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Nigeria’s Democracy, 20 Years After: Where lies the Hope of the Poor?

Nigeria’s Democracy
By Menyanga Abu

Democracy according to Yusuf Bangura ,is a system of government in which leaders periodically renew their mandates through free, fear and competitive elections. It is a system that acknowledges the right of expression, organization and collective actions of the populace.

These rights grant the citizens the powers to exercise political choice and
to hold leaders accountable for their actions, inactions, decisions and indecisions as the case may be. Democracy can only produce dividends for the poor masses if only citizens or political groups that have strong ties to the poor exhibit that capacity to mobilize and organize or reconcile internal divisions to create structural links with the policy makers.

It is however very imperative to point out that in a situation where social movements or interest groups are weak coupled with defective and noncompetitive electoral system, the poor tends to surfer the more.

Democracy is considered as a powerful tool for meeting people’s aspirations as well as making them partners in decisions that affect their well-being. Functional and sincere democracy will alleviate poverty but where democracy becomes a charade – a capitalist tool or feudal instrument or an authoritarian institution, – it will end providing lip services.

That is a situation where overriding forces manning a sort of pseudo-democratic formations benefit themselves by exploiting the poor.

No doubt, democracy in Nigeria has been elevated in public policy. I think we are yet to understand the type of politics and institutions that will make democracy to achieve growth and human wellbeing. Although our democratic process is participatory in outlook, it tends to be limited to few elected people without the involvement of such people like the informal workers, the artisans or the famers whose livelihood are directly  affected by many of the development policies.

For democracy to add values to the lives of the poor masses and economic growth, every democratic practice should put economic liberty and transparency on a par with every other democratic value such as regular elections, rule of law, human rights, freedom of association and speech.

For the poor to feel the positive impacts and benefit from democracy, I appeal to the present administration and its agencies not to use superfluities and rhetoric of democracy as a façade while behind the scenes engaging in rent-seeking practices that can lead to systemic entrenchment of corruption as done by the past administrations.

The corrupt system will easily provide avenues for politicians to use political powers for economic gains and the economic gains could be used for buying political influence. In such a situation democratic dividends hardly reach the general populace.

This usually results in persistent poverty among a large percentage of the population coupled with poor social services in struggling and developing democracy like ours.

The situation above can lead to declining in supports for democracy by the populace at large and may signify real threat to democracy because impoverished poor masses may not have the necessary tools to fight back and in most cases they are not familiar with/use to demanding government’s accountability and responses.

Democracy can never be sustained without persistent efforts to eliminate poverty and vice versa. Strengthening democratic governance is an indispensable component of the efforts to alleviate poverty.

Poverty is a big threat to democracy as it tends to deprive people of their political voices, preventing them from holding their government accountable and responsive thus eroding public trust in democratic institutions. Democracy can deliver outcomes that will be beneficial to the poor only if,

(1) the rights of the people are institutionalized that will allow the poor to exercise political choice, build alliance with others and hold leaders to account

(2) groups with strong ties to the poor develop capacity for independent organization  and mobilization as well as reconciling horizontal decisions and establishing structural links with the policy makers – social pacts – and

(3) lastly if there is high likelihood that the sitting government may likely lose office which  can serve as incentives for redistribution.

It is believed in some circles that electoral competitiveness can produce redistributive outcomes but competitiveness without effective organization and contestation may
produce weak redistributive outcomes.

Reducing poverty needs power relations at the nucleus of development, as such any strategy put in place to reduce poverty and inequality must consider tipping the balance of power. Eradicating poverty requires an expansion of the bargaining power of the poor masses and those who might represent them.

1999 marked the foundation of the longest continuous democratic governance in the history of Nigeria after her independence in 1960.

Democracy, as expected and believed by many Nigerians supposes to provide the citizens with that opportunity to participate in governance which in turn promotes development. But the said democratic government seems to be working against the aspirations and interests of the poor masses because of the way the democratic system is being operated coupled with corruption in this part of the world.

Take a survey of our National Assembly for example, the Assembly is a major democratic institution in any functional democratic setting, but today
our representatives are not reflecting our views, take less of reflecting our modest lifestyle who they claimed they are representing. Many of them own about four to seven exotic cars, each costing not less than twenty five  to two hundred and fifty million naira in a country where about 130  million people out of the estimated 180 million are living in abject poverty and misery.

