Tinubu’s full speech at state of Africa’s democracy summit



It is a great honour and my pleasure to address this important gathering that seeks to reflect on the state of democracy in Africa. First of all, I thank the Shehu Musa Yar’adua Foundation, for convening this conference and for perpetuating the commitment of General Yar’Adua to the ideals of democracy. During his lifetime, General Yar’adua was a soldier by vocation and a democrat by inclination. After retiring from the army in 1979, with the distinction that the military government in which he served handed over to a civilian government, he went into business. He returned after another military disruption of Nigeria’s politics to fight for the enthronement of democracy. He bore the pain of imprisonment and paid the ultimate price. I am happy that, through the work of this foundation, his memory and the values he upheld continue to illuminate our path.

  1. The underlying theme of this conference indicates that we are not taking contemporary challenges confronting the continent with complacency. Against the recent coups and counter-coups in some African countries, Africa today faces the crisis of democracy, a crisis that ought not to be as the long-held consensus was that democracy is the best form of government ever invented by man.
  2. Until the wave of military interventions in politics in many countries in Africa, which started in the 1960s, we embraced democracy as the post-colonial form of government. The constriction of the civic space, the emasculation of civil liberties by military authorities in many countries, most especially in West and Central Africa bred agitation by pro-democracy forces and civil society activists to demand for return of democratic leadership in the 90s.
  3. Here in Nigeria, the military first aborted the transition to democracy in 1993, The transition started with the election of members of parliament at the state and federal levels and the election of governors. But in July 1993, a free and fair presidential election held on 12 June of the same year was annulled, and the winner was incarcerated. Elected people were all sacked by the military. This triggered a pro-democracy struggle, during which many activists and I escaped into exile.
  4. We finally had a return to democracy in 1999 after 16 years of sometimes benevolent, most often brutal military dictatorship. We have since then recorded 25 years of unbroken democratic governance. We have learnt through bitter experience that the worst form of democracy is far better than the best form of military autocracy. Specifically, in Nigeria, we have learnt that the cure for bad democratic governance is more democracy. As one of our most profound intellectuals, the late Professor Claude Ake, once famously opined, ‘the people must learn to become their own political messiahs from bad governance’. This can only be done through the instrumentality of democracy.
  5. In recent years, we have witnessed democratic reversals, particularly in West Africa. We had two military coups in Mali. The first was in August 2020, and the second occurred in May 2021. In September of 2021, soldiers struck in Guinea Conakry overthrowing the civilian leadership. Burkina Faso recorded two coups in 2022. The first occurred in January, and the second coup was staged in September. In Niger, where soldiers terminated the Presidency of Mohamed Bazoum in July 2023, there was a failed coup earlier in March 2021.  We had an attempted coup in Sierra Leone last year and another attempted coup in Guinea Bissau in February 2022. That same year, Gambia recorded an aborted coup. In Central Africa, we witnessed a military coup in Gabon last year.  In Senegal, we had an unfortunate situation where a former incumbent tried to elongate his tenure by shifting the election and handover date.
  6. ECOWAS in January 2017 militarily intervened in The Gambia, in what was called ‘Operation Restore Democracy’ to ensure that the will of the people prevailed. In that country, Adama Barrow defeated the incumbent Yahya Jammeh in the presidential election in 2016. After the long-serving president refused to concede defeat, West African leaders assembled a military force of 4,000 men to force the defeated president out of power.
  7. The Gambian example was the first military intervention by ECOWAS to restore democracy in the region. We have been unable to replicate this in defence of democracy anywhere else. The military intervention in Gambia was in line with the  2001 ECOWAS Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. As the current Chairman of the Heads of Government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), I have had to invoke the protocol to rally the regional authority to take necessary action to restore democracy in the countries, where it had been overturned. We imposed sanctions that we hoped would nudge these countries back to democratic path. Unfortunately, we were handicapped by the fact that in those countries, large numbers of people had thronged the streets to welcome military officers, the democracy disruptors, who they perceived, nay wrongly,  as liberators from their elected leaders.
  8. ECOWAS had since lifted the sanctions imposed on the aberrant countries because it was the innocent majority of the citizens that were suffering the effects. We shall  continue to strive through persuasion, diplomacy and the power of our examples to encourage the military leaders in the affected countries to restore democratic governance. We also have as a priority to do everything possible to encourage those who have misguidedly announced their exit from ECOWAS to return to the fold in the best interest of their people.
  9. Amid the despair about democratic reversals most especially in West Africa, we are encouraged by the elections that have  held successfully in countries such as  Liberia, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Senegal and Nigeria. South Africa will hold its general elections on May 29.  I must emphasise that it is in the nature of democracy that elections conducted by fallible mortals cannot be perfect as we have, in recent times, also witnessed very rancorously contested elections, in some of the oldest and most mature democracies in the world.
  10. I subscribe to the notion that there are basic standards of electoral transparency that every election must meet. However, my submission is that it is only through continuous practice of democracy,  through repeated elections, that such standards can be institutionalised. Those of us in leadership positions through electoral processes have the responsibility to shine the light of good, responsive and productive governance to make democracy appealing and attractive to those parts of our continent that are still under military dictatorship.
  11. We do not espouse the cause of democracy to sound politically correct or just for the fancy of it. We do so because we believe that the ultimate purpose of democracy must be to provide good, honest, and responsible governance that will promote the greatest good for the greatest number of our people.

