Liberal democracy has failed in Nigeria

What alternative pathways are available towards accountable governance in Nigeria?

Abuja & Environs. Image credit Juliana Rotich via Flickr CC.

When I was an undergraduate at Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria, in the mid 1990s, I was enthralled by liberal democracy. The concept came to us as students, a generation accustomed to military rule and its oppressions, spruced up in superlative adjectives. I wrote a laudatory term paper on it in light of Francis Fukuyama’s triumphalist proclamation of the dawn of liberal democracy as the end of history.

More than twenty years later, I am ashamed to admit that I was duped. I am not the only one. Backed by millions of dollars from Western pro-democracy foundations and governments, Nigeria’s civil society and pro-democracy activists sheepishly adopted the rhetorical claims of liberal democracy. We all assumed that liberal democracy was the only form of democracy and that any modification of or deviation from its proclaimed ideals was sacrilegious. Twenty years later, civilian rule in Nigeria has not brought the vaunted benefits of democracy—development, accountability, and civic freedoms.

The legitimizing rhetoric of post-Cold War democratization was that even if democracy fails to improve the lives and civic freedoms of Nigerians and other African peoples, there is a consolation prize: the electoral mechanism of voting out nonperforming governments, which would, over time, entrench a culture of accountability. This claim has floundered spectacularly in Nigeria. As bloody and manipulated presidential, legislative, and governorship elections since 1999—and especially the violent sham elections of February 2019—have shown, Nigerians’ votes count for little. Failed incumbents endure in office by brazenly subverting the electoral will of the people. The violent, chaotic gubernatorial elections in Kogi and Bayelsa States in November 2019 were another chapter in this grim history, demonstrating that Nigeria’s crisis of electoral legitimacy is deepening rather than abating.

Since 1999, Nigeria’s civic arena has also constricted under the weight of increased state repression. The recent arrest, detention, and courtroom re-arrest of journalist and activist, Omoyele Sowore, in defiance of court orders and ongoing judicial proceedings signify the recent descent into the raw, unabashed tyranny of military rule. Mr. Sowore was released last December, along with former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, who had spent more than four years in detention, but only after US senators wrote a strongly worded letter to the Nigerian government on the matter.

The truth is as compelling as it is bitter: the dreams and promises of democratization have morphed into an elaborate, haunting mirage. Did Nigerians make a mistake by uncritically adopting liberal democracy, and if so should they heed the counsel of their country’s acclaimed novelist, Chinua Achebe, and go back to when the proverbial rain started beating them and make amends?

The adoption of liberal democracy in Nigeria was not an organic product of homegrown political struggles. Nor did it emanate from the deliberative and ideological disputations of Nigeria’s vibrant civic public sphere. Instead, democratization was predetermined by a toxic mix of three crosscutting phenomena: the post-Cold War search for a new logic of neocolonial control and domination; the suffocating global ubiquity of a pro-democracy slush fund disbursed strategically by governmental and non-governmental Western actors; and the ideological certitude and arrogance of a unipolar political formation located in the Global North.

As with other democratization projects in Africa, Nigeria’s democratization was birthed by and remains beholden to the Washington Consensus, which posited economic and political liberalization as an all-purpose solution to Africa’s developmental and governance challenges. Proponents claimed it had a universal applicability, and was the endpoint of human political evolution, suitable for all times and all places. The ideological factor proved particularly decisive as a catalyst for the spread of liberal democratic claims and assumptions to Nigeria and the rest of Africa. Nigeria’s democratization was coextensive with the neoliberal fetishization of liberalization as the preeminent organizing idiom of the new global order.

Nigerian political and civic leaders neither questioned nor scrutinized the foundational prescriptions of liberal democracy, such as adversarial, zero-sum elections. Nor did they raise the obvious contradiction between these prescriptions and the consensual, non-adversarial foundations of African political cultures. In the 1990s, self-named civil society and pro-democracy organizations such as Campaign For Democracy (CD), Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), Democratic Alternative (DA) and others were seduced by the inflow of pro-democracy funding and rhetorical claims from Western entities. This seduction conduced to what in hindsight was a profound complicity in the grafting of neoliberal political ideas onto Nigeria’s body politic. This complicity also helped domesticate the operational jargons of liberal democracy, ensuring that they became the baselines of all conversations and debates about politics and governance in the country. The specific discourse of liberal democracy supplanted the broader debate about democracy, representation, accountability, and rights. This discursive reference point remains in place, unquestioned and approvingly invoked.

Nigeria’s civil society organizations are agenda setters. They establish the terms and supply the lexicon for framing the most consequential political debates and transitions in the country. Nigeria’s “prodemocracy” activists, lionized since the return to civilian rule in 1999 as heroic catalysts of democratization and the overthrow of military rule, were instrumental in naturalizing, normalizing, and legitimizing a set of ideological claims valorized as universal political endpoints in neoliberal Western policy circles. These claims were just that—provincial and self-serving constructs of the neoliberal moment. More crucially, they were untested in and unsuitable for a Nigerian society with weak institutions, deepening poverty occasioned in part by neoliberal economic prescriptions, and a fractious union containing divergent demographic and aspirational tendencies.

In this crucial moment of “democratization,” Nigeria’s political class failed to question the very framing of “democratization” in Western neoliberal political discourse as the antithesis of what Western thinkers and scholars caricatured in generic terms as pathological African despotism, a mildly racist construct for designating a nonexistent or hyperbolized African political deficit.

