Nigeria: The Constant Question of Democracy

By Sabine Tessono

When Muhammadu Buhari was elected to presidency after defeating Goodluck Jonathan (member of the PDP, a political party dominated by former military officers and Muslims from the northern region of Nigeria) in 2015, many believed that his rise to power signified Nigeria’s victorious claiming of democracy. After a long struggle with ethnic tensions (eventually causing a civil war), a consistent pattern of coup d’etats and authoritarian warlord leadership, and a lack of communication and unification of commissions created to represent the general populace, Buhari’s presidency, along with Goodluck Jonathan’s willingness to step down, signified the first peaceful transfer of power in Nigeria’s history—leading to an overarching belief of a democratic regime filled with promise.

    Yet, over the course of Buhari’s presidency, organized democracy seems to be in jeopardy. With the onslaught of terrorist groups like Boko Haram threatening the livelihood of various citizens throughout the country and playing upon ethnic and political divides, and with human rights abuses and forceful suppression of protests of the establishment, the question of Nigeria’s potential for a true democracy without any authoritative elements seems to remain in question.

    The underlying current of unrest began to turn into distinct, vocalized outrage when President Buhari suspended the Nigerian Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen, under grievous accusations of “failing to disclose bank accounts in foreign currencies.”. While Buhari himself claimed the dismissal was in favor of enforcing justice and an intolerance for corruption, many believe that Onnoghen’s dismissal came suspiciously close to the date when he was set to preside over a disputed election result—one that could have been influenced by potential violence and vote-rigging. This swift ousting of the Chief Justice, combined with Buhari’s run for reelection has led those from the opposition side to question the validity of the decision. During press interviews and even on social media, dissenters from the PDP consistently slammed Buhari for his “’brazen dictatorial act [that is] an ongoing rape of our nation’s democracy’”, while others believe that Nigeria has regressed from a democratic nation into a “’jaded era of military dictatorship’”. In fact, Buhari’s firmness on the matter has caused leaders from the EU, UK, and US to critique the suspension and how it could reflect upon the electoral and democratic process.

    But one could also examine the accusations leveled against Onnoghen. If these charges of fraud are found to be true, what would that say about the validity of having a Chief Justice or a legislative body to keep electoral process in check when corruption is an undercurrent in the proceedings? Yet, the presidential response to the accusations and the denial of due process in the midst of an incoming presidential election also raises the question of whether Nigeria’s democratic proceedings are able to hold firm amidst the outcry and chaos or if the president utilizes this opportunity to tamper down further dissent. In any case, Onnoghen and Buhari’s struggle still proves that Nigeria has quite a ways to go before having a solidified and relatively efficient form of government.