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Democracy: More than voting

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By Hamilton Odunze
THE  history of any nation provides the framework for its governance. Alex De Tocqueville puts it this way: “The growth of a nation…bears some marks of its origin.

The circumstances that accompanied their birth and contributed to their development affected the whole term of their being. . . .[t]he social condition of the Americans is eminently democratic; this was its character at the foundation of the colonies, and it is still more strongly marked at the present day.”

This observation presents the influence of national character toward nation building. Unfortunately, our understanding of national character is convoluted. Nigerians describe their character in terms of ethnic proclivity.

Therefore, many of us argue that, because we are a montage of “nations,” democracy is hardly a  realizable goal. In the scheme of things, ethnic or regional differences have nothing  to do with the process of democracy.

Democracy thrives when any set of people, regardless of their inherent differences, willfully agree to be governed democratically. On the surface, it seems that Nigerians have agreed to be governed democratically, but do we have the level of national character required for informed democracy?

Another element of democracy that we seem to not recognise is its very complex nature as a political system that requires some level of civilization to thrive. It cannot be efficiently utilized as a system of governance in any society where 99 percent of the population is illiterate. History backs up this assumption.

The concept of democracy was originally crafted while taking into consideration certain level of civilization which the ancient Romans had and transferred to Europe and then America. In fairness to those who discovered it to be the best system of governance known to man, Nigeria and many nations in Africa do not have the fundamental level of civilisation necessary for building sustainable democracy.

If you think that my assumption is erroneous and rebellious, consider this. You and I know that it takes a significant amount of civilised restraint for a leader to recognise that one of the pivotal rules of democracy is that it offers the governed power to challenge and disagree, even more than it offers any one person or set of people the power to govern.

As a rule of thumb, democracy cannot work in any society in which people are not ready to die in defense of other people’s right to challenge them. Can you think of anybody in Nigerian politics that will defend your right to challenge him or her? Your answer is the reason why our democracy is endangered.

Am I saying that democracy is doomed in Nigeria? Not necessarily. But as for governance, we have yet to create a situation for sustainable democracy; for now, we are diametrically heading in the opposite direction. The truth of the matter is that there are some elements of a society that make democracy thrive.

These elements are underprovided in our society. If democracy was an economic product, we would not have the natural resources to produce it in a viable amount.

So how do we reach sustainable democracy? First, it is important to encourage a general understanding that democracy reflects a people’s way of life as opposed to our current perception of it as just an act of voting. The fact that a nation chooses their leaders by voting is not synonymous with democracy.

For instance, the Peoples Republic of China vote to elect their leaders even more freely and fairly than we do, yet China is not considered a democracy.

When Tocqueville studied American democracy with the purpose of making recommendations for France, he made a landmark observation that has guided most discussions of national characters and destiny. De Tocqueville saw democracy as an egalitarian concept that must thrive when a society embraces the political equality of all its citizens.

As the political privileges of the common Nigerian keep being eroded by the ruling class, the danger exists that the process of democratization will eventually come to a halt.

Nigeria will not be a strong democracy until we become aware that voting is an end, and not a means, to democracy. Free and fair elections are aspects of democracy that only manifest when the other conditions have been met. The only scenario for sustainable democracy in Nigeria is civilization nurtured by mass literacy.

There is more to democracy that just voting. It is a way of life that can only be sustained through the equality and freedom of the masses.

Mr. Odunze, is the  co- editor African Anayst..

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