Affirming Democracy amid Insecurity and Uncertainty

“Until Nigerians find a way to create institutions which…can remain part of the state…and not become instruments susceptible to being captured by factions of civil society which win (temporary) control of the state, any hope for a constitutional democracy is likely to be regularly frustrated.”

Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria, 1987


“Nigeria must move to the forefront in the region, in the continent, and globally in interwoven ways: building effective state institutions, advancing democracy, and democratizing development. Why can Nigerians build and operate mega-churches but not quality public transport, public universities, public energy utilities and other service organizations?”

“State, Governance, and Democratic Development: The Nigerian Challenge,” Guest Lecture, The Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy, 2016


We have entered a period of global insecurity and uncertainty. The certainties of the immediate post-Cold War years have dissipated. As champions of illiberalism gain prominence, democracy advocates are forced to respond to the challenge. In the United States, proponents of democratic construction can be found, as would be expected, among liberals and progressives, but moderate Republicans such as Condoleezza Rice and John McCain are also speaking out. The latter recently wrote:

We are a country with a conscience. We have long believed moral conscience must be an essential part of our foreign policy, not a departure from it. We are the chief architect and defender of an international order governed by rules derived from our political and economic values…More of humanity than ever before lives in freedom and out of poverty because of those rules. Our values are our strength and greatest treasure…an ideal of liberty is the inalienable right of all mankind. [1]

Liberal policy scholars such as Jessica Mathews have expressed sentiments similar to those of Senator McCain: “The dominance of the West,” she writes, “has been driven as much by values, ideas, and political attraction as by economic and military power.” [2] Confidence in these values and ideas, however, has been shaken by post-Cold War geopolitical shifts, especially the resurgence of Russia, the economic expansion of China, and the resilience of illiberal political systems in these countries and post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Confronted by dysfunctional government and social distress in their own countries, exponents of western liberal democracy have grown cautious and rebalanced their critiques. [3]

A widening gap between advocacy and action in western foreign policies recalls the Cold War experiences. As a consequence, scholars such as Alexander Cooley suggest that “Western representatives charged with public diplomacy and regional engagement must resist the urge to decouple normative from geopolitical issues.” “If the West were to reduce its support,” he writes, “for liberal norms and a rule-based international order for the sake of political expediency, it would only hasten the erosion of its normative standing.” [4]

Former president Barack Obama was a strong exponent of the views expressed by McCain and Mathews. As his presidency unfolded, however, the need to balance “normative” and “geopolitical” issues blurred his message. This was evident in July 2015 during a visit to Addis Ababa. On two occasions, Mr. Obama declared that the governing coalition in Ethiopia, having just swept 100% of parliamentary seats in national elections, was “democratically elected.” Such a declaration was not only contradicted by widely available commentaries but also by extensive documentation of human rights abuses and political repression in the annual reports of the U.S. State Department.

At a conference on the Ethiopian crisis at Stanford University on January 21, 2017, the title of my presentation was the same as it is today: “Affirming Democracy amid Insecurity and Uncertainty.” [5] Professor Larry Diamond, who shared the plenary panel at that conference, reminds us that “the affirmation of democratic principles” was given a different meaning by America’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams. In a major address in 1821, then a congressman, Adams contended that the United States should abstain from “interference in the concerns of others” even when conflicts involve “principles to which she clings.” He continued:

Whenever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s heart], her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. [6]



President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Guinea and African Union Chairman Alpha Conde, President of the African Development Bank Akinwumi Adesina, acting President of Nigeria Yemi Osinbajo, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn with US President Donald Trump at the May, 2017 G7 Summit.
Photo: Reuters

This view has echoed across two centuries in the positions now expressed by President Donald Trump, most notably during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia. This debate will intensify. As authoritarian leaders such as Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines are invited to the White House, John Quincey Adams’s version of “affirming democracy” is further diluted, marking a significant departure from the position taken by most American presidents since President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921).    


Affirming Democracy: The Nigerian Narrative

As one of the largest constitutional democracies in the world, and by far the largest in Africa, the Nigerian experience is highly relevant to this debate. During a week of talks in four Nigerian cities – Abuja, Lagos, Ibadan, and Kano – various aspects of Nigeria’s democracy will be discussed. These engagements follow a forum series earlier this year on Democracy and Insecurity in Evanston and Chicago, Illinois. Commentaries from these events are available on the website AfricaPlus. Moreover, a large volume of my writings on Nigeria since March 1977 will be made available later this year by Arch Library, a new online entity of Northwestern University. These documents will contribute to collective reflections on “affirming” democracy, focusing on how the word is commonly understood to mean assertion as well as confirmation, endorsement, and encouragement.  