The irony of the whole thing is that, back in their villages, their closest neighbours and relatives are struggling to get some pieces of tiny tilapia fish (ibobo) of barely one hundred naira (N100) per a set of three or four just to give taste to their soups and not enough to eat. Yet these are the honourable members representing our interest that most cases pay us money to vote them to serve us. Nobody is asking why they should pay us for them to offer us services.

These show that these political elites have different motives that contradict the interests and aspirations of the general populace especially the poor masses. What I have observed in Nigeria today is that, that principle of value we cherished in the past no longer matter to our political elites as they can always use their ill-gotten money to get to public offices by buying the conscience of the poor masses. The highest bidders have takes on whatever is on the table.

The biggest enemy of democracy is poverty because when people are poor, they are in most cases reduced to destitute and a little money can change their minds. In such a situation that freedom of choice which is one of the beauties of democracy could be taken away from the poor masses by those who control the resources. Nigeria has no business with poverty because God has so blessed this nation with abundant resources.

We thought that with the advent of democracy in 1999, the gateway to development has been opened and bye to poverty sand misery. Little did we know that democracy as practiced in Nigeria is a gateway to corruption, individual enrichment resulting in abject poverty and misery instead of general development.

Democracy which is government of the people by the people for the people has tuned to government of the selected rich by the rich for the selected rich. Democracy to our political elites has come to mean government of the rich, making the rich richer and making the poor poorer. The permanent features of our democracy as experienced today are abject poverty and misery.

The first sixteen years of democratic governance in Nigeria was a complete
wastage though with some pockets of achievement that is nothing to write home about. Those years were marked with unprecedented corruption and wanton stealing of our common wealth by those entrusted with power. What we are experiencing today are no doubt the cumulative effects resulting from those years of mismanagement.

For example, sixteen billion dollars was said to have been spent on electricity provision, but where and what is the situation of power in Nigeria today and how was this huge amount spent, may be the details, as we are told are in a book written by one of our leaders. According to Brooking institute – 2018 world poverty clock – about 643 million people across the world are living in extreme poverty, which is below 1.9 dollars, about 540 naira per day. Out of this number, two third – about 428.7 million – of this population is from Africa.

On 26th June 2018, CNN reported that Nigeria is the new poverty capital of the world after overtaking India with an estimated number of 87 million
Nigerians extremely poor. We all know that the divine forces that drive democratic government to deliver anti-poverty outcomes are complex, but that does not mean that a functional democratic government cannot dismantle these complexities to provide the dividends of democracy to the poor masses that are always at the receiving end.

But then this takes time. Let us support the present administration in the fight against corruption and other of its programmes to bring about even development. I want to point out here that our problem as a country is most times the illusionary belief that we could change Nigeria over night by simply voting a different president into power believing that our problems start and stop with the president.

We tend to think that if we could just have the right person in power, then all of a sudden our numerous problems and Nigeria will be transformed forgetting that the person we are bringing as a new president comes from within Nigerian society and not from the moon or another angelic world or outer-space.

Nigeria’s problem is not just only the man in power but all Nigerians, our shared values and mentalities. Systemic rot and Nigerians are Nigeria’s problems and any day we realize this, we will no doubt get closer to finding solution to our complex problems.

The increasing level of poverty witnessed in Nigeria today results from many-sided problems that are traceable to our political elites/past leaders as well as us the followers because a country cannot good better leaders until it has better people.

Democratization in this country is often contested by the rich who sees it as a process or an avenue for making/stealing money and not for general development. To them democracy is viewed as a battle not of parties but of class and struggle between property and mere numbers.

This phenomenon is making democratization to lose its links between the political parties and broad social movements that define the interest of the poor. Poverty is on the rise as a result of failure of developmentalism; development in democratic setting according to Yusuf Bangura requires high level of continuous mobilization by political elites with development project who are ready to embrace open-led strategies of industrialization.

Any democracy without concerns for the welfare/wellbeing of the poor masses can never be said to be quasi-democracy no matter the colouration of the electoral processes and procedures.

Poverty alleviation in a democratic setting requires expansion of the bargaining power of the poor and those that represent them.

Menyanga Abu, is an Abuja-based Health System and Development Consultant.

One thought on “Nigeria’s Democracy, 20 Years After: Where lies the Hope of the Poor?

  1. Wonderful contribution on the state of democracy and the poor masses in Nigeria. Gob bless you sir.

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