The author holds a BA in Literature-in-English from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile- Ife and is rounding off her Masters programme at the University of Lagos, Nigeria. She started writing as a student. She became the Editor-in-Chief of Socioscope News Agency in 2007, a news outfit in her university. She was later elected as the Vice-President of the Association of Campus Journalists. Life through these offices taught her responsibility, integrity and hard work. Skills from these volunteer positions as a student groomed her for life outside the university.
This essay was a winner in the Center for International Private Enterprise’s (CIPE) 2010 International Youth Essay Contest. For more information on the essay contest and to read the rest of the winning essays please visit www.cipe.org/essay
The Idea of Democracy
This is not a homage to democracy. This essay is an elegy written from the yard of one of Nigeria’s falling ivory towers. It is from an angry young student tired of the “business-as-usual” politics of her country. It is a result of a confluence of emotions – anger, disillusionment, and the dying rays of optimism – she feels when she looks at her nation.
Democracy in Nigeria interests me for several reasons. First, democracy preaches freedom, which makes me ask freedom of who, from what? Democracy holds equality in high esteem, especially through the institution of rule of law. Wait a minute, whose rule? Whose laws? The state of Nigerian democracy is a sad one. So depressing that, at several points, I considered exchanging this topic for another. I refused. That is exactly what our inefficient leaders want from us: get tired of asking for better governance and adopt a ‘siddon look’ (sit down and look) posture.I do not pretend to be pleased with the way what we call ‘democracy’ is practiced. In this essay, I attempted to take an optimistic view and make suggestions that may put us on the road to change. Maybe someday soon, Nigeria will top the list of truly democratic nations in the world.
Stillborn Democracy: The Nigerian Picture
Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”1 Democracy on paper implies that at every stage of democracy, the people are significant – not a section or a select class of the people, but all people. Playwright Oscar Wilde’s words accurately describe Nigerian democracy as “the bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people.”2 Democracy in Nigeria brings to mind the image of a stillbirth. A mother carried a child for nine whole months, enduring every discomfort that comes with it, the groans, the push, and fears that accompany labor, only to find it dead. This stillbirth called Nigerian democracy had more than one doctor that brought it to life. Some were exiled; more were imprisoned; others were murdered. Those alive are disillusioned as they see the product of their labors hijacked for selfish motives. Most Nigerians feel this way about the country’s journey to democracy.
Our Journey to Democracy
In 1960, the nation became independent of Great Britain. In many ways, the young nation was not ripe for self-rule. A coup in 1966 led to the end of the first republic. Between 1966 and 1999, Nigeria faced aborted coups, successive military takeovers, and democracy with ‘slender’ frames. The 1999 election brought a democratically elected leader to the helm after decades of moaning under the weight of military rule.3 This victory raised expectations. It increased hopes – after 50 years of independence, 11 years of uninterrupted democracy, has our nascent democracy delivered? The response depends on who is answering. For the ruling class, it would be a yes. For the poor electorate, with angry frowns etched into their foreheads, the answer is no! So, what is the problem with Nigeria? Why has a system of government that works well at delivering change in other nations failed at our doorstep?
Is this Democracy?
…this e no be democracy. Democrazy, Crazy Demo, demonstration of craze, crazy demonstration…if e no be craze why for Africa? As time dey go, things just dey bad, e bad more and more, poor man dey cry…rich man dey mess. Crazy demonstration…4 Fela Anikulapo Kuti, “Teacher No Teach Me Nonsense”
These lines are from the late Afrobeat singer Fela Anikulapo’s classic song that captures Nigeria’s failed democracy. He called it a ‘demonstration of craze.’ I wonder what Fela’s lines would be if he saw democracy today. Maybe it would kill him. Maybe he wouldn’t live a day. Maybe he would have a heart attack and retreat. Or he might heap our heads with more songs of shame.
