The Challenge of Democracy in Africa


By Onikepo Braithwaite 

The Unspeakably Abominable Siege on Mary Peter-Odili, JSC’s Residence

Before I go into the word for today, I must unequivocally condemn the raid/siege on the residence of Honourable Justice Mary Ukaego Peter-Odili, Justice of the Supreme Court and second most senior Judicial Officer in Nigeria, whether by the EFCC, Police, Justice Ministry or whichever Government agency carried out this dastardly act. To say that this ugly incident shows a blatant disrespect and disregard for not only the Judiciary, the third arm of Government, but also the rule of law generally, is an understatement. Those responsible for this illegal act, should not be allowed to get away with such lawlessness. The perpetrators of this breach of Justice Odili’s fundamental rights, particularly her right to dignity of her person and not to be subjected to torture (both mental and physical) and degrading treatment, and the invasion on her right to privacy contrary to Sections 34(1)(a) and 37 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended)(the Constitution), must be made an example of, to prevent the reoccurrence of this kind of assault on the Judiciary. I have maintained on several occasions, that Nigeria seems to be rapidly descending into a Police State; this is yet another example that buttresses my assertion. This incident must not be allowed to be swept under the carpet, as is the usual practice in Nigeria. There must be consequences.

Sit-Tight Rulers and Semi-Democracy

For the last few decades, the globally acceptable way to effect a change in government which is by election, that is, democracy, sort of caught on in Africa, albeit reluctantly. We saw the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and several African military regimes make way for ‘democratic’ rule. The less friendly and less acceptable way of change of government, like military coup d’état (aka coup), seemed to go out of fashion, maybe because of the agitation by the various local human rights groups for a change to civilian democratic rule, and pressure from the Western world.

But, 22 years after Nigeria supposedly returned to civil rule, and looking at the African continent generally, I wonder whether most of us Africans are really practicing democracy. I don’t think so – maybe some form of semi-democracy, but not democracy in the true sense of the word. Here, we have a civilian Government mostly in name only. In Nigeria, a good number of our so-called politicians and elected officials, are former military men. Is it so easy to change an autocratic ‘obey before complaint’ training and lifelong mindset, just because the Western world says it’s time to change?

In some African countries, we have the “sit-tight democratic” rulers, who have been in power for decades, with some even having their constitutions altered, so that they can keep running for office ad infinitum. Examples are late Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe; 88 year old Paul Biya of Cameroon, who has been in office since 1982 when I was 17 years old – I’m 56 years old now!; Late Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi; late Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya; late Hosni Mubarak of Egypt; Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia (who incidentally is exactly two days younger than me, and took office as President in 1996 after two years as the Chairman of the Armed Forces Ruling Council, from 1996 when we were 31 years old, to 2017 when we turned 52; yet, he still had to be chased out of office after losing the election to his successor, and forcibly attempting to stay on); Yoweri Museveni of Uganda; and Paul Kagame of Rwanda.

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Back home in Nigeria, so soon after we returned to civilian rule, it was alleged that during President Obasanjo’s second term, they tried to push a “third term” agenda to extend his Presidency, but it failed. Let me add that, many of these rulers, have military backgrounds. In fact, in Nigeria, out of the four Presidents we have had since our return to civilian rule in 1999, two of them, General Obasanjo and Major General Buhari are not just former Military Generals, they are former Military Heads of State/Dictators. Like I said, some of their fellow soldiers also dropped their military uniform, and wangled their way into the new ‘democratic’ order, through one political/Ministerial position or the other, one of them, Brigadier General David Mark, even ending up as the President of the Nigerian Senate for eight years.

Our first challenge with democracy is that, most African rulers never want to leave office. For most of us Africans, our elections are manipulated to return sit-tight leaders/political parties/politicians every electoral cycle, and secondly, our Constitutions are mostly observed in the breach, especially the equivalent of Chapter IV of our Constitution, that is, Fundamental Human Rights – these provisions have been more or less, muted. Like in the military days when we were ruled on the whims and caprices of our dictators, in our so-called present-day democracy, there is no accountability, as in Nigeria’s case for instance, Section 6(6)(c) of the Constitution has ousted the jurisdiction of the courts when it comes accounting for performance, that is, how well the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy contained in Chapter II of the Constitution have been achieved – meanwhile these objectives and principles are the very essence of governance.

Needless to say, discontent seems to be the general feeling gradually moving across Africa, from the Arab Spring which started in North Africa in 2010 to date. Apart from the fact that the people have become more politically savvy and want their votes to count, bad governance leading to the people not having any dividends of democracy to enjoy, have gingered up the feelings of dissatisfaction and discontent amongst many. But, now that different types of dissenting groups have decided that the ballot box will not bring any of the changes they desire, since with every subsequent electoral cycle, the system remains more or less the same or worse, we are now seeing some of the old, violent types of regime change resurface in Africa, like military coups and revolution.

