This week a lot of noise will be made regarding the nomination of incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria as the candidate for the People’s Democratic Party heading into upcoming elections. More than a few people will regard the convention just held as some sort of sign that democracy is on the march in Nigeria. The truth is very different. Functional democracy is in a fragile state and being suffocated by corruption, political violence and silence in the face of quite unacceptable p...read more
This week a lot of noise will be made regarding the nomination of incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria as the candidate for the People’s Democratic Party heading into upcoming elections. More than a few people will regard the convention just held as some sort of sign that democracy is on the march in Nigeria. The truth is very different. Functional democracy is in a fragile state and being suffocated by corruption, political violence and silence in the face of quite unacceptable practices on the part of government.
The upcoming Nigerian elections are being conducted by a body whose commissioners are appointed solely by the sitting President, who has gone out of his way to appoint associates and ‘party hacks’. Local government elections are actually under the thumb of the state governor who also has exclusive power to appoint a state commission. The control of the electoral commissions is just one element of a political system that has a long way to go before it can be recognised as anything like a democratic system in which individuals are confident that they can freely participate in elections where their votes will be properly counted.
I could go on at length about corruption of the current political process, and about how it starts from the very first stages of the election cycle and culminates in an election that is reduced to a meaningless charade. However for the balance of this editorial I would like to emphasise the role of the international community and the extent to which it legitimises regimes like those found in Nigeria.
Over the last four years the Nigerian government has wasted a great deal of goodwill both domestically and internationally. At the international and local level there has been a response that resonates desperation: that any civilian regime is better than a return to military rule. Unfortunately this is only partly true. In the last four years Human Rights Watch and others have chronicled human rights violations and mass killings, including several by government, which would have brought immediate sanctions against a military regime.
There is a crucial need for the international community to recognise that political elites, dressed in the garb of sham democracies, can be every bit as violent as the harshest of military regimes. For people from NGOs who have traditionally resisted government repression and are now encouraging political participation the risks of violence are real and ever-present. There have already been a number of political killings. The unfortunate reality is that as we struggle to bring forward genuine elections we face the risk of many more casualties, primarily at the hands of political thugs used with no fear of accountability by political incumbents.
If Nigeria is not subjected to intense pressure, both internally and externally, to allow the development of the fundamentals of democracy, then those of us in ‘civil society’ face a bleak future. While the belated registration of new political parties, after inexcusable delays which have wrecked their chances of normal development ahead of upcoming elections, is a step forward, the reform of Nigeria’s electoral laws and practices is a fundamental pre-requisite before Nigeria is even recognised as a democracy.
Nigeria is not alone in Africa in practising appalling shams of democracy. One of the reasons for some peculiar stances taken by ‘African leaders’ is that in too many countries we are ruled by elites who have no regard for the grassroots members of their society. Often civil society in the form of NGOs are pursuing quite different agendas to those of our so-called leaders. Some of the positions we are forced into are quite different to those that are assumed by international NGOs, who have sometimes neglected the question of legitimacy of many African governments. For example, my own experience is that there is considerable sympathy amongst NGOs in different countries for the firmest conditionality for governments seeking fresh loans to prop up corrupt regimes on various pre-texts.
Our appeal to the international community is based on the fact that Nigeria has repeatedly said the international community is welcome to observe how far it has progressed on the democratic path. This opportunity should be taken, but pursued vigorously in a manner where the international community seriously considers whether the fundamentals have changed in Nigeria and communicates exactly how far we have to go for the Nigerian government to achieve international respectability.
* Ledum Mitee is the President of Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), an NGO which has been campaigning for the environmental and human rights of the Ogoni people since 1990. [email][email protected]
Ph (+234) 84 233 907
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* Nigerian president fights for survival
* "I'm sorry," says Obasanjo for civilian massacre