In one of my recently concluded classes, students read with interest a 1983 article entitled “The State and Ethnicity: Integrative Formulas in Africa,” by Henry S. Bienen. [7] Professor Bienen, a former president of Northwestern University, earlier taught at the Universities of Ibadan and Nairobi. His discussion of the importance of formulas and narratives devised by elites and governments in post-colonial Africa, and how these shape political behaviors, is particularly pertinent to today’s disordered world and security challenges.

Alexander Cooley, mentioned earlier, reflects on the rise of an “authoritarian value system” and “how language about democracy is used to advance anti-democratic values.” This is an argument familiar to scholars of African democracy: the use of democratic formulas to justify the reversal or impeding of these very systems. In a 1998 essay, I showed how the Ethiopian government exemplified such actions and behaviors. [8]

Following the American Constitutional Convention of 1787, a signatory to the new constitution, Benjamin Franklin, was asked whether the U.S. will be a republic or a monarchy. He replied, “a republic, if you can keep it”: simple yet profound words. They are relevant to our deliberations on Nigeria since the resumption of a constitutional government in 1999. While the designing of a constitutional republic is a major endeavor, defending and preserving it may be an even greater challenge.

At the midway point in the fifth presidential term since Nigeria returned to constitutional rule in 1999, the question will be posed “Will the Fourth Republic endure?” While writing my 1987 book on Nigeria, it was doubtful that the Second Republic would survive. [9] The traumas of 1983 were reminiscent of 1965, when the country became engulfed in a paroxysm of political violence and electoral mayhem. These developments culminated in the first military seizure of power and a catastrophic civil war. On May 25, at the end of a lament about the ills confronting Nigeria, Prof. Ayo Olukotun declared: “To end on an optimistic note, there is the good fortune that in spite of all, democracy, however tattered, survives.” [10]

Franklin’s seven words have morphed into Olukotun’s eight: “in spite of all, democracy, however tattered, survives.” Some Nigerian scholars and analysts, such as Prof. Wale Adebanwi, vehemently critiqued the nature of the current democracy. In his recent address at Northwestern University, he was acerbic on this topic. “Why,” Adebanwi asks, “has democracy in Nigeria not resulted in greater transparency, less corruption, a greater supply of public goods, and reduced insecurity?” “Nigerian rulers,” he continued, ”have arrogated to themselves the right to act in ways counter to the public interest.” Although office-holders since 1999 have come to power via elections, voting, Adebanwi claims, “provides a route, just like a military coup, to take control of the resources of the state via the capture of prebends for self-settling.” [11]


A protestor holds a banner during an Occupy Nigeria demonstration in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo: AP

These are troubling assertions.This same lament is voiced in other African countries, including some held up as exemplars of democratic progress. In a visit to Ghana in 2014, I was surprisingly challenged on this issue by several participants in a seminar in Accra at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development. Citing the disappointing outcomes of two decades of renewed multiparty democracy, they queried the pertinence of this governmental system. Similar questions were raised by Professor Martin Ajei and his associates of the University of Ghana, Legon, in a conference in April 2017 at the University of Chicago. Ajei proposed an alternative to the competitive party system that he called “consensual democracy.” [12]

These misgivings recall a 1983 letter, “Who’s ‘in love’ with Democracy?,” cited at length in Democracy and Prebendal Politics. It was written by B. Olusegun Babalola, who lambasted “the dishonesty, the numerous acts of embezzlement, that now characterize the country’s governmental as well as social institutions.” [13] Mr. Babalola cited Major Kaduna Neogwu’s sharp January 1966 critique of “the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men (and women too!) in high and low places who seek bribes…those that have corrupted the Nigerian society and put its political calendar back by their words and deeds.” In the five decades since Nzeogwu’s declaration and the January 1966 coup, how far has Nigeria moved forward its “political calendar”? The obvious answer is that it has moved forward and backward in some ways but stagnated in many.

