By Mohammed Adamu
IN underscoring the importance of the doctrine of ‘popular sovereignty’ –or the right of the ‘people’ in modern democracies, to be the sole conferrers of ‘governmental authority’, America’s Thomas Jefferson once said “I know no safe repository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves.” And then he added “and if we think them (i.e. the people) not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it (i.e. the power) from them but to inform their discretion.”
So that, in time they may begin to exercise that ‘power’ beneficially to one and all, rather than detrimentally, especially to themselves. But no matter what they do, Edmund Burke said, the ‘people’, in a democracy, ultimately are their own masters. “Nor is the people’s judgment always true”, said the poet John Dryden; because according to him “The most may err as grossly as the few”.
Nonetheless what Thomas Jefferson meant by the ‘people’ as repository of ‘governmental authority’, was that the right of the ‘people’ in a democracy to ‘freely’ and ‘willfully’ elect or remove their governments is sacrosanct; and that at no time and under no guise should that right be abridged by any person, group or institution even for the reason that the people may not be sophisticated enough to handle that power. In fact, the ‘people’ in addition to possessing that power –whether ad nauseam or ad libitum or both- also possess the right to exercise it however they wish!
And maybe it is the reason John Patrick said democracy is “the right (even) to make the wrong choice.” Or as the 18th century poet and diplomat, James Russell Lowell said, that democracy “gives every man a right to be his own oppressor”. What the majority sows on election day the nation reaps in the days of governance. And it is the reason I disagree with the Lincolnian claim that “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent”. He ought to have said ‘No man is good enough to govern a majority without that majority’s consent’. Because in modern democracies the majority has always been good enough to govern the minority without the minority’s consent.
Nor should any ‘moral minority’, outside the due democratic process, arrogate the right or suffer the obligation either to save the ‘people’ from a political ‘affliction’ they are determined to bear, or even to confer on them a ‘relief’ that are not excited to enjoy. Rivers’s Wike, Ekiti’s Fayose, Kaduna’s El-Rufai or Lagos’ Ambode are electoral ‘afflictions’ or ‘reliefs’ only those who elected them have a right freely and willfully, either to ‘cure’ or to ‘enjoy’. I once quoted Mike Peters, who asked “When I go into the voting booth, do I vote for the person who is the best President or the slime bucket who will make my life as a cartoonist wonderful?” Meaning that as people are bound to vote particular candidates for sundry reasons, they will be right also not to vote particular ones for sundry reasons.
But worse than that as someone ominously said, sometimes ‘democracy is ‘four wolves’ and a ‘lamb’, voting on what to have for lunch.’ The ‘lamb’ will have a ‘say’ and the ‘wolves’, a ‘way’ –as it is democracy’s eternal dictum that ‘to the minority is a say, and to the majority, a way’. And that is just the way that the democratic ‘cookie’ always crumbles.
But if it is any consolation, as some other theorists say, ‘the cure for the afflictions of democracy is more democracy. And hopefully, someday, the viewpoint of Henrik Ibsen’s famed ‘righteous minority’ may prevail over the ‘ignorance’ or the ‘obstinacy’ of the ‘unrighteous’ majority’; so that yesterday’s ‘righteous minority’ becomes today’s ‘ignorant’ or ‘obstinate’ majority, and vice versa. It is the way of all ‘civilised’ democracies: self-righteous oppositions biding their time with superior argument –not with a lethal narrative, to subvert the system.
And so as ‘parliament’ is said to be the touchstone of the ‘democratic process’, even so ‘popular sovereignty’ is sung as the ‘heart and soul’ of the ‘democratic enterprise’; and it is a franchise evidenced solely by the conduct of regular elections, at which the people freely and willfully may install ‘bad governments’ or even bring down ‘good’ ones –provided they do so through the due democratic process.
It is in the periodic exercise of this power that the ‘people’ assert themselves as the repository and conferrer of political authority. And although candidates for election have a right freely and willfully too, to solicit the vote, and to avail the ‘people’ reasons that they –and not their opponents- are worthy of that vote, beyond that, it will be ultra vires their democratic right to deny others the same franchise.
For a ‘partisan opposition’ to insist on preventing other candidates for the reason merely that they are ‘morally’ –not legally- undeserving of the electoral trust of the people, or that the ‘people’ who will elect them are “not enlightened enough to exercise their (electoral) control with a wholesome discretion”, is to forcefully assume trusteeship of that fundamental right of the ‘people’ to ‘freely’ and ‘willfully’ determine who they elect into, or who they vote, out of office.
By the way, the ‘right’ of the ‘people’, electorally, to determine who governs their affairs –although it is prescribed in a document called the constitution- it predated the Constitution and is thus antecedent to, and older than, it. The ‘people’ possessed this ‘right’ long before they enshrined it in a Constitution. Reason I often quote Abraham Lincoln, who said “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it.
Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right to amend it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it”. Meaning: although the ‘right’ to ‘amend’ is constitutional and is exerciseable by the ‘people’ through their elected representatives, the ‘right’ to ‘overhaul’ is a ‘revolutionary’ one residing only in the ‘people’ whose may radically bring, including the Constitution, down.
Nor is this ‘revolutionary’ power sanctionable or assuagable by the provisions of a constitution that itself is willfully brought about by that power. Only the ‘people’ have this unique extra-constitutional power, to wait until election to “exercise their constitutional right” to change their governments or even before election, to proceed to exercise “their revolutionary right” to bring them down.
But it is the peoples’ electoral right of that is the subject of this piece; and about which Lyndon B. Johnson once said: “The vote is the most wonderful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice”. And because ‘the voice of the people’ as they say, ‘is the voice of God’, how do we know which candidate is ‘divine’ and which is ‘evil’ if we avoid an electoral Armageddon involving both?
In rebuke of what he once described as the “Republican eightieth ‘do-nothing’ Congress”, Democratic President Harry Truman said “when a bunch of Republican reactionaries are in control of the Congress, then the people get reactionary laws”. It was his right and duty as a Democrat to warn the people against voting reactionaries.
But it was not his to assume trusteeship over the right of the ‘people’ to freely and willfully elect radicals or reactionaries. Truman could not have asserted his Party’s right to oppose the fielding of Republican ‘reactionaries’ as candidates; the way PDP is adamant that the APC ‘must not’ field a ‘conservative’ Buhari -as if that attribute is a legal criterion for electoral contest. Even at its crudest Grecian beginning the term ‘opposition’ did not mean ‘opposing’ the ‘opponents’ lawful right of contest.
Or did it?