The essentials of democracy for the purposes of this essay are: “fundamental freedom and rights, elections, rule of law, separation of powers, democratic pluralism, the presence of opposition, public opinion and the freedom of the media.”5 Are these instruments of democracy present in Nigeria? Yes, they are – on paper. In practice, the structures exist but most politicians do what they want without regard for the law. They try to tweak the law for selfish reasons. One classic example is past president Olusegun Obasanjo’s alleged attempt to extend the presidential tenure to three terms in order to retain office.6 More recently, the late president, Umar Yar Adua, attempted to govern the nation from his hospital bed, allowing unelected people around him to rule the country while he recuperated.7 Is this democracy, when the elected disrespect the voters and constitution? Let us look more closely at some elements of democracy and Nigeria’s experience.
Elections are considered the first crucial step towards any successful democracy. If elections are not free and fair, the nation proceeds without ever being democratic. How do elections work in Nigeria? Political parties organize primaries through which they determine aspirants that will run for appointment. Then there are elections at the local, state, and presidential levels. The question here is: are these elections free and fair?
In Nigeria, elections should be renamed selection. Politicians (called ‘politricktians’ by most) campaign. They make empty promises, which most of them quickly forget. Elections are not arranged well and are very costly. Electoral malpractices are no strange sight.8 Citizens are afraid to cast their votes for fear of being caught in fights between political thugs. Voting cards bear fictitious names of candidates not present for elections. There have been situations where elections were declared for the loser simply because of intimidation, fear, or bribery. Corruption, rigging, inadequate voters’ education, and lack of accountability are some of the demons that hinder successful elections in Nigeria. Many are disenfranchised and do not vote, yet after the election the votes align closely with the will of the nation’s population.9 The answer: rigging. The selected (usually by godfathers) are the winners.
The press is active. There is a plethora of newspapers, radios, and television stations. Like most businesses, their presence is also online. But does proliferation equal freedom of the press? Most of the newspapers are owned by government officials or funded by them. There have been accusing fingers pointed at members of the press for corruption.10 What kind of journalism does that give us? A press that does not dare to raise its voice to the hands that feeds it, that cannot look the government in the eye. A zombie press – a press with its tail tucked between its legs in fear. Nigeria’s press is a failed fourth estate of society.
In this bleakness, there exist a few that report without fear. They practice journalism as it ought to be practiced. One such outlet is 234next.11 Early this year, its reporters brought to light the secrecy over the late president’s sickness and continual absence from the nation. The headlines read, “The President is Brain Dead.”12 That was an historic moment, but it put the self-appointed members of the cabinet on their guard. Members from the State Security Service (SSS) reportedly ransacked the 234next office. True journalism does not only inform the citizenry. It makes the government shift in its seat and questions its decisions, resulting in better governance. Several journalists have been murdered for speaking the truth, and the perpetuators have not been brought to justice.13 There is a bloody price for truth in the press.14
There is a semblance of a present public opinion. It seems more people are aware of the state of the nation, especially when one looks at the angst that pours out on Facebook and Twitter. It is not strange to find people reacting with outrage to government decisions online. Is this enough to change things? Is an online discussion enough to take us from this fictitious democracy to real democracy? Leaders do not monitor social networking sites. Even if they have an official presence online, we are aware that they are focused on the business of the state, or more accurately, draining the state accounts.
These three aspects – elections, the press, and public opinion – show a fairly negative picture of the state of democracy in Nigeria. For me, either there is a democracy or there is no democracy at all. Nigeria operates a pseudo-democracy. We need to choose.
The Dividends of Democracy
As I type this, there is no electricity on the university campus. I tap power from a cyber café that generates its own electricity. The noise from the generator is deafening. I slap mosquitoes from my body. I am not the only one here. We are about ten. This is not different from others’ experiences: every house is a local government unto itself. We provide the ‘basic’ amenities that should be the benefits of good governance. We supply our own electricity with generators that pollute the air and cheat us on sleep. Each house has its own borehole for portable water. There is, however, a teeming mass that cannot afford the luxury of living under this ‘subsistence’ government. Thus, it is not surprising that the average Nigerian expects little of democracy. An informal survey shows that a majority of Nigerians demand the basic necessities of life: electricity, good roads, quality education, clean water, and infrastructure. The reason is simple: when these basic needs are met, maybe we would no longer be carried away by the struggle of survival and start asking questions. Maybe then, we would take a sidelong glance at the economic freedom that accompanies democracy.
