Nigeria: What Manner of Democracy? By Olusegun Adeniyi
A few days after the registration of the All Progressive Congress (APC) early last year, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur was asked for his comment on the implications of having such a formidable opposition against the ruling party at the centre. In responding, the then Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) National Chairman was at his most ebullient:
“If you go for a contest, you have the striker – you know Lionel Messi? PDP is Messi in that contest. We will dribble them like Messi. Tell them (APC) that the chairman said PDP is the Messi (of Nigerian politics).”
Given the time and efforts it took to remove him as PDP National Chairman, Tukur certainly knows some tricks about the art of dribbling. In the course of the long drama, I spoke to some people within the Villa who felt rather frustrated about the antics of Tukur who indeed kept dribbling them about when he would turn in his letter of resignation. However, what the old man failed to realize is that Messi, even with all his dribbling skills, plays within a team where he enjoys the support of others. At the end, “Lionel Tukur”, to borrow the language of my friend and current presidential spokesman, is now effectively a yesterday’s man!
Interestingly, I have in recent days reflected on Tukur’s statement about dribbling, not for entertainment but rather as a political philosophy. Against the background of what is happening in the country today, the old man sounded truer than he probably intended. It says something about the nature of our democracy when the chairman of the ruling party would gleefully advertise “dribbling” skills rather than efforts to advance the interest of the people.
However, before you crucify the PDP, it may also be useful to pay attention to what the APC has been saying or not saying, even when the promoters want us to believe they are different!
After a crucial all-night meeting last week, what came out from the main opposition party was not how they intend to reposition the country for peace and prosperity but rather a directive to all its members in the National