By Douglas Anele
An essential point often neglected in discourses about democracy is that democratic governance is about values. In otherwords, democracy properly so-called entails that certain values are fundamental such that without them it would be virtually impossible to have a government that is truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Of all the axiological pillars or presuppositions of genuine democracy, the overarching value is ontological, from which the others flow. It involves the conviction that, as human beings, all members of the community are equal sui generis in the sense that they are all free human beings with equal rights to participate in the political life of the community.
This is often captured in the hackneyed theological cliché that “all human beings are created equal,” which is only true mathematically given that in the essential physical, mental, emotional and spiritual attributes of homo sapiens, we are not equal. Therefore, the concept of equality of all humans is true to a very limited extent; but when it is applied in a political context, what is intended involves the moral demand that all members of the community should be treated with respect and dignity befitting of the human person.
This implies that discrimination on the basis of birth, caste, gender, religion, ethnicity and socio-economic status is inimical to genuine democracy and, as a result, cannot be tolerated. Next is the belief that citizens that have attained a prescribed age have certain inalienable political rights, including the right to participate directly in choosing those that will lead them and can take part directly in actual governance – the freedom to vote and be voted for. In concrete terms, any citizen that meets certain criteria for a particular political position can vie for that position.
Now, since free and fair election at periodic intervals has become the most acceptable form of selecting those to occupy different political offices, each vote, either cast through a ballot paper or, in contemporary times electronically, is deemed to be of equal weight to every other irrespective of the personal background or status of the voter. In this connection, majority rule is one of the pillars of democracy. It does not mean that the majority always makes the right choice; rather, it means that it is more reasonable to allow the majority to have the final word in political choices.
Nevertheless, the rights of minorities, irrespective of how ‘minorities’ is defined in different contexts, must not be trampled upon, and appropriate measures must be instituted as safeguards to avoid dictatorship of the majority. it is necessary that people should be actively involved in the political life of the community. Participation in government is based on merit; there is no place or room for hereditary privileges. Just as the citizens have the right to choose their leaders, they also have the power to replace one set of political leaders with another at stated intervals.
This is where democratic governance is superior to other forms of government. For, as Prof. Karl Popper argued, the main advantage of democracy over tyranny or dictatorship is that it provides a non-violent means of replacing bad leaders whose continuation in office would be disastrous for the country. Rule of law and equality before the law is also an important value in democracy because the law and legal procedures should apply equally to all citizens.
It must be pointed out that the evolution of democratic governance throughout history has been extraordinarily arduous and that the quality of democracy differs both historically and geographically, meaning that various countries of the world have achieved different levels of democratic governance at different times. Since democracy is always a work-in-progress, and given that none of the values identified above can be actualised perfectly in any country, it is imperative that the citizens must be prepared to engage in the difficult task of improving the traditions and institutions upon which democracy is founded. The extent to which members of a community have internalised the values we have highlighted above determines the level of democratic culture in any political setting.
Thus, the level of entrenchment of modern democratic culture in advanced western democracies is an index of the extent to which particularly the ruling elite had been able to conduct the affairs of state in accordance with democratic norms, on the one hand, and the degree of political consciousness amongst the citizens leading to their engagement with politicians and politics, on the other. It must be acknowledged that democracy thrives best in a secular environment. For example, the core principles that inform constitutional democracy must be secular in character.
This means that political actors and government institutions mandated to act on behalf of the state must be separated from religious institutions and religious dignitaries. Historically speaking, fundamental human freedoms like freedom of speech, freedom of unbelief, freedom from religious imposition and so on tend to flourish in countries where secular orientation and ideas are widespread than in those ones where religion still plays a prominent role in politics. It must be mentioned in passing that the 1999 Nigerian constitution is gravely flawed because, apart from its obnoxious unitarist provisions, it contains provisions that assign an important role to sharia law, which is a complete aberration and refutation of the claim that Nigeria is a secular state.
The notion or concept of democratic culture encapsulates all the values and practices that nourish and sustain democracy. Naturally, the foundational values of democracy are interconnected in that they tend to foster the culture of tolerance and consensus-building. When majority of the citizens respect democratic values and conduct their lives in accordance with them, that will engender a conducive social ecology for the emergence and consolidation of democratic culture in the society. If the opposite is true, if political leaders and their followers pay lip service to rational debate, tolerance and consensus-building and routinely resort to intimidation, violence and other illicit means to pursue their political objectives, it would be difficult to nurture democratic culture in such an inclement political environment. There is some truth in the paradoxical claim by some attentive observers of Nigerian politics that there is democracy in the country without real democrats.
Having discussed some of the values that lie at the heart of every democracy, it is time to consider in some detail whether there is really any period in Nigeria’s political history that can actually be described as democratic and if indeed there was such a period what is the situation right now? It can be argued that the title of our discourse is misleading, on the ground that what we have in Nigeria presently, like all the other periods civilians were in power, is nothing but a caricature of democracy, that Nigeria has never practised democracy such that the question of the death of democracy and what caused it does not arise.
Now, justified disappointment with the mediocre performance of successive civilian administrations since 1960 may lead to the discouraging conclusion above, but that conclusion is based on the false and unrealistic premise that civilian government must in accordance with ideal democracy before it can be described as such. Perfection in everything human, including democracy, is unattainable. So, if we rank democracies from zero to hundred percent, zero representing complete absence of democracy and hundred percent denoting its perfection, countries can be assigned positions between the two extremes depending on the extent to which each of them had assimilated democratic culture and practices over time. Generally speaking, the advanced democracies of the West are further away from zero than, say, Russia, China and most countries of Africa and the Middle East.
The best way to evaluate the kind of democracy practiced in Nigeria since independence is to consider the extent to which civilian administrations had been able to make government to be truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” In other words, we need to ascertain whether or not successive civilian governments have made positive impact on the lives of ordinary people and deepened the democratic experience and processes. To begin with, the first administration that emerged after the British departed was the product of political engineering carried out by the colonial master in conjunction with the dominant political elite of the time. There is evidence to show that the last British Governor-General, Sir James Robertson, manipulated results of the 1959 federal elections to suit his northern protege, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
To be continued…