Credit: UNDP
  • Opinion by Mohamed Yahya (Abuja)
  • Interpress service

Nigerians, however hopeful, had reason to be skeptical because of previous unfulfilled promises of this nature. As promised, on May 29, 1999, General Abdulsalam A. Abubakar handed over the reins to a democratically elected President in the person of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. This marked the transition to civilian rule of the most populous country on the African continent. This single move reignited the hopes, dreams and aspirations of millions of black and African youths not only in Nigeria but around the world.

Unfortunately, many Nigerians have in recent times become cynical about democracy and its ability to deliver on its promises of development, peace and economic prosperity.

This cynicism that has driven participation in general elections to record lows and migration out of Nigeria to record highs. As Nigeria prepares for the 2023 national elections, it is worth remembering that the ability to participate in the election of leaders at all levels, while not a magic bullet, is one of the most powerful tools in the quest for self-determination. One that is far more powerful than cynicism.

In the 1999 general elections that pitted Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military ruler, against banker and former finance minister Olu Falae, turnout was 52.3% of those eligible to vote according to data from the Independent National Electoral Commission INEC.

That number rose to an all-time high of almost 70% in the 2003 elections that saw then President Obasanjo win re-election. In the 2019 election, it dropped to a 35% turnout. The steady and dramatic decline in turnout in recent election cycles is troubling for a country with so much at stake. The decline in voter turnout is well attributed and on the surface appears to be driven by cynicism in the democratic process.

But the beauty of a multi-ethnic pluralistic democracy like Nigeria lies in the ability of its citizens to criticize, admonish and ultimately replace elected officials.

Consequently, peaceful dissent is one of the most beautiful features of democracy. On the other hand, when dissent develops into cynicism and ultimately disengagement from the political process, it significantly weakens democracy and its intended benefits.

A study from the London School of Economics in 2008 suggested that cynicism can affect the health of democracy, blurs the line between justified distaste for an administration with distaste for government altogether. The implications can be far-reaching when it comes to breaking down the cohesion of society.

Discouraging people from participating in politics, encouraging them to turn away from credible sources of information, inciting people to join pressure groups or, in more extreme cases, resorting to violence against citizens and/or the state.

As the largest black democracy in the world and the largest economy on the African continent, Nigeria wields incredible political and cultural influence. A stable, secure and successful Nigeria not only shows the rest of Africa what cooperation, resilience and commitment to good governance, democratic principles, amicable resolution of differences and the rule of law look like, it also shows that democracy can work in complex and developing countries.

When I arrived in Nigeria in 2019, what I found most fascinating was that people across the country were not obsessed with barriers, they were ‘doers’, creators and problem solvers.

In the 3.5 years since then, the country has faced unprecedented challenges; the sharp decline in oil prices, followed by a global COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted the global economy, currency volatility and increasing uncertainty exacerbated by violent insurgencies in parts of the country.

Despite the challenges, and they are deep and many, several indicators show that Nigeria is moving towards progress and democratic maturity. What it needs now is a more engaged, active and constructive citizenry, especially from the 59 million Nigerian youth (18-35) who make up 53% of the total voting population.

Although young Nigerians between the ages of 18 and 34 make up about 40% of registered voters, only 46% of these voters turned out to vote in the 2019 presidential election.

Under UNDP Nigeria and Yiaga Africa’s #SixtyPercentOfUs campaign, youth were mobilized and encouraged to actively participate in the upcoming elections, contributing to millions of new registered voters. According to data recently released by Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), there are 93,469,008 registered voters and the total number of collected Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) 87,209,007 with a record collection rate of 93.3% of PVCs, compared to the last elections .

Despite the number of people who are cynical about democracy, the possibility of transforming cynicism into a positive factor that helps revive the sense of nationhood and the belief in democracy as the basis of prosperity for all is undeniable. The upcoming elections mean a renewed opportunity to steer the country, and by extension the continent, in the direction of democratic consolidation and economic development.

During my tenure as UNDP Resident Representative in Nigeria, I have had the privilege of visiting at least two-thirds of the states in Nigeria and had the honor of interacting and engaging with Nigerians across the various sectors of society; from ordinary citizens to government and the private sector and even the burgeoning creative industries.

Despite the challenges Nigeria has to grapple with, Nigeria’s promise is brightly lit across the diverse and colorful Naija kaleidoscope. At UNDP, we remain committed to providing Nigeria with the support it needs to ensure that the promise of a prosperous, more equal and peaceful Nigeria becomes a reality for all its citizens.

© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service