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Nigeria: Evaluating the State of Democracy in the World's Largest Black Democracy

President Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, which contains arguably the most influential statement of democracy, affirmed a commitment to preserving democratic ideals. The commitment, articulated at the end of the address, declares that the “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” By embodying these democratic ideals, it is not surprising that Abraham Lincoln’s words are still often quoted as the definition of democracy.

While ideals can be challenging to achieve in practice, their embodiment nevertheless typically reflects the underlying values. The same principle applies to countries that adopt democratic systems around the globe. Therefore, if democracy is defined by its core values, a government that curtails those principles cannot be considered democratic.

This paper will analyze Nigeria’s political landscape and determine whether the country’s democracy is legitimate or flawed. Furthermore, it will highlight the potential tension between the ideal of democratic governance and Nigeria’s reality.

Nigeria’s Democratization

Adedamola Aregbesola (2023) stated that  Nigeria's path to democracy since gaining independence in 1960 has been tumultuous. The civil war between 1967 and 1970 and decades of military rule between 1966 and 1999 resulted in the fragility and instability of the country's democratic institutions.

Following independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria became a sovereign nation with Sir Tafawa Balewa serving as the first prime minister from 1960 to 1966, and Nnamdi Azikiwe as the ceremonial president of the First Republic from 1963 to 1966. However, this government was overthrown in a coup d'état, leading to decades of military regimes until 1979. 

The Second Republic brought a brief period of civilian rule, with Shehu Shagari serving as the first executive president from 1979 to 1983. However, the persistent problem of democracy in Nigeria led to another coup d'état, and Muhammadu Buhari became the military head of state in 1983.

Military rule persisted until 1999, under different heads of state. The transition to democratic rule was made possible by General Abdusalami Abubakar, leading to the Fourth Republic in 1999. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military head of state, became a civilian president from 1999 to 2007.

Subsequently, Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, Goodluck Jonathan, and Muhammadu Buhari have all served as presidents of Nigeria. Bola Ahmed Tinubu was recently elected as the country's president-elect, as announced by the results of the February 25th, 2023 general election.

Is Nigeria Practicing Democracy or its Pseudo?

Nigeria’s federal system of government and democracy and system is modeled on the United State, but the similarity between the two ends here. In contrast to the United States, Nigeria’s democracy has been plagued by corruption and irregularities in elections. For a true democracy, credible, free, and fair elections are crucial. 

The United Nations lists respect for fundamental human rights, freedom, and periodic and credible elections as essential elements of democracy. In addition, values such as transparency, accountability, justice, equality, political tolerance, rule of law, judicial independence, and checks and balances adequately reflect a society’s democratic culture.

Democracy is more than just a buzzword, it is a culture and system of government. Any government that is contrary to its core values is undeserving of the tag democracy. A government that engages in rule of law violations, corruption, non-credible and violent elections, strategic disenfranchisement, suppression of voters, political intolerance, and a flawed judiciary, should not be considered a democratic society. Rather, it is an authoritarian or totalitarian rule disguised as a democracy. Unfortunately, this is an accurate description of Nigeria's governance, where democracy is one of the few political elites and not the masses. In Nigeria, phrases like “power to the people” are just catchphrases or slogans for campaigns during elections.

Nigeria’s democracy has been plagued by corruption, excessive incumbency power, lack of transparency, suppression of the electorate, disregard for rule of law, violence, and instability. The government, which created poverty through corruption and misappropriation of resources, weaponizes it to win elections.

Disregarding ethnic and religious politics which characterize Nigeria’s politics, election in the country isn’t about the best candidate or one with the better character or capacity, but rather who can rig the most. Election rigging is common and involves paying off election officers, violence, intimidating electorates, falsifying election results, and thuggery. The political party that benefits from abusing the principles of democracy tells the opponent to “go to court,” an impunity that further emphasizes the flawed judicial system. 

Democracy in Nigeria is antithetical to the ideals and core values of democracy. Although the nation’s democracy has always been marred with irregularities, the novel interest of young Nigerians in the political process, globalization, and technology has helped expose the flaws.

The 2023 general election in Nigeria emphasized the country’s democracy woes and was condemned by national and international bodies and observers as non-credible. The election was characterized by violence, voter suppression and intimidation, vote buying, and electoral fraud. It is astonishing how the largest Black democracy in the world resorts to violence and thuggery as strategies for winning elections or staying in power.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), responsible for conducting credible, free, and fair elections, is doing a terrible job, ignoring and dismissing clear cases of electoral fraud in parts of the country and flaunting its own rules and guidelines. Furthermore, the country’s judicial system is weak and compromised. Nigeria’s democracy remains bleak unless a return to democratic ideals is initiated, as the political elites value their privileges over principles.

Final Words

Nigeria's politics is influenced by candidates' ethnic or religious affiliations and other biases, often leading to the election of unsuitable or incompetent individuals to public office. This type of government is known as kakistocracy, and it falls short of true democracy. Furthermore, by dishonoring democracy’s core principles, Nigeria cannot be perceived as democratic.

Although some may argue that democracy is flawed in Nigeria due to the country's political culture, other crucial factors also contribute to the problem. For instance, weak democratic institutions like the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), a corrupt political class, widespread abuse of fundamental human rights, and voter apathy have all contributed to the country's sham democracy.

While the civil war and military rules have weakened the democracy, after decades of democracy, excuses have run out for the world’s largest Black democracy. The democracy being practiced in the country is responsible for poor economic outcomes.

Despite the civil war and military rule weakening the country’s democracy, decades of democracy since 1999 should count for something for the world’s largest Black democracy. Poor economic outcomes can be attributed to the democratic system's failure to provide effective governance.


To improve Nigeria’s democracy, certain steps must be taken. The electoral management body, judiciary, and media must be independent and strengthened, opposition parties must be robust, accountability and transparency must be prioritized, and adult suffrage must be respected. With these measures in place, Nigeria can begin to move towards a more ideal democracy, one that is not the sham that currently exists.


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Tags: #politics #democracy #Nigeriademocracy #politicalculture #shamdemocracy #idealdemocracy


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