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Autumn 2000
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FOCUS: Promoting Democracy in Africa


In January and February 2000, a team of resource persons assembled by International IDEA conducted consultations among the different sectors, communities and regions of Nigeria. Their mission was to assess the challenges facing democratic consolidation in Nigeria by listening to a wide range of voices. They drew from the perceptions and reflections of politicians, government officials, legislators, civil society activists, minority rights activists, religious leaders and the private sector.

The conclusions and recommendations that emerged from these consultations have now been issued as a report, Democracy in Nigeria - Continuing Dialogue(s) for Nation-Building. Published by International IDEA, the report was presented to the Nigerian people and the international community in November 2000.

The report of the Nigerian democratic assessment mission is itself a measure of the recent changes in the political climate in the country. An elected government was installed in Nigeria on 29 May 1999, an event that finally broke 15 years of military rule. This transition from martial tyranny elicited considerable euphoria within the country. It expanded the space for dialogue and created opportunities to actually build democratic institutions.

Outside its borders, the handover attracted goodwill and focused international attention on developments in this large African country. International IDEA expressed its support for this process of democratic opening by, among other initiatives, facilitating an assessment of the prospects and constraints for democratic development in Nigeria.


Prior interest

Yet for International IDEA, the interest in political developments in Nigeria was concretely expressed prior to 29 May 1999. The Institute undertook an exploratory mission in February 1999, initiating contacts with a diverse spectrum of stakeholders and getting a feel of the issues and concerns featuring in the discourse between Nigerians. In April 1999 International IDEA Secretary-General Bengt Säve-Söderbergh addressed a retreat organised by president-elect Olusegun Obasanjo for potential appointees to his cabinet.

A few weeks after his inauguration, President Olusegun Obasanjo met with an International IDEA delegation to discuss the challenges confronting Nigeria, and ways in which the Institute could support the process of democratic reform. From these initial contacts and discussions emerged the view that the Institute could provide comparative experience on constitutional reform, undertake an assessment of the transition to democracy and assist the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC).

The release of Democracy in Nigeria - Continuing Dialogue(s) for Nation-Building marks the completion of one phase of the Institute's support programme. In conception and implementation, the Nigeria democracy assessment mission conformed to International IDEA's non-prescriptive methodology. The mission acknowledged that Nigerians themselves are in continual dialogue over the content, dimensions and contours of the democratic evolution of their country.

It sought to contribute to these debates by making them as participatory and inclusive as the constraints of time and resources would permit. Thus the mission involved a preponderance of Nigerian resource-persons (40 out of 46), who tried to ensure that as many voices as possible took part in the discourse on democracy in this diverse country. The Nigerian resource-persons also came from varied backgrounds: academics, civil society activists, journalists and culture workers.

The participatory and interactive context of the assessment mission was paramount even at the preparatory stages. After the introductory missions, a more extensive tour of the country was undertaken in July 1999. On this mission, the International IDEA team visited all the six geopolitical zones of the country in a concerted effort to discern the problems and questions Nigerians were grappling with in their diversity and their intensity.

The strands and portraits that emerged from these trips were discussed at a workshop held in Abuja in August 1999 and attended by over 30 Nigerians from different regions and organizations. The Abuja workshop identified and discussed the themes around which the assessment was structured.


Broad themes

14 thematic areas, covering the paramount issues confronting democratic consolidation, were identified. Amongst them were: the constitution, the economy and poverty, civil-military relations, how to build a culture of democracy, civil society, the state and electoral processes. Three issues were classified as 'cross-cutting' owing to their overall impact and salience: ethnicity, religion and gender.

For reasons of Nigeria's size and diversity, it was decided to study how these issues play out in three specific regions: the Niger Delta, the North East and the Middle Belt. Finally, in recognition of the external dimension, the role of the international community was listed for investigation.

The assessment proper began with a planning workshop in Lagos held in late January 2000. Thereafter the 14 teams began consultations across the country, a process that lasted until early February when the resource-persons gathered in Abuja for a workshop at which their findings were synthesized. Chairman of the International IDEA Board Sir Shridath Ramphal, chaired the synthesis workshop. In the course of his visit, Sir Ramphal also met senior government figures, including President Obasanjo. The assessment was concluded on 11th February.

What the report presents is analyses and recommendations on each of the thematic areas. It shows that although many Nigerians welcome the prospect of democratic restoration, factors such as poverty, ethnic and religious violence and a lingering militarised psyche remain to be overcome. The reflexes of the state, as demonstrated by the destruction of Odi and issuing of shoot-on-sight orders in December, 1999, are still shaped by a military ethos. Thus a process of democratic reorientation is needed to adjust state and society to understanding democracy as a process that requires patience and tolerance. As part of this alteration of attitudes, civilian oversight over the military needs to be institutionalized.

Confronting poverty

The report is clear that an inclusive process of constitutional reform is possible, one that restores legitimacy to the constitution and promotes integration by basing citizenship on residence. It calls for a new social compact between the state, civil society, the private sector and the international community to promote popular participation, civic empowerment and the involvement of all stakeholders in the policy process. In the face of the extreme poverty that besets most Nigerians, an effective assault on poverty is advocated as a means of raising living standards and helping to broaden the pro-democracy coalition against destabilizing forces.

On the volatile question of religion, the report suggests that secularity is the best policy for the state in a plural society such Nigeria. It seeks the evolution of a social programme for youth that can provide them with fulfilment within a democratic society. On women, the report recommends that the constitution be reviewed for gender-sensitivity and with a view to integrating international conventions on gender to which Nigeria is signatory. It proposes affirmative action to improve women's participation in governance, and attune society to enhanced sensitivity to their peculiar needs.

On political structure, the report recommends strengthening the Nigerian federation by decentralising power and resources from the centre to the states and local governments. It argues that states should have their constitutions where the powers of local governments are also clearly defined. In fiscal terms, it proposes entrenching the derivation principle as the basis for revenue allocation.

Its assessment of the electoral process highlights the need for a financially and administratively autonomous electoral constitution, a transparent and updated voter's register and integrity in administering elections. To encourage wider participation in politics, it is argued that the electoral commission should relax the conditions for forming parties and recognise independent candidates.

Regional issues

The regional case studies suggest a variety of economic, political and environmental measures to address the problems of the Middle Belt, the North East and the Niger Delta. The government needs to generate employment, alleviate poverty and redress the alienation of the people from the state. These areas require investments in infrastructure, protection against oil pollution, desert encroachment and inter-ethnic violence. Developments in the North East, for example, illustrate the fact that Nigeria would require a regional framework to solve problems such as desert encroachment, persistent flooding and the security threat of bandits.

Many of these suggestions accord with the current of discourse and agitation in Nigeria today. Indeed, the report could help galvanise a critical mass of opinion behind its articulation of the measures that could help consolidate democracy in Nigeria. In a country where loyalty is always prone to fragment towards exclusive communities, the report outlines proposals, such as redefinitions of citizenship, on which a new integrative platform could be based.

The report was formally presented in the capital Abuja, but activities to engage a broad constituency for its findings will be undertaken across the country. Policy makers, the media, civil society, business and the international community will be involved in efforts to promote the report through workshops and the audiovisual media. International IDEA will ensure that the report is disseminated to all stakeholders.


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