Urhobo Historical Society

The Curse of Democracy in Northern Nigeria

By Abdullahi Usman 

Lagos, Nigeria

:Culled from:
Sunday, 06 June 2010 00:00

“An age is called Dark, not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it”- Michener James

In virtually every corner of the globe where it is practised in its ideal form, democracy, which has aptly been described by Abraham Lincoln as “a government of the people, by the people, for the people”, contributes significantly towards improving the lot of the population. This, it achieves, by conferring on every citizen equal rights in determining from among various contestants, those that have the best prospects of providing good governance in the course of managing the affairs of the polity for a defined period of time. Unlike most other forms of governance, it also comes with the added advantage of conferring on the electorate the unique ability to vote out such elected officials during subsequent election cycles in the event that their performance falls below expectations; an obvious reality that serves as a constant reminder to the elected officials to strive towards delivering on their numerous promises to the electorate.

In places where it is allowed to function and flourish in the true sense of the word, representative democracy often delivers the bulk of its intended benefits to the people, making it perhaps the most cherished and coveted system of governance known to mankind. These benefits that have now come to be regarded as the proverbial “democracy dividends” in Nigeria, appear in various forms, ranging from the protection of life and property of the citizens, improvements in healthcare and education, and the development of physical infrastructure such as roads and power, to mention a few. Whether or not our fledging democratic experiment has succeeded in meeting the yearnings and aspirations of the common man remains a matter of conjecture.

A proper assessment of the level of development (or lack of it) achieved in the course of our current democratic experiment is indeed far beyond the scope of this discourse, which is to attempt an in-depth review of the unintended burden that democracy (or, to put it more appropriately, its practitioners in the form of the nation’s political class), has inadvertently bestowed on the nation, with particular emphasis to the situation in Northern Nigeria. This, of course, has nothing to do with the all too familiar tales of vote rigging that rears its ugly head in virtually every poll conducted in the country, making it practically impossible for the wish of the electorate to count during such elections. This obvious reality of our brand of ‘democracy’, which is being operated without any semblance of democratic culture, often makes one chuckle whenever the larger world happens to mention Nigeria and democracy in the same sentence!

One major source of concern, for me, is the blatant manner in which members of our political class in the North regularly engage the services of jobless youths as thugs for the purpose of intimidating political opponents and their supporters during elections. These individuals, who are mainly uneducated or semi-literate, are often encouraged to break the law at will, with virtually nothing anyone can do to stop them once they have made up their mind to unleash havoc on their intended targets. Even where the law enforcement agents are able to effect their arrest as they should, those standing solidly behind them, and in whose name they carry out their dastardly activities, always ensure that they are promptly released to resume their assigned task of causing mayhem on the society.

A significant pointer to the serious menace caused by these miscreants is a seemingly innocuous interview granted by a blacksmith to the BBC Hausa Service correspondent around the Bauchi/Gombe axis in the immediate aftermath of the 2007 general elections. The blacksmith bemoaned the sharp drop in patronage he was recording, which saw his average sales of machetes, axes, knives and other similar dangerous objects from between 25 to 30 units per day in the build up to the polls, to less than 10 units immediately afterwards! In times past, one would ordinarily expect a boom in the sales of some of these implements to coincide with the onset of the rainy season, as farmers prepare to till the land in readiness for the approaching farming season.

This is, however, not to say that the ugly incidence of political thuggery is limited to the North alone; far from that! After all, some of the major problems bedeviling the nation today, such as: the militancy issue in the Niger Delta (or, at least the criminal aspects of it); the frequent unresolved cases of assassinations in the South West, and; problems of armed banditry, kidnappings and extortions in the South East can all be rightly said to have either been initiated by the politicians, who provided arms to these criminal elements during elections, or indeed flourished under their watch! Even the ongoing seemingly intractable ethnic crisis in Jos has variously been linked by some commentators to the obvious differences between some of the major political actors within Plateau State. One obvious danger with this attitude of providing tacit support to these criminal gangs is that they often do get out of control, thereby constituting a serious impediment to the peaceful co-existence and well being of the society.

 If anyone is ever in doubt as to the level of nuisance and immense threat to life and property that can result from the unchecked criminal activities of these miscreants, that person only needs to pay a visit to the hitherto peaceful North Western State of Sokoto. One often hears series of sad tales about the unrestrained activities of the so-called Area Boys in that state, but recent visits to Sokoto afforded me the unwelcomed opportunity of coming face to face with the stark reality of just how bad the situation has been allowed to degenerate. A combination of personal observations and several discussions with long standing friends and school mates revealed that Sokoto has indeed changed from what it used to be back in our days at Government College (now Nagarta College) Sokoto.

