In 1999, the year it returned to civilian rule, Nigeria approved a self-governing system of governance. It also publicly declared an abidance to democracy.
The new turn was widely adopted by Nigerians. It was viewed as key to facilitating legitimacy, changing cultures of exclusion and assuring better conclusions. Such goals were elusive under the military regime.
But, despite over two decades of civilian democracy, inequalities in the distribution of power and reserves have continued to impact the people’s right to equal safety and due procedure. This state of affairs disproportionately affects Nigeria’s impoverished people.
One explanation why these inequalities are sustained lies in the country’s failure to incorporate in its governance democratic beliefs 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 entrenched in the rights of access to information, participation in decision making and access to justice. I looked at these three principles of environmental influence assessments in Nigeria.
I assumed whether these pillars of environmental democracy were combined into the environmental impact assessment process. I concluded that they were not. Nigerians do not have access to information about improvement projects, do not effectively participate in the making of decisions about these projects, and have little or no access to the courts (and justice).
This means that they will repeatedly be imperilled by the adverse effects of development projects.
These three rights matter because clearness and impartiality in governance enable people to be notified, influence the outcome of decisions and hold the government captive for its actions and inactions.
Thus, for Nigerian democracy to fulfil its ability, the sincerity of the forthcoming elections is important. It is to provide electoral integrity that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) introduced the card reader machine for voters’ accreditation. It is also in the same vein that many of the Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) of Nigeria’s states are enlisting the support of civil society organisations (CSOs) to ensure civic education and participatory electoral processes. Many CSOs are innovating to widen the process and ensure grassroots sensitisation.
Neighbourhood Environment Watch (NEW) Foundation, with the support of the media in Ebonyi State, has created ‘Democracy Clinic’, a platform for civic education and a means of gauging the democratic barometer, and with other CSOs has been working with the Ebonyi REC to ensure that the state has a violence-free and transparent election. It should be noted that Ebonyi State is one of the flash points for electoral chaos in Nigeria.
Unfortunately, our electoral morality is endangered by many factors. One such is voter apathy and lack of trust in the ability of elected officials not to be biased. We see a decrease in citizen trust in our democratic institutions and processes, mainly due to reasons relating to poor and non-inclusive governance and electoral deterioration. Again the independence of electoral institutions is in doubt, as many believe that whoever pays the piper dictates the tune.
While integrity in elections is crucial, other factors will influence the outcome of elections and thereby contribute to building citizens’ trust in democracy.
The rule of law needs to be strengthened to protect the rights of voters and candidates. As noted by Kofi Annan, election integrity is significant, but the establishment of the rule of law precedes that.
Elections should be managed by professional and independent national bodies to maintain credibility and avoid the kind of disaster that resulted in the 2011 post-election violence in Nigeria.
We should advocate for the avoidance of ‘winner-takes-all’ politics by encouraging the building of institutions and processes that are vital for multi-party competition and division of power.
Furthermore, we should remove the barriers that prevent free and consent-based voting and promote the inclusion of women, youths and other marginalised groups. There is a need to work towards a time when those we elect as our leaders are voted into positions of trust based, not on the colours of their skin, the religion they affirm or the tribe they come from, but on their antecedents, their track titles of integrity, and their passion to be judged by history as men and women who have made their marks on the sand of history.
There is the need to promote the unity of Nigeria and sensitize the electorate to vote for those who have the passion to make a positive impact, enhance sustainable development and fight corruption – the cankerworm that has defied all cures in Nigeria.
Above all, civil society should be supported to advocate and track the flow of unregulated money in politics, which undermines voters’ faith in elections and ultimately in democracy, and instead breeds fear that wealth buys political power and influence. It is necessary to address the abovementioned challenges as they potentially have grave consequences for the unification of democracy in Nigeria if not addressed properly and in time.