The element of ‘choice’, who exercises the choice, on whose behalf, for what end and with what consequences remain valid questions that continue to shape the discourse on democracy, its quality, and alternatives.It is thus clear that democracy is what it is or ought to be as a result of many institutional and environmental factors which are not necessarily captured in any single definition. Against this background, I define democracy as a people-oriented, people-driven and people-inspired governance process characterized by the freedom of choice, credible and competitive elections, transparency, participation, accountability, and enabled by strong institutions, leadership and Civil Society Organizations, especially the Press.
Multi-Party Democracy in Nigeria
Multi-party democracy is simply put, an electoral process that constitutionally permits the participation of multiple political parties. The rationale for a multi-party system in Nigeria is informed by a number of factors chief among which is the complex, diverse ethno, religious and political arrangement called Nigeria. While the notion of statehood is often embraced, the stark reality of the Nigerian state symbolized by the multi-identity, variegated interests, and sometimes, irreconcilable differences among its constituent units necessitated a multi-party system where these interests could be accommodated. Multi-party democracy was also becoming fashionable particularly in the western world and Britain’s role in this regard cannot be over emphasized. Again, it was the desire of the Nigerian political elites including the vibrant media to encourage or accept multi-party system. While some have suggested that it was in Britain’s interest to promote the dominance of a particular, the Parliamentary system encourages the forming of coalition as against the current winner take all Presidential system introduced in the 1979 constitution. Retaining the regional system at independence also gave enormous influence to other political parties even when they are minimally or not represented at the federal level.
Necessity for a Multi-party Democracy in Nigeria
While participation was limited to some section and by rights during the colonial era, it engendered political sensitivity that energized widespread interest in the contest for political power and relevance especially among the elites and their followership at independence. Especially since 1960, the Nigerian political landscape has seen a flurry of party politics, representation and activities.For instance, more than two political parties participated in the general elections of 1959, 1964, 1979, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019. Whereas, only two political parties (the SDP and NRC), participated in the general elections of 1993. Unlike the two party system, multi-party democracy promotes inclusiveness and broad representation in especially large countries with many ethno religious groups. Also, multi-party system provides many alternatives to choose from. It justifies the element of choice that is at the core of electoral democracy. Since each party often try to distinguish itself by ideology or issue, the interests of different categories of electorates are often accommodated rather than restricted or excluded. An electorate could be interested in a pro-gender or pro-business political party or a Green party committed to paying attention to environmental issues or a party with an anti-graft agenda. Such varied interests have a greater chance of featuring in the multiple agenda of multiple political parties.
Nigeria has historically been well disposed to multi-party democracy. Given the complex composition of the Nigerian state and its ethnic and religious diversity, it was not fortuitous that the country had always supported multi-party democracy. Indeed, with the exception of the Third republic which featured just two contending political parties, all elections to date have witnessed the participation of more than two political parties. A cursory analysis of multi-party democracy revealed that it has had and still having both negative and positive effects. While it is true that multi-party democracy, both in theory and practice, aim at engendering participation thereby strengthening the democratic process, it is difficult to ascertain the value that multiple political parties add to the democratic process. Many of the parties are often floated for pecuniary or reasons not directly related to deepening the democratic process. Their participation is often considered a waste of resources that could have been deployed to more pressing needs. Again, most of the so called ‘mushroom’ or ‘briefcase’ political parties are deliberate but clandestine creation of the dominant parties to undermine one another. Worse still, many of them fail to win a single seat at any level and therefore go moribund after the elections only to re-emerge during another election year under a new name and logo. Even for those parties that manage to win some seats, they quickly defect to victorious ruling party after elections thereby contributing to the early demise of the parties. In any case, what is often termed multi-party democracy is in reality, one-party or two party system. For instance, the major players in the NPC-NCNC alliance in the first republic also formed the NPN during the second republic while the personnel of the opposition party also largely remained the same. In other words, almost the same group of people under a different name exercised political control at the federal level in the first and second republic. Nigeria was almost becoming a one-party state until 2015, 16 years after the return to democracy that another party won the presidency.
However, one of the key characteristics of a multi-party system is that it encourages alliance system or more appropriately, the formation of coalition. This was the case in the second republic when a number of parties each teamed up to form the NPN and the UPN. Such approach to elections in contemporary Nigeria is less prevalent and difficult between and among the parties. This is because many of the political parties have no structures and therefore, have no significant electoral value. Also, the increasing role of money inhibits the visibility and viability of the political parties outside the mainstream and explains their inability to compete. Parties such as APGA prefer to retain its regional identity while it supports any party at the centre. Even the AC/ACN seemed at some point, to prefer its limited geographical influence in the Southwest and its role as the major opposition party. The coalition of the ACN, CPC and new PDP, that won over the incumbent in 2015 was possible due to a number of factors chief among which was the fracture in the ruling party.
Again, only the AD/AC/ACN has consistently played the role of a serious opposition party since 1999. One would expect that the many other parties would go beyond participation in elections to maintaining robust and constructive opposition after elections but this is hardly ever the case. On account of this, many ha