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Democratising Nigerian democracy.
By Jibrin Ibrahim

On Tuesday, the Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development invited me to make a presentation on the best strategies for democratising Nigerian democracy. Their concept paper was clear –  Nigerians are getting extremely frustrated that the democracy they fought for and won has very little dividends for them as citizens. The future pathway is one of rising apathy as the people see the political class as perpetually serving their own interests, rather than that of the people. Significant improvements in the quality of our democracy are therefore necessary to make people regain confidence that even at its worst, democratic systems offer more value than authoritarian ones.  

Nigeria’s First Republic existed for only six years and the Second Republic had an even shorter life span of just over four years. The Third Republic was aborted but the Forth Republic has had a relatively long-life span of 22 years and still counting. Historically, the explanation often offered for the underdevelopment of democracy in Nigeria is that the military never allowed democracy to mature by repeatedly disrupting democratic regimes and not allowing the political class to learn from their errors by interrupting the process and returning the counter to zero. This time, the expectation is that the quality of democracy should have improved but the reality is that it has not. Citizens have still not seen the dividends of democracy; the political class remains crass and self-serving and money plays a larger role in politics than the voice of the voter. In seeking explanations for the challenges facing democracy in this Fourth Republic, we need to focus on the fetters to democratic development energised essentially by Nigerian political parties.

Nigeria operates a two-party dominant political system, in which the ruling and then the main “opposition” party, currently the former ruling party, control enormous resources, in comparison to the others. There are three categories of political parties – the two dominant parties, the parties with parliamentary representation and the other small parties, most of which were established as possible platforms for important politicians who lose out in the bigger parties and need other platforms to access nomination for elective posts. The President and State governors tightly control the political parties and the party leadership is at the beck and call of these executives, who can change them at will. The President is the leader of the dominant party, (forget the party leader title given to a certain Lagos politician), although a party chairman exists and state governors are the leaders of their party at the sub-national level. This system is replicated in other parties that have state governors. The general situation is that Nigerian parties are not fit for purpose, as they do not stand for anything in the ideological spectrum and their activities are not driven by a membership that has agency.

The transmission of power from the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015 has not led to significant change in the country’s party dynamics. The greatest challenge facing Nigerian democracy is the absence of a real and functional party system. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has complained repeatedly that many parties have been operating with invalid national executive committees, whose tenures had expired or are not reflective of federal character, as required by the Constitution. The Attahiru Jega-led INEC had de-registered a number of parties for not adhering to these constitutional requirements and for not winning seat in any elections, but the courts have always been lenient and permitted parties to continue to have legal existence, even when they do not meet the constitutional requirements. The current Mahmoud Yakubu-led INEC has pursued the same actions.