Skip to main content


Democracy in Two Decades, 1999-2019: Reflections on Nation-Building
and Development in Nigeria

By DemocracyNo Comments

Democracy, in its most general conception as a system that guarantees popular participation,
transparency and accountability, represents an ideal towards which most political systems aspire.
The circumstances of developing countries of the global south where basic issues of human and
social existence – viable statehood, national cohesion, security, poverty, disease, employment,
literacy, and so on – are problematic however make democracy a difficult road to travel. Indeed,
for a long time when the ‘prerequisites of democracy’ perspective, whose adherents argued that
only societies that had reasonably high levels of socioeconomic development were the most
viable candidates for democracy held sway, the prospects for(liberal) democracy in developing
countries were considered low. The preponderance of authoritarian regimes all over Africa, Asia
and Latin America, the seeming imperviousness to democratic change that followed repeated
failures of demilitarization, re-civilianization and other popular modes of democratization in the
1970s and early 1980s, and the avowed suitability and successes of ‘developmental dictatorship’
(also called modernizing or developmental oligarchy) as a Third World model, provided some
empirical validation for this view. All that was before the ‘global democratic revolution’ of the
late 1980s and 1990s swept through the bastions of authoritarianism in Eastern Europe, Asia, and
Africa, and produced in its wake, the diffusion of democracy all over the world.
The ‘revolution’ offered the opportunity for scholars to revisit conventional wisdom on
democracy and democratization. From an African and Nigerian point of view, perhaps the most
important strand of the reexamination, and one which challenged the sequential assumptions of
the prerequisites of democracy perspective, had to do with the democracy-development nexus.

For Richard Sklar (1987), one of the leading lights of the new thinking, democracy as a political
means, is a facilitator of development, and socioeconomic development is not a necessary
condition for democracy. To think of democracy this way is to give content and meaning to the
aspiration and struggles for it in the global South. In other words, the drive towards democracy is
not simply to fulfil an ideological aspiration (such as democracy for its own sake), but to build a
meaningful capacity for development, one that enables the free rein of participatory rights,
creative energies and entrepreneurship, and above all, accountability. Another important strand,
which complemented the emergent utilitarian conception of democracy nicely, was the argument
that democracy entailed a lot more than elections. The point of the argument is not to deny the
centrality of the franchise and free and fair elections, and the fact that elections provide a
barometer for gauging the quality and growth of democracy, but to avoid the ‘fallacy of
electoralism’ or the tendency to focus on elections as the most important aspects of democracy
and equate successful elections especially those in which incumbents lose with democratic
growth, at the expense of the larger contextual and utilitarian dimensions of democracy (Karl,

These ‘new’ ways of thinking encouraged a conception of democracy that emphasizes its
problem-solving and utilitarian value and benefits, what are now more popularly referred to as
the ‘dividends of democracy’. The persistence of state fragility that reduced capacities to deliver
on basic functions and obligations and sent some countries into desperate intensive care mode
further reinforced the emancipatory and empowering expectations of democracy. The dividends,
measured in terms of the value added to the material wellbeing and security of citizens, social
cohesion and national integration, institution-building, conflict management, anti-corruption
drives, and the like, have gained traction in assessments of fledgling and emerging democracies
for the simple reason that, as is becoming increasingly clear, it is when democracy can
demonstrably make a positive difference in the conditions of the state, government and wellbeing
of citizens that it stands a good chance of being sustained, defended, and consolidated (cf.
Przeworksi et al, 1996 for ‘what makes democracies endure?’). The social, economic, electoral,
and legal-constitutional reforms that have become instruments and concomitants of democratic
governance are to be seen in the light of giving material content to democracy a la dividends.
These are the kinds of complexities, challenges and expectations that make democracy
such an engaging subject for Nigerian and African scholars. They provide a useful backdrop for
reading this edited volume and locating the analyses in its 28 chapters. The book ties democracy
to nation-building and development, and the various contributors assess the journey so far in the
first twenty years of the latest phase of Nigeria’s democratic experience. The fact that this
experience has been the longest and most enduring offers the opportunity to ask the empirical
question posed by Przeworski et al: ‘why has democracy endured? in the Nigerian context. If, as
the contributors believe, the twenty years have witnessed debilitating pathologies ranging from
economic mismanagement, vote buying, corruption and weak institutions to exclusion of women
and youth, electoral violence, anomalous party politics and judicial infractions, the question of
why democracy has endured becomes even more apposite. Perhaps there is something in
Nigeria’s democracy that has worked in spite of the numerous problems. We may not find all the
answers in this book, but the editors do well to not only acknowledge the challenges, but to offer
problem-solving pathways to the future by exploring areas where the country still needs to
improve as it moves into a third decade.

Download Full Publication