Time To Seek A Healthy Democracy, By Aniebo Nwamu

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Nigeria’s brand of democracy looks like a HIV/AIDS patient. Its health deteriorates with each round of elections. The incidence of violence before, during and after polls has risen steadily from 1999. Vote-buying is the new name for bribe-for-vote democracy. 

Our democracy is not growing – it’s marching backwards instead. The ritual we perform every four years hasn’t yielded the “government of the people, by the people and for the people” envisaged by Abraham Lincoln. Or will this year’s general election, which begins this Saturday, throw up truly elected representatives of the people?

The size of election petitions has increased. Several members of the bar and the bench have always looked forward to this time in order to make a killing. Inec’s partiality has manifested in brighter colours with every subsequent election. The electoral body has become an irritant that digs deep into public funds: this year, government funded it with N250billion, against N80—100billion in previous elections.

Inec’s budget tells just a little part of the story. We now have over 90 parties – 73 of them fielded presidential candidates for this year’s election, but only two are likely to make any impression on the vote figures – and the candidates have been breaking the banks to run their campaigns. Spending limits once decreed by Inec are null and void and of no effect: everybody has violated the law but nobody has been caught. The actual amount wasted every election year – along with the collateral damage in terms of human lives and property – can never be quantified. It’s perhaps the actual reason for the perennial economic recessions in the country.

Our economy, almost always on tenterhooks, can’t take the American model of democracy. Our forefathers didn’t waste lots of money in the course of selecting their leaders. Those who transplanted the presidential system to the Nigerian soil ought to be in jail! And I’m not referring to only former military leaders who midwifed the past three republics. Their civilian collaborators also lacked original thinking – they were always looking up to the west for ideas.

Now it’s clear that Nigeria democracy is imperilled. We’re trapped in an unworkable political system, and our economic system can’t therefore stand.  Why wouldn’t there be a recession where fewer than 1, 700 idle “leaders” consume a third of resources belonging to 200million people? We have multiplied offices in 774 local government areas and in 36 states and the FCT, yet only a few people engage in actual production of goods and services. Foreign debt, which the country exited in 2005, is back: it is estimated that 60% of annual budgets will be used to service loans from next year. Local debt has ballooned too: we hear that government has borrowed over N6trillion of N9tr pension funds. The unending “war” on terrorism is gulping funds the nation doesn’t have. Any money spent on the military appears wasted.

Over the past two or three decades, many have suggested original plans for democracy in Nigeria.  In 2002 a group called “The Patriots”, fearing the calamity politicians’ salaries and allowances were doing to the common purse, had approached President Olusegun Obasanjo with a plan to change the constitution – the fraudulent 1999 constitution written by a few people in their bedroom — to make way for a limit of one term for political officeholders. Obasanjo told them “you can’t change the rule of the game in the middle of a match”. After he had been re-elected in 2003, he set up a constitutional conference which the Senate later threw out together with Obasanjo’s third-term ambition.

This same 1999 constitution has been amended in bits since 2001, yet nothing substantial has been achieved. The National Assembly has gulped billions of scarce naira for constitution amendment since then. All other Nigerian presidents in this Fourth Republic have made attempts to achieve political reform: Umaru Musa Yar’Adua set up the Muhammed Uwais Committee shortly after his inauguration in 2007; sadly, sickness never allowed him to rule. Goodluck Jonathan forwarded a bill for a six-year single tenure for officeholders in 2011; he was shouted down. He later set up the 2014 National Conference, but he lost election a few months later and the confab’s recommendations went to the trash can. President Buhari set up his own political reform committee headed by former Senate president Ken Nnamani in October 2016; the panel and its prescriptions died prematurely. All these prescriptions have been ignored, yet the conferences and panels put together have cost billions of taxpayers’ naira.

Nigeria is going nowhere without far-reaching political reform, which would lead to administrative and then economic reform also. I have talked about one cure-all solution several times. It needs repeating.

The colour of democracy I propose for Nigeria is one in a lighter form: Spend little money to achieve great results. Take governance to the grass roots, so communities could take charge of their affairs – elections, security, tax collection, population census. Here is how it works:

Every adult Nigerian (age 18+) gets their biometric data captured and stored in a national database.  Rather than hold a national ID card, driver’s licence, tax information number, voter card, bank verification number, social security number/card, and whatever may be invented later, the Nigerian needs just one identity card and number. With this card, he votes at elections, pays his tax, pays for his driver’s licence, gets his passport, opens a bank account, gets registered as a government employee, and pays whatever fees to the government. This card is compulsory for every adult. Payment of tax – even as little as N1, 000 per year – will also be compulsory for every adult.

For every election, Inec recruits its ad-hoc staff only from federal and state civil servants – they need such additional work because they do virtually no work in offices – who must reside near their places of work.

All politics is local: every election is therefore conducted from the ward level. Our plan here is an improvement on Option A4 first implemented by Professor Humphrey Nwosu in 1992. It was a huge success, but Nigerian leaders detest innovation.

The voter register isn’t difficult to compile. From the database alone, the computer prepares the register — with each voter’s name, age, place of residence, and ID card number — within a second! Those who aren’t up-to-date in their tax payment are excluded automatically. Election riggers have a hard time paying for ghosts and foreigners, even if they evaded the prying eyes of law agents and local chiefs. Inec officials have no room to manipulate polls; they know they will be traced easily, and the punishment is severe.

With an authentic voter register, Inec conducts free and fair primaries for parties and the actual elections. On each voting day, you queue behind the poster of your preferred candidate; Inec counts, announces and records the total votes from each of 120, 000 polling stations.  The results are fed into the computer at the nearest Inec office and… there you have winners and losers within an hour after close of polls.

Leaders other than councillors emerge by an electoral college. Those who win at the ward level sit to select a local government chairman from among them. They also select lawmakers at the state and federal levels. And state lawmakers elect the premier or governor. The selected federal lawmakers elect the prime minister from among them. Commissioners and ministers are also selected from those who won elections at the ward level; whenever there is a need to change any commissioner or minister, an election is conducted at their ward.

The model I propose is neither the presidential nor parliamentary system. It’s original – a model that would serve us Africans at little cost. The toxic baggage we already have will not let any government policy bear fruit. I have always said that we missed it during military rule. If the jackboots had really been benevolent, they would have turned Nigeria around for the better, for they had the chance to take shortcuts. Selfishness didn’t permit them: they created states and local government areas so their people could benefit from oil funds without working. But, as we’ve now found out, free oil money doesn’t solve problems. We must return to true fiscal federalism where regions would manage their own resources and contribute taxes to the central government.

I won’t waste more time rehashing all the needed reforms. Many of us have harped on them for the past decade or two: a new constitution providing for a part-time unicameral legislature at state and federal levels, dissolution of the 36 states and return to a true federal structure (a six-region structure), seizing of all assets whose sources their owners cannot explain, making politics and political offices unattractive.

 Nigeria will not move an inch forward until it listens to the voice of reason. Injustice runs deep in the land, and there cannot be peace if there is no justice. The judiciary is a mess.

Had the leaders of Nigeria listened to agitators for a “sovereign national conference” in the last 25 years, perhaps Nigeria would have started working by now. Perhaps, the thousands of lives lost to political crises, poverty and now terrorism would have been saved. Perhaps the economy wouldn’t be looking as hopeless as it does now.

 •Nwamu, book editor and writer, is the CEO of Eyeway.ng.

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