 If you happen to be driving a nice-enough looking car of any brand around certain parts of Sokoto metropolis today, you should be ready to be accosted at any point in time by a group of social miscreants, demanding their own share of what “Alu” must have given to you. Alu, which is short for Aliyu in local parlance, is the name they call their governor, and their belief (rightly or wrongly) is that you must have purchased the car you are driving with the financial largesse of Alu’s government! Only recently, the BBC reported that one of such miscreants was stabbed to death in the process of sharing a miserly sum of N3,000 doled out by an elected Councilor at the airport, where they had gone to see the Chief Executive off during one of his trips. Similar unexplained cases of needless loss of precious lives go unreported, while other disturbing and more damaging injuries are daily being inflicted on the innocence of our youths, which are rather too embarrassing to even be discussed in the open!

Another important indicator to the extent of the problem posed by these youths, most of who have either dropped out of school or are no longer interested in learning any trade, is the brazen manner in which they go about intimidating people under the influence of illicit drugs. In addition to the frequent harassments along the streets, they have also formed the habit of visiting people right in the comfort of their homes as part of the manifest extension of their extortionist tendencies. The situation is such that several residents have now resorted to arming themselves, while some have even devised a seemingly ingenious, even if risky, means of warding off the menace posed by these social miscreants via the engagement of well known hardened elements among them as guards.

 Even government offices are not spared as they regularly visit politicians and civil servants alike, brandishing dangerous weapons and claiming that they are the ones who put the workers in their respective offices! This type of unruly behaviour, which is condoned by people in high authority, only serves to embolden the perpetrators to continuously raise the bar of their brazen level of lawlessness. I know of an industrious student who struggled to buy a motorcycle from the proceeds of a book he wrote, only to have it seized by these miscreants during last year’s gubernatorial re-run elections in Sokoto. His only ‘offence’ was the fact that his motorcycle, which was incidentally purchased from another state, happened to be of the same brand as that distributed by a rival candidate!

The situation may not be as bad in nearby Kebbi State, but that did not stop a well known social miscreant from ramming his car into a group of elderly people seated right in front of the house of a high ranking elder of the ruling party in the State, Alhaji Muhammadu Dan-Illela. The sad incident, which occurred on April 12, 2010, resulted in the needles and avoidable loss of seven innocent lives, including the 75-year old party leader. The culprit who had the infamous distinction of engaging his own biological father in fisticuffs, was reportedly drunk before the accident, with several bottles of alcohols and assorted drugs found in his vehicle.

Rather than coming together to jointly address the serious issues bedeviling the region such as the problem of excruciating poverty arising from mass unemployment, massive infrastructural gaps, increasing decay in our educational system, the perennial almajiri syndrome and emerging youthful restiveness, our political leaders are busy compounding the problem by promoting the excesses of political thugs. As a result, there exists many of such miscreants in virtually every state of the North, with the only distinguishing feature among them being their names and respective levels of impunity: from the dreaded ‘Yan Kalare of Gombe, to the so-called ‘ECOMOG’ in Borno, Sara Suka in Bauchi, ‘Yan Daba/’Yan Jagaliya in the Kano/Jigawa axis, ‘Yan Shinko in Adamawa, ‘Yan Banga in Kebbi, ‘Yan Kaura in Katsina, and so on.

While our leaders are busy dragging us back to the Dark Ages via the deliberate destruction of the future of our innocent youths, their own children are attending some of the best private institutions within and outside the country; ignoring the fact that they will still come back to face the wrath of the same monsters their parents helped to create! As sad as the regrettable death of the late Abubakar Rimi (owing to the trauma arising from his ill-fated encounter with hoodlums) is, the rather mild treatment meted out to him by his assailants is still instructive for all of us. If the hooligans opted against inflicting any harm on the former Governor of the old Kano State, presumably on account of his excellent records while in office, one shudders at the thought of just how they might possibly treat any of our current leaders under similar circumstances. It is, however, still within their powers to make the necessary amends that will save us all from the curse they have consciously imposed on us, before it is too late. In the words of Marylynn Longsdon, “if your life takes a turn for the worse, remember you are the one who is driving!”. 

 Usman is a company executive in Lagos