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Despite serial challenges, Nigerians believe in democracy, oppose authoritarianism



Open Society

Democracy, according to Britannica, has been defined as ‘a system of government in which laws, policies, leadership, and major undertakings of a state or other polity are directly or indirectly decided by the people’.

Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999 after three decades of almost uninterrupted military rule and ever since, democratic governance has passed through diverse challenges characterised by keen political competition, ethnic and religious clashes, resource allocation rivalries, human rights violations, electoral violence, corruption and economic turmoil.

On February 25, 2023, millions of Nigerians went to the poll to elect Africa most populous country’s president. A former Lagos State Governor, Bola Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, was declared winner of the election by the Independent National Electoral Commission.

The presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, Atiku Abubakar, who came second, and the Labour Party presidential candidate, Peter Obi, who came third, however, asked the court to invalidate the election alleging irregularities.

While the election results were being challenged at the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal by Tinubu’s two main rivals, European Union observers said the 2023 elections were marred by problems “which damaged trust in INEC” and “reduced trust in the process and challenged the right to vote.”

On Wednesday, September 6, the country’s Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal in Abuja delivered its verdict and rejected the allegations raised by Atilku and Obi’s lawyers for lacking concrete grounds to warrant its invalidation. The judgment followed same pattern in Nigeria’s previous elections.

With a population of over 200 million, many Nigerians still hope for a vibrant democratic system with strong, independent institutions that will hold the government accountable, ensure social justice, and deliver the dividends of democracy.

Despite the aforementioned, a new report, Open Society Barometer, has indicated an enduring faith in democratic principles among the global public, including Nigerians.

The new report, which was published on Monday by the Open Society Foundations and exclusively made available to PUNCH, was based on a survey of over 36,344 respondents in a representative group of 30 countries around the world.

Launched in September 2023, the Open Society Barometer serves as a global reality check, asking people each year about the issues affecting their lives, communities, countries and the wider world — and how best to address them.

The polls, which were conducted between May and July 2023 by the OSF team and partners, indicate that on the average, 86 per cent of the respondents want to live in a democratic state, and despite its shortcomings, people still believe in the potential of democracy to generate solutions to the common challenges they face.

In his foreword to the report, the President of OSF, Mark Malloch-Brown, explains that the gravest threat to democracy is not the rival appeal of authoritarianism but rather the question of whether democratic leaders can deliver for their citizens.

He also points out that while it seems that advancing polycrisis – widespread social unease, rising inflation, escalating climate crisis, global health emergencies and food and energy crisis – signals the decline of democracy, there is still much trust in its principles.

Malloch-Brown says, “The reports of democracy’s demise are greatly exaggerated. In fact, it has a strong pulse. And the gravest threat it faces is not the rival appeal of authoritarianism but rather the question of whether democratic leaders can deliver for their populations.

“People want to believe in open societies in which checks on power, pluralistic and independent institutions, minority protections, and individual rights enable all to participate. But the evidence of that model improving their lives is all too patchy.

“That is the central finding of this new Open Society Barometer. Between May and July, our team and partners surveyed over 36,000 respondents in a representative group of 30 countries around the world. Building on a similar exercise conducted last year, the results paint a detailed picture of the attitudes, fears, and hopes of citizens in states with a collective population of over 5.5 billion. They are at once hopeful and sobering.

“With the rise of authoritarianism and populism, new debates about the relative efficacy of rival systems of government, and the acceleration of the so-called ‘polycrisis,’ it is easy to conclude that democracy is doomed to decline. But our polling shows a broad and enduring faith in its principles among the global public.”

The OSF President further explains that the polling lends credence to the view that democratic governments can deliver the economic, civil and social benefits that their citizens want better than authoritarian regimes.

He adds, “Those surveyed strongly tend to the view that authoritarian regimes are less able than democracies to fulfill these needs. Only 20 percent believe that the latter can ‘deliver what citizens want.’

“Not only are most people unconvinced by the alternatives to democracy, they also identify with open society principles. On average, majorities of between 85 per cent and 95 per cent agree it is wrong for governments to deny access to individual rights on grounds of appearance, religion, sexual or gender orientation, or in cases of disruptive acts of protest.”

Weakening democracy, yet still preferred

Explaining further the findings in the Open Society Barometer report, Malloch-Brown notes that about 65 per cent of respondents across 30 countries said they would prefer their country built relationships with democracies rather than authoritarian governments.

“The same pattern applies to democracy’s global sibling: multilateralism. On average, 66 per cent of respondents believe democracies contribute more than authoritarian countries to international cooperation. That sense was strongest among respondents in Kenya and Nigeria, where nearly 80 per cent agreed,” he adds.

However, the OSF president highlights a disturbing correlation between the ages of the people polled and their support for authoritarianism, noting that the faith in democracy may weaken with each generation.

“That may be linked to probably our most disturbing finding: there is a strong correlation between age and attitudes at odds with democratic principles. Among those aged 56 and above, 26 per cent were supportive of a strong leader who does away with assemblies and elections.

 “So although most people globally still have faith in democracy, that faith is running on fumes. And these findings suggest that it may be set to weaken with each generation,” Malloch-Brown states.

Based on the deductions of the authors of the OSB, Chanu Peiris and Natalie Samarasinghe, democracy remains the most popular form of government globally, with 86 per cent of respondents wanting to live in a democratic state and nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) preferring it over any other system.

Ninety-two per cent of Nigerians say it is important for them to live in a country that is democratically governed. For Kenya it is 90 per cent; Ghana and Senegal, each 89 per cent, and for South Africa 83 per cent. Based on a global average of 86 per cent in favour of democracy, most Nigerians still preferred democracy to any other political system.

In another chart showing the percentage of respondents per country who believe democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, Nigeria scores 69 per cent on a global average of 62 per cent.