Nigeria is operating a democratic system of government but is there legitimacy in this democracy?
By Nana Nwachukwu @purehaire
When President Muhammadu Buhari took over the reins of government in Nigeria, he had the goodwill of the people, for a while. He realized, perhaps belatedly, that for goodwill to be sustained, it requires political will to take action on issues that matter to the people.
This political will extends way beyond ‘good and well-meaning’ intentions. Nigeria made shifts between democracy and military rule, with the longest spell of democracy being from 1999 to date.
Democracy is firmly rooted in good governance. Good governance is the sum total of legitimately acquiring democratic power and utilizing that power alongside resources for public good.
Is there legitimacy in Nigeria’s democracy? Legitimacy is the overwhelming belief that a government in power has acquired a right to govern by an overwhelming public blessing through a legally acceptable framework. In 2015, over 67 million Nigerians were registered to participate in the general elections. Take a look at the turnout rate for the presidential elections from 1999-2015:
1999 – 52.3% | 2003 – 69.1% | 2007 – 58% | 2011 – 53.7% | 2015 – 43.7%
There has been a steady decline from 2003 till date in the turnout rate of Nigerians for the elections. Voter apathy affects the legitimacy of a government. It shows that the citizens do not trust the legally acceptable framework for choosing its leaders. This creates a sharp drop in approval ratings where a country’s citizens do not believe or trust that the elected leader is credible as the process of emergence of the leaders is assumed flawed. As much as this constitutes a problem for public trust, it also shows an enhanced and healthy democratic system.
Participation in governance anticipates a society where citizens are actively involved in decision-making processes such as elections, policy engagement and other feedback mechanisms on the performance of elected officials and other societal issues. A disaffected citizenry shows a citizenry that understands the issues, and where good governance should lead.
Part of this awareness can be attributed to the quick response interactive pattern of social media amongst government agencies, policymakers, legislators and mainstream media. Social media has played a huge role in enhancing public participation in governance. The dilemma becomes how to turn this into trust.
Trust in government represents the confidence of citizens in the actions of a “government to do what is right and perceived fair” (Easton, 1965). In a democracy, freedom of speech is assured and is also regarded as the gateway for accountability. This implies that citizens can question the existence of transparent processes, question the contents of a process, policy and its implementation as well as make inputs on expenditure.
A government eager to create transparency would uphold the sanctity of freedom of speech. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s democratically elected leaders have not shown so much fervor in doing so, and freedom of the press has been on a steady decline.
In 2014, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) raised an alarm on the clampdown on press freedom and for four years later, and it seems to get worse. Media houses are being prevented from airing stories that appear not to be in favor of the government of the day, news related to security issues are being blacked out in the media, In February 2018, Tony Ezimakor, the Abuja bureau chief of the Independent, was detained by the DSS for about a week without charges.
Jones Abiri, a journalist working in the oil-rich Niger Delta to uncover corruption going on within the region was arrested and disappeared for two years before the DSS even admitted that they were holding him. He was discharged by a court following agitations and campaigns by various civil society organizations (CSOs). This clampdown on the press comes side by side with a decline in accountability as the government has diligently avoided opening up the books to interested organizations working on fostering accountability of processes.
A last thread of hope usually clung to by leaders and citizens alike is the promise of eroding corruption from the governance framework. Nigeria’s President campaigned on the strength of his perceived anti-corruption stance, but the administration despite making heavy policy strides has shown a lack of political will in prosecuting its members indicted for abuse of office, fraud, and conversion of public property. This destroys trust.
It is important that the Nigerian government begins to work its way up toward rebuilding the people’s trust in it. Trust is needed to carry out economic reforms. It is essential to mobilize support for policies and legislation that will form the bedrock of necessary reforms. Where there is no trust, implementation becomes tedious, systems are broken anarchy sets in and security agencies becomes overburdened. Nigeria needs to invest in nurturing trust through transparency and political will to make the right call. Trust is key to rebuilding cohesion, for carrying out efficient reforms and leading on to economic growth.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read other articles.