Civilian Rule: Few Gains, Many Pains – Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai
In the last twelve weeks, this column has focused attention away from analyzing governance of our nation at federal level to the 36 states and their budgets. We analyzed ten state budgets – statistically-significant sample from which some stylized conclusions about the quality of governance will be presented next week. Today, we want to look at the thirteen years of experience with civilian (rather than democratic) rule. I am reluctant to use democracy at this point.
The starting point for an assessment of civil rule since 1999 is a deserved tribute to the many Nigerians from all walks of life whose efforts and sacrifices compelled the military to retreat to the barracks. It was a titanic effort, a struggle for which many died, countless were bloodied and many lost livelihoods and liberty. Freedom stirs in the hearts of humanity; neither blandishments nor the whip of tyrants can extinguish these stirrings or even deter a determined people from securing it. Freedom is a wonderful value, and the events of the last 15 years of military rule ought to have convinced everybody that democracy, anchored on fair elections, the rule of law and good governance, is the way to go. In 1998, Nigerians overwhelmingly decided that never again will we accept the shortcuts of military rule and the long nightmare of tragedy that accompanied it. It seems that in 13 years, we have forgotten all that and we seem to have mostly evil emperors at the helm that are more banal than the military dictators, but far less competent in governing.
Those of us privileged to have contributed in the design of the transition program after Abacha’s death in June 1998 are proud that it ended with President Olusegun Obasanjo taking the reins in May 1999. Six moths later, I was leading the federal privatization effort and in 2003, administering the FCT. As a private citizen since 2007, I have reflected on our country’s journey, and my view is that while we have many things to celebrate, where we have ended up now gives us much more to deplore.
Warts and all, we have preserved some prospect for genuine democratic governance. Some fraudulent elections have been overturned and illegal impeachments quashed. Nigerians even united to surprise and defeat the third-term attempt of a sitting president. With vigilance and will, we can invest real substance into the democratic structures that we have and make real the vision that our people can prosper in freedom. The notion of the citizenship rights is getting reinforced, despite the prolonged hangover afflicting sections of the security establishment. This increased awareness of human rights has sometimes been upheld by the courts that have survived the onslaught of a destructive chief justice that should have never been allowed near that exalted office.
While democracy satisfies the intrinsic desire for freedom, it is its instrumental value that ultimately matters for the quotidian realities and longer-term interests of most citizens. People want freedom, but that must include the freedom not to be bombed while worshipping or shopping, and not to starve. It includes freedom to live in dignity, with equal access to social services and to realize the potential their talents can legitimately secure.
Civilian rule sold off fiscal drain-pipes owned by government that were arrogant, insular and provided poor services. The telecommunications sector was liberalized bringing in private investment, creating ancillary businesses, over 60,000 jobs and putting a telephone in the hands of virtually every citizen that wants it. We saw the beginnings of a consumer credit system, and even a pilot mortgage scheme that assisted many buyers of Federal Government houses in Abuja. Nigeria won external debt reliefs, consolidated its banking system and witnessed rapid economic growth, no doubt assisted also by high oil prices. Our foreign reserves grew and we even created a ‘rainy day’ fund called the Excess Crude Account (ECA).
By 2007, the Yar’Adua-Jonathan government inherited vast foreign reserves ($43bn), on-going power projects (NIPP-$5bn), new rail systems from Lagos to Kano ($8bn) and Abuja Metro ($800 million), a healthy ECA ($27bn) – in short a basis to hit the ground running, complete on-going projects, initiate new ones and continue addressing Nigeria’s infrastructure deficits. Alas, after $200bn had been earned and spent, that did not happen. What happened?
Despite these accomplishments of the Obasanjo government, it was by no means a perfect government, just an effective one. It’s attention to the rule of law was uneven. We recall the brazenness with which a well-connected thug sponsored arson against government buildings in Anambra State as an assault against Governor Chris Ngige from whom he was estranged. That thug was not called to account; instead he was elevated to his party’s board of trustees. If people consistently escape justice because of their connections to power, it is an open invitation to people of lesser quality to seize the state and suitably defile it. Impunity then replaced even-handed common sense and decency.
