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Democratic sustenance and inclusiveness in Nigeria

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With Nigeria’s tortuous democratic transition to the Fourth Republic on May 29, 1999 hopes were high once again about the possibility of the political elites sustaining and consolidating the nascent democracy by promoting democratic values. But alas! The reverse is the case.

One major missing link is the inability of the system to promote and enhance inclusiveness via inclusive electoral processes. This is no doubt a big minus for the polity.

Going by the view of Aristotle, the father of politics, “…from these fundamental principles, and in particular the principles of ruling and being ruled, are derived the following features of democracy: (1) elections: all citizens eligible for all offices…”

The above quotation from Aristotle epitomises the imperative of elections and citizen participation cum involvement in both sustenance and consolidation of democracy in all climes and regions of the world. However, a kind of caveat should be added, that there is a glaring distinction between electoral democracy and electoral authoritarianism builds upon the common affirmation that democracy requires elections, but not just any kind of elections.

The idea of democratic self-government is incompatible with electoral farces. In the common phrasing, elections must be ‘free and fair in order to pass as democratic. Under electoral democracy, contests comply with minimal democratic norms; under electoral authoritarianism, they do not.

In an electoral democracy, which is the aspiration of Nigerians, a free and fair election is indeed a sine qua non. But where a large chunk of the citizenry is systematically excluded from participation one major canon of democracy is missing.

It must be emphasised that elections do not only serve the purpose of peacefully changing government, but it also enhances and confers political legitimacy on the government. Not only that a democratic election is a process of involving citizens in political decision-making.

Put differently, elections are an instrumentality through which people choose their leaders and keep them accountable. Be that as it may, where an electoral system lacks inclusiveness by outrightly marginalising a large chunk of the society the canon of democracy in terms of free and fair election becomes questionable.

The snag, however in Nigeria and indeed several other African countries is that elections are far from being free and fair. One of the palpable factors, which are the focus of this piece is indeed the ‘criminal’ neglect of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs).

As of 2020, with a projected population size of about 200 million, there are reportedly over 27 million Nigerians living with some form of disability. The five most common types of disabilities in Nigeria are, in descending order, visual impairment, hearing impairment, physical impairment, and communication impairment. Thus, where a large chunk of the population is so excluded from the electoral processes, elections cannot be adjudged free and fair.

It should be emphasised that The National Policy on Disability in Nigeria (2017) which is well known as the discrimination against persons with disabilities (PWDs) (Prohibition) Act 2018, the law prohibits the basis of disability and imposes sanctions, including fines and prison sentences on those who contravene it. One cannot but bemoan the wide gap between intent and actual practices in the country.

On a comparative basis, a study in the United States of America shows people with disabilities are less likely to vote despite the country being a developed democracy in all ramifications. If it is so in the US with current data, one can imagine the parlous state of the electoral system in Nigeria.

In the US, people with disabilities are about 20 percentage points less likely than those without disabilities to vote, and 10 points less likely to be registered to vote, say researchers who conducted a national random-household telephone survey of 1,240 Americans of voting age after the November 1998 elections.

The lower voter turnout “is not explained by their perceptions of the political system or their perceived ability to participate,” say researchers Kay Schriner of the University of Arkansas and Douglas Kruse of Rutgers University, who conducted the survey.

People with disabilities are more likely than those without disabilities to have encountered or expect, difficulties in voting at a polling place.

Of those voting in the past ten years, 8 per cent of people with disabilities encountered such problems compared to less than 2 per cent of people without disabilities.

Among those not voting within the past ten years, 27 per cent of people with disabilities would expect such problems compared to 4 per cent of people without disabilities.

If people with disabilities voted at the same rate as those without disabilities, there would have been 4.6 million additional voters in 1998, raising the overall turnout rate by 2.5 percentage points. Political parties were less likely to contact people with disabilities in the 1998 campaigns, the survey found.

The survey used the same questions used by the 2000 Census to identify disabled respondents. The sample was stratified so that interviews were conducted with 700 people with disabilities and 540 people without disabilities.