During a May 19, 2017 conference at Northwestern on “Governance and Security in the Sahel,” several presenters cited the iconic case of Mali. The democratic gains of that country were still lauded in 2012 on the eve of the shoving aside of its eroded government by militant insurgencies in the north and by army mutineers in the south. The country was rescued from disintegration and the takeover by radical Islamists by a French military intervention that began in January 2013. The Mali government, led by President Ahmadou Toumani Touré, had been hollowed out by cronyism and clientelism, all the while receiving generous democracy- and state-building assistance. Also striking was how often the presenters at the Sahel conference raised the issue of the weakness, frailty, or absence of state institutions in Mali and elsewhere in West Africa.

The post-1989 democracies, similar to their post-colonial counterparts, have generally failed to build government institutions that incorporate the three fundamental democratic values famously enunciated by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address: “of the people, by the people, for the people.” [14]  We can deconstruct this familiar phrase. “Of the people” means that electoral mechanisms ensure that the people actually choose their representatives, and can hold them accountable in various ways, including removing them from office. “By the people” means that office-holders remain representatives of the voters and are not captured by special interests. And “for the people” means that the populace is the principal beneficiary of the activities of the work of the country’s political institutions.

In his cri de coeur of 1983, Mr. Babalola contended that the three core values of democracy had been traduced: “Democracy appears to have been subverted into its opposite,” he claimed, “Its legitimacy is increasingly questioned…Democratic rights give cover to so many evil things…Many people have stopped bothering themselves with classifying African regimes as democratic or otherwise. They instead keep asking how much do the regimes address themselves to the needs and aspirations of the people? I am one. I tell you, all these noises about democracy and democratic are mere luxuries to the sufferers.” [15]

On the evidence of his March 7, 2017 address at Northwestern, Professor Adebanwi clearly believes that Nigerian democracy has once again been “subverted into its opposite.” His remarks recall reflections on the Second Republic by the astute American scholar of Northern Nigeria, Sylvester Whitaker three decades earlier. Whitaker spoke of the “moral incapacity of the state” under Shehu Shagari. While acknowledging the president’s generally good intentions, he felt that Shagari had “lent himself to the purposes of a rogue government.” [16] As these remarks suggest, the Nigerian political calendar keeps being turned back by political elites. What I wrote in 1983 can be restated virtually unchanged today: “a serious dilemma of Nigeria’s Second Republic derives from the fact that individuals who accede to positions of state power are often adept at milking the very source which they are expected to strengthen and fructify.” [17]


Firming-Up Democratic Institutions

How can democracy be affirmed beyond restating well-known tributes? Nigeria is certainly not as dysfunctional and hollowed out institutionally as Mali was in 2012, or any number of other African countries such as the chaotic Central African Republic and ravaged Zimbabwe. But that is obviously not a reassuring assessment. Nigerian democracy has survived, but in how “tattered” a form? Can it be repaired? [18] In addition to failing the crucial test of improving the general welfare of the populace, many core state institutions have been compromised, perhaps most tragically the judiciary. Nigerians can look with dismay at the upheavals and fierce struggles in two countries with long democratic (and military) pedigrees: Venezuela and Brazil.

An argument I made about institutions a decade ago can be repeated today:

Democracy will not flourish in Africa until public institutions perform their most fundamental duties in a reasonably efficient and predictable manner…Africans are still overwhelmingly denied basic public goods … because the institutions required to provide them are …constantly being eroded from within….How can African countries build institutions that maximize the supplying rather than the pillaging of public goods? Collaboratively, answers must be sought to this fundamental question. [19]

The limit of available time will only allow me to reflect on two core institutions of Nigerian democracy and society, the media and the electoral system. With regard to the media, I will draw on an insightful presentation by Professor Ayo Olukotun. [20] The media, as is well-known, reflects much that is unsettling about Nigerian enterprises: entities that are primarily vanity outlets, the doling out of material benefits to procure special coverage or to cover up events, extravagant salutations via full-page advertisements commemorating simultaneously the same person or event in many newspapers; and indifferent production qualities.

Yet, the critical importance of the Nigerian media as an arena of largely open commentary is one of the fundamental dimensions of the country’s vibrant and competitive democracy. The courageous and resourceful journalism displayed during the prolonged era of resumed military rule, 1984 -1999, showed that the Nigerian media cannot entirely be cowed, despite the many hardships endured. The resolute building of a consensus, notably via the media, as Olukotun argues, against the threatened removal of constitutionally-mandated term limits is another striking example. These achievements contrast with the elimination of such constraints by many African governments following the restoration of multiparty politics.

