Tag Archives: Democracy

Promoting Democracy and Demoting Autocracy

In the Oxford Handbook of Nigerian Politics, my good friend Eghosa Osaghae wrote a compelling chapter about Nigeria’s “epochs.” I have been thinking about the epochs associated with democracy and governance assistance, and democracy promotion in general. In the early years, much of this work was viewed with suspicion. Members of President Carter’s national security team had advocated for human rights as a wedge of sorts against the Soviet Union, not necessarily for advancing democracy. In the 1980s, the intelligence community stirred up a violent mess in Nicaragua’s neighborhood. My good friend, David MacMichael, the CIA’s Senior Estimates Officer for Central America (who recently passed away), testified before the World Court about the contra’s violations of international law. Democrat Rep. Paul Kanjorski regularly called for abolishing the National Endowment for Democracy.

Civil society activists from Nigeria speaking at the National Endowment for Democracy in October 2022

Then in the 1990s an emphasis on civil society emerged, in part because some of the early democratization successes at that time came from activists in places such as Benin and Poland – many of whom had little connection to the US. In Washington there was a presumption that nations needed a strong civil society as a counterforce to strong states that had only recently been undemocratic. This overlapped with western efforts to encourage free markets, so the left’s suspicion lingered on – often validated in by the pain from Structural Adjustment Programs.

When I arrived in Nigeria at the end of the decade, the democracy industry was focused on “capacity building,” a sensible shift that led to a state-bias of sorts when Bush launched the war on terror. Strong states were needed to defeat non-state actors like al-Qaeda, and this mean the projection of state sovereignty over space. So there were lots of discussion about “ungoverned spaces” with the assumption that they were breeding grounds for violent movements. Stewart Patrick helpfully cast doubt on this in Weak Links. Nevertheless, “strong states” were back in vogue.

At work in Nigeria’s National Assembly, June 2000

The current epoch rests on previous capacity building efforts, some of which were successful. For example, skills transfer is less central compared to cooperation; there appears to be a stronger sense of equality between the donor and the recipient in D&G work. In Nigeria, many local partners are now implementing work that was once the domain of beltway bandits, doing a lot of the heavy lifting and technical implementation. This is progress.

But as Chris Walker and others have pointed out, now democracy promotion coexists alongside an internationalization of autocracy. All of the above work on behalf of democracy operated on alliances with state reformers, civil society, and private sector actors who favored democracy. (On the latter I recommend Leo Arriola’s book, which shows how important business coalitions in Africa are for emergent opposition parties.) Transnational diffusion was part of democratization, as Levitsky and Way demonstrated. But from the practical point of view of democracy assistance, the US could until recently focus primarily – not entirely – on domestic conditions.

In conversations with USG officials over the last few months, I have emphasized that in the context of authoritarianism being actively exported, we can no longer presume a strong international norm that elections must be free and fair. The power of embarrassment and external legitimacy brought by international observer missions is weaker than it was just a few years ago. IOMs cannot be business as usual, following a template of optimism about youth, technical support for parallel vote counts, and party pledges to engage in peaceful campaigns – though all of those things are still necessary. (Both Afrobarometer and World Values surveys show some alarmingly weak support for democracy among youth.) The shock of the Ukraine war caught the democracy promotion industry off guard. Suddenly, exporting autocracy is not just about “sharp power” sharing of technology for spying on activists or shutting down the internet – it went kinetic. Countries are actively exporting autocracy, and the true meaning of Russia’s war in Ukraine is that they are willing to do it by force if necessary.

Shortly after the invasion began, I joined a call with democracy activists in Ukraine, who pleaded with the audience: we are not simply defending our country, we are defending democracy for you as well. Freedom House makes precisely that point in a new report.

How should democracies and democrats respond? The State Department’s Global Engagement Center is promising, a place where USG can counter mis/disinformation. I was also inspired by Larry Diamond’s recent call at a DC event for a new “USIA on steroids.” But the programmatic and organizational work to counter authoritarianism needs to flow from a broader strategy, and this broader vision still has not quite emerged from President Biden’s Democracy Summit and the related follow-up. This should follow from rich, innovative thinking about the relationship between information and participation, with the presumption that fact checking will not be enough. To understand how to confront fake news and disinformation, foreign policy will need a new wave of social science research that scales up findings that are slowly emerging from psychology about how to change people’s minds. (Kudos to Samantha Power for placing a behavioral economist into a high ranking position at USAID this week.) The vision must also include resources and policy guidelines for what the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is calling “anti-coup” strategy. I was encouraged by the strong language in the White House’s Africa Strategy saying that the US “will condemn human rights violations and coups by security forces….” But I was then discouraged by the State Department’s recent response to Burkina Faso. The word “coup” appears nowhere in the October 1 statement on “the situation in Burkina Faso.” It should have.

