Nigeria: The Texture of Democracy

We hear the term democracy so frequently that it’s easy to lose the sense of what it means. One day it’s a presidential election. The next it’s regulation of the media. A week later it’s the right to display a flag. At the Sussex Development Lecture a few weeks ago Kayode Fayemi talked about the texture of democracy in Nigeria. The idea struck a chord. We need to be looking at something more than the forms and functions.

Kayode Fayemi’s path to Ekiti State Governor

Kayode Fayemi described himself as an “accidental politician”. However, few of those among the audience had any doubt that his rise to the role of Governor of Ekiti State in South Eastern Nigeria was built on a solid foundation of political dexterity. Following his earlier career as a civil society activist (he was a former Director at the Centre for Democracy and Development in Nigeria), his election campaign was built on a commitment to reduce poverty and improve education and healthcare. Governor Fayemi spent three years in court contesting the results of the 2007 elections before finally being recognized as Governor on 15th October 2010.

I was particularly interested in his description of the successes he has achieved to date. And even more, in his proposal that progress in Ekiti State served as evidence of the oversimplification of national rankings in measuring good governance. The recent publication of the Ibrahim index placed Nigeria at 43 out of 52 African countries. Governor Fayemi rightly maintains that aggregating the indicators on a national scale hides many positive initiatives. I agree whole-heartedly with his appeal that we look beyond national statistics to develop a deep understanding of the texture of democracy. However, this should be done both for the good and the bad.

Having spent years demanding good governance as an activist, his efforts have been driven by a determination to change the culture of Nigerian politics and bring people to the centre of the debate. Delivering has not been so easy.

Facing the challenges of a federal system

One of the big difficulties Governor Fayemi faces is the relationship between the federal and the state levels of government. Nigeria is formally a federation, but the federal government is generally powerful, and especially so in relation to the police and security forces. Although as Governor of Ekiti State Fayemi has overall responsibility for security, the state Police Commissioner reports not to him but to the federal government in Abuja. Approval from Abuja is required before action is taken on the Governor’s requests or suggestions about police activities.

As Governor Fayemi explained, policing demands not only specific technical skill and experience, but also an understanding of local languages, issues and networks. It is the lack of this understanding that largely explains the security challenge posed by Boko Haram in the north of the country. This in turn has led to renewed calls for policing to be managed by the states.

With the creation of a state police force, Governors would benefit from increased autonomy and discretion. It would be easier for them to respond directly to security concerns of their electorate. They would not need to negotiate, cajole or appease their police commissioners into action. Less time would be wasted explaining local issues to federal decision makers.

On the surface of it, these arguments sound like a valid basis for change. But governance is rarely so straightforward.

Governor Fayemi has a strong academic background in security issues, but this is unlikely to be the case in every other state of the country. Are all thirty-six states equally ready to take this on? Making a decision based on the current leadership or preference in one state is no guarantee of success. The referral to the federal authority is an important safeguard to moderate the power of the Governor and prevent the police from being used as a political tool. And finally, a national perspective to policing maintains a balance of authority across the diversity of Nigeria.

Nigeria’s progress as a democratic state

Over 13 years ago, Nigeria closed a chapter on military rule and embarked on a process of democratization. In a country of tremendous diversity it has managed to hold this course. The tension between internal state priorities and the wider discussion about the federal constitution will likely continue. And so it should.

In a country of over 160 million people who speak over 500 different languages there is rarely an obvious choice for policy decisions. To reach the best decision for the context of Nigeria, the debate might broadcast the advantages, discredit the problems and perhaps even hint at the political gains.

But that is the nature of a textured debate. And that is the essence of the democratic state.