The media also reflect one of the unique aspects of Nigerian nationhood and democratic inclination: the voicing of regional, ethnic, and cultural diversities. Ambitious politicians find it necessary to create and finance media vehicles to advance their political agendas. This is a practice that can be traced back to the colonial period, as the well-known exploits of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, and their respective media instruments demonstrate. Politics, business, and media in Nigeria are inextricably wedded, but that is little different from what takes place globally. Such aggregations of interests do not prevent independent voices from emerging and being heard. This factor has become even more significant with the explosion of internet-based media and the capacity to conduct investigative reporting, as has been shown by Sahara Reporters and other enterprises.

I will end this brief commentary on the media by highlighting an aspect that deserves special attention. This is the need for a high-quality publication that can play the role of a New York Times, a Washington Post, or one of the other two or three major newspapers in the United States. The Guardian in Lagos has performed this role for many years, and so did The New Nigerian with a more limited circulation in northern Nigeria. Dele Olojede’s Next succeeded brilliantly in this regard before its untimely demise. Olukotun recommends the fellowship approach as a way of meeting this challenge. Nigeria possesses entrepreneurs with the capital resources to create such an entity, but they must forego the temptation that has fragmented the academic landscape with dozens of new universities and other entities of indifferent quality.

One striking statistic in Olukotun’s treatise is the ethnic diversity of media proprietorship. He cites the intriguing fact that 9 of 11 of the major newspapers have non-Yoruba owners, although most are published in Lagos. Many Nigerian professionals, as Professor Eghosa Osaghae pointed out in a recent lecture on ethnicity at the University of Chicago, function in trans-ethnic arenas where they are imbued with these values. [21] The media, in short, simultaneously reflect Nigerian sectional diversities while helping forge a national perspective and identity. At a time when several governments in Eastern Europe and the Middle East are narrowing the space permitted for the free expression of ideas and opinions, Nigeria’s experience represents a powerful countervailing narrative.

The electoral sphere is one in which Nigeria had been minimally successful during much of the country’s independent history, despite the expenditure of enormous funds and energies. In the March 2017 forums on Democracy and Insecurity, Ambassador John Campbell described how South Africa, in contrast to Nigeria, conducts elections reliably and fairly. Francis Fukuyama reminds us that we do not fully understand the mystery of institutions: where they come from and why they persist. [22] When public or private/public institutions work, as they often do in countries where drinkable tap water, electricity, and sanitation are usually available and affordable, few citizens ask why that is the case. At the core, their provision depends on institutions, or a complex of institutions, that are constantly being improved.

India efficiently conducts elections with only sporadic acts of violence. In South Africa, electoral integrity appears, paradoxically, to be a legacy of the pre-democratic era, perhaps similar to India’s from its colonial past. Closer geographically to Nigeria is Ghana, where the construction of a fair and efficient electoral system has proceeded relatively smoothly since the restoration of constitutional government in 1992. Can Nigeria emulate the Ghanaian, Indian, and South African experiences? Can a Nigerian institutional legacy of elections with integrity, to use Professor Attahiru Jega’s formulation, be fostered and entrenched?

Available to Nigerians as they contemplate this great challenge is the distillation of a presentation by Professor Jega on March 7, 2017. [23] Based on Nigerian elections since 1979, and Prof. Jega’s summary of what was achieved under his stewardship, the following assertions can be made regarding the 2011-2015 experience:

  1. Transforming a dysfunctional and discredited major institution into a functional and creditable one.
  2. Acquiring, in a democratic context, institutional capabilities often attributed to “developmental authoritarian” states.
  3. Raising and disbursing significant sums of money in a transparent and accountable manner.
  4. Fostering an “esprit de corps”, cultivating an institutional culture, and having officials of a large organization uphold these tenets.
  5. Creating a plan and a strategy and having them guide operations during a multi-year period.
  6. Adjusting to, while not being derailed by, intense partisan and other pressures.
  7. Transcending sectional, ethnic, religious and other divisions in Nigeria so that INEC regained integrity as a national organization committed to its public responsibilities
  8. Enabling Nigerian citizens, in contexts of high insecurity, and displaced persons in the northeast, to exercise their franchise however constrained.
  9. Serving a complete term of office at the head of a major institution in the Nigerian state system and leaving with reputation enhanced.
  10. To have advanced the “Nigerian political calendar” in regard to a key dimension of democracy, something that cannot be said for many components of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

