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We Can’t Give Up On Democracy, By Ayisha Osori

The country is being fleeced to death and the government as usual model we have is not sustainable. Our options do not include the military taking over – we’ve been there and done that and largely, it has failed. Let’s keep plodding on but with an eye to our past and the mistakes we have made and an eye to the future and what the opportunities are.

As things become increasingly hard for us all with rising insecurity, a hard economy, high stakes politics with rising tension between the executive and legislature, alarming abuse of state power by the security agencies and increasing infringement on human rights, especially the right to association and peaceful assembly, Nigerians might result to their default position. To yearn for the illusion of order that we think the military brings. This would be a huge mistake. As Churchill advised people going through hell: We must keep going with democracy. The journey to building a democratic society respectful of every individual and conducive to inclusive economic, social and political systems is a long one and we have just started. Besides, it is clear that we are not yet practicing democracy, only playing pretend at it.

Nigerians need to take hard decisions as a collective because our problems are less about the individuals in the presidency, the national and state assemblies, and the state houses and more about how government is set up to function and the warped incentives to working in government and managing the economy. Here are some clues that suggest that regardless of the exchange of faces in government, our structures are set up for the cycle of self-destruction we are caught up in.

The first is that most writers who cover Nigeria – either as journalists or authors – will tell you that most of what they wrote about our political and economic affairs decades ago is still applicable today. Why? Because there is an unofficial rulebook for misgoverning Nigeria and many use it. The stolen mace is one example and the police crack down on the BringBackOurGirls (BBOG) movement is another. In 2000, while tensions between the Senate and the president raged, the mace was taken away to preserve the symbol of authority. Like then, the theft of the mace last week is connected to this administration’s contest for control of the Senate. There is no way the men who gained free entry and exit of the Senate chambers and assembly complex – an extremely unwelcoming place for members of the public – did so without the connivance of state security. As for BBOG, as the pressure of the campaign for the Chibok girls captured the interest of the world, the embarrassed Jonathan administration used the Nigerian Police Force to intimidate them. At that time, the use of the Police was outrageous to the ACP opposition politicians, with Falana, even writing to the Abba, then IG of Police, asking for his resignation for banning the BBOG rallies in Abuja. But now that the APC is in power, they have whipped out the old rulebook of crushing all perceived dissent and independent thought.

The challenges that we have are beyond Buhari, the same way that they were beyond Jonathan, Yar’Adua, Obasanjo, Shagari etc. The entire political ecosystem is toxic, from the local to the federal government, from the state and national legislators to the judiciary, from the army to the police and changing presidents and ruling parties are not going to make much difference.

Increasingly this APC led federal government – within the executive and the legislature – has shown itself to be incapable of being democratic. Here is a clue: You cannot give what you do not have. The undemocratic, chicanery riddled process by which politicians win primaries and general elections make those who enter office incapable, once they have power, of keeping up the pretence at caring about respect for the rule of law and the welfare of Nigerians.

The second clue is our government priorities: They are never on the side of the public. Politicians come, technocrats go, but the lives of the people barely improve. Our government structures – aided by our constitutional provisions – are exploitative and designed for maximum extraction. According to Bode Agusto in his paper “Nigeria – how to win”, Nigeria currently earns about N4 trillion annually. Interest payments on our current debts (let’s not forget the great repayment of our Paris Club debts in 2006) are N2 trillion and the cost of maintaining our government (salaries and perks of office) and paying pensions is N2.5 trillion. That means we need to borrow to maintain our government and to fund capital projects to improve infrastructure and basic services. It is like having parents who earn N100 a month and spend it all on themselves and their debts with nothing set aside for school fees. Saving to invest is a pipe dream. The fact that the politicians and those in the public sector are not leading the charge to reduce the cost of governance and modify the incentives which work against Nigeria’s adoption of the right social and economic policies, should tell us something – that our political and electoral process is designed to keep Nigerians legitimising the rape of the country by individuals whose sole aim in office is buggery. This is tied to the third clue. That whether dressed in army fatigues or wearing bowler hats, the story about ending institutional corruption remains the same – a fairy tale. NNPC is always the cash cow whose milk is never measured correctly and our definition of corruption remains narrowed to the actions of those who are not ‘part of us’.

The challenges that we have are beyond Buhari, the same way that they were beyond Jonathan, Yar’Adua, Obasanjo, Shagari etc. The entire political ecosystem is toxic, from the local to the federal government, from the state and national legislators to the judiciary, from the army to the police and changing presidents and ruling parties are not going to make much difference. Granted, the office of the president of Nigeria is a powerful one that can be used for much good – but it will take a person who the current political process is not designed to deliver and, even if we manage to get that person, because the ethos of being in government is not to serve but to loot, he or she will struggle to achieve their vision.

For a start, we need a much leaner centre; a revenue allocation formula that will drive productivity, innovation and competition; and a different framework for federal character than the insanity of having 36 federal universities in the name of equality and not a single one of world class standards.

What we need are enough determined citizens to force a redesign of our governance structures. For a start, we need a much leaner centre; a revenue allocation formula that will drive productivity, innovation and competition; and a different framework for federal character than the insanity of having 36 federal universities in the name of equality and not a single one of world class standards. We have at least three options for getting this done. The first is to elect a president not endorsed by the establishment i.e., the generals, traditional rulers (many of whom are ex military men) etc. who shares the vision of dismantling some of the more toxic structures of governance. The second is to elect as many outliers (compared to our prototype of a successful politician) as possible to enable the dismantling to take place through the national and state assemblies. And third, to organise millions of implacable Nigerians to keep up a sustained campaign for a reworking of government and governance structures until we get the constitutional reforms we need to build a viable nation focused on sustained development.

These are our options. The country is being fleeced to death and the government as usual model we have is not sustainable. Our options do not include the military taking over – we’ve been there and done that and largely, it has failed. Let’s keep plodding on but with an eye to our past and the mistakes we have made and an eye to the future and what the opportunities are.

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