Democracy and Governance in Nigeria: Reflecting on 51 Years of Independence

Sovereignty is not a right; it is a responsibility, in political terms it is the responsibility of the state to deliver education, health care, infrastructure, public services, good governance, and protection from violence and crime among others. Independence throughout Africa is a great source of pride and a symbol of accomplishment. However, past the act of independence, governments of independent states have numerous responsibilities. The inability of the state to meet its responsibility, results in state failure. The African giant a failed state? This seems improbable however; the reality on the ground confirms Nigeria’s descent into the undesired category.

Independence broke the bonds of colonialism, freeing Nigeria to be sovereign, to practice free will and to determine its own fate. Now, 51 years later what has this produced? In the Niger Delta region, it has produced a citizenry paralyzed by the presence of oil companies, their movements restricted in their own communities. It has produced isolation in the name of commerce. As argued by Amnesty International, oil companies treat community residents as “risks rather than as stakeholders with critical concerns about the impact of oil operations.” This approach alienates community residents and fuels animosity. Where communities protest (violent or non-violent) the alienation by oil companies, the response is a disproportionate use of force by government forces against communities. The interests of foreign companies being placed before the needs of nationals are not reflective of a government that is accountable or of an independent state.

Independence has also produced a destruction of traditional livelihoods and a population disenfranchised by a lack of access to elected officials and election materials. The decentralized nature of Nigeria’s federal system should produce significant development in communities, since Local Governments function to ensure public service delivery at the local level. However, the reverse has been true. Local government representatives have limited engagement with the communities they serve; many are only present during elections. There is a lack of transparency in their budgetary allocations and community development projects do not reflect the needs of the people. Of 478 focus groups surveyed in our Niger Delta Citizen Report Card, 408 described their relationship with Local Government as “poor”; this reflects the views of 120 communities in the Niger Delta. What is more, only 0.2% of respondents reported that they receive information about development resources from Local Government. These findings demonstrate the stark disconnect between the “grassroots government” and its constituents.

The Niger Delta region suffers from severe underdevelopment despite the billions of dollars in revenue that it produces in oil, a key driver of the Nigerian economy. Environmental degradation has crippled traditional livelihoods, lack of infrastructure, poor water and sanitation and a lack of educational and health facilities has severely stunted human development of many of its 30 million inhabitants. The 2010 UNDP Human Development Report notes that, “In the Niger Delta endemic oil spills, waste dumping and gas flaring have destroyed ecologically sensitive wetlands, clogged waterways, killed wildlife and damaged the soil and air quality over the past 50 years—ruining the lives of people in the region.”

This description is a reflection of an independent state unable to meet its central objective, the needs of the people.

The conditions described above confirm that Nigeria is a weak state, leaning toward failure. Nigeria meets the criteria for state weakness as established by the Brookings Institution’s Index of State Weakness. As a state, Nigeria has failed to meet the basic human needs of its population; it lacks transparent and accountable political institutions and it has not produced sustainable or equitable economic growth.

In short, freedom and true independence will be achieved when the citizenry of Nigeria are empowered in every sense, economically, politically and socially. Their continued deprivation and neglect showers on the pride placed in independence. Without rectifying these issues independence is simply neo-colonialism, where few benefit and masses suffer. We hope to see a truly independent Nigeria, a new Nigeria. In the words of Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka, “Let’s say there are prospects for a new Nigeria, but I don’t think we have a new Nigeria yet.”

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