We also managed to compound impunity by assaulting the very basis of democratic legitimacy: free and fair elections. It is a fact that elections in Nigeria have been progressively worse since 1999. International and domestic observers gave devastating verdicts on the conduct of the 2003 elections. Those of 2007 were so awful that the key beneficiary felt compelled to admit as much in his inaugural speech as president. Despite the initial façade, the 2011 elections turned out to be not only similarly flawed, but one of the most deceptive and divisive in our electoral history.
Yet true democracy ought not to make people frightened of the consequences of not being in power. With term limits, losers are guaranteed another stab in just a few years. And where the rule of law prevails, an electoral loss is not the same thing as exclusion from the political space and vigorous participation in the process. But such political sophistication prevails only when there’s certainty about electoral integrity and where the respect for the rule of law has become part of the DNA.
Simply put we have lost the opportunity to routinize the spirit of democracy while we stay busy observing its formal rituals. It was perhaps inevitable that the words of Plato that “the punishment we suffer, if we refuse to take an interest in matters of government, is to live under the government of worse men” would catch up with us.
Since 2000, there has been an unacceptable mayhem and bloodshed in Nigeria. The exacerbation of religious and ethnic tensions expressed in violent hues has been one of the most disappointing features of the new civilian era. Democracy would have offered a civilized way to negotiate and manage differences without breaking bones. It thrives on the ability of contending factions to work out a consensus and to summon sufficient coherence to make things work. It is disheartening that virtual apartheid, based on religion, is beginning to divide cities like my hometown of Kaduna, with people being restricted to their respective ghettoes of faith. At the heart of democracy is a universal idea, but a key feature of present-day Nigeria is an astounding narrow-mindedness.
It is necessary that we reflect on the probability that by giving undue credence to ethnic and religious group rights, we imperil not only individual rights but also destroy the possibility of building a nation where everyone belongs and feels safe everywhere. Our political elites have encouraged divisions that keep them in office, forgetting that the depletion of trust and cohesion will make it difficult if not impossible for them to enjoy the fruits of the office! This created the insecurity we now suffer all over the country.
We have a centralized police force afflicted both by little self-respect and a limited sense of its mandate. The efforts to contain Boko Haram’s terror has shown that our intelligence gathering apparatus is not fit for purpose, and our security agencies lacking in internal capacity and capability beyond harassing those of us in opposition. The pathetic manner public streets are blocked in the vicinities of security and defense establishments makes the citizens wonder – if those trained and armed to defend us are so scared of the terrorists, how can we expect them to defend the realm? Are they concerned only about their safety and that of those in power?
We have not built as much infrastructure as our development requires, and we have failed to moderate our escalating cost of governance. More importantly, democratic Nigeria is yet to grow in a way that can democratize its fruits through the creation of jobs for our youths. As we dither, divide our citizens, and condone fraud and corruption, the world just leaves us behind.
There is no doubt in my mind that we need to give our people a stake in keeping democracy aglow. History shows that even in the developed societies, extremist groups attract more support in moments of economic hardship. And when this is compounded by corruption and politics of self-advancement of a few, and the economic exclusion of the many, only the peace of the graveyard can result. How do we reverse these tendencies and make democracy work for the greatest number of Nigerians?
Our political culture must change from one of self-enrichment to true public service. The situation in which we spend almost the entire federal revenues for the running cost of government is unacceptable and will crash this democratic experiment – albeit a thirteen year one. Elections must be credible, free and fair because that is what will guarantee the ejection of those that fail the electorate. It is entirely up to INEC and the authorities to ensure these happen otherwise the consequences will be dire.
Insecurity is the front-burning issue. It is the primary responsibility of any government which can neither be abdicated nor outsourced. Community leaders and civil society can support the government, but not replace it. The government must adopt a multiple approach that includes enhancing the intelligence-gathering capacities of our security forces and creating an environment for job creation for the hopeless youths that are being recruited by the terrorists. The administration should therefore stop behaving like a victim and get on with the job!
Finally, a single-minded focus on development – physical via infrastructure build-out, human by providing equal access to public education and healthcare, and social services that enable citizens the opportunity to realize their full potentials. Those that are in power that cannot do this at all levels should do the honorable thing – resign and allow others that can . We need people that stay awake thinking, and investing the time and effort to get our country working even just a little bit. Apart from fraud and corruption in government, compounded by hatred and suspicion amongst the populace – nothing seems to be growing in Nigeria today.