Building strong institutions: Pathway to making Nigeria safe for democracy

By Monsur Olalekan Murtala

Democracy has been defined as a government by the people, either directly or through representatives.

Abraham Lincoln also described democracy as the government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Another former American President, Franklin Roosevelt has spoken of four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom of worship; freedom from want; freedom from fear.

The first two are individual, the second two are collective. The collective can curtail the individual but must not suppress the individual freedoms because they signify the flicker of hope for human progress.

Agar Herbert in his book entitled: “The Perils of Democracy: A Background Book”, argues that freedom can be misused as people are free and supreme that they can vote themselves into slavery.

In fact, to him the problem associated with freedom is institutional; therefore, we must tame the power of government without diminishing it.

Two concepts are basic to democracy. First is the concept of a country (or a nation) with the idea of community, with its institutions which may please or infuriate but are one’s own institutions to be guarded or changed (or both) for one’s own sake and for the sake of one’s children.

This, according to Agar, is the concept of home. Nigeria is our home and ours are its institutions. Second, is the concept of limited government, “which accepts restraint upon its use of power for the sake of the individual, the humble citizen, who must not be coerced or twisted except for the protection of their citizens”.

The Rule of Law and Separation of Powers are central to democratic sustainability globally. It would interest us to know that these two factors existed in African societies before the 19th century European invasion of Africa.

The invasion of the nineteenth century stripped Africa and African people of their indigenous, efficient and enduring political institutions for the western imposed system of government established through long years of colonialism.

“A country without History is doomed”. Therefore, understanding the past would help us to appreciate what we have lost in Africa in terms of political institutions.

One example of strong political institutions in existence before the advent of colonialism was the great Oyo Empire political institutions.

The old Oyo kingdom, around the 12th and 13th centuries, illustrates that great attainment. The kingdom was based on the value of separation of power.

Some five institutions can be identified vis: the Alaafin, the Oyomesi, the Ogboni, the Aare-Ona Kakanfo and the Ifa.

Central authority resided in the Alaafin (the Executive) who was theoretically an absolute monarchy.

He had the power of life and death (Iku baba Yeye, Alase Ekeji Orisa literally, Death, father, mother, i.e all powerful, commander – in- chief, companion to the gods).

The Oyomesi (Cabinet and Legislature) had seven to eight members and was headed by the Basorun (Prime Minister).

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The Oyomesi themselves hereditary High Chiefs, in consultation with the Ifa oracle, enthroned the Alaafin. They could and did force an erring Alaafin to abdicate, go into exile or to commit suicide.

Yet, the Alaafin had to ratify the installation of each of them. An over-powerful Bashorun who abused his office was not only deposed but was executed even with his household members.

The Ogboni constituted the judiciary. Along with Oro and Egungun they were in charge of the theocratic dimension of all political institutions, convicting any errant person, without fear or favour.

Moral standards were of commanding consequence. The Aare-Ona-Kakanfo (Generalissimo), a field Marshall headed the military.

He was of royal lineage, thus, once installed, he could not live in the capital with Alaafin, yet with his troops, he defended the person and the office of the Alaafin, and in implication, the territorial integrity of the kingdom. The Efa or Iwarefa served as the police for the maintenance of law and order.

It is pathetic that colonialism came and condemned this well structured performing political institution to the dustbin of history.

I have listened and read about the suggestions and the need for strong institutions as the necessary requirement for sustainable democracy in Nigeria.

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Some even clamoured for strong men and not strong institutions, but as far as I am concerned both strong institutions and strong men are necessary for the survival of Nigeria democracy.

Advance democracies are synonymous with strong political, social and economic institutions.

For instance, recently in the US, former President Donald Trump was arraigned in a Manhattan court, and he had to travel five hours from Florida to New York to surrender to authorities and take a plea in the court.

This conveys a strong message to many Nigerians that democracy requires strong institutions to endure.

Strong institutions without strong men would still not give the desired results.

In Nigerian history, a number of selfish and extremely ambitious people have pursued self interest in a way that compromised sustenance of democratic values and cultures.

The annulment of 1993 June 12 election results in Nigeria is a vivid example. In addition to this is the utter disregard for the Rule of Law by successive leaders in Nigeria.

