Human Rights

Nigeria Democracy Day, June 12, 2024: A Reflection on 25 Years of Democracy

 The Historical Significance of June 12

Nigeria’s Democracy Day, celebrated on June 12, marks a pivotal moment in the nation’s history. The date commemorates the annulled presidential election of June 12, 1993, widely regarded as the freest and fairest election in Nigeria’s history. Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola, the presumed winner, never saw his victory recognized, and the nation was thrust into political turmoil. The election annulment by the military regime led to widespread protests and ultimately paved the way for Nigeria’s return to democratic governance in 1999. In 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari declared June 12 as the new Democracy Day, shifting it from May 29 to honour Abiola and the pro-democracy movement.

 Evaluating 25 Years of Nigerian Democracy

Elections and Electoral Integrity

Since Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999, the country has conducted several general elections, each marked by varying degrees of success and controversy. These elections are crucial in shaping Nigeria’s political trajectory and assessing the health of its democracy. The 2023 general elections stand out for their notable voter turnout and the implementation of technological innovations, yet they also highlight persistent issues that question the true democratic nature of Nigeria’s electoral process.

The 2023 General Elections: Innovations and Obstacles

The 2023 elections were significant for several reasons. Firstly, voter turnout was high, especially of the younger demography, indicating a robust engagement of the electorate and a strong desire for democratic participation. This enthusiasm reflects the public’s hope for a government that is responsive to their needs and aspirations.

A seemingly major advancement in the 2023 elections was the introduction of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS). This technology aimed to enhance the transparency and credibility of the electoral process by reducing incidences of multiple voting and other forms of electoral fraud. BVAS verifies voters’ identities using biometric data, ensuring that only eligible voters cast their ballots and the INEC Result Viewing Portal (IREV). The implementation of such technology was widely seen as a positive step towards modernizing Nigeria’s electoral system and building public trust.

INEC’s deployment of these technologies was intended to enhance transparency and reduce fraud. The BVAS system aimed to prevent multiple voting by verifying voters’ identities biometrically, while the IREV was designed to provide real-time access to election results, promoting accountability and public trust. However, the actual implementation fell short of these promises. The commission failed to adequately protect the integrity of the electoral process.

During the elections, numerous reports emerged of fake and mutilated results being uploaded to the IREV. This failure undermined the technological advancements and raised serious doubts about the integrity of the electoral process. The discrepancies and malpractices observed not only wasted the hundreds of millions of naira spent on these technologies but also eroded public confidence in INEC’s ability to conduct free and fair elections.

As a result of these failures, vote-buying remained a pervasive problem, undermining the integrity of the electoral process. Candidates and political parties were reported to have engaged in the distribution of money and goods to influence voters’ choices, a practice that distorts democratic competition and perpetuates corruption.

Violence also marred the elections, with reports of clashes between supporters of rival parties, attacks on polling stations, and intimidation of voters. Such violence not only deters voter participation but also raises concerns about the safety and security of the electoral environment. The persistence of electoral malpractice, including ballot box snatching and falsification of results, further erodes the credibility of the elections.

Assessing the True Democratic Nature of Nigeria’s Electoral Process

The issues observed in the 2023 elections highlight broader concerns about the true democratic nature of Nigeria’s electoral process. While the introduction of technological innovations like BVAS represents progress, the persistence of vote-buying, violence, and malpractice suggests that significant challenges remain.

A genuinely democratic electoral process requires not only technological advancements but also a political culture that upholds the principles of free and fair elections. This includes:

  1. Effective Law Enforcement: Ensuring that electoral laws are strictly enforced and that violators are held accountable is essential. This requires a robust and impartial security apparatus that can prevent and respond to electoral violence and malpractice.
  2. Voter Education: Educating the electorate about their rights and the importance of a free and fair voting process can help reduce the influence of vote-buying and encourage more informed voting choices.
  3. Political Will: The commitment of political leaders to democratic principles is crucial. This includes refraining from undemocratic practices, respecting the rule of law, and promoting peaceful political competition.
  4. Judicial Independence: An independent judiciary that can adjudicate electoral disputes impartially and effectively is vital for resolving controversies and upholding the integrity of the electoral process.

The Judiciary: Independence and Effectiveness

An independent judiciary is a cornerstone of democracy, essential for upholding the rule of law and protecting citizens’ rights. Nigeria’s judiciary has shown resilience in some instances, delivering landmark judgments that reaffirm democratic principles. However, there have been concerns about judicial independence, with allegations of corruption and executive interference undermining public trust. The judiciary’s role in resolving electoral disputes, especially those from the 2023 elections, remains crucial in maintaining democratic integrity.

The judiciary, tasked with resolving electoral disputes, has also come under fire. In the face of glaring electoral malfeasance, the courts often relied on technicalities to determine the outcomes of litigation. This approach, rather than addressing the substantive issues and ensuring justice, frequently allowed electoral fraud to go unpunished.

For instance, many cases brought before the judiciary involved clear evidence of irregularities and violations of electoral laws. However, the courts’ focus on procedural issues over substantive justice resulted in decisions that failed to hold perpetrators accountable. This reliance on technicalities undermines the judiciary’s role as a guardian of democracy and further diminishes public trust in the electoral process.

