From repression to consolidation: long-term investment pays off
The February 27, 1999 election of Olusegun Obasanjo as Nigeria’s new president was one of the year’s high points, returning the country to civilian rule after spending 29 of its last 39 years since independence under military dictatorship. NED has worked with Nigerian democracy activists from the darkest days of political repression right through to today, when activists are beginning to work toward democratic consolidation. The Endowment’s experience in Nigeria illustrates the importance of both providing consistent support to democrats working in the most difficult and closed societies as well as continuing support for broadening civil society and building democratic institutions after electoral democracy is achieved.
Since 1988, NED support has helped to sustain human rights and democracy groups in Nigeria despite the long period of repression. These groups, whose goals ranged from promoting the rule of law to empowering women to advancing the free flow of information, became the backbone of the democracy movement. When Sani Abacha, the military dictator, died unexpectedly in June 1998, these groups were prepared to take advantage of the sudden opening of political space.
NED-supported coalition considered bright spot
Thirteen NED-funded groups in Nigeria joined together with 40 other NGOs to form the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) in 1998. The indigenous coalition that deployed more than 10,000 Nigerian election observers throughout the country gave hope to many for the continued consolidation of democracy in Nigeria. “The one bright spot was the fact that the TMG came together and under very difficult circumstances, really came through,” said Robert LaGamma of the Carter Center, one of the groups that worked to observe Nigeria’s elections along with NED institutes, IRI and NDI. The TMG received NED’s 1999 Democracy Award for its outstanding work.
While there were significant irregularities in the election, the peaceful turnout and well-balanced media coverage made it an important step in returning Nigeria to a democratic government. NED-supported Nigerian groups continue to hold the new government accountable for democratic reforms, and are now facing the challenge of moving from an electoral democracy to a liberal democracy with vibrant institutions and a more deeply rooted democratic culture.
Democratic consolidation is an immensely complex process that involves, in addition to political change, the development of civil society and the adaptation of traditional culture to modern democracy. Thus it is unrealistic to expect immediate or uninterrupted progress. Though the work ahead in Nigeria seems daunting, it was not long ago that a democratic breakthrough seemed out of reach. Through the same sort of consistent and long-term support NED provided during the days of military rule, the Endowment hopes to support the transformation of Nigeria from one of Africa’s most fragile, new democracies to the continent’s most vibrant one.