Why Liberal Democracy is a Threat to Nigeria’s Stability


Dr. Moses E. Ochonu is Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in History and Professor of African History, Vanderbilt University

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In 2015, Nigeria, a country of about 190 million, spent $625 million to conduct federal and local elections. By comparison, India, with a population of 1.2 billion, spent $600 million on its 2015 election, according to figures released by the Electoral Commission of India (ECI). In 2019, the election budget of Nigeria’s Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) rose to $670 million. This represents about 2.5 percent of Nigeria’s $28.8 billion budget for 2019, a portion of which is being financed through borrowing.

To put the electoral spending in context, more than half of the country subsists on about a dollar a day, and the country recently acquired the dubious distinction of being named the poverty capital of the world, with more people living in extreme poverty there than in any other country. Key infrastructures and services such as roads, railway, electricity, water supply, healthcare, and education are severely inadequate, requiring urgent investments and interventions.

Election-related expenditure is expected to rise in the near future as INEC implements a wider slate of digital technologies to combat manipulation and improve the integrity of the electoral process. For comparison, Nigeria typically devotes about 7 percent of its budget to education. And yet Nigeria continues to maintain a four-year election cycle, with smaller by-elections occurring in between. This electoral calendar guarantees that about $1 billion is spent on elections every four years. As the electoral price tag has grown, democratic dividends have plummeted.

Nigeria’s predicament is a microcosm of the phenomenon of rising financial costs of elections in Africa and diminishing returns on democracy. Across the continent, the cost of electoral democracy is increasing and threatens the delivery of social goods. As African countries battle myriad socioeconomic challenges, the question needs to posed: is it wise for these countries to continue to spend a large percentage of their revenue every four or five years on a political ritual with fewer and fewer positive socioeconomic consequences for their populations? Is this expensive, periodic democratic ritual called election worth its price?

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It is not only the monetary cost of elections that now threatens to defeat their purpose and engender disillusionment and, along with disillusionment, the erosion of trust in the state and its ability to produce and distribute public goods. The social cost of periodic elections has been arguably greater, depleting, with each election cycle, the residual stability of the state and the credibility of its institutions.

Elections conducted in Nigeria since the return of civilian rule in 1999 have brought with them anxiety, tension, death, violence, and dangerous rhetoric that, taken together, have frayed the national political and social fabric. Elections have widened fissures and intensified preexisting primordial cleavages. I can recall no electoral cycle since at least 2003 that was not been accompanied by fears of Nigeria’s disintegration or at the very least the acceleration of its demise. In 2007 and 2011, post-election violence claimed hundreds of lives in Northern Nigeria as supporters of then candidate Muhammadu Buhari rioted after his loss.

In the 2019 presidential and national assembly elections, at least 46 people were reported to have died from election-related violence. In the state assembly and governorship elections two weeks later on March 9, 2019, another ten people died across five states in what the Sunday Tribune newspaper described in its headline as “another bloody election.” Two riders below the same Sunday Tribune headline encapsulate the turbulent character of Nigerian elections. One was “Thugs, vote buyers, arsonists take over on election day”; the other was “Nigerians condemn militarization of elections in Rivers, Bayelsa, Kwara, Akwa Ibom, Benue,” a reference to the government’s deployment of soldiers and other military assets to opposition strongholds before and during the election.

The involvement of soldiers and other military personnel in the election was a brazen violation of Nigeria’s Electoral Act, an action which many observers interpreted as the incumbent administration’s effort to use its might to manipulate the election in states held by the opposition. Every election cycle in Nigeria sees massive, fear-induced demographic mobility as members of different ethnic groups and religions relocate to areas considered dominated by their kinsmen and co-religionists to await the conclusion of elections that often degenerate into communal clashes especially in the volatile north of the country.

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Periodic national elections have thus worsened Nigeria’s notoriously frail union and caused apathy and discontent. The Nigerian people, the major stakeholders in Nigeria’s democracy, have grown weary of being periodically endangered and rendered pawns in an elaborate elite ritual with little or no consequence for their lives. Electoral aftermaths have not improved economic conditions or strengthened the capacity of citizens to hold elected leaders accountable. Moreover, as I shall discuss shortly, the familiar abstract freedoms that democracy, lubricated by periodic elections, can confer on citizens who participate in such exercises, have eluded Nigerians.

The result has been noticeable apathy represented most poignantly by voter turnout, which declined from a peak of 69.1 percent in 2003 to 46.3 percent in 2015 and to about 35 percent in 2019. In the same 2019 election cycle, turnout declined to less than 20 percent in the governorship and state assembly elections, with many Nigerians on social media stating that they had lost faith in the electoral process and that the official results of the presidential elections two weeks earlier had shown that their votes would not count towards the declared outcome. Voter apathy alone is not an indication of democratic disillusionment but it can portend or indicate something more devastating: diminishing trust in the state, its institutions, and its processes. Such a trust deficit exists already and it predated the return of civilian rule in 1999 after about two decades of military dictatorship. However, by all theoretical formulations, such a cumulative loss of confidence in the transactional sociopolitical contract between the state and citizens should be corrected by the democratic ideals of voting, representation, and accountability. This has not happened in Nigeria. In fact, the opposite scenario is visible: a negative correlation between successive electoral cycles and citizens’ trust in the Nigerian state. Therein lay the paradoxical consequences of democratic practice in Nigeria.

If elections are increasingly burdensome as they have become in Nigeria, the corrective potential of democracy, broadly speaking, is lost. Citizens consequently lose faith in the state and resort to self-help, including criminal self-help. That is how states collapse. Nigeria is not far off this possibility. In Nigeria, recent political realities reveal a blind spot of pro-democracy advocacy: without the modulating effect of decentralization, sustained economic growth, a growing, secure middle class, and a literate, hopeful poor, liberal democracy can do and has done more damage than good. Liberal democracy has ironically become both an incubator and protector of mediocrity, corruption, and bad governance. The overarching casualty has been Nigeria’s very stability.

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