Democracy enhances a steady development in the society. It also provides an environment for people to transact business guided by specific laws. There is a connection between democracy and the economic productivity of any nation.
What does democracy promise? Democracy promises people the right to choose their leadership. Democracy promises freedom, equality before the law, equal access to power, and human rights protected by a constitution. It promises an enabling environment for business and humans to thrive. Democracy does not promise that all these would be handed to us on a platter of gold. It however allows us the freedom to find our way to these things. Sometimes, it has to be fought for; sometimes people die for it. Leaders may be imposed on us. Leaders may make empty promises. The day Nigerians are allowed to vote for leaders, we may be closer to a democracy. The day Nigerians begin to hold politicians responsible for their words, democracy may work. The day we begin to work as a collective for the sustenance of good governance, we may be closer to democracy.
Nigerian Democracy May Deliver
A democracy that is not built on the right foundation has nothing to deliver. As such, little is expected from a democracy based on selfishness. Following the faint rays of optimism, I offer the following suggestions for corrective measures that may put the nation on the road to democracy. The youth represent over 70 percent of Nigeria’s population and their impact on the progress of change is assured. Generally, my solutions are divided into two categories: elections and changing attitudes.
Elections: Walter Judd was right when he said, “Decisions are made by a majority of those who make themselves heard and who vote – a very different thing.” This implies that without a free and fair election process, there cannot be a democracy.
What can be done?
The first step towards free and fair elections is the institution of a truly neutral professional body (in Nigeria’s case, the Independent National Electoral Commission) that administers elections. The body ensures that elections are not politicized or hijacked by a political party; that political candidates campaign freely and can express their aspirations to the people; that voters vote in secret without intimidation; and that independent observers monitor the voting process for fraud.
Successful elections involve proper preparation and training of the electoral officials and civil society organizations that supervise the process. This can be executed through: proper electoral education at all levels of the society, especially at the grassroots; accurate voter registration; inclusion of civic education in the academic curriculum; proper dissemination of electoral information; free and fair elections; and proper monitoring of votes from voting to announcing winners.
Youth participation through volunteering: Past military dictator and political aspirant for the 2011 elections Ibrahim Babangida said that Nigerian youth are not educated enough to take on leadership positions.15 There’s no better time to prove this statement a fallacy. Young people should volunteer with organizations involved in the above solutions. Possible volunteer opportunities include the Enough-is-Enough group16, which focuses on grassroots voters’ education campaigns; join the Arise Nigeria protests17; participate in the Save Nigeria group projects to enhance change18; or educate others on reasons why voting is worthwhile through the Cool2Vote19 and Make Your Vote Count20 projects.
Proper dissemination of information: Apart from civic education, every form of media should be used to disseminate information about the electoral process. This includes television, radio, the Internet, text messages, posters, billboards, handbills, and every other form imaginable. Information should be available in English and as many local languages as possible.
The INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) should update the useful tips on the electoral system found on its website.21 It may consider using regularly updated social networking pages as well to disseminate information among the younger generation. Citizens would be able to read updates and ask questions about the elections. INEC should have a functional YouTube page where videos related to elections can be posted, including a step-by- step guide to elections. This should be disseminated through social networking sites. There could also be a toll free phone number that citizens can call to report cases of electoral malpractices. Voting polls should be very accessible to voters, at every street corner. Voting should be made as easy as breathing, not as difficult as finding the food for three square meals a day. Elections ultimately affect not only the present but determine the fate of generations unborn.
Changing Attitudes: Attitude truly determines the altitude of any democracy. This change should come from both leaders and followers. Leaders should question themselves about their motives for leadership: to serve or be served? If they take offices to serve the nation, then maybe elections would no longer be a do-or-die affair. Leaders should be more concerned about citizens. It would be amazing to see leaders live 24 hours in the most impoverished of villages or one day in our prisons brimming full of innocent citizens. Maybe they would listen more closely. Maybe they would be accountable. Maybe they would get down to work and learn that it is not a solution to set up toothless commissions that engage in meetings without action. A responsive leadership in turn leads to good governance.
