By Femi Aribisala
THE system of government favoured by Nigerians has always been the democratic system. Even military governments in Nigeria seize power ostensibly in the interest of upholding or promoting democratic structures. We even had a period, under Ibrahim Babangida, when a military government at the federal level orchestrated democratic structures and elections at the state and local government levels.
Nevertheless, Nigerian democracy is fundamentally undemocratic. It is based on a census that is unreliable and conjectural. Since 1952/53, the operational census on which Nigeria’s political system is structured defies commonsense and has been a perennial source of conflict.
It presupposes, for example, that there are more people in Kano State than in Lagos State even after Jigawa State was extracted from Kano in 1991. But any student of population figures knows that there are even more people in the city of Ibadan than there are in the city of Kano. A cursory look at the rest of West Africa confirms that there are far more people living in the coastal savannah and rainforest belt than in the arid and desert hinterland.
In the 1993 presidential election, the only election widely judged to have been free and fair in Nigeria, with a man from Kano as one of the two contestants, twice the number of people voted in Lagos as did in Kano. Lagos registered 1,033,397 voters, while Kano had only 442,176. However, by 2015, Lagos had 1,678,754 voters, relative to 2,364,434 in Kano. In effect, voters in Kano grew by 434% in 22 years, an impossible feat; while those in Lagos grew by only 62%.
This kind of spurious figure is a common feature in Nigerian elections and often constitutes the difference between victory and defeat. Kano’s annual growth rate between 1993 and 2015 of 19.7% per annum is unheard of anywhere in the world, while Lagos’ growth rate of 2.8% conforms with the estimate of the United Nations for Nigeria.
In 1993, Nigeria’s population was 102 million. At Kano’s bogus growth rate, Nigeria’s population now in 2018 would be 544 million; a palpably false and outrageous figure.
From 1999 to the present, Nigeria has had its longest stint of so-called democratic rule. But this democracy has been distinctly Nigerian because the principal actors have been more interested in manipulating the system than in allowing it to work. The democratic system operated in Nigeria is very Nigerian in its originality; never mind the fact that it is modelled after that of the United States. It operates more as a means for capturing power than as a system of government.
Nigerian originality often has negative implications. If you have a construct, the Nigerian practice is often designed to defeat it, and to make it serve a purpose contrary to its original design. As far as the practice of democracy is concerned, Nigerian democracy is intended to yield anti-democratic results. To that extent, Nigerian democracy merely becomes yet another tool for seizing power illegally. In effect, elections in Nigeria are hardly different from military coups.
In the final analysis, democracy is alien to Nigeria. Nigerians don’t believe in democracy, but we have been socialised by the international community to subscribe to its legitimacy. Therefore, the object of the democratic process in Nigeria is to obtain political power illegally; albeit through the ballot box and within the framework of a semblance of democratic legality and legitimacy.
In Nigeria, all the actors in the democratic process without exception seek to manipulate the process. Paradoxically, the ability to do this is sometimes based on popular “democratic” support. In Nigeria, every election is rigged. The question is to what extent or to what degree. Nigeria’s rigging rigmarole also has some curiously in-built seemingly democratic tendencies. The capacity to rig and get away with it is linked to actual support on the ground, ensuring that the rigging is also somewhat democratic.
This is because the efficacy of rigging lies in the ability to exaggerate the margin of victory. Put in the national mix, this might conceivably distort and even determine the overall winner. But when an election is rigged to the extent that the eventual winner in a particular constituency bears no relation with the real choice on the ground, it is likely to result in riots, protests and even chaos.
In the process of manipulating the political process, Nigerians have developed certain protocols that provide the bells and whistles of “Nigerian-style democracy.” These protocols are actually anathema to the democratic ethos. Nevertheless, they are operated within the ambit of the democratic process and in the name of democracy.
One of these is referred to as “Amala politics.” Amala is a staple food in certain parts of the Nigerian South-west. The politics to which it lends its name refers to the process whereby public funds are stolen and used to feed the poor in order to build a local constituency of thugs and subalterns that can in turn be used to manipulate the polls and intimidate political opponents.
Amala politics is a Nigerian variant of the Robin Hood system where, instead of robbing the rich to feed the poor, the government is robbed to feed the poor for the sake of keeping the poor in poverty. Amala politics came into prominence in the era of Lamidi Adedibu, who became a strong-man in Ibadan and Oyo State politics.
With Adedibu’s demise, amala politics has metamorphosed into another variant called “stomach democracy.” This is yet another process whereby the hunger of the poor is again exploited for power political gain in elections.
As a result of this homespun politics, Oyo State suffered greatly in terms of economic advancement under Adedibu’s insidious reign. Executed public projects were few and far between. The state itself generated few funds internally. Most of the budget came from allocations from the federal level of the national cash-cow of the oil industry. Nevertheless, an inordinate amount of the monies the state received were expended on playing politics. A sizeable part of the budget was devoted for the purposes of capturing power and staying in power.
There was a circular logic to this. You get into power in order to steal money to stay in power in order to steal money. Adedibu ingratiated himself to the people as a kind of benevolent godfather with ostensible passion for the poor and the needy. But behind this facade was a man who exploited the poor in order to manipulate the political process to his advantage.
It mattered little in the end who was the governor of Oyo State or who were the leadership in the state legislature. As far as Oyo state was concerned, Adedibu was king. He reigned supreme until his death in 2008, because the governors and virtually all the legislators in the state were under his sponsorship.
In South-west APC, democracy has become the choice of one man. Office-holders are those who the man chooses “democratically.” The one difference between Tinubu and Adedibu is that Tinubu does not sponsor thugs for political office as Adedibu did. Tinubu has been able to choose able men, such as Babatunde Fashola and Akinwunmi Ambode who distinguished themselves in office, while Adedibu chose men in Oyo State who did not seem to know their right from their left.
Nevertheless, political processes in many states effectively subvert the democratic process; reducing the power of the people to the power of the godfather. The godfather becomes the effective electorate. Combined with dexterity at manipulating the polls, godfatherism ensures that whoever is chosen by the godfather is inevitably rigged into office.
The godfather system has created a situation where the voters are inclined to relinquish their vote in exchange for “stomach infrastructures” from men of timber and caliber.” The logic here is that in order to win an election, all you need to do is to give the people stomach infrastructures (food to eat) instead of physical infrastructures (public works) and you are home-free.
The reality, therefore, is that the true wishes of the majority in Nigeria often contradict the country’s developmental needs. When the people are hungry and unemployed, they are less likely to be fastidious about good or honest government. They are more likely to vote for that man inclined to address their immediate needs by hook or crook.
They begin to express a preference for variants of amala politics over that of “action government.” Their demand is that the government should meet their pressing need for food, and shelter, as against public works and infrastructural development.
This raises questions that go to the heart of the democratic system for a country like Nigeria. It is an article of faith in the international community that the democratic system is the ideal system of government the world over. However, quite a number of the countries stridently holding this view were not democratic when they were at Nigeria’s stage of development.
What happens when the democratic process is inclined to contradict the process of economic growth and development? What happens, if the level of education of the electorate is insufficiently high to enable them to arrive democratically at conclusions that promote the public good? What happens if the level of development in a country is so low that the poverty of the majority can be exploited by charlatans in the name of democracy?
Nigerian democracy has ensured that those who accede to power are impostors. They are often those better able to manipulate the vote and the voters, but who have little or no understanding of public policy. Nigerian politicians are the dregs of our society. Our few good men do not want to be associated with them. Therefore, what we get from this much-vaunted democratic process is a succession and procession of bad and incompetent governments.
Is democracy still acceptable if it leads inevitably to the victory of incompetents and charlatans at the polls? Should we begin to make a case that the kind of democracy that will promote the public good in a country like Nigeria must of necessity be a modified democracy that recognises the low level of education of the major part of the voting population? Or should we remain committed to democracy that is based on fraud and deception?
What precisely, are the limits of democracy in a country like Nigeria and how do we go about determining and implementing this? Significantly, there is a coming election in Nigeria in barely eight months, but there is no policy debate whatsoever in the country. All the government is doing is making June 12 an illegal democracy day and revarnishing its rhetorical hobby-horse of anti-corruption.