Authenticating the vision of a robust and unwavering democracy in Africa, Nelson Mandela’s poignant words echo: “It is not our diversity that divides us, but the contrast between those who champion democracy and those who do not.” This perspective, deeply resonating across the continent, extends far beyond the confines of Nigeria, elucidating a Pan-African narrative. Dr. Oby Ezekwesili succinctly captured this reality during the #Fixpolitics’ Africa Conference saying that “you can easily swap politicians in Kenya with politicians in Nigeria without citizens of either country feeling like anything has changed.” Indeed, evidence shows that the challenges in Africa’s nascent democracy revolve around the quality of leadership and the process through which democratic leaders emerge.

Democracy, a system of governance that empowers citizens to participate in decision-making, has witnessed little progress and major challenges in its implementation across the diverse continent of Africa. In grappling with Africa’s democratic evolution, one confronts pivotal inquiries: Have we stumbled in our pursuit of democracy? Can democracy genuinely thrive in Africa?

Drawing from my active involvement in advocating democratic principles and facilitating free, fair, credible, popular and transparent electoral processes in Nigeria, I have come to perceive ideal democracy as a blank canvas where every citizen holds the pen. How they write and what they write or fail to write on the canvas have consequences that transcend generations. Regrettably, orchestrated missteps in Africa’s democratic narrative are not mere accidents but purposeful actions crafted by political entities and institutional affiliates for self-serving agendas. The proliferation of advocates of democracy in the form of non-governmental organizations and multiple activists, a defiant set continuously agitating for what could be in the midst of what is not, amidst persistent threats and challenges that stem from historical, socio-economic, and socio-cultural factors, remains a source of hope, a glimpse of light that continues to shine through African democracy.

Have we failed with democracy? No!

The narrative of Africa’s democratic landscape embodies both triumphs and tribulations. While some countries transitioned from authoritarian regimes to more inclusive and accountable systems, little effort was made to localize the democratic system and involve the African people in the transition. This made it easy for strong individuals operating quasi-democratic ideologies with western affiliates and a well-structured succession plan to overpower and re-colonize the states at the expense of the African people. Consequently, corruption, eroding trust in public institutions, limited political inclusivity, and ethnic and tribal divisions rooted in archaic sentiments hindered socio-economic development, undermining national unity and political stability. This accounts for the burgeoning citizen-backed military coups in African countries where political leaders have failed to provide good governance. Reflecting on what could be; beyond the characteristic failures, two countries stand out in the democratic struggle in Africa: Botswana and Mauritius.

Botswana, the longest uninterrupted democracy in Africa is one of the safest countries on the continent, with a human development index of 67.7% against the continental lows and highs of 39.4% and 77.7% in Chad and Mauritius, respectively (IIAG, 2021). According to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES, 2022), average voter turnout in Botswana and Mauritius is over 80%. While Botswana and Mauritius practice parliamentary democracy, research shows that the democratic progress made by the two countries can be attributed to the localization of democratic ideals and citizens’ commitment.

The Botswana and Mauritius examples vividly illustrate the democratic potential unleashed when citizens actively engage in the electoral process. Notably, nations with robust civic involvement and smooth political transitions showcase heightened political stability, fostering an attractive environment for foreign direct investments (FDIs). However, the intricate balance between economic development and resource equity, alongside a transparent and just leadership selection process, remains a nuanced and critical aspect within the democratic dialogue across all African nations.

What can be done to strengthen democracy in Nigeria and the rest of Africa?

It is imperative to recognize that beyond the echoes of governance failure lies the heartbeat of flawed electoral mechanisms—our pivotal challenge and catalyst for change. Though I acknowledge the fact that the race towards sustainable democracy is neither a sprint nor a marathon, I hold a strong opinion that intentional steps must be taken to constitute a progressive democracy characterized by good governance, rule of law, equal rights, and justice.

To fortify Nigeria’s democratic trajectory, reforms must prioritize bolstering electoral institutions’ independence and transparency. Constituting a non-partisan electoral commission accountable to the nation is paramount and for this I strongly recommend that all political parties should be allowed to nominate a candidate for the position of chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) while the national assembly votes for the most suitable candidate to chair the commission. This will give the office a national appeal against what is currently obtainable (an appointment by an individual—the President). Similarly, members and funders of political parties should not be allowed to hold executive and non-executive positions in the electoral commission. The electoral institution should be unbundled, and different arms created by legislation to cater for the electoral needs of the Nigerian people. Electoral officers should be mandated to prove the authenticity of the elections they conduct. Giving political parties and candidates the mandate to prove that elections are flawed makes it difficult to hold corrupt officials accountable since the law gives them an undue advantage.

Accreditation of voters and voting should be completely electronic, with accredited voters and election results transmitted in real-time. The experiment with BVAS has shown what is possible, so with a quality technological intervention that minimizes biased human inputs and an empowered staff, electoral institutions will have no reason to fail.

The courts should not decide who won an election and who did not. The court should be limited to its core mandate of interpreting the law and sanctioning erring politicians and electoral offenders. The court should only declare a rerun where it is proven that elections were manipulated and disqualify all offenders from participating in the rerun.

Certainly essential to our pursuit of sustainable democracy is vital collaboration among nations and imperative technological expertise. Implementing CCTV surveillance systems across the 774 local governments stands as a crucial step to uncover and address the misconduct often witnessed during logistics mobilization and collation processes in Nigerian elections.

The resounding anthem across Africa resonates with the grim chorus of governance failure and its consequential repercussions. This anthem is not unfounded; it is a poignant acknowledgment of the unmet promises and aspirations entrusted to leaders who have veered off the path of responsibility and accountability.

But beyond the failure which is a consequence, we must intentionally suffocate electoral coups before democracy suffocates in Africa.

Ekejiuba Daberechi Kingsley is the founder of Progressive Abia youths and an advocate of inclusive democracy characterised by free, fair, transparent, peaceful, popular and credible elections in Nigeria and the rest of Africa

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