Sam Amadi, Senior Lecturer, Baze University

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Subjects of Interest

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Ken Nnamani: Between strong institutions and strong men 17 Nov 2021

On October 21, 2021, Nigeria’s former Senate President, Ken Nnamani, presented to the public a book chronicling his senate presidency. The book, ‘Standing Strong: Legislative Reforms, Third Term and Other Issues of the 5th Senate’, retails the story of how the Nigerian legislature held the lines against efforts by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to amend the constitution to guarantee himself extra tenure in office.

Nnamani recalls the effort made by the former President and his foot soldiers to pressure and seduce federal legislators to change the constitution to elongate presidential tenure and the resistance of a courageous senate leadership. Senator Nnamani claims that Third Term was a defining moment that could have led to the truncation of democracy in Nigeria and the possible return of military rule. President Muhammadu Buhari collaborated this view and praised Nnamani for saving democracy in 2006.

This claim that the third-term bid was a grave threat to democracy in Nigeria is not fanciful as we look around the continent and behold how some seemingly established democracies collapsed under pressure of tenure elongation. What Nnamani reminds us of is the precarity of democracy, not just in non-western, emerging democracies but in the most advanced democracies. Democracy is fragile. It requires eternal vigilance. As Nnamani observed in his book, it could be that those who are entrusted with protecting democracy are those who could undermine it. This raises the urgency of not just transiting to democracy, or consolidating democracy, but also defending it.

Since Samuel Huntington coined the ‘Third Wave’ of democracy to express the wave of democratization that started in 1974, the African continent has been steadily democratizing. In the 1990s, Africa has witnessed astonishing transition to democracy from military and one-party civil dictatorships. The newly minted democracies have constitutionally limited tenures and periodic elections.

But the early 2000s marked the beginning of democracy retrogression with Uganda moving toward unlimited tenure and Nigeria trying to join the league of sit-tight rulers. In both countries, the attraction was something called development. Museveni and his henchmen in Uganda spoke glowingly about authentic African approach to development that emphasized unity and consensus. Corporate leaders and their political strategists who promoted Obasanjo’s Third Term bid worried about discontinuing the economic reform that was yielding significant economic gain through periodic election. The logic was that African countries needed the strong man to achieve their development objectives.

Now, we know where this path leads. Many years ago, President Barack Obama counselled Africans to choose strong institutions over strong men. So, instead of searching for strong men who would drag them towards development like the Lee Kuan Yews and General Parks, Africans should focus on building the institutions of liberal democracy. This was generally accepted as the panacea to Africa’s instability. But maybe we now need a rethink. Maybe we need to have to focus on strong men and women even as we build institutions of democracy.

In spite of institutions of liberal democracy, including in some places, bill of right and a constitutional court, democracy has been scrambled in places like Guinea and Mali and strong men keep themselves in power not withstanding what the constitutions say. Mali is in turmoil because a sitting president manipulated the electoral system and constitutional court to frustrate his exit from power.

In Nigeria in 2006, democracy could have ended because an ambitious president, goaded by those who stand to benefit from his continued stay in power almost succeeded in subverting constitutional due process. The strange thing is that Obasanjo could have undermined constitutional democracy through constitutional means. So, what would have become of the institutions of democracy? Arguably, it was a strong man (Ken Nnamani) and not institutions of democracy that stopped Obasanjo’s Third Term bid. He would have had his way by manipulating the very institutions that ought to restrain him.

This is all in line with the views of political scholars who inquire how and why democracies fail? David Runciman in ‘How Democracy Ends’, identifies that democracies fail not just because of cataclysmic events like coups. Democracies could fail because those democratically elected undermine the very institutions of democracy. Steven Levistsky and Daniel Ziblatt reinforce the same point in ‘How Democracies Die: What History Reveals about Our Future’, noting that “Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves”. Just as it could have happened in Nigeria in 2006.

So, to sustain democracy should we build democratic institutions, or should we build democrats? What matters most: ethical and competent leaders or institutions of liberal democracy? In 2006, democratic institutions, including a written constitution and separated legislature almost fell into the hands of an authoritarian President. But a courageous public official saved us. That could be said of the US in 2020. As we build towards 2023, we should not forget to elect strong men to protect strong institutions.

Sam Amadi, PhD, a former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, is the Director of Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts.