Last week, June 12, 2022, was that time of the year when Nigerians come out en masse, the armed forces trooping the colour, government offices closed for the day, as businesses grind to a glorious halt. All for the citizens to give their thumbs up for “democracy.” Like many observers of the Nigerian political scene, I have never fully rationalised the point of celebrating something as elusive and nebulous a concept as ‘democracy’. It means different things to different people. If by ‘democracy’ in Nigeria, we mean the absence of a direct military hand in civilian life, then, there is democracy. Or, if it is about the opportunity to replace one of the major political parties with another, then also, there is democracy. As a way of life, however, democracy has two fundamental aspects: form and content. Periodic election is a form of democracy. Governor delivering for the governed in a visible, tangible way is content. Democracy is meaningless as one without the other. I am not sure if what Nigeria has been practising since 1999 passes the acid test for content. Anyone aged 23 and under, mostly all first-time voters, would not have spent a single night under a military dictatorship in this country. The aspect of democracy they have been exposed to, in their relatively short life, is the form rather than the content of democracy.
This is precisely what makes “democracy day” rather fallacious for it is essentially an invitation to celebrate the form, not content, of democracy. To the young and impressionable mind, therefore, a yearly reinforcement of democracy devoid of content is a recipe for a docile populace. The young mind does not have appreciation for the content of democracy because it has never been delivered in his lifetime and probably never will be unless the situation is arrested in good time. When, on top of that, the young mind then lives in a country that has banished the teaching of history from its national curriculum, who can blame him if he thinks democracy is all about changing the baton between the Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressives Congress? And, lest we forget, sharing election booty; rice, vegetable oil and swapping voters’ cards for money. How can change come from below in that case? It certainly would not come from above. The additional danger in “democracy day” is that the over 20s consisting of the new generation of voters will soon reach the middle-age, where they will preside over the affairs of the state on exactly the same premise as they find here and now. They would not have seen or known any different.
June 12, 1993 was the year Nigeria was destined to transition into nationhood—at long last. Despite its imperfections, the election of that year, under the auspices of the military junta led by the wily but notoriously devious ‘President’, (who was, de jure, General) Ibrahim Babangida, was the most transparent, peaceful and dutiful exercise of choice ever made by the electorate across the length and breadth of this country. Chief MKO Abiola, the winner of the election, was a Muslim candidate from the South-West of the country. He defeated his Muslim opponent, Bashir Tofa, a candidate from the Northern part of the country. Abiola, a prominent Yoruba man, defeated Tofa, a prominent Fulani man, in his Kano enclave. What is more, Abiola had chosen another Muslim, Babagana Kingibe, as his running mate, in what was an audacious, gravity-defying, Muslim-Muslim ticket. Nigerians burst through all the negative bubbles of geography, ethnicity and religion to take a stand for a New Nigeria by voting for a candidate of their choice, against all conventional wisdom. The military callously annulled the result as it was trickling in and as it became apparent that Abiola had won. Since the military leader responsible for the annulment was from the North, it was later and sadly seen by a big chunk of the Nigerian population as a ‘northern conspiracy’ against the South. Subsequently, all sorts of regional calculations and permutations made their way back into the national discourse with a vengeance. Today, the electorate’s tolerance level for a Muslim-Muslim or Christian-Christian ticket has dropped considerably so low that it has almost become the redline to avoid at all costs.
From this angle alone, the June 12 celebrations are actually for the loss of democracy, not for having secured one. Nigeria had democracy, General Babangida strangled that baby at birth. The spirit of June 12, 1993 has never been replicated and probably never will be. It makes the celebrations rather hollow. It also reminds one of the encounter Benjamin Franklin had with a lady questioner as he was coming out of the American Constitution Drafting room in 1787. “So, what type of government have you chosen for us then,” She asked. “A republic, if you can keep it,” he replied cryptically and as quick as fire, thinking on his feet. That seemingly throwaway remark has become etched in the psyche of middle America ever since. Volumes of papers, books and monographs have been written on it, it has been debated by scholars from multidisciplinary perspectives for hundreds of years. There is no such thing as a ‘throwaway’ remark when referencing one of American greatest minds and Founding Fathers. Supposing a similar question had been asked of the electoral umpire in Nigeria in 1993; ‘so, what have the people voted for then?’ The answer would have been, ‘democracy, if they can keep it’. Have the people kept democracy from that point of view you might ask? The answer is no, but they tried. They fought a prolonged battle to regain and keep it but, in the end, failed. So, what is this thing about June 12 that is worth celebrating? On a sober reflection, the answer should be, not celebration, but a continuing fight for democracy. Nigeria of today is no way near reclaiming the popular mandate of June 12, 1993.
Back to America. Franklin’s quick-thinking quip was a reminder of, and an emphasis on, the imperative of the popular will—sovereignty. A few years prior to the writing of the constitution, America had indeed risen up against Britain’s monarchical rule. The then 13 American colonies had decided to sever their ties with Britain in 1776 in a bloody battle for freedom. The constitution came as an ideal for the newly liberated but (still) discordant colonies. Tensions persisted amongst the several autonomous regions across the land. There were those still insisting on maintaining the system of slavery, those who were still nervous about the indigenous Indians and their rights as Aboriginal Americans. And there were those still unsure where their religious loyalty lay. The constitution did not set out to address individual grievances. It was a document that emerged from a struggle, a shared revolutionary experience. Written in 1787, ratified in 1788 and in operation since 1789, it is the world’s longest surviving written document affirming the sovereignty of people over government. Dedicated to the pursuit of “happiness” and acknowledging the imperfections in the original document, successive American political leaders have striven to build “a more perfect union.” Nigeria, too, had some experience of struggle for a democratic settlement in the run-up to 1999. The tragedy is that no document emerged from that shared experience to memorialise the will of the people. What happened, instead, was a handwritten note (aka the 1999 constitution) by the departing military, falsely claiming to have been produced by the people. Consequently, Nigeria will remain ungovernable, and “democracy day” a sideshow, until the sovereign will of the people has been affirmed in a constitutional settlement.