Since 1999, we have celebrated the 29th of May as Democracy Day. Our leaders across the nation have seized upon the day as an opportunity to deliver monologues on their ‘achievements.’ This practice, unfortunately, serves to obviate the essence of Democracy Day.
Winston Churchill is credited with having said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those that have been tried from time to time. Beyond the witticism of the British orator lies an indisputable truth. With all its imperfections, democracy remains the best form of government known to mankind.
Democracy entrenches personal and collective liberties and guarantees freedom from oppression and discrimination for all peoples governed within its compass.
Government of the people by the people for the people is the enduring definition laid down in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. The long-form definition of democracy is of a political system where a Constitution guarantees basic personal and political rights, equality and even distribution of wealth and opportunities, fair and free elections, rule of law, independent courts and personal freedom of citizens.
Accordingly, the preamble to the Nigerian constitution stated “… AND TO PROVIDE for a Constitution for the purpose of promoting the good government and welfare of all persons in our country on the principles of Freedom, Equality and Justice, and for the purpose of consolidating the Unity of our people: ….”
As we roll out the drums of celebration this year, there is sufficient cause for pause to ask what is being celebrated. As a nation, have we been able to improve upon or even uphold the level of democratic standards and practice already established? To what extent do we have true separation of powers, the rule of law, protection of personal and political rights, fair and free elections and even equitable distribution of wealth and opportunities?
Even autocratic regimes, the antithesis of democracy, are often able to record the kind of benchmarks that it has become the fashion to enumerate on Democracy Day. The focus of our Democracy Day celebrations ought, therefore, to be the level of subscription to and enforcement of the values on which true democracy is built rather than the brick-and-mortar achievements, real or imagined, of agencies and departments of the executive arm.
A lot of the talk this term has been of progress in the fight against insurgency and corruption. But telling questions are written large on how much democracy and democratic principles have really been advanced in the process. It is widely acknowledged that rarely in the history of our democracy have we ever seen such bitterness and bickering, religious and ethnic divisions, and social and political disorder as we do these days.
As many who are currently entrusted with the reins of power seem to have discovered, it is easier to sit on the sidelines, criticising and condemning, than to actually be in the arena, balancing diverse and conflicting interests, and managing still to forge unity, peace and progress on democratic principles.
This year’s Democracy Day ought therefore to be one in which we recommit as a people to pursuing the democratic ideal in its purest form. We must seek to establish Nigeria as the candle on the hill of democracy for all nations in Africa and worldwide. And why not? The only limitations to what we can achieve as a nation are, by the grace of God, in our collective will.
The government of the day must realize that Nigerians yearn for a country where their personal and political liberties are much better protected. Our people want a more united nation where the constitution is respected and where the three arms of government are free to function to the full extent of their respective powers as guaranteed by the constitution.
Nigerians want a country where they are free, within the ambits of the law to hold opinions, ventilate their views and associate freely without any form of molestation. They want to have free and fair elections in which their votes actually count.
Nigerians want a transparent and accountable government and a nation where they are not marginalized by reason of their ethnic, religious, sectional and political affiliations. They want a Nigeria which is indeed “one nation bound in freedom, peace and unity”.
It is only then that democracy and the celebration of Democracy Day will make the desired meaning to the people and the nation at large.
Finally, the promotion of true democratic values will surely assist in dousing the tension in the land and resolving the national question.