They are celebrating their Democracy Day in the face of a huge democracy deficit. It may even be said, without doing great violence to the facts, that what they are celebrating in Nigeria today is a regression of democracy.
The evidence is all around us.
The trappings of democracy are there all right. A written Constitution stands as the supreme law of the land, pillar of the rule of law and a bulwark against arbitrariness. General elections are held every four years into national, state and local assemblies which meet regularly, their broad mandate being to make laws for the good governance of Nigeria. Each of them has a Mace, the symbol of its authority. The judiciary, independent of the Executive and Legislative arms, mediates disputes among the state, institutions, groups, and individuals.
We have all these institutions and observe these rituals in common with other democracies. But that is where the similarities end.
A Constitution drafted in secret and sprung on the people has in operation turned out to be more a source of frustration than fulfillment. Its provisions are often flouted, and its spirit is seldom honoured.
Voting is rarely an exercise in choosing. Each election, be it local, statewide or national, is like a civil war. Fighting breaks out, shots are fired, and people get killed.
It is not about winning a contest to serve the public. It is about joining the ranks of the thousands who have acquired great wealth simply on the strength of being declared winners in a plebiscite. That declaration is a ticket to gratuitous wealth and life most abundant. Winning by any means is the only thing.
Even on the most important issues, deliberations in the legislative assemblies rarely rise above the jejune and the perfunctory. The Mace doubles as a handy cudgel or missile when what passes for debate gets heated. Withal, the Senate has been turned into a platform for bullying, humiliating and reigning in officials performing their lawful duties whenever such duties collide with the lawless conduct of its manipulative, self-entitled and scandal-plagued leadership and its enablers.
The Senate routinely violates even its own laws with impunity, invoking powers it does not possess, to “suspend” dissident members for as long as six months instead of the maximum of 14 days stipulated by its own rules.
At its most basic, democracy has been defined as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The first two clauses of this tripartite definition find some expression in the representative institutions of government. But democracy as government for the people? In Nigeria?
That is a stretch.
This past weekend, the news media published Finance Minister Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s revelations from her time as Finance Minister under President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Goodluck Jonathan, in the life of the 7th Senate.
According to her, the operational budget of the National Assembly rose steadily over the years to the point where, in 2015, it stood at N150 billion — 16 percent or just a little under one -seventh of the Appropriations, and more than three times the entire budget for 2006. Former Central Bank Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, as he then was, had it right.
Oil prices had crashed from more than $100 per barrel to $58. Yet the National Assembly not only refused to accept any cuts in its own “standard” (read “sacrosanct”) budget; it actually piled another N20 billion on the appropriations, agreeing only after a great deal of haggling with the Executive Branch to slice just N3 billion off the spending bill.
There is no saint in this matter. The Executive goes to the legislature with a bloated spending bill, in which durable goods – computers, kitchen ware, etc. — purchased the previous year and the year before are set to be purchased all over again, in greater quantities and at far higher prices.
This self-aggrandising permeates the entire machinery of government at all levels, with not more than five percent of the population gulping the about 90 percent of the operational budget. A sprawling presidential system of government that its beneficiaries are loath to modify or replace, keeps this pernicious arrangement in place.
There was a time when various governments presented various schemes as “dividends” of democracy. Lawmakers who present articles purchased from their trainload of allowances to their constituencies no longer dress them up as dividends of democracy. Rather, they call them “donations,” handouts from their abundance of kindness to the less privileged in their community.
The judiciary is a kept institution where timidity, perjury and susceptibility to unwholesome influences come panoplied in ermined robes. The evidence on which a court discharged and acquitted a political baron in Nigeria was used to convict the baron in a foreign court. Only in a setting such as ours can a court issue an injunction restraining the police in perpetuity from investigating allegations of serious fraud against a political official.
It will come as no surprise if, one of these days, a court restrains the National Assembly from passing a bill, and the president from signing it into law.
As the General Elections loom larger, Nigeria stands at a crossroads. In a formal sense, the APC is in government, but whether it is also in power is debatable. Its legislative prerogative in the National Assembly has been usurped by rogue elements whose defection from the Opposition PDP helped the APC defeat the PDP which had held power for 16 years. Now set to return to their natural habitat, these elements calling themselves nPDP, have meanwhile joined forces with the stragglers in the defeated Opposition to seize that initiative.
The Change that the core APC promised has been rather slow in coming, in a polity that has seen its patience betrayed so often by the ruling class that it now demands rapid results as the price for its support and loyalty. Sensing an opening, the PDP has been pillorying the APC for failure to deliver
Sensing an opening, the PDP has been pillorying the APC for failing to achieve what the PDP could not deliver in the 16 years it held power. To keep up the presence of still belonging in the APC, the nPDP has presented the APC core leadership a portfolio of grievances they want redressed, failing which they will formally return to their natural habitat.
That portfolio reeks of the fixation on self, the utter self-absorption that has been the standard conduct of the lawmakers.
Three years during which it was an integral part of the Establishment, they claimed, falsely, that their bloc in the APC had been sidelined, accorded no ministerial slots, denied patronage as well and executive positions on boards of government institutions and parastatals.
They said their members were subjected to “vicious and relentless” political attacks when they “showed interest” in running for Senate President and House Speaker. They did not mention, however, that they had settled the matter by self-help, using methods that the best authorities have characterized as a criminal breach of the law.
They regard investigation of their members by the anti-corruption agencies as official harassment. They have since added to their portfolio of grievances the staging of parallel state congresses in which their faction lost out big-time.
These grievances, if addressed, the faction said, “will lead to a harmonious APC where justice, equity, fairness and peace will reign and enable APC avoid rancor, reinvigorate the pace of national development and face the 2019 General Elections as one united party.”
When the splinter group meets sub rosa with the leadership of the APC, it will probably demand that on-going corruption investigations and prosecutions of its members be discontinued to keep them in the fold.
Even if the APC now develops the spine to call the nPDP’s bluff — realpolitik suggests the contrary — the balance sheet on this Democracy Day, judging from the promise and spirit of 1999, will remain in deficit.