For instance, former President Olusegun Obasanjo won a reputation for intervening at all levels in the federal system and ignoring the courts when it suited him.

In wealthy Lagos, he tried to stop Governor Bola Tinubu from increasing the number of local government areas, and disobeyed when the Supreme Court ruled against him. Similarly, the immediate past President of Nigeria, Muhammed Buhari also failed to honour the court ruling with regards to the release of the detained IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu.

While these represent abuse of powers by the President, there had been cases also when strong institutions preserved democratic values in Nigeria.

For example, the National Assembly demonstrated its strongness when it rejected the third term bid of former President Olusegun Obasanjo during his second term in office.

Democracy should be seen as an idea that if it is left alone is useless, harmless and cannot do anything on its own.

However, it gains life and becomes useful to humanity if human beings decide to act according to its principles.

Democracy requires both strongmen and strong institutions.

There is a difference between the institution and the human beings that work in institutions: the institution is weak and useless until and unless human beings do that which is right in the institution.

At this juncture, the question may be asked, who is stronger: the institutions or those that manage them. The obvious answer is human beings.

Corroborating this submission, Chinua Achebe, one of the world’s great writers, once remarked that “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character…The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example that are the hallmarks of true leadership.”

In Nigeria, the three arms of government would remain strong if the legislature, executive and judiciary do what is constitutionally expected of them.

Ever since the return to democracy there has been a steady drip of political corruption cases that, with the rigging of elections and the lack of economic benefit to so many, have eroded faith in the system. Examples abound of former political office holders that have been tried for corruption by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in Nigeria.

We have also had a situation whereby a road transport union leader entered into the State House of Assembly in Oyo state with political thugs and impeached the sitting Governor, thereby rubbishing the State House of Assembly.

Politics in Nigeria is a business between clients and patrons. In most of the cases in which the democratic institution has been dragged in the mud in Nigeria, judiciary and the executive played pivotal roles, especially with allegations of bribery and corruption.

The need to address the failures of the three organs of Government reinforces the position that what should be strong is the human being that manages the institutions. There is a need to emphasise good character, diligence, respect for the rule of law, respect for due process, patriotism and commitment to development in selecting people for public positions.

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How do we build strong institutions for safe democracy in Nigeria? There are three main institutions that guarantee safe democracy.

These are: political institutions; social institutions and economic institutions. Politically, Nigerian institutions are weak in structure, orientation and personnel.

For instance, one may query the level of independence of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) given the past events and recent uproar after the just concluded elections in Nigeria.

The electoral body has been the most challenged in the hands of politicians since the return to democracy in Nigeria since 1999.

The challenges are enormous: from infrastructure deficit to allegations of election rigging.

Every time, a humongous amount of money is usually allocated to the electoral body for the conduct of free and fair elections but every election has been trailed with controversy and allegations of corruption and inefficiency on the part of the body. Another failing political institution remains the National Assembly.

Elected members of the two houses usually spend heavily first to secure the nomination form of their party, second for campaign and finally to be elected into offices. Therefore, the legislative body is meant mostly for business politicians who always look for return on investment to the detriment of their core duties of legislating meaningfully for the progress of the country.

This partly explains why every lawmaker is interested in belonging to “juicy committees” of the house.

Besides, budget padding has also been uncovered to be another corrupt way of milking the nation purse dry.

Apart from earning undisclosed fat salaries and emoluments, constituency projects are also monetised and disbursed to politicians for implementation in their constituencies. Mostly, such money is poorly used or underutilized and as such denies members of the public the dividends of democracy.

The cash demand associated with politics in Nigeria is too much such that it is difficult for ordinary citizens to contest for elective positions.

There is a need to strengthen this institution by de -emphasising the use of money for elections.

One of the ways through which this can be achieved is improvement in the electioneering process such as adding electronic voting to the process, improving on voter’s education and most importantly restoring the lost confidence in the electorates.

The executive arm of government controls many things. From Fiscal and monetary policies to security and international relations, this arm of government is responsible.

Effective delivery of this task requires human beings, and the various institutions require human beings to deliver.