Nigeria’s historically radical left, their ideological skepticism dulled by the fall of communism and their political energies coopted and channeled into new, trendy struggles for democratization, neglected to ask the question of whether and how democracy could be achieved without competitive, winner-takes-all electoral contests or without elections altogether. The simple logic that if there is liberal democracy, there must also be illiberal democracy, one that is unmoored to Western political evolution, did not register with Nigeria’s political actors. Swamped by the dollars and the cute PowerPoint presentations of Western pro-democracy foundations, Nigerian civil society activists failed to explore possible ways that aspects of democracy—rights, rule of law, accountability, and participation—could be married to traditional African consensual leadership selection practices. Adversarial elections were, as a result of this failure, accepted as the only path to representative and accountable government.

Liberal democracy’s capstone ritual, zero-sum elections, endow winners with all the rewards of victory—millions of dollars in licit and illicit earnings, local and international political visibility, and power. The loser, conversely, gets nothing. The result is a high-stakes version of what is called FOMO, or the fear of missing out, in American popular lingo. This fear of political exclusion in turn catalyzes desperation, which consistently and predictably produces messy, violent, and compromised elections.

In addition, since its return to civilian rule in 1999, liberal democracy has been an unacceptably costly enterprise for Nigeria. In 2019, the country spent about $670 million on a general election widely condemned as a sham. With budget financing increasingly steeped in external and internal debt, and given the fungibility of state funds, there is a depressing possibility that Nigeria is borrowing to fund elections and to finance its fledgling democratic institutions and processes. It’s a hefty price tag in a country where most people subsist on less than $2 a day. When this financial outlay is added to Nigeria’s notoriety for having some of the highest paid legislators in the world and for spending the national fortune to maintain a large army of elected and appointed civilian officials, the unsustainability of this “democratic” trajectory emerges in full relief.

It is not just the fiscal cost of elections and civilian administration that threatens to cripple Nigeria. The social cost of this “democratic” adventure poses the most potent threat to the country. Plural, adversarial, and zero-sum elections have frayed the social fabric and undermined the cohesion of a notoriously fragile country. As mentioned previously, elections have been marked—and marred—by killings, displacement, scorched earth violence, and malicious manipulations. Electoral contests are little more than political warfare between factions of Nigeria’s political elite for access to the country’s resources.

The result of this charade has been a steady trend of voter apathy, represented by declining voter turnout, which stood at 35 percent in 2019. Nigerians are communicating their disillusionment with this iteration of democracy. Without urgent, profound reforms, the current path may destroy the country. It is no longer enough to argue that the current challenges are mere setbacks on the path to democratic maturity, or that escalating “democratic” tyranny is an aberration.

What is the way out? To argue that Nigeria’s democracy is fatally broken is not to endorse Dambisa Moyo’s oxymoronic solution of a “decisive benevolent dictator” as dictators by their nature are rarely benevolent. Nor does it authorize a complacent embrace of the status quo. Nigeria’s democracy needs a complete makeover. This requires alternative ideas that move the country closer to the African political culture of consensus and away from divisive, zero-sum electoral competitions that deepen and magnify the country’s familiar fault lines.

Eminent Nigerian scholar, Nimi Wariboko, has suggested the drawing of lots, or random selection from a pool of eligible candidates, to fill one third of political offices. That proposal deserves serious consideration as part of a broader menu of reforms. Nigerians also have to come to terms with the fact that it is possible to attain democratic ideals without formal elections or at least without adversarial, winner-takes-all elections. The selection of leaders at small sub-national units can be done on a rotational representation basis through informal community congresses according to agreed rules. In other words, Nigeria needs to rediscover, refine, and operationalize the concept of democracy without elections, which encapsulates the African essence of representative, inclusive, consensual, and accountable leadership.

Nigeria should adopt a proportional electoral allocation process whereby elective public offices are distributed based on the number of votes received by candidates in an election. Under this proposal, there would be no absolute electoral winners and losers. Instead, there would be big winners and small winners. There would be fewer electoral contests, freeing up revenue for investment in Nigerians’ welfare, because a single election would produce multi-tiered winners. Candidates would go into elections knowing that even if they are not the top vote getters, they would end up with other public positions stipulated in a new electoral legislation.

Nigeria needs to constitutionalize the rotation of public offices between constituencies, according to rules agreed upon by all invested parties. This would remove the uncertainty of inclusion, diminishing political desperation and the attendant willingness of politicians and their supporters to win electoral contests at all costs for fear they would be shut out of the political space.

Neither pretense nor pro-democracy jargon can conceal the destructive effects of Nigeria’s liberal democratic practice. The impulse of Nigerian political and intellectual elites is to posit liberal democracy as a sacrosanct, infallible idea. They rarely attribute the problem with Nigeria’s dysfunctional politics to liberal democracy itself. Instead, the dysfunction is analyzed as a failing of Nigerians and their purportedly undemocratic orientation and character.

This intellectual maneuver is no longer tenable and has clearly exhausted its capacity to deceive and obfuscate in the face of the crisis that has befallen liberal democracy in the Global North and in the face of the economic damage the uncritical and wholesale embrace of neoliberal democratization has wrought on non-Western peoples on multiple continents. The global rise of inequality in correspondence to increased “democratization”; the rise of tribal nationalisms in Western democracies; and the virulent emergence of authoritarian strains in societies considered bastions of democracy discredit arguments about the intrinsic superiority of liberal democracy.

The problem is liberal democracy itself and its uncritical adoption at a critical moment of ruthless, strategic Western inroads into Nigeria and Africa. The escapism of Nigeria’s elite, expressed through the unwillingness to locate the problem in the democratic typology itself, only fuels Western hubris. It only accentuates the avuncular racism of exculpating Western ideas from the Nigerian political and economic crisis while blaming Nigerians’ inability to adapt to these ideas or the obduracy of their “anti-democratic” ethos.

Nigeria needs to craft something new, indigenous, and legitimate in liberal democracy’s place.

Further Reading