Nigeria’s endless quest for democracy

For Nigeria’s switch to civilian rule to be truly democratic, it must ensure that sovereignty resides with its people, writes Synda Obaji

September 1, 2021 · 7 min read
#EndSARS protest in London, 2020. Credit: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

Nigeria’s journey towards democracy has been an arduous one. Prior to the enactment of its 1999 Constitution, attempts at introducing constitutional democracy – although dating back to colonial rule – were marred by military autocracy. Having endured decades of repression, oppression, and human rights abuses, the return to democratic civilian rule in 1999 was a significant victory for Nigerians and has been commemorated by annual Democracy Day celebrations since this time. This year, Nigerians marked their restoration to democracy with widespread protests in different parts of the country and abroad, demanding good governance, equity and justice. How did we get here?

No adherence to democratic principles

Equality and autonomy have been long established as fundamental principles of democracy. To advance democratic governance, rights to political and public participation must be recognised and protected. But recent happenings in Nigeria point to rising inequalities in participation and the weakening of political freedoms. The activities of the government have created a socio-political and economic environment characterised by institutional decay, impunity and a disregard for the rule of law, posing new challenges for Nigeria’s democracy.

Barely nine months ago, the #EndSARS protest, which saw Nigerian youths stand up to police brutality, extortion and harassment, drew global attention to the plight of Nigerians. In response to these protests, the Nigerian Army used excessive force, killing at least 12 unarmed protesters and violating the fundamental rights of others. The impropriety of these actions sparked worldwide condemnation, but despite the criticisms, the Nigerian government is yet to fully meet the demands of the protesters, and violations of the people’s right to access information and participate in governance have remained.

The extent of the problem is demonstrated by the recent ban on Twitter. Following Twitter’s removal of a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari which threatened state violence towards anyone in support of separatist movements in the south eastern region of the country, the Nigerian government announced the indefinite suspension of the service in Nigeria without any legal basis. Authority to prosecute members of the public who circumvent the ban was also granted to federal prosecutors.

Of even greater concern than this is the implication of insecurity, conflicts, and separatist agitations for the people’s right to participate in governance. On one hand, Nigeria is faced with challenges of insurgency, banditry and farmer-herdsmen conflicts in its northern region, while also battling calls for secession and conflicts related to resource control in the south. These security issues have the capacity to upset the stability of the upcoming 2023 general elections and Nigeria’s democracy as a whole. This is because participation, the cornerstone of democracy, is significantly hindered in the face of rising conflicts.

Exclusion: a threat to Nigeria’s democracy


Democracy rests on the principle of popular sovereignty: the idea that the authority of the state is derived from and preserved by the consent of the people. Democratic processes and governance systems are therefore inherently flawed if they are characterised by exclusion of the governed. Unfortunately, being a multi-ethnic and pluralistic state, the problem of exclusion and marginalization is not unknown to Nigeria. Since gaining independence, increased ethnic consciousness has led to exclusion in the distribution of power and resources among the units of the Nigerian federation. Indeed, seven years post-independence, ethnic tensions culminated in the persecution and marginalisation of the Igbo people of South Eastern Nigeria, resulting in a thirty-month Civil War between the government of Nigeria and the secessionist Republic of Biafra.

The constitutional arrangement for the allocation and management of resources has also been a subject of debate, as cries of marginalization from minority groups have remained even under civilian rule. It was in recognition of the challenges posed by ethnic pluralism that Nigeria adopted a federal system of government to foster national integration and promote its democracy. But how well has democracy thrived under this institutional arrangement?

Nigeria’s model of federalism is characterised by a highly centralised system of governance, with excessive powers placed in the hands of its federal government to the detriment of its state and local governments. Power sharing under the Constitution, for instance, has ensured that several basic matters such as those relating to trade unions, labour, trade and commerce are exclusively determined by the federal government. Centralization of power has produced a highly inefficient federal government that is unable to meet populist expectations.

This has led to feelings of alienation and calls for secession by various separatist movements. Among these movements are the Oduduwa Republic of the Yoruba ethnic group, the Arewa Republic in Northern Nigeria, the Niger Delta Republic in the South South region and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in the South East, all of whom advocate for independent States on the basis of marginalisation, perceived injustice and inequalities in the distribution and management of resources. By posing a clear and imminent danger to peace and security, these agitations undermine participatory democracy.

The exclusion challenge is heightened by socio-economic problems. Given that socio-economic development is crucial to the emergence and continuance of democracy, Nigeria’s Constitution, in proclaiming the country a democratic state, declares the welfare and security of the people to be a primary purpose of the government. The basic expectation of the people therefore is that democratic governance will provide the material conditions for their self-actualization. In reality, however, Nigeria’s socio-economic profile is characterised by high rate of unemployment, inflation, widespread poverty and economic stagnation. These problems have had far-reaching implications for Nigeria’s democracy and have greatly affected participation in the democratic process, just as poverty has facilitated vote-buying and undermined the credibility of the electoral process. Indeed, beyond engendering inequality and social injustice, poor socio-economic conditions have provided a breeding ground for exclusion.

Consolidating Nigeria’s democracy

Democracy is mutable, and alterations in the structure of its institutions may result in its failure. Beyond the transition to democracy, it is important that democracy is consolidated: democratic governance should be capable of living through pressures without compromising civil rights and political freedoms. But many structural factors, from political to cultural, affect the consolidation of democracy in developing countries. For Nigeria, the most pressing of these factors relate to socio-economic issues, constitutional provisions and institutional choices.

For Nigeria’s governance system to be inclusive and truly democratic, it must be restructured to ensure that sovereignty resides at the lowest level of authority − the people. An improvement in socio-economic conditions will also ensure that political power rests with the governed. When people break free from the shackles of poverty, they will be empowered to demand a role in governance and participate in the democratic process.

Synda Obaji is a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy


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