Corruption has been so endemic in all the MDAs and institutions that a former Minister of Finance, Professor Okonjo Iweala had to dedicate a book to document the level of corruption and why it subsists in the Nigerian system. In her book entitled “Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines. She avers that efforts to build strong institutions in government agencies and MDAs met with stiff resistance. Part of the effort was a reform through the use of technology in economic and financial management. The Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) that included a technology platform and biometric identification system deployed to curb corruption has been demystified and penetrated by the civil servants. Just barely three weeks ago, the current administration uncovered how the staff in the salaries unit manipulated the IPPIS to favour themselves and their friends.

This confirmed the position of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) position on the inefficiency and non-transparent nature of the IPPIS platforms.

Several efforts have been made to introduce reforms that have worked elsewhere but non-cooperation and poor implementation of such reforms has remained an albatross. The decadence in the executive arm of government was recently confirmed with the way and manner the immediate past administration and the Central Bank of Nigeria punished Nigerians with poorly implemented cash swap policies.

The CBN is one institution that requires strong men to handle, and must also be strong to formulate enduring monetary policies for the benefits of the country and its citizenry.

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There is no doubt that a strong CBN with strong monetary policies would protect our democracy from retrogressive infections.

Security is central to social, political and economic progress of any country. What is the state of the military institution? In the last few years, many military chiefs have been found to be corrupt, especially with embezzlement of money meant for the purchase of weapons, staff welfare and security matters.

In the appointments of service chiefs, merits appeared to have been sacrificed for clannishness and nepotism even in the face of glaring failures chosen military chiefs were retained.

The institution has been corrupted and highly infected with the orientation of primitive wealth accumulation.

The repercussions remain a nightmare for all Nigerians. In fact, Asari Dokubo- a non-state actor recently made allegations against the military over oil theft in the Niger Delta region.

This allegation not only exposed the level of decadence in Nigeria security arm but also raises poser as to what extent can Nigerians and their wealth be protected from external invasion?

Democracy without strong military institutions with strong professionals is a mirage. The military alone is not a problem; the police institution cannot be left out as well as other paramilitary establishments.

It would interest us to know that Nigeria is blessed with qualified and patriotic Nigerians who have not had the opportunities to be tested in government. And for those that have been tested and failed, their failures have been attributed to systemic rot.

However, I have listened to people saying that anyone in government and uncomfortable should resign, but I am quick to remind us that voluntary resignation is alien to Nigerian culture because of lack of sense of worth, tendency for unnecessary wealth accumulation and absence of moral authority.

A safe democracy also requires a high literacy level.

Therefore, there must be focus on the education sector. From basic and primary education to the tertiary level require not only substantial funds from the budget but the teachers and university lecturer’s welfare must be improved and their dignity restored.

This is because a high illiteracy level would always affect voters’ education and use of technology in the electioneering process.

In addition, education would liberate the illiterates from the antics of politicians. This is one sector that would guarantee safe democracy which the government over the years has not paid adequate attention to. In fact, for safe democracy to be guaranteed there is need for restructuring, reorientation and rebuilding.

Reorientation and rebuilding require literacy failure of which the illiterates would always retard the progress of advancement.

Finally, much of the problems confronting democracy in Nigeria have to do with our individual and collective behaviour, and all of it can be traced back to a defective political and social order owing to the absence of sustained and inspiring leadership in which people have confidence. Patriotism and interest in the broader societal goals are noticeable by their absence, and indiscipline is firmly entrenched.

When people are not properly led, national problems such as we have are inevitable, says Jubril Aminu. Corroborating this position, the late Emeritus Professor J.F.Ajayi said:

Perhaps, one reason why there is so much violence, aggression and instability in our day to day life is that we have so little consciousness of time perspective. We act and react as if there is only today, no yesterday, no tomorrow. We seem to care so little about the past; we have no enduring heroes and we respect no precedents. Not surprisingly, we hardly ever consider what kind of future we are building for our children and our children’s children.

If we take the submissions of these two great men into consideration in our day to day life in Nigeria, strong men and strong institutions will be built for safe and enduring democracy.

Monsur Muritala, an Associate Professor of History, University of Ibadan, made this presentation to mark the 60th birthday of Omooba Adewale Olayemi, on Saturday, July 15, 2023 at the Centre for Black Culture & International Understanding, Abere, Osogbo, Osun State.

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