By Emeka Asinugo
May 29 is around the corner. Nigeria and Nigerians will, as usual, observe a bank holiday on that day, to commemorate the nation’s Democracy Day. I suppose the holiday will also offer Nigerians an opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of their democracy, and to take stock of how far they have come.
Needless to say, on that day, Nigerians should also take a closer look at other older democracies like Great Britain and America. These are the countries which can pride themselves today as being in the forefront of democratic governance. They were in the arena much earlier than Nigeria. So, Nigerian leaders should appraise the social and political challenges these countries have had to contain over the years. Trust Nigerians. Their leaders should be able to encourage them to photostat how these advanced democracies are overcoming their challenges and how they are becoming more and more able to wield their countries together in the interest of the human family. It is not that Nigerian leaders are yet to see the need!
Trust their “One Love” slogan!
Nigerians know that they have indeed come a long way since their country attained independence on October 1, 1960. The peculiar need for its very existence made it mandatory for the country to drop the parliamentary form of democracy it inherited from Britain. The country had experienced series of coups and counter-coups by its military for most of its post-independence years between 1966 and 1999. At the closure of the military adventure into the country’s governance, it became necessary to institute a home-made Nigerian constitution which would ensure that the military stays back in the barracks and that soldiers are no longer in a position to stage coups in the future against constitutionally elected governments of the people. The nation’s leaders decided to tailor government to fit into what they saw at the time as the needs and aspirations of Nigerian citizens. The end of military rule ushered in a new era of elections, and a return of civil liberties and freedom of the press. It saw an end to arbitrary arrests and torture which were prevalent during the military interregnum. Nigeria also began a long campaign against the bureaucratic and military corruption which had paralysed its economy and severely tarnished its international reputation.
In 1999, the nation’s leaders chose to adopt the American model of constitution. Nigeria, like the United States, is large. It is complex. Its composition is heterogeneous. Nigeria’s constitution makers simply felt that what worked for Americans should also work for Nigerians.
And why not?
In many ways, Nigeria’s constitution looked remarkably like that of America. There were 36 states in all, plus the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The President enjoyed a four-year term, with the possibility of a second tenure. The National Assembly was bicameral. There was the Senate. There was also the House of Representatives with the number of members determined by the populations of the states. At the apex of the federal structure of an independent judiciary was the Supreme Court comprising of up to 15 judges. The President had a Vice as his deputy. Each state had a Governor and a Deputy Governor. There was a unicameral House of Assembly in each of the states. Also, there were other familiar procedures. Appointments to the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and to Ambassadorial posts required Senate confirmation, for instance.
However, the 1999 Nigerian constitution made important provisions which differed considerably from the American model. Most of them were made to ensure regional balance. One of the important provisions, for example, was that the President must have in his cabinet at least one minister from each of the states in the Federation.
Today, Nigeria is the world’s fourth largest democracy. It is said that one African in four is a Nigerian. With a population of over 170 million people, Nigeria is larger than any country in Europe. It is the world’s eighth largest producer of crude oil and the United States’ second largest supplier. Nigerian leaders knew that theirs is a country which constantly faced the challenges of extraordinary socio-political complexities. They knew that their people speak hundreds of ethnic languages. Half of them belong to the three largest ethnic groups – the Hausa, the Igbo and the Yoruba. The rest of them, usually identified as the “minorities,” come from the more than 250 other groups which also speak different ethnic languages and have their various cultural identities. Nigeria’s constitution makers were determined not repeat the nation’s past mistakes.
Unfortunately, this diversity in language and culture has continued to inflict a bloody nose on Nigeria. The nation’s leaderships seem to find it difficult to grapple with the challenges. But the fact remains that the case of Nigeria is not different from the case of other big democracies, especially the United States and Great Britain. America has more than 50 states and Great Britain is great because it can contain four countries in one – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. All of these people have their different ethnic languages and ways of life. But whether we look at America or Britain today, there is a trend that each of these progressive countries is adopting. They all believe that UNITY IN DIVERSITY is the only way forward. The doctrine of unity in diversity has sustained them and made them great. That same doctrine, known in Nigeria as “One Love” can also sustain Nigeria’s democracy and make Nigeria great. That is the truth.
Six years after independence in 1960, the civilian government broke down in conflicts among the three major ethnic groups over the distribution of power and resources. First, the Hausa-dominated Northern Region and Igbo-dominated Eastern Region formed an alliance against the largely Yoruba-dominated Western Region. Two bloody military coups followed in 1966. Ethnic tension in the North escalated into violence against Easterners resident in the North. The Eastern Region embarked on secession and proclaimed the independent nation of Biafra. Nigeria was plunged into a civil war between 1967 and 1970. The successive coups and counter-coups which were staged in the country between the end of the civil war in 1970 and 1999 when the current constitution was adopted also had ethnic components. As a result of these experiences, building a genuinely united nation with institutions which would clamp down on violent ethnic feelings or uprisings, became a national priority. Therefore, the Constitution Drafting Committee, which comprised of eminent Nigerians from various walks of life and relevant disciplines drew up the Constitution and agreed on certain modalities. For instance, that no Nigerian citizen would become President of the country with only tribal support. Votes for an incoming President must have geographical spread. According to the Constitution, the President and other public office seekers must garner not less than one-quarter of the votes cast in each of at least two-thirds of the states in the Federation.
Democracy Day was instituted on 29 May to mark and remember the restoration of democracy in the Federal Republic of Nigeria after Chief Olusegun Obasanjo took office as the President of Nigeria in 1999. That transition saw an end to decades of military rule which had begun in 1966 and was only interrupted by a brief period of democracy from 1979 to 1983. As usual, 29 May this year will be celebrated as a bank holiday all over the country.
But before Nigeria celebrates its Democracy Day in the next couple of weeks, the nation’s leaders need to consider a few things that are important in the evolution of any democratic dispensation.
They need to consider what exactly the concept of unity in diversity which prevails in similar countries with people of divergent cultures and political persuasions means to the citizens of Nigeria. If countries as complex as USA and the UK which recently opened its doors to Eastern European countries are surviving their national challenges because they believe in and are encouraging the concept of unity in diversity, why can Nigeria not do the same in the name of “One Love”?
They should consider the fact the God will not forgive us if we fail the youths of our country. My idea is that it is possible to get the youths involved in determining the future of the country if Parliament should consider enacting a law which will ensure that citizens are only allowed to hold public offices for only two tenures in their lifetime and that public office seekers are within the age brackets of 25 and 65.
Nigerians can improve on the Mandela legacy!
After 65 years of age, every citizen must go into the private sector of the economy – establish a farm in the rural area, a school, a church, a clinic, a business. In such a way, they would also offer some sort of employment for the teeming population of young Nigerians who are fresh from school and who have a tendency to continue roaming the streets in search of jobs. That would be one way to stem them from the constant temptation to commit crimes. It means that every Nigerian citizen who clocks 65 must be barred from holding any public office and only those between 25 and 65 will be in government. It also means that stiff penalties should be prescribed for those who are proven to have forged or manipulated their dates of birth for the purpose of remaining in government. Nigeria needs to come to terms with its peculiar challenges and no other people will do that for them.
Nigerian leaders need to educate their people to know the values of what they share in common. An Igbo proverb has it that a young man who has travelled places is wiser than an old man who has never left his village for anywhere else. Nigerians must learn to accept their fate and to make the best use of even an ugly situation. They must learn to accept, like Britain and America, the doctrine of “unity in diversity” as a way of life. With pomp and pageantry, Nigerians must celebrate unity in diversity alongside their Democracy Day this year – enveloped in their now globally accepted slogan: “One Love”.