20 years of democratic experiment: Which way Nigeria?

On May 29, 1999, Nigeria returned to democratic governance after thirty-three years of military rule. Since then, the country has had five cycles of elections to determine who govern it both at federal and states level. SAMSON BENJAMIN in this report examines the good, the bad and the ugly sides of the nation’s democratic journey so far.

Nigeria’s current democratic experience is by far the longest since independence in 1960. In the First Republic, civil rule lasted for less than six years. The Second Republic was even shorter; a mere four years. The worse was the unstable and experimental Third Republic, which endured for one year and a few months.

Has democracy come to stay?

Speaking with Blueprint Weekend on our democratic journey since 1999, Professor Alloysius Okolie of the department of Political Science, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, said, “For democracy to thrive, there must be five basic features which are periodic free and fair elections; a vibrant opposition; rule of law/supremacy of the constitution, an independent judiciary and respect for human rights.”

“All these basically help to ensure that citizens are the game makers and changers when it comes to deciding who rules or doesn’t rule them. This is perhaps why democracy is one of the most-sought out forms of government,” he said.

Speaking further, he said, “Nigeria in this democratic process can still be described as nascent when compared to the big boys of the advanced first world countries, based on their achievements of the key features of democracy.”

Similarly, Linus Okorie, a leadership expert, told Blueprint Weekend that the fact that “we have sustained democracy for two decades means the system has come to stay, and some progress has also been made in the rule of law, human rights and partial dependence of the Judiciary; and we may very well be on our way to consolidating democratic ethos in our polity.”

He said: “This is a significant milestone. The return of democracy in 1999 presented Nigeria with an opportunity to catch up with the rest of the world.

“After the prolonged military rule, the country was a pariah State. Between the first military coup in 1966 and 1999, when the men in uniform finally disengaged from politics, the country had lost 33 valuable years that could have been used to nurture and deepen democracy.

“Having gone through 16 years of uninterrupted democratic civilian rule, we seem to be making progress with periodic elections that have begun to gradually earn the ‘free and fair’ status, the emergence of a vibrant opposition party who have for the first time dethroned the ruling party at the helm of affairs; hence upgrading Nigeria from a one-party dominance state to a multi-party democracy.

We’ve made progress

Similarly, some Nigerians who spoke with this reporter were optimistic that the country has made progress with the number of years that civilian rule has lasted so far.

One of such observers is the chairman of Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of over 40 civil society organisations (CSOs), Dr Abiola  Akiyode- Afolabi. She said: “Military rule is an aberration and should not be contemplated under any circumstances; it is like returning to Egypt. The years we spent under military dictatorship were like being in the dungeon. Since 1999, we have enjoyed our rights as Nigerians, particularly freedom of expression and freedom of association. These are things we take for granted. But for those of us who experienced military rule, we know that our rights were infringed upon prior to 1999, when we were under military dictatorship. This is very commendable.”

Furthermore, the Dean of the Faculty of Pure and Applied Sciences, Federal University, Wukari, Taraba state, Professor Philip Olanrewaju, said Nigerians have fared better under civilian rule.

He said: “We have succeeded in the continuation of unbroken democratic rule since 1999. For the first time in our history, we have succeeded in remaining under civil rule for about 20 years; we had not been under civil rule for this long period at any other time. It is a very good thing. Sooner or later, like every other democracy, the problem of development would be tackled, because of the competition inherent in the system.

“To me, it is so far, so good. Although we have not gotten it right, it has been fair. At least, we have consolidated democracy and sustained the civil rule in the last 20 years.

 “The consolidation of democracy, distribution of dividends of democracy, the enthronement of the rule of law, freedom of speech, separation of powers, with the judiciary acting as a watchdog, the sustained infrastructure development, sooner or later the problems besetting the country would be tackled.”

Also, Africa Development Bank former vice-president and lead partner McFeley Development Associates Chief Bisi Ogunjobi said despite the hiccups in leadership within the period, Nigeria managed to triumph over its challenges.

He said: “Looking at the entire period, I think it is a big success because the country has continued to make appreciable progress, even though it is not at the pace we expect. Naturally, we have had our ups and downs, but overall it has been positive because the democratic process has continued. Despite the hiccups that we have had in leadership, Nigeria has managed to triumph over its challenges.”

Lack of continuity affected economic growth

Ogunjobi also said the biggest factor that marred the country’s economic growth and progress is lack of continuity.

 He said: “If you look at the economy, we have also had hiccups, but overall we have a pass mark, in the sense that we managed to overcome some of the difficulties that occurred as a result of the fluctuation in the international market price of our primary product, oil over the years.

“Nonetheless, the pace of diversification that we should have had that would have helped to stabilise the economic growth has not taken place. This could be explained partly by frequent changes in government policies in the last 20 years.

“One would have expected a more suitable performance, if policies had been sustained. Take Lagos state, for instance, I believe the performances of the successive leaderships were largely influenced by the stability and continuity of the governorship management of the state. This ensured that policies remained in the same direction; whereas, when you go to other states you will find that subsequent or succeeding governors usually abandon the policies of their predecessors, by starting all over again.

“This was also reflected at the national level, when the policies enunciated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo were not followed by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua. Similarly, all the policies put in place by Yar’Adua were also abandoned by the succeeding administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, while those of the latter were also not followed by President Muhammadu Buhari. So, I think the issue of continuity of policies, not the individuals, not the parties, is very crucial in the performance of the economy.”