Will INEC replicate in 2019 the achievements of the 2015 elections? This will be the theme of a meeting on June 12, 2017 at Mambayya House, Kano. Professor Jega admits to the huge cost of the reforms instituted after 2011, especially the introduction of specially-designed technology and equipment. It may be difficult to replicate this level of investment in a resource-strapped era. Was the reform strategy implemented under his tenure maintained after his departure? Looking forward to 2019, can it be further strengthened? A more daunting question is whether Nigerian politicians have altered their behaviors in conformity with a rule-governed electoral system. Conversely, will the deplorable practices return in full force in the run-up to the 2019 national elections? These and similar questions must be urgently asked and honest answers sought in the run-up to the 2019 elections.


Biometric Permanent Voters’ Cards (shown above), along with Smart Card Readers, were used for the first time to accurately identify voters in Nigeria’s historic 2015 general election. Photo: Getty Images

In Conclusion: “Affirming democracy” requires more than verbal affirmations. Just as important is the “firming up” of core institutions and practices. While recognizing the trenchant critiques of Prof Adebanwi and others, I remain persuaded by Prof. Suberu’s call for incremental enhancements rather than revolutionary transformations of Nigeria’s federal democracy. This topic will be taken up in my talk at the University of Lagos on June 9th. While some institutions require drastic revision, the greater majority can be “firmed up” by strong, innovative, and accountable leadership.

I believe the needle of Nigerian democracy can be moved several notches ahead and will require the “firming up” a multiplicity of state, civic, communal, and faith-based institutions. During a time of global turmoil, and with leaders of major nations aggravating rather than alleviating insecurity and uncertainty, Nigeria’s federal democracy is too important, too vital, too essential to fail. All hands should row towards the same destination: an inclusive, prosperous, and democratic nation.


Copyright © AfricaPlus 2017


[1] John McCain, “Why We Must Support Human Rights; Condoleezza Rice, Stories from the Long Road to Freedom (New York: Hatchette Book Group, 2017).

[2] “Can China Replace the West,” The New York Review of Books (May 11, 2017).

[3] Thomas Carothers, “Look Homeward Democracy Promoter.” Also pertinent are several essays by Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University.

[4] Alexander Cooley, Countering Democratic Norms


[6] Cited in Diamond, “Promoting Democracy: Enduring tensions and new opportunities,” In Search of Democracy (London and New York, 2016), p. 419.

[7] Published in Donald Rothchild and Victor A. Olorunsola, eds., State Versus Ethnic Claims: African Policy Dilemmas (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1983).

[8] “Is Ethiopia Democratic? Oldspeak vs Newspeak,” Journal of Democracy (October, 1998).

[9] Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria: The Rise and Fall of the Second Republic (Cambridge University Press, 1987), (Ibadan: Spectrum Books, 1991). The Republic imploded faster than the book could be completed and published.

[10] “Buhari: A Midterm Report,” The Punch, May 25, 2017.


[12] The conference, “Thinking Across Borders: Engaging Western Political and Philosophical Thinking,” took place at the Neubauer Collegium on April  27-28, 2017. Prof. Ajei drew on the work of the Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu.

[13] Democracy and Prebendal Politics, p. 158.

[14] Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.

[15] Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria, p. 159.

[16] Democracy and Prebendal Politics, p. 159.

[17] “Class, State, and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria,” Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, vol. 21, no. 2 (1983).

[18] For comprehensive indictments, see Wale Adebanwi, Authority Stealing: Anti-Corruption and Democratic Politics in Post-Military Nigeria (Carolina Academic Press, 2012) and Biodun Jeyifo, Against the Predators’ Republic: Political and Cultural Journalism, 2007-2013 (Carolina Academic Press, 2016).

[19] “Challenges of a ‘Frontier’ Region,” Journal of Democracy (April 2008), p. 103.

[20] “Governance and the Media in an Emergent Democracy: A Study of the Role, Record and Changing Profile of the Nigerian Media 1999 – 2017.” Inaugural Lecture, The Oba (Dr) Sikiru Adetona Professorial Chair of Governance, Department of Political Science, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ijebu Ode.

[21] See Neubauer conference, April 27-28, cited earlier.

[22] See his superb two-volume opus, The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011 and 2014).

[23] I will comment further on this vital summary in a talk in Mambayya House, Kano, on June 12.




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