Military Coups

While a revolution is a movement by a large number of people seeking the overthrow of a government for a new order, whether political, economic or social, a coup is a violent regime change carried out by a small group, usually the Army or the Armed Forces. Britannica defines a Coup d’état as “the sudden violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group”. Sometimes it can be bloody, other times, no fatalities are recorded. Most of the coups that occurred in Nigeria were bloody, except for maybe General Abacha’s coup in which he overthrew the Interim National Government of Chief Ernest Shonekan, less than three months after they took up office in August, 1993.

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A wave of coups, seems to have started to gradually sweep through West Africa. I had thought they were long gone – ancient history, but, alas! I was wrong. In 2021 alone, there have been three coups in Africa – in Mali (May 25), Guinea (September 5) and Sudan (which stretches from West to Northeast Africa)(October 25, just last week)(military dictator, Omar Al-Bashir was ousted two years ago).

While there are many causes of coups – grievances of military personnel, insecurity, economic crisis, domestic political crisis, ethnic differences (tribalism), corruption and bad governance feature high on the list of reasons for coups; sadly, many of these negative elements are present in many African countries, including Nigeria. And while the outcome of a coup could result in a positive change, that is, a reversion to a better, democratic political order, it usually doesn’t end up that way. Mostly, countries just end up jumping from frying pan to fire, with the installation of a new set of autocratic, despotic military rulers who transform themselves into semi/pseudo-democrats, as we have seen in countries like Egypt. As much positive change and development as former soldier and rebel leader, Paul Kagame may have brought to Rwanda, the Rwandan Constitution was also amended to allow him to run for additional terms as President, and dissension against his Government, is said not to be tolerated. Presently, President Kagame is on his third seven-year term, which commenced in 2017.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that, most of us reasonable people do not ascribe to coups and violence, especially in this day and age – I certainly do not. But, be that as it may, most African Governments must take a step back and reconsider their style of governance and the feelings of the people they are governing, to prevent such occurrences. They cannot continue to bury their heads in the sand, wishing the discontent of the people away, because they pretend that it doesn’t exist.

For example, the Minister of Information (Disinformation), Alhaji Lai Mohammed said: “The point is about you swallowing hook, line and sinker, a report by a foreign organisation which you have not even interrogated yourself….”. Government has been unable to rebut CNN’s assertion and evidence about the Army firing live bullets at unarmed Protesters at the Lekki Tollgate during the #EndSARS Protest. So, why not de-emphasise CNN, concentrate on implementing institutional reforms for the Police and paying victims’ compensation, instead of trivialising issues and making Government look like unreliable purveyors of falsehood; insulting CNN and insulting the intelligence of the Nigerian Youths, of those whose family members have died or been injured or maimed as a result of Police brutality, and of Nigerians as a whole, while trying to gag the media. This sort of reasoning, talk and behaviour from such a senior Government representative, is annoying and disappointing – it incenses and riles people, and it is counter-productive.

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NBA Conference and Referendum

I attended the just concluded Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) 2021 Annual General Conference which held last week at the Yakubu Gowon Stadium, Elekahia, Port Harcourt, Rivers State themed “Taking the Lead”. Indeed, the NBA ‘took the lead’ in selecting contemporary and relevant topics for discussion, and the sessions were extremely interesting and informative. At times, I got confused about making a choice as to which session to attend, when there was a clash!

At the closing plenary session titled “We the People….” A Debate on Constitutional Amendment, the consensus and resolution was that, there should be a Referendum as a prelude to redrawing a new Constitution. While some asserted that there should be a constitutional amendment by virtue of Section 9(2) of the Constitution to expressly include a provision for Referendum, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN (who was one of the Discussants on the Panel) (like my humble myself), believes that there are enough provisions within the Constitution which imply that Referendum is permitted, like the preamble and Section 14(2)(a) of the Constitution, which gives sovereignty to the people. Now is the appointed time for Government and the Legislature to actualise this resolution of the NBA, in the interest of peace and progress of Nigeria.


It is time to take a good look at the grievances of the African people, and work towards addressing them. In Nigeria, the insurgency we are experiencing in the North East and South East, is a form of coup attempt. There is no better time for serious discussion and action, than now. Those who feel marginalised and discriminated against, like the South Easterners (see Sections 14(3) and 42 of the Constitution) – is there any justification for their feeling? Does the South East zone have enough States? Are the Federal official positions distributed evenly? Should majority of the heads of the security agencies and Federal courts all hail from one zone, or should these positions be distributed evenly across all the zones? Those who say that Zamfara State is keeping the revenue from its gold for itself, while the South South is not enjoying the fruits of its oil – is there any basis for their complaint? How should the issue of VAT be resolved, when the provisions of the Constitution in this regard are clear? Fiscal Federalism? Those who say we should adhere strictly to Section 10 of the Constitution and keep religion personal in the interest of peace – is their demand legitimate? Devolution of powers? Restructuring? Until all these and the many other hard questions are answered truthfully, and then addressed properly, I fear that the unrest we are experiencing, will not subside or abate. It is obvious that Government cannot continue to gloss over these crucial matters, as if they don’t exist. ‘A stitch in time, saves nine’. A word, they say, is enough for the wise! Government mustn’t allow the situation in the country, to deteriorate any further. My dear Readers, what are your thoughts on this?



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