In 1999, the year it returned to civilian rule, Nigeria adopted a democratic system of governance. It also publicly proclaimed an adherence to democracy.
The new turn was widely embraced by Nigerians. It was viewed as key to promoting legitimacy, changing cultures of exclusion and ensuring better decision making. Such goals were unattainable under the military regime.
But, despite over two decades of civilian democracy, inequalities in distribution of power and resources have continued to impact the people’s right to equal protection and due process. This state of affairs disproportionately affects Nigeria’s poorest people.
One reason why these inequalities are sustained lies in the country’s failure to integrate in its governance democratic principles which guarantee the public’s right to know, participate in decision making and access justice.
In my earlier research, I examined the role of the principles of democracy embedded in the rights of access to information, participation in decision making and access to justice. I looked at these three principles in relation to environmental impact assessments in Nigeria.
I considered whether these pillars of environmental democracy were integrated into the environmental impact assessment process. I concluded that they were not. Nigerians do not have access to information about development projects, do not effectively participate in the making of decisions relating to these projects, and have little or no access to the courts (and justice).
This means that they will continually be imperilled by the adverse effects of development projects.
These three rights matter because transparency and impartiality in governance enable people to be informed, to influence the outcome of decisions and to hold the government accountable for its actions and inactions.
Recent events – in particular the #EndSARS protests – have necessitated revisiting these three principles as a lens through which to review the state of Nigeria’s democracy.
In response to long-standing incidents of human rights abuses, particularly by a specialised unit of the Nigeria Police - the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, otherwise known as SARS, the #EndSARS social movement emerged. Young Nigerians took to the streets seeking an end to police brutality, harassment, and extortion.
The response to the protests pointed to violations of the three principles of access to information, participation in decision making and access to justice.
Access to information was denied in a number of ways. In the aftermath of the attack, rather than meaningfully address the demands made by the people, the government imposed fines on television stations which aired the protests. It also ensured that members of the Panel of Enquiry set up to look into the excesses of the now disbanded police unit swore to an oath of secrecy.
Participation in decision making was also denied. Backed by the Nigerian Constitution, which guarantees the right to peaceful assembly and association, the protesters made several demands on the government. These ranged from a reform of the police to good governance. Instead of listening to their demands, the government ordered the Nigerian Army to confront them. At least 12 unarmed protesters were shot and killed.
This situation showed that Nigerians are often denied the right to participate in the making of decisions that affect them.
This is just as they are denied access to justice. For instance, a 2018 Presidential Panel on Reform of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad recommended the dismissal of 37 members of the notorious police unit, and the prosecution of 24 others for professional misconducts. President Muhammadu Buhari received the panel’s report in June 2019, but nothing has happened to the implicated officers. This remains the case, even after the End SARS protests.
Due to the huge cost of litigation, delay in the disposal of court cases and the unavailability of adequate and effective remedies, Nigerians are often unable to obtain redress in court, in such situations. Without access to justice, the procedural gateway for the enforcement of fundamental rights is lacking.
A wake-up call
The protests are a wake-up call for all Nigerians.
The recent developments compel a revisiting of a 2005 report commissioned by the United States National Intelligence Council, which discussed the likely trends in sub-Saharan Africa over a 15-year period.
The report concluded that some African countries would, despite holding multiparty elections, remain “democratic aspirers” – in other words, they would not achieve true democracy.
The report also predicted the outright collapse of Nigeria.
As expected, the report became a media sensation. It triggered varied reactions and sparked debate about the assertions it made.
The Nigerian government was quick to condemn the report.
From the vantage point of 2020, how accurate were the predictions?
In my view, despite its failure to deliver democracy to its citizens, Nigeria is not a failed, collapsed and disintegrated entity. Rather, it is in principle, a weak state that has failed to deliver basic public goods to its citizens.
Its flawed system of governance has had serious implications for its social and political development, economic growth, peace and unity.
States exist to deliver certain public goods to people within their territories. The most crucial of these are the provision of human security and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms. A flawed system of governance is an impediment to social and political development, economic growth, peace and unity. Governments and their institutions must be transparent, responsive and accountable to the people.
Opportunities for participation in decision making processes must also be made available to young people in the same way as other members of society. The cultural assumption that elders cannot be challenged or corrected must be done away with.
Having firmly resolved to live in unity and harmony as an indivisible and indissoluble nation, the current situation offers Nigeria an opportunity to retrace its steps.