Good governance occurs when leaders are concerned about their citizens. They would strive to implement the rights of citizens as enshrined in the constitution. Good governance also “involves all the actors and all the groups like civil society, political parties and the private sector.”22 For there to be good governance, there must be clearly defined roles for different bodies in text and practice, articulation of different groups in decision-making, exercise of powers in a democratic manner with respect for the constitution and contrary opinions, and proper execution of separation of powers and checks and balances to constrain the excesses of the leadership.23
The Nigerian populace should change its lackadaisical attitude to the administration of the nation. We are not just figures that increase the population of the country; we are citizens. As responsible citizens, we have a call to participate in the administration of the nation, as voters and critics of the government. The road to citizenship is about taking responsibility for our lives. Maybe with a change in attitude, we could have free and fair elections. We could strive for a responsive leadership and a responsible follower-ship. A change in citizen attitude leads to the emergence of a more concerned people.
A More Concerned Citizenry
This can be realized through the growth of pressure groups that demand better leadership. Nigeria needs sincere reformers not afraid to look the government in the face. Everyone, educated and illiterate, young and old, should be allowed the freedom of dissent without fear. Democracy rises and falls not only on the strength of leadership but on the dedication of the follower-ship as well. Nigerian democracy – whether it fails or succeeds – is in our hands.
This essay is not a praise song. It is a song for change. It is “a call to all my compatriots to serve our fatherland in truth, with love and strength. It is a yearning to see a nation bound in freedom and truth. A nation where our leaders are guided right. A nation where our youth know the truth. A nation where peace and justice reigns.”24 It is a cry from the heart of a youth to see that society we sing of everyday in our National Anthem.
1) Lincoln Quotation:
2) Oscar Wilde quotation:
http://thinkexist.com/quotation/democracy_means_simply_the_bludgeoning_of_the/217580.html 3) Nigerian history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Nigeria
4) Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s song: “This is not a democracy. Democrazy. Demonstration of craze. Crazy demo…if it is not craze, why in Africa? As things progress, things get worse. The poor man cries. The rich man farts. Crazy demonstration.”
5) What is Democracy? : http://www.fes-madagascar.org/media/pdf1/version_anglais.pdf 6) Obasabjo attempts to extend term:
7) Yar Adua and Cabal: http://234next.com/csp/cms/sites/Next/Home/5565552- 146/the_cabal_disperses_to_the_four.csp
8) http://searchwarp.com/swa556150-Electoral-Malpractices-And-Democratization-Process-In- Nigeria.htm
9) http://thenationonlineng.net/web2/articles/13425/1/Elections-and-Electoral-Malpractices-in- Nigeria/Page1.html
10) Corrupt journalists: http://www.saharareporters.com/component/content/article/139-sr- bloggers/5412-dirty-war-over-money-tears-punch-apart-as-editor-opens-can-of-worms-on-multi- million-naira-corruption-scandal.html
11) www.234next.com 12) Yar Adua Brain Dead: http://234next.com/csp/cms/sites/Next/News/Metro/Politics/5509847-
146/yaradua_is_brain-damaged___.csp 13) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/02/nigerian-journalists-killed-bloody-year
14) http://www1.voanews.com/english/news/africa/Murder-and-Death-Threats-Target-Nigerian- Journalists-from-Lagos-to-Jos-92645904.html
15) Babangida: Youth cannot rule Nigeria–
16) Enough is Enough: http://www.enoughisenoughnigeria.com/ 17) http://www.arisenigeria.org/ 18) http://savenigeriagroup.com/ 19) Cool2Vote: http://cool2vote.org/Election-Center/ 20)http://www.makeyourvotescount.org/
21) http://www.inecnigeria.org/ 22) CIPE Democracy that Delivers article: http://www.cipe.org/about/DemocracyDelivers07.pdf 23) http://www.cipe.org/about/DemocracyDelivers07.pdf 24) Nigeria National Anthem *siddon look: “sit down and look”
©2010 The African Executive