The Real Problem With Nigeria’s Democracy

Amaka Articles, Blog, Governance & Political Economy, Opinion

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On February 7, 2015, Nigeria’s electoral commission announced that it would be postponing a fiercely contested election between Nigeria’s incumbent President Jonathan and former military dictator turned opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. The elections were moved by six weeks, to March 28, ostensibly to allow the military to complete a major offensive against the Islamist group, Boko Haram.

In a matter of days, international and domestic media outlets were filled with articles decrying the postponement as a blow to Nigeria’s democracy. One observer went so far as to characterize the postponement as a “coup” against Nigeria’s democracy. Another suggested that the opposition party’s strong showing in pre-election polling indicated that Nigeria had been on the cusp of “real democracy.” The postponement jeopardized that progress.

I read these headlines with some amusement. Sure, the official reasons for the postponement were absurd. But, Nigeria’s democracy has more serious problems than the postponement of an electoral contest.  The nature of the contest itself—between two major political parties whose only political philosophy appears to be attaining or maintaining power at all costs—is cause for alarm.

Like the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) has not articulated a clear governing philosophy. Instead, the “issues” in the election have been framed as security, corruption, and jobs. Buhari and APC promise to ‘secure Nigeria,’ ‘end corruption,’ and ‘create jobs.’ Ironically, four years ago, President Jonathan made similar promises on a campaign that also pledged ‘change.’

No intelligent politician anywhere could disagree with eliminating corruption, creating jobs, and protecting citizens. But, these aspirations are not, and should not be, political platforms. They are simply desirable developmental outcomes. Real political platforms are based on a coherent vision of how those ideals can be achieved, coupled with a principled basis on which compromises and trade-offs should be made. How exactly will corruption be “ended”? Will funds for welfare programs be raised through increased taxes on those already within the tax regime, or by cutting other government spending? If so, what government spending should be cut and why? What respective roles should the federal and state governments play in ensuring security and/or creating jobs?

Perhaps the lack of a specific principled stance is strategic. Afterall, the specific is the enemy of the flexible. And Nigerian politicians value flexibility a great deal. Several of APC’s most prominent members are recent defects from the ruling PDP. In a cogent sign of the extreme musical chairs that is politics in Nigeria, the Kano gubernatorial race is between a former PDP deputy (now APC candidate) and a former APC commissioner (now PDP candidate). President Jonathan’s own media & publicity director recently returned from a brief sojourn with the opposition APC, where he had choice words for the President (including calling the President a “gutless eunuch” and claiming that four women were running the country in the President’s stead).

There are some glimmers of hope. A recent public exchange between a former Central Bank governor and the current finance minister sparked nationwide discussion about specific government policies and spending patterns. The presidential candidates are trying harder than ever before to connect with voters. Both have appeared on several TV shows and are participating in more (carefully chosen) public forums than in previous elections. And, despite the fluidity between the two major political parties, some observers discern ideological leanings, characterizing the APC as center-left and the PDP as center-right, based on each party’s state-level record.

Of course political philosophies pose their own problems. Ideology-based partisanship recently shut down the United States government and resulted in the second least productive Congress in modern American history. But ideology is critical in a maturing democracy. For voters, it provides some check against the politician’s natural instrumental & coalition-shifting instincts, promoting accountability through (some) expected consistency. For businesses, it offers some predictability, a key determinant of investment. Perhaps most importantly, a principled philosophy of governance promotes the creation of durable institutions—ones that are not built on temporary alliances motivated by election cycles.

Ultimately, the essence of democracy is the peoples’ power to determine not only specific socio-economic outcomes, but also the means used to achieve them. The Nigerian political landscape currently offers a false dichotomy between continuity and change. Without more clarity on the means by which each side’s platform will be realized, true democracy will remain elusive.

Amaka Anku runs Dilikam Advisors, an Africa-focused research and strategic advisory firm based in Washington DC. She was a non-resident fellow at the Lagos-based Center for Public Policy Alternatives from 2014-2016. Follow Amaka on Twitter at @AmakaAnku.

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