Our democracy: problems in the solution, By Hakeem Baba-Ahmed

“ Democracy is ever eager for rapid progress, and the only rapid progress that is guaranteed is progress downhill”. Sir James Jeans.

Like virtually all democracies, we are once again at that point where in all probability, far more people are unhappy with the outcome of an election than those who actually voted for it. If you add those with rights and opinions but chose not to vote, to those who voted for a different outcome, then add others who cannot vote but have opinions about desired outcomes, you will discover that leaders are chosen by a tiny minority in all democracies. In our case, out of 90-odd million voters,8.8 million voted for the declared winner, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. The second and third candidates together were preferred by millions more Nigerians to the winner.So, our recent elections confirm what has always been known: democracy is not perfect. It is the type of compromise that solves a major problem regarding who should exercise power, by creating many more problems than the solution creates. Winston Churchill is often credited with the quip about democracy being the worst form of government for the others out of all the others tried.

The catch is in the difference between democracy and those others. Too many times, democratic systems look too uncomfortably like the ‘others’. Being elected is no guarantee that leaders will be good, just, competent and accountable. Being able to vote in most cases merely amounts to people going through rituals of selecting between the bad and the worst from a small band of politicians (called the political elite) who have cornered power for themselves. The assumption that all adult citizens can and should exercise informed choices between politicians that are too remote and too identical when you go close to them, has taken the place of the ideals of universal adult suffrage. The ideal of the expression of popular will in many instances is put out in the form of thoroughly mutilated and violently-disputed election results which large segments democracies deny parenting.

In Nigeria, the violent conflicts between the ideals of democratic systems and its practice create legitimate grounds for questioning its utility and suitability. The argument that it is the only system which suits ‘countries such as ours’ has worn so thin that every election takes it close to extinction. To be sure, even in older, more hardened democracies, the system under which much of humanity lives comes under serious scrutiny, so often and in many forms and guises, that it is sustained only by strong underpinnings of the economically privileged who are best served by the system. Where stable and strong economies and class systems which they produce are weak, democracies suffer massive abuse in the hands of bands of politicians who capture its economy and the state. The citizen who sees his role in the democratic process only in voting either shrinks away from it, or develops a transactional value system around it which allows him to grab a bit every once in a while when the train of monopoly and exclusion passes by.

Less than 30% of registered voters voted in the recent presidential elections, the lowest in our history. Against the background of unprecedented scare-mongering which informed the highest number of Nigerians who stampeded to vote, you have to wonder what happened between close of frenzied registration, a few weeks ago, and the elections themselves. My guess is that the politicians in contests against each power upped the ante. Massive intrigues told the ordinary voter that this was not his fight. The unleashing of mass poverty overnight through the currency swap policy hinted at a move that was willing to sacrifice the voter on the altar of the calculations of a faction of the elite. A series of battles preceded the elections, and a beleaguered crop of good Nigerians retreated further away. Political foot soldiers who surface every four years resurrected.Voters prepared to settle scores, play to massive emotive campaigns, or vote in response to intense propaganda that life will be infinitely better next month.

Stanley King said, ”Democracy is threatened by the inertia of good people, by the selfishness of most people, and by the evil designs of a few people”. If our democracy worked as an imperfect but best compromise in choosing leaders who claim to have solutions to our problems, our last elections would have had no place for most of the leading flag bearers we had to choose from. To think that out of a population of 200 million, among them the best and brightest the world will attest to, we will be made to choose between some of those who bought their ways into the ballot, you could almost say we got what we deserved. Correction: they did not only buy their ways into the ballot. They bought their ways into our choices. Where money alone did not do it, they took us back to primitivism, that state which defines what is good only when it makes you see yourself in it.Ethnic identity was reinforced by a caricature of a God as supporting personal ambition and a massive capacity to take what is not yours.

       I write this material three days before the gubernatorial elections. By this time next week, the potency of the primordial would have been tested. The Southeast, which locked out virtually every presidential contestant except Obi, but knocked on every door  in other parts of the country, is likely to see the full effect of its strategy. Violence is likely to have a stronger say in major battlefields such as Lagos, parts of South South and the areas where faith has pitched combatants against each other. The surprises of the presidential elections will be made to yield traditional expectations, with money and muscle. Gains will be protected at literally all cost, and INEC’s systems and personnel will come under more pressure. These are the elections where the voter will be primed to lean on inducement  or intimidation more than any time. The idea of the voter expressing free choice will be seen in most places in orderly queues, but most voters will be voting to protect interests that are not theirs. Churchill said that the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter. If the average voter ever existed, he did not exist  in Nigeria.

  H.S Fisdick said that democracy is based on the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people. Elections test the strength of that conviction, and our last elections showed glimpses of hope that the voter can change his state of existence. He will file out again in a few days time to make an effort.Politicians and those who process his decisions will do the rest. As things stand, March 11th could compound our problems, or mitigate them slightly by allowing the expression of a bit of the popular will.Whatever happens, another set of Nigerians with awesome powers will sit in judgement over how the popular will should be interpreted. The judiciary is likely to decide at least 70% of the people who will exercise power over us, not our votes. Those pronounced by the courts as duly elected will decide the fate of the country by the manner they govern.At the end of it all, democracy is not a method of choosing leaders, but is about what the leaders do with power. US Senator George D Aitken said,” Lincoln’s reference to the government of the people, for the people, by the people is a generally satisfactory definition of democracy. I say generally because when it comes to fair and workable details, democracy fails to completely meet the criteria enunciated by Lincoln by a rather wide margin”.

Article first published by Vanguard

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