Before Nigeria's electoral false start, Think Africa Press asked seven experts whether the intense public campaigning, television debates, the use of social media and biometric registration for the presidential election suggests a "deepening" of democracy in Africa's most populous nation.
Olumide Abimbola, Associate, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology:
Nigerians who grew up in the 1990s remember them as a dark decade when the whole country was militarised and one was used to everyday violence, even on university campuses. Laws were decreed and rubber-stamped by a council of handpicked senior military officers. In the early 2000s, shortly after Nigeria returned to civilian rule, one heard at least once a week of physical violence in the houses of parliament. One even heard of cases in which the Mace of the House of Representatives was stolen. Nigeria has moved from that place to one in which the Nigerian president is the African head of state whose profile has been the most ‘liked’ on Facebook.
Some of those who grew up during the dark period of Nigeria's history make up the What About Us group, which hosted a recent presidential debate. While the argument can and has been made that these movements are made up of middle class, internet-savvy, Blackberry-toting, upwardly mobile young men and women, one must nevertheless applaud the fact that we are witnessing a movement away from a period of total ignorance, and of total dispassion, to a certain level of awareness and participation.
But that is only part of the story. Most Nigerians who live in rural areas do not have access to social networking tools, do not watch presidential debates, and are not part of these internet-mediated discussions. One hopes that as the country moves on with civilian rule, more people will become actively involved in the democratic process. One also hopes that the young middle class will find a way of communicating with and involving those who for can either be coerced to vote in a certain way, or persuaded to sell their votes.
So, if we consider where the country is coming from, all these developments point towards a deepening of democracy. But one hopes that very soon we will have advanced from procedural democracy towards deeper and more meaningful discussions of policies. One also hopes that policy debates and discussions will become embedded in structures of political parties. Until that happens the deepening of democracy in the country would be little more than skin-deep.
Okolo Ben Simon, Lecturer, International Law, University of Nigeria:
Nigeria is indeed witnessing high levels of political activity especially around the forth coming elections. It is also true that there is an increased use of the media and other social networks to reach potential voters. This on the face of it immediately suggests a deepening of Nigeria’s democratic norms. However we must remember that Nigeria is part of the international community and the use of the media and social network to reach out to people is becoming a fad. Nigeria’s democracy is deepening not because of the political class, but more because of the people's understanding of democracy.
The political class has actually, in the opinion of many, demonstrated that Nigeria is not ready for a democratic government. In recent interaction with some electorates, there was unanimity of opinion that democracy in Nigeria is a wasteful venture. This is not unrelated to the way the political class has been acting unchecked. Anecdotal evidence suggests that corruption, especially by the political class, has grown more than it was during the days of military rule in Nigeria. The Nigerian political classes seem to glorify corruption. For instance, Chief Olabode George, a one-time Chairman of the ruling party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was jailed for two years for corruption. On his release from prison recently, the PDP organised a welcome-back party for him. In attendance were most top party members of the ruling party. Nigerians however reacted against the ignominious act. People were of the opinion that the PDP was suggesting that corruption is an acceptable way of life in Nigeria.
There is an indication that Nigerians (the vast majority of the people) are becoming politically aware. There is the understanding by Nigerians that democracy has come to stay. People are becoming more interested in how their leaders are elected, unlike in the past. For instance, anecdotal evidence suggests that most people that will vote in the forthcoming election are going to do so with intention to protect their votes, unlike in the past where people never bothered to vote, knowing that their votes would not count towards the election of who ‘wins’. They are of the opinion that politicians were able to rig the elections in the past because the populace were indifferent to the democratic process.
Another sector that has been responsible for the deepening of democracy in Nigeria is the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). Most of the CSOs working around the issue of democratic governance in the country have been able to sensitize the people to the need for Nigerians to be politically aware and involved. The Church is also part of the CSOs movement that is making people politically aware. Evidence exists that some Christian denominations issued an order to their congregation to register and vote in the forth coming elections. In fact there were threats by some Bishops that where congregants fail to register they will not be allowed to receive Holy Communion.
Invariably, while one might say that Nigeria is becoming democratically aware, the political class has not done much for this given that in the 12 years of the revamped democratic rule in Nigeria they have shown that they are not to be trusted to deliver the good governance which many yearn for.
