On Monday, democracy was on President Buhari’s mind. Receiving the Governor General of Canada, Her Excellency Hon. Julie Payette at Aso Rock Presidential Villa, the president observed that democracy is improving steadily in Nigeria, noting that Nigerians are having a deeper understanding of the culture and tenets of the system and the institutions of free and fair elections are being strengthened.
If the president is right, then Nigerians have earned a bragging right and must hold their heads up for making it to the elite club of nations. After all, democracy has gained global recognition as the best form of government. It’s true that we still lack progress in the indices of development, but we will sure get there once we have the right system of government.
The president emphasized how we got to this point. We have been learning from advanced democracies while we also look inward to appreciate our peculiarities. And it must be the case that these peculiarities of ours do not drag us down or pull us back from the goal of greater enrichment of democracy. Otherwise the president would not have considered it worth mentioning.
To determine if democracy is winning in Nigeria, we must measure it against the ideal, using for guidance the Lincolnian definition according to which the people rule themselves on behalf of themselves and for themselves. And it doesn’t not matter that this ideal is fully realizable only in village or city-state democracies where every adult member gathers under the tree to deliberate on and decide important issues. There are various ways in which even complex societies like ours can deepen democracy and advance on its ladder. To my mind, a meaningful movement toward the ideal requires our nation to invest in deliberate efforts toward the fulfillment of at least five conditions.
First, there must be a shared interest in the ideal. If we all agree that the rule of the people by the people and for the people is the best, and we are all included in the peoplehood, then, some of us cannot secretly harbor the monarchical or imperial spirit while expecting others to serve as subjects and toe the line. From the president to the council chair, from the Senate president to the councilor, and from the richest to the poorest, there must be a common interest in upholding and promoting the tenets of democracy to the fullest.
Practically, what this means in the simplest terms is consistency in our advocacy and implementation of democratic rules and procedures. One indispensable rule is that the people choose their elected representatives. And this choice applies to both the party nomination and general election processes.
This appears to be so clear and simplistic requirement that some may wonder why it even needs emphasis. If we expect the people to vote for their party’s candidates in a general election, it is commonsensical to accord them the right to vote for their preferred party candidates during nomination. It is this principle that favors direct primary. It is a progressive principle, the idea being to enlarge the coast of democracy by bringing more people into its tribe. Of course, the aristocrats and wannabe monarchists could care less. For them, the fewer the merrier and so they limit party members’ access to monopolize power.
A second requirement is a constitutional respect for the equality of citizens through legislation that limits the influence of money and wealth in politics. Ideally, this means that some citizens are not filthy rich while others are stinking poor. But we know that this ideal is unrealizable where free enterprise is in play. But respect for constitutional equality is not an unrealistic requirement. What it requires is a strong legislation that bans vote selling/buying and voter suppression. It further requires making access to political offices devoid of artificial obstacles. If the cost of nomination or expression of interest forms is so prohibitive that only the wealthy can afford it, this defeats the ideal of constitutional equality of citizens.
Thirdly, there must be strong institutions designed to protect and promote the democratic ideal. These include independent electoral umpires, non-partisan security agencies, an independent judiciary, and open and ideologically distinct political parties. Obviously, some of these are more important than others. Political parties are not essential for democracy to flourish as we have had examples of no-party democracies. However, in the context of modern representative democracies, political parties channel the interests of members around coherent ideologies which they champion.
A fourth condition is that individuals and political organizations are not allowed to game the system for private ends, and everyone is required to play by the rules which are fair and are put in place ahead of contests. As the temptation to cheat is always present, and as cheating is a threat to the interest of everyone in maintaining the system, this is perhaps one of the most important requirements. Unfortunately, it is one that many societies, including ours, have taken lightly. Ballot swapping, ballot box snatching, voter intimidation, and raw physical combat at election sites are abnormalities that are not in anyone’s interest.
A final condition on my list is that positions of authority are not exploited for undue advantage. This is a no-brainer. If an incumbent running for reelection exploits his or her position to influence electoral umpires, security agencies or the judiciary, it is an unfair exploitation of their office, which they would lash out against if the shoe were on the other foot. It makes moral and legal sense therefore to have strict and enforceable rules against such action.
Clearly, no existing society has been able to satisfy all these five conditions to the fullest. In some advanced democracies where vote selling/buying is not a threat to the ideal because voters have a sense of their dignity that cannot be bought, voter suppression is employed against minority populations. Every society has renegade individuals and organizations whose reason of being is to cheat. And in some societies that we would normally expect to respect an independent judiciary, ideological orientation predominates in the selection process. But when judges are chosen and confirmed based on ideological leaning, do we really expect a fair dispensation of justice?
Rather than looking at other societies as our guide, therefore, it is best to ask ourselves what kind of society do we want to be? Moving forward, what is our interest in the progressive development of our democracy so that we leave a proud legacy for our children? As we count our steps on the ladder of democracy, do we set our minds toward an upward movement or are we tempted to go down a step because it serves our private interests more than the upward movement?
As we look forward to another general election in four months, we should learn from the shameful experiences of our recent past when our topmost leadership considered election as a do or die battle; when political opponents were deemed as mortal enemies; when electoral umpires openly and blatantly shuffled aside the ethos of their profession for the proverbial pot of porridge.
Leaders who see themselves as emperors whose will must be imposed on everyone must have a rethink because no condition is permanent. We have elections because we are a republic, not a kingdom under a monarch that is chosen by an oracle.
Every citizen has a right and a responsibility to have his or her vote count. And voters must not yield to the temptation of selling their votes for pittance for the simple reason that they are going to pay heavily for it throughout the next four years. If a governorship candidate spends 100 billion Naira or more on vote buying, we can be sure that he or she will take multiples of that amount from the treasury of the state in the next four years. Then we have no good reason to complain if we were recipients of his/her electoral corruption.
We are now far below on the ladder of democracy. But we could ascend to the top if we set our collective mind to it. Let’s do it.