To connect all this with a broader foreign policy, traditional D&G implementers need to sustain a level of independence from the USG which risks being lost in the scramble for contracts. The Democratic Erosion project is an important step in that direction. There is a danger that a new era of democracy promotion could spillover into the more antagonistic elements of grand strategy vis-à-vis China or Russia. This would unfortunately not merely be a competition of ideas or models of governance. We don’t want a new cold war.

Biden’s African Leaders Summit needs to be a venue for bringing together conceptual thinking, shared strategic principles. The programmatic work of D&G traditionally thrives on depth, individuals immersed in the operations of freedom. To defend and expand democracy around the world, it will also require breadth.

Nigeria-US Joint Civil Society Statement on President Biden’s Democracy Summit

Reflecting upon President Biden’s Democracy Summit, held virtually in December 2021, civil society organizations in Nigeria and the United States have released a joint statement calling upon each government to take specific actions to defend democracy and human rights. During a virtual press conference organized by the Washington-based Nigeria Working Group, signatories explained their reasons for signing and outlined recommendations for the follow-up summit in 2022.

CSOs from both countries called on the Nigerian government to:
–Sign the Electoral Act into law, in advance of the 2023 elections
–Investigate attacks on members of the judiciary
–Ensure independence of local governments, and end illegal caretaker governments
–Implement the findings of the Judicial Panels of Inquiry investigated abuses by SARS
–Guarantee freedom of religion
–Ensure transparent budget monitoring with civil society oversight

Some of the requests directed towards the US Government include:
–Implementing travel bans against Nigerian officials guilty of electoral malpractices
–Use the Global Forum on Asset Recovery principles as a framework for return of recovered assets (such as “Abacha loot”)
–Vigorously enforce the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and press the Nigerian government on the implementation of the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative
–Making human rights the centerpiece of US foreign relations with Nigeria

Read the full text of the letter, and see a current list of signatories here.

Nigeria’s 2023 Elections: In Pursuit of Electoral Reforms That Serve the Common Good

By Samson Itodo
Nigeria’s 21 years of democracy was tested with the conduct of last year’s 2019 general elections. The elections presented an opportunity for Nigeria to consolidate on the gains of the 2015 elections and deepen her democratic transition, but the polls substantially failed to do so. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) introduced reforms to deepen electoral integrity and citizen participation before the elections, yet the elections were fraught with the same shortcomings that marred previous national elections in Nigeria. As in past elections, INEC’s logistical challenges coupled with misconduct on the part of political parties and candidates undermined the elections‘ integrity. Not to mention the assault on voting rights by desperate politicians who recruited thugs and security agencies for voter suppression. The judiciary was no bystander. In most cases, it determined the final vote by substituting justice for legal technicalities with its logic of constitutional finality. The Supreme Court suffered a reputational setback when it declared a candidate who came fourth in an election the winner, despite computational inaccuracies and disputed results from polling units where elections did not hold. 

The landscape for electoral reform looks promising. Over ten proposed electoral amendment bills are under consideration at the National Assembly. Although these bills are at different stages of the legislative process, they contain proposals that can potentially fix Nigeria’s pressing electoral challenges, especially the predatory behavior of the political class. The bills include proposed amendments that promote the independence and impartiality of INEC by strengthening the legality of INEC regulations, guidelines, and manuals and prohibiting the employment or appointment of members of political parties into INEC. Also contained in the bills are proposals for electronic voting and transmission of election results. Comprehensive amendments were proposed to Section 87 of the Electoral Act on the nomination of candidates. They introduce new procedures for direct and indirect primaries and provide thresholds for party nomination fees. It restricts parties to the qualification criteria fixed by the 1999 Constitution as amended for elective offices, thereby stripping parties of the power to introduce additional measures often used to disqualify unfavoured candidates.