The judiciary has found itself embroiled in political turmoil, with instances of politicians manipulating judicial processes to serve individual, partisan, or factional interests. This manipulation has led to a series of disconcerting and contradictory rulings from courts with equivalent authority, undermining the legal system’s integrity.

The Legislative Arm: Representation and Accountability

The National Assembly, comprising the Senate and House of Representatives, is tasked with making laws and overseeing the executive. While the legislature has made a few strides in asserting its independence, instances of executive dominance, political compromise and internal conflicts have sometimes hampered its effectiveness. Legislative oversight of government activities and budget approvals has been a mixed bag, with successes in some areas like returning to the budget year cycle of January to December but notable failures in others, particularly concerning transparency and accountability and budget padding.

The issue of legislative expenditures on luxury items such as new cars and housing, especially when juxtaposed with comparative remunerations received by legislators globally, is a topic of significant public concern. It raises questions about the priorities and responsibilities of elected officials, particularly in contexts where many citizens face multidimensional poverty. The contrast between the opulent spending of the legislature and the hardships faced by the populace can be seen as a reflection of broader socio-economic disparities. It also touches upon the ethical considerations of public service and the expectations of fiscal responsibility and sensitivity towards the electorate’s needs. While investments in infrastructure and operational efficiency are necessary, the perception of extravagance, especially in the face of widespread economic challenges, can lead to public discontent and a questioning of the alignment between a government’s actions and the public good. It is essential for there to be transparency, accountability, and a balance between necessary expenditure and fiscal prudence to maintain public trust and ensure that the focus remains on serving the needs of the community, especially those most vulnerable.

Democracy and Fiscal Controversies

One of the tenets of democracy is fiscal responsibility and equitable resource distribution and management. Controversy has arisen over significant spending on cars by legislators and public officials. The Senate purchased 2023 Toyota Land Cruiser SUVs for 107 Senators, costing N160 million each, alongside bulletproof vehicles for Senate President Godswill Akpabio and his deputy, Barau Jibrin. Critics argue this is insensitive given the high cost of living and poor state of hospitals and roads. Additionally, Nigeria’s federal government allocated over $100 million in its first supplemental budget for SUVs, houses, and other luxuries, including funds for the presidential air fleet and residential renovations. This budget initially included a “presidential yacht,” which was later redirected to student loans following criticism. President Bola Tinubu also proposed spending over N6.9 billion on vehicle procurement for the State House, with N1.5 billion allocated for new cars for the First Lady’s office, sparking further criticism about the insensitivity of the political class amidst the country’s economic challenges.

 Democracy’s Impact on Development and Human Rights

Economic Development and Livelihoods

Democracy is expected to foster development and improve citizens’ livelihoods. Nigeria’s economic journey under democratic rule has been turbulent, marked by periods of growth and recession. While there have been a few infrastructural projects and economic reforms, challenges such as unemployment, poverty, and inequality persist. The oil-dependent economy remains vulnerable to global market fluctuations, and efforts to diversify have seen limited success. Recent reforms by the Tinubu’s administration in the oil sector which led to the removal of subsidy on refined petroleum products and the floating of the naira have put extra burden on the shoulders on the citizens, who now bear the cost of the economic scam represented by subsidy. Cost of transportation of people and goods have sky-rocketed and the standard of living further nose-dived like a submarine under water.

The government faces the formidable challenge of devising solutions for the faltering economy, which has left over a hundred million Nigerians grappling with multidimensional poverty amidst an inflation rate at 33.69%, which is the highest it has been since March 1996 and food inflation reaching 40.5%. Also, the persistent issue of insecurity, spanning over two decades, remains unresolved by successive administrations. Within Nigeria’s borders, non-governmental entities have established dominion over certain regions, drastically eroding the living standards of the nation’s residents who adhere to the law. The persistent security challenges facing the country are largely attributed to what is seen as a lack of resolute action by the federal and state authorities.

Human Rights and Civil Liberties

Nigeria democracy has come under a critical view in light of the human rights situation, particularly focusing on the conduct of the police and military. It is important to acknowledge the improvements and amendments to extant laws pertaining to citizens’ rights and criminal justice. However, the persistence of issues such as detention without trial, extrajudicial killings, and the treatment of inmates awaiting trial cannot be overlooked. The #EndSARS protests of 2020 brought global attention to the issue of police brutality in Nigeria, and while they led to the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), reports suggest that the underlying issues persist. The government’s efforts to address these concerns have been met with skepticism, as the recurrence of such incidents and the lack of transparency in investigations raise questions about the commitment to reform. The international community continues to monitor these developments closely, as they are indicative of the broader state of democracy and civil liberties in the country. It is crucial for any review of this nature to consider the multifaceted aspects of human rights and the various reports that shed light on the current challenges and progress in Nigeria.

As Nigeria marks 25 years of democracy, the debate continues whether it practices true democracy or merely civilian rule. While significant progress has been made since the dark days of military dictatorship, challenges remain. The elements of democracy—free and fair elections, independent judiciary, effective legislature, and accountable executive—are present but not always fully functional.

For democracy to deepen, Nigeria must address systemic issues such as electoral integrity, judicial independence, legislative accountability, and executive transparency. Only then can the benefits of democracy—development, improved livelihoods, and human rights—be fully realized for all Nigerians. As the nation reflects on its journey, the hope is that the next 25 years will bring closer alignment with democratic ideals, fostering a more inclusive and prosperous society.