What Do We Want Out of Our Democracy?

 In Governance & Political Economy, Thinking Aloud

If one accepts the common definition of democracy as the ‘rule by the people’, then one should at least have answers to the following questions- if it is a “rule”, then rule over what? The economy? Foreign relations? Medical choices? The boundaries of public and private sphere? Secondly “Rule by who”? And how? Is non-participation allowed, or, as is the case with Belgium or Australia, is voting obligatory? Is dissent allowed and what is the role of formal opposition? How and when is coercion permissible, given that the State has a monopoly over the legitimate sources of violence? And thirdly “what do we mean by the people”? What is the delineation of people? Who are they? How do they constitute themselves as ‘a people’? How do ‘people’ participate?

What is the logical conclusion of the democratic option? Is it good governance or what is called in the popular Nigerian parlance “dividends of democracy” or the elevation of the free choice of the electorate to the driving seat of the democratic vehicle irrespective of how absurd, or can we validly say that the absence of systematic misrule by a narrow segment of society equates to government of or by the people?

The preceding two paragraphs show how difficult it is to define and analyze the concept of democracy. Lest we forget, democracy until the middle of last century never enjoyed universal approval. In fact almost all the past masters of philosophy ridiculed the concept. Plato was an implacable antagonist, Aristotle cultivated a condescending mien towards it, Thucydides and Aristophanes mocked the concept of mob rule with vitriolic compositions. Macpherson pondering on the strange history of democracy asserts that “Democracy used to be a bad word […] that was the position taken by pretty nearly all men of intelligence from the earliest historical times down to about a hundred years ago, then within fifty years democracy became a good thing”

Say what you may, democracy has outlived its traducers, just by its effect in practice and has become the essential mother’s milk in governance globally. The post-colonial story of governance in Nigeria has been more of attempts at institutionalizing democratic governance than anything else. And as Nigerians prepares for the polls again, perhaps it is necessary to ponder on what we seek in democracy and how does it best serve our ends?

The ultimate purpose of democracy is the investiture of the will of the electorate and not essentially the delivery of social goods. Examples abound of non-democratic governments that have bettered the lot of their people, but it is only in democracies that governments are in power to validate the legitimate will of the majority and the means by which this power is exercised is through credible electoral processes. So critical is the choice of the majority in a democratic process that it has been said that one is obliged to accept without reservation the fallout that comes with democratic choice even if that in practice terminates the democratic cycle itself as was the case of the Islamic Party in Algeria in 1991, when the electorate chose the party despite its public disavowal of the principles of democratic governance and the same can be said of the vote for Hamas by Palestinians in 2006.

That democracy and development share a kinship is a fact beyond the shadow of doubt, but one must realize that such affinity is largely a contingent matter of contextual and institutional design rather than an automatic or a successive relationship. The fundamentals of development are almost uniform globally, and any government that applies economic rules effectively irrespective of the nomenclature of the government would achieve development at least in a short run as the case of Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, China, Malaysia and Dubai reveal, while some fiscally confused and undisciplined democratic nations remain lost. However, it would be hypocritical to overlook the fact that most of the dictatorial regimes in the past have brought their states to ruin.

The process of democratization is a social one, whose explanation lies in a number of conjunctive factors and more importantly is that we must accept that every nation at various stages of democratization finds its own formula for dealing with challenges of various exacerbating societal cleavages considering the fact that the competitive nature of democratic politics tend to rend the social fabric.Furthermore, we should realize that democracy exceeds multi-party elections and other structural trappings associated with Western democracies. If at all Nigeria would evolve a democratic system that will suit her condition, then she must pay careful attention to her social order, the complexities of multi-ethnicity, high rate of illiteracy and endemic poverty.

The issue of necessary constitutional framework is equally important. Apart from being a legal document, a constitution is a reflection of the balance of forces in a society and the process of producing a constitution, as well as its nature and content should be influenced by existing social realities. The American Constitution is a product of the victorious revolutionary will of the American people, ditto for the South African Constitution of 1996, which is the product of a grand compromise between the apartheid forces, the international community and the revolutionary forces under the leadership of the African National Congress, but what can we make out of the 1999 constitution?

Liberal democracy cannot be built nor sustained when the electorates are only important at election times. People are the indispensable integrals of the national arithmetic of any democratic society. The state of Nigerian democracy begs the question what is the problem with our democracy that all it has done is create large areas of poverty, stagnation, marginality and exclusion from social and economic progress.

As politicians jostle for positions ahead of 2015 and power in theory resides with the electorates, it is essential to note the importance of leadership. According to Achebe “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or anything else.” Should we not all as electorates this time vote in leaders with natural qualities and the requisite intellectual preparations expected from a person that would lead in a complex political entity that Nigeria is?

Democracy essentially is about the right to dissent, so it will be within the democratic rights of Nigerian voters to deliberately vote against “common sense” and choose the worst of the electable lot, it will neither be new nor strange.

Written by: Tosin Osasona- Research Associate at the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives.

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