In Nigeria, it is not only people with disabilities that are excluded women have become endangered species in the electoral processes. The empirical fact shows that in the Upper Chamber (Senate) there are 109 members, distributed along gender lines with 102 male members (93.6 per cent) and only seven female members (6.4 per cent). The Lower chamber (House of Representatives got 360 members in all, there were 349 males (97 per cent) and eleven females (6.4 per cent); also the poor are not sufficiently carried along in the polity.

The recently held party primaries also is a demonstration of the lack of inclusiveness when the ruling party asked for as much as a hundred million naira (N100m) for Presidential primaries; Governorship – N50m, Senate N20m; House of Representatives, N10m and N2m for the State House of Assembly.

The main opposition party (PDP) also towed similar lines with the high cost of nomination forms and that of expression of interest. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Presidential aspirants were asked to pay N40m, Governorship N20m and N5m for the House of Representatives.

The cheering news perhaps is that women and people with disability were granted a concession to pay for expression of interests and nomination forms free of charge. But it is pathetic that the poor and the middle class were completely marginalized with the nomination forms that were beyond the reach of an average Nigerian.

Interestingly, no retired university professor or even top civil servants, who have acquired the requisite skill and administrative acumen to manage the country, could afford the nomination forms of the leading political parties. To have technically surrendered the system to the moneybags is an ‘undemocratic’ abuse of Human Rights and denial of the polity of their services.

Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest form of electoral exclusion, for now, is about the ongoing debate on the secular status of Nigeria. With Muslim/Muslim tickets paraded by the ruling party against the 2023 presidential election, the Christian community in the country is far from being at ease. If Muslims are assumed to be in the majority, with the same religion as both presidential and running mate candidates what we have is the tyranny of the majority by out rightly excluding the minority so to say.

In a country where both religions are almost at per vis-à-vis population sizes; the tension in the land is uncalled for if political elites are ever conscious of Nigeria’s diversity. The perceived sense of marginalisation can be explained better with data. According to the World Factbook by the CIA (2018), by May 2022 Nigeria’s projected population is estimated to be 216,746,933m out of which 53.5 per cent Muslim, 45.9 per cent Christians among which there are 10.6 per cent Roman Catholics.

If Nigeria, has the sixth largest Christian population in the world (87m), and also has the world’s fifth largest Muslim population (90m), the remaining ones practising Indigenous Religion should not even be completely ignored. This is pertinent in the sense that Nigeria is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state. There is no doubt that we must factor in the idea of balancing our ethnic and religious diversity in the composition of our government. It is when the ticket is well balanced, in accordance with the relevant laws, that we now bring to contemplate the most competent team that can deliver development that Nigerians are desperately desirous of; whether the ticket accords with our own primordial sentiments or not.

Meanwhile, it is imperative to emphasise the fact that lack of inclusiveness in a political system is no doubt an infringement of fundamental human rights. This is because no one is good enough to govern another without the express consent of the governed. While one cannot dispute the fact that no system is 100 per cent compliant in terms of inclusiveness but the more inclusive a system is the better for democracy and political stability. A nascent democracy like Nigeria needs to aspire to involve as many people as possible in the polity.

Conclusively, perhaps the panacea for the parlous state of the nascent democracy is a deliberate determination by the ruling elites to develop the political will to guarantee inclusiveness. To achieve this, I like to advocate a specific quota even if it is just one per cent for a start in the parliament and the executive arm of government for People with Disability (PDWs). To do this the recently amended Electoral Act (2022) may have to be amended further to accommodate this innovation.

The Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) too also needs to make adjustments by making adequate provisions for personnel that can assist people with disability to perform their civic obligations at polling units. To do otherwise is for successive governments to suffer a serious ‘legitimacy crisis’ which may be antithetical to Nigeria’s struggle to consolidate the nascent democracy.

Being text of a keynote address presented to Yusuff Olatunji Colloquium at Bodija, Ibadan Ibadan by Professor Gbade Ojo, Department of Political Science, University of Ilorin, Kwara State.

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