In spite of the successes recorded in the past 20 years, Nigeria’s democratic journey is facing a lot of hurdles. Eze Oyekpere, a lawyer and executive director of Centre for Social Justice, said: “It is amazing to note that in 20 years of uninterrupted democratic experience, we are still being faced with teething problems such as the seemingly unending legislative – executive feuds; widespread insecurity; massive corruption in the system; godfatherism, and fighting political opponents with instruments and apparatus of government. There are also ethnic/tribal fights caused by the leaders, deplorable infrastructure and most recently, widespread agitations and killings across the country.”

“It is worrisome that these challenges have become the norm in our democracy at a time when we should have outgrown them and be thinking ahead for much more developmental trends; instead, we are still talking about how to solve these problems.

“Countries like Singapore, Malaysia, and even smaller African countries like Ghana, Senegal and Rwanda that were hitherto behind or at par with us have left us behind and we seem to be racing against time to catch up.

“Ours is a country with no respect for human life. Human life has become nothing of value and nobody is comfortable with governance anymore, except those benefiting from the system. And these, to a large extent, are the indices of a failing democracy.

“Although 20 years may be a small fraction in the life of a country, it is still enough for us to have fixed all the above mentioned problems if really we are a serious country. All that is needed is simply to put our act together by putting round pegs in round holes.”

Political class to blame

Significantly, Alloysius blames the political class as being responsible for the woes of the nation. He said: “It is puzzling to note that at this stage of the nation’s life, the country is still battling to fix electricity; unemployment; infrastructure; healthcare, education and even youth empowerment.

“Besides, there is no much difference in the political parties in terms of ideological orientation and, therefore, the electorates have no choice. In almost all the parties, money plays a significant role; individuals with deep pockets are invariably the ones that call the shots, particularly when it comes to determining who gets the party’s tickets for elective positions and manning of important positions.

“As widely affirmed , democracy may not give us all that we want but it is the best alternative as it is the only system that guarantees very viable options for any serious country to attain its potential.”

He further said: “It is unfortunate that those who fought and also sacrificed for this country to attain its democracy suddenly fizzled out thereby leaving the saddle to the self- centered, greedy politicians who do not know what democracy is all about . The result is what we are getting today.”

In the same vein, the chairman of the board of International Society for Civil Liberties & the Rule of Law, Mr Emeka Umeagbalasi, said most of the parties do not see politics as a call to serve.

He said: “One of their two main stocks in trade is to capture political office at all cost. Another is their mercantile attitude towards politics; whereby they see politics not as a call to serve, but as business enterprise or an avenue for primitive accumulation of wealth.

“Nigeria’s democracy since 1999 has been marred by a record of allegations of mass rigging and electoral misconduct. There are usually accusations of ballot box-snatching and thumb-printing and so on.

 “When he came to power in May 2007, the late President Musa Yar’Adua acknowledged that there were, indeed, problems with Nigeria’s electoral process. He promised to embark on a reform; and with that he launched a committee under the chairmanship of former chief justice Mohammed Uwais. The Uwais committee toured Nigeria and came up with some recommendations that stakeholders believe would clean up the country’s electoral process.

“I must say at this juncture that there has been tremendous improvements in our electoral process s in 2015, and the recently concluded presidential and national assembly elections. However, there is still more to be done; the system is still far from being perfect.” 

Way forward

The right time for Nigerians to start getting impactful results in this democracy is now, especially as the country is about to transit into the Next Level. We need to start looking at the system and structure that throw up our leaders.

Going forward, experts who spoke with Blueprint Weekend say it is imperative for Nigeria to put in place the right structures and institutions that would deepen democracy in Nigeria.

Speaking in the light of the above, Oyekpere said: “The participation of a nation’s citizens in government is essential to democracy. Education and literacy give citizens the tools they need to make political decisions.

 “Also, a stable economy with opportunities for advancement helps democracy. It does so by giving citizens a stake in the future of their nation.

“There must be a blueprint to achieve resourceful economic management, broaden educational opportunity, ensure food security, reduce absolute poverty, ensure security of lives and properties, promote real (not imagined) economic growth, fight corruption, provide employment and equal opportunities.”

Similarly, Akiyode- Afolabi said, “Nigeria’s democratic institutions may not ensure stable, civilian government if other conditions are not present, however. First, a firm belief in the rights of the individual promotes the fair and equal treatment of citizens. Second, rule of law helps prevent leaders from abusing power without fear of punishment. Third, a sense of national identity helps encourage citizens to work together for the good of the nation.”

Fight against corruption

Over the years, corruption has been identified as one of the threats to the survival of democracy in Nigeria.

Umeagbalasi said: “The war on corruption must be pursued with vigour. Put differently, it must be pushed beyond political propaganda, intimidation and witch-hunting of political opponents. Government must muster the political will to punish any corrupt public officer irrespective of his or her status in the society.

“In addition, legislation should be enacted by the National Assembly making capital punishment a penalty for corruption related offences.

Poverty alleviation

Democracy does not thrive on an empty stomach and democracy cannot be consolidated when the majority of the people live in abject poverty.

Ogunjobi said: “Government’s poverty alleviation programmes should be more proactive, government at all levels needs to be serious and/or pay more attention to problem of poverty.

“The socio-cultural factor such as family system that appears to be reinforcing poverty has to be addressed. Government at all levels must pursue vigorously programmes that can alleviate poverty. Such programmes must address the roots cause of poverty. Besides, our education sector should be overhauled. The curriculum should be such that addresses the present reality.”

In reality, Nigerians need political education in order to improve our electoral system and deepen democratic culture in fourth republic.  We must abhor tribalism, factionalism, election malpractice, etc, in order not to truncate our hard-earned democracy. After all, political scientists say “the worst democratic rule is better than the best military rule.”

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