Many times, such evils as corruption, nepotism, inefficiency, and socio-economic difficulties erode the trust and confidence of people in democracy and make military dictatorship attractive. But the superior merit of democracy over authoritarian regimes is that it offers the mechanism for peaceful change through the ballot box. It confers on the majority of the electorate, the power, and the right to legitimately dislodge from power a government that is perceived to fall below the desired standards of performance.

  1. In contrast,  for a government that comes to power through the barrel of the gun, the only mechanism for easing it out of power is through superior force. It is the perfect recipe for the instability and needless barbarity that have been associated with despotic rule for much of Africa’s post-independence history. This is why we must make the most of the opportunities this conference offers to rigorously interrogate the state of democracy in Africa. This conference must think out ways by which we can roll back the resurgent waves of military autocracy.
  2. The defunct OAU creditably played its role in coordinating and spearheading the liberation of our continent from the stranglehold of imperialism. That was a monumental achievement of the 20th century. The focus of the succeeding African Union today is the institution of a new constitutional democratic order capable of guaranteeing stable and peaceful governance, protection of human rights, as well as the single-minded pursuit of economic integration and sustainable development in Africa.
  3. The collective strength and efficacy of the AU as a continental organisation can only be a function of the effectiveness and efficiency of the sub-regional organisations to which its component member states belong. This Summit must thus accord priority to constructive discussions on how the various sub-regional groupings in Africa can integrate their economies more closely, collaborate more productively to achieve greater regional security and collectively ensure adherence to the principles of constitutional and democratic governance within their respective boundaries.
  4. Let me seize this opportunity to remind us that the Abuja Treaty of 1991, which came into force in 1994, provides for the African Economic Community (AEC) to be fully functional by 2028 following a gradual process of regional and continental integration. Time is not on our side. 2028 is around the corner. The regional organisations which are the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), East African Community (EAC), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), ECOWAS, Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development IGAD), must be more focused and dedicated to the realisation of their objectives.
  5. These sub-regional groupings, for instance, must seriously pursue the formation, proper funding and efficient administration of standby military outfits that will help contain military adventurers and the rampaging waves of terrorism and religious extremism in different parts of the continent. But this must be supplementary to and not a substitute for their primary goals of promoting active trade, minimising trade barriers, encouraging sustainable and inclusive economic growth, promoting human capital development as well as promoting value addition in agriculture and agro-business development among others.
  6. In the same vein, the immense potential of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) can only be maximally realised when there is concrete and proper economic integration and collaboration at the different sub-regional levels. We must deliberate at this Summit on ways through which African sub-regional organisations can help foster better intra-African trade, achieve better food and energy security, promote higher rates of youth employment as well as alleviate poverty and realise greater prosperity for our people.
  7. This Summit must discuss ways of making the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), which is a key component of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), contribute to achieving good governance and democratic consolidation on the continent. All too often, African leaders intend on staying in power by all means and at all costs have been the greatest stumbling blocks to good governance and democratic progress in their respective countries.
  8. Those of us privileged to be in leadership positions must utilise the instrumentality of the African Peer Review Mechanism to call our aberrant colleagues to order. We must set and demand from African leaders standards of democratic behaviour that uphold free, fair and credible elections, eliminate attempts to remove constitutionally stipulated term limits by incumbents and respect the autonomy and integrity of critical institutions such as the judiciary and the legislatures that are indispensable to good governance.
  9. ‘Every generation’, the great Walter Rodney declared over five decades ago, ‘must out of relative obscurity discover its mission and having done so, betray it or fulfil it’. It is the historic responsibility of those of us who are alive and conscious adults in today’s Africa to work assiduously towards actualising the potential of this great continent.
  10. Africa can no longer afford to be the doormat of the world; a continent of street beggar economies that perennially hold out begging bowls for loans or aid. It is time for Africa to truly come of age and begin to fulfil her historic destiny for the good of her people and the benefit of humanity.

I wish you fruitful deliberations. And I thank you for listening.

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