Recently, INEC released its agenda on electoral reform. The Commission is proposing amendments to strengthen the electoral Commission’s financial autonomy, confer power on INEC to suspend elections under certain circumstances, and the power to disqualify candidates. Other proposals include new timelines for campaigns and candidate nomination, review of election results declared under duress, diaspora voting, and improved oversight on political parties, amongst others. Civil society groups have also proposed amendments to the electoral legal framework. Signals from the National Assembly thus far shows that the electoral amendment process may be concluded by 2021.

Voting during the Coronavirus pandemic, 2020

A cost-benefit analysis of public expenditure on elections is an essential component of the electoral reform agenda. This analysis is highly recommended given the country’s economic recession due to bad economic choices, disruptions in public finance, and negative externalities. Political scientists will argue that the high costs of elections are an investment in democracy; therefore, countries should earmark adequate resources for election conduct. This seems like a plausible argument, especially for nations still evolving with a democratic culture. But what happens to equity and efficiency? What is the benefit of expending scarce resources on elections that fail to maximize utility or promote happiness for the greatest number in society, or elections that yield just outcomes?

Nigeria spent N139 Billion (N1,893 or $9 cost per voter) for the 2011 elections; N116.3 Billion (N1,691 or $8.5 cost per voter) for the 2015 elections; and N189.2 Billion (N2,249 $6.24 cost per voter) for the 2019 elections. All three elections recorded a poor turnout of voters. In Nigeria, the law compels the electoral Commission to use the voter register as a basis for election planning as against the figures for collected Permanent Voters Card (PVC). In the 2019 elections, INEC printed over 427.5 million ballot papers (of currency quality) for 80 million registered voters in the six scheduled elections. Less than 30 million ballots were used in the elections because only 35 percent of registered voters showed up to vote. Billions of Naira went to waste due to a large number of unused ballots papers. These scarce resources plowed to produce the unused ballot papers would have been allocated to health, education, or jobs given Nigeria’s place as the world’s poverty capital. Efficient allocation of scarce resources should be a priority agenda for reformers of our electoral process. This should encompass a clear strategy for reversing the deeply entrenched culture of waste in public finance management. 

No doubt, the current proposed amendments can foster popular sovereignty. Still, it is uncertain whether the ruling political class will pass these laws, given the potential of reforms to limit future chances of electoral victory. The apparent assumption is that most politicians will be reluctant to legislate themselves out of office. Therefore, they employ diverse tactics to dictate the pace and influence the outcome of reform efforts, leaving society to manage the tensions between individual and collective interests.

A just society is one that places the maximization of happiness as a key basis for decision-making. Moral decision making should be premised on maximizing the total happiness of members of society and advancing the common good, not just the interests of a few. As legislators consider decisions on electoral reforms within the ramifications of options available to them, they should be guided to choose options that serve the common good. In other words, in the spirit of democracy, they should pass electoral amendments that promote the common good of the Nigerian majority, in essence, the people and not the political class. After all, political authority is expected to serve the interests of the people, not individual interests. As Xunsi puts it, ‘Heaven did not create the people for the sake of the Lord, heaven established the Lord for the sake of the people.’ If an electoral amendment reflects the aggregate of the greater good, it indicates its responsiveness to the will and aspirations of the people.  Suffices to say, the greater the number of citizens who participate in designing a new electoral legal framework, the greater our chances of producing just outcomes and advancing the common good.

Citizens bear the burden to hold the ruling political elite to higher standards. Electoral policies should place a premium on moral principles, ethics, and maximization of happiness. The 9th National Assembly will be judged by the extent to which the proposed electoral amendments promote happiness for the greater number and not just the political elites. Any piece of electoral legislation that will not guarantee the people’s participation, protect the sanctity of the vote or advance electoral justice may not serve the common good. Suffice to say that there’s nothing special about the ongoing electoral reform process if it does not yield the greater good for the greater number, instead of yielding the greater good for the one percent who control political power.

Samson Itodo, Executive Director, YIAGA Africa
Samson Itodo, Executive Director, YIAGA Africa

Samson Itodo is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He is an elections and constitution building enthusiast. He serves as Executive Director of Yiaga Africa and the Convener of the Not Too Young To Run movement. Send comments and feedback to [email protected]. He tweets @DSamsonItodo