Dave Peterson, Senior Director, Africa Programme, National Endowment for Democracy:
Nigeria’s investment in the series of elections has been enormous, whether it is in terms of the government’s expenditure of as much as $750 million to register some 73.5 million voters using biometric technology, the resources mobilized by hundreds of candidates for the campaign, the use of social media as Jonathan did to announce his candidacy, the adoption of SMS technology for election monitoring, or the massive media coverage. Election fever has swept Nigeria, and despite the violence and other flaws from which these elections will not be immune, Nigerians have greater hopes that these elections will be more credible than any since 1993, when Mashood Abiola’s victory was annulled by Ibrahim Babangida. After three flawed elections, plenty of experience and civic education, electoral reforms, and a new electoral commissioner, Nigerians have learned enough to appreciate the mechanics and principles of democracy as well as anyone. Just as it would be inaccurate to say that social media was responsible for the “Arab Spring” demonstrations to the north, the apparent deepening of Nigerian democracy cannot be attributed to the use of advanced technology. But in both cases technology has been an effective tool to communicate and inform, demand and implement reforms, and ultimately, to deepen democracy.
Sokari Ekine, Nigerian Social Justice Activist:
The introduction of biometric registration shows that finally a Nigerian government has taken the issue of election fraud seriously. I would say the overall management of the elections has improved at least so far. There has been a huge voter registration campaign by the government, and a number of non-governmental groups such as Enough Is Enough and the Nigerian Election Coalition have used social media and billboards to persuade the youth in particular to register and vote. Most importantly election monitoring schemes using SMS technology have been put in place and will be managed by local independent observers and voting citizens are being encouraged to report any violence or election fraud. Nevertheless the mere fact that the elections will take place over an extended period with different elections on different days increases the possibility of fraud and voter manipulation.
The debates in question have been farcical as the President refused to debate the other candidates, who in turn refused to debate the President. Already Amnesty International has reported at least 50 people have been killed in election violence.
The instruments of democracy such as a strong civil society, a independent free media and issue based politics, remain weak. Unlike for example during Obasanjo's presidency, there do not appear to be any progressive voices necessary to critique the election and campaign processes. So yes, these elections may signal the embryonic stages of a new beginning, but without a strong critical media, civil society and the development of issue-based politics along with visionary ideas, the democratic process will remain in its infancy.
Reno Omokri, VP, Africa, Trippi and Associates and Founder, Build up Nigeria Project:
It definitely is (not suggests) a deepening of democracy that we are experiencing. The social network age is an age of instant democracy and if you are not popular you cannot fake it.
To give an example, on the 30th of March 2011 President Goodluck Jonathan was the 9th most popular trending subject on Twitter. Talk of instant karma, this is instant proof of popularity.
Where are his rivals on the trending charts? Uhhh, nowhere to be found.
Facebook is a perfect test case of one's popularity. We all have popular friends and their friends list is proof of their popularity. Not so? Well here is the thing, Ibrahim Shekarau, Nuhu Ribadu and Muhammadu Buhari all had a Facebook presence before the June 2010 entrance to Facebook by President Goodluck Jonathan but they have only a small, very small fraction of the Facebook following that President Jonathan has. In fact, the combined tally of all the Facebook fans of President Goodluck Jonathan's closest rivals in the race is not up to 30% of his following.
So yes, the use of social media in this race is proof of two things-one, that democracy has deepened in Nigeria, and-two, the contest has already been won and President Jonathan is the winner.
Tolu Ogunlesi, Features Editor, Next Newspaper:
I think that what we are seeing in Nigeria at the moment is not so much a “deepening of democracy” (i.e. in terms of a transformation of democratic institutions: police, judiciary, executive, legislature, political parties etc), as it is an ‘awareness-transformation’ on the part of citizens. It is important to realise that democracy, as a system of government, is useless when citizens do not realise the extent of the power it offers them. Various interlinked factors including technology (mobile phones, social networking, a computerised voter database), the 2008 Barack Obama story (of change, and limitless possibilities), the North African uprisings and a general yearning for good leadership after 12 unimpressive years of civilian rule have combined to enlighten, inspire and empower Nigerians and to transform their understanding of what genuine democracy is all about (power in the hands of the people). So while the Nigerian judiciary remains embroiled in corruption, the Police Force continues to be as ineffective and compromised as ever, and the political parties continue to lack vision or ideological basis, what is happening is that citizens are realising that they have more power than they thought they had: the power to say “No”, or “Yes.” Social networking for example is serving as a platform for connecting and mobilising people, and this new-found unity brings with it the confidence to challenge a mediocre establishment.
So, it may be premature to say democracy has “deepened” in Nigeria. But realising that it is morning yet on revolution day should spur us on to the next phase; which would be where we seek a genuine transformation of the defining institutions of democracy. That, I think, is what we’ll need to focus on after the elections. For now Nigerians are eager to put their newly-realised powers to the test, in the ballot boxes. That in itself is a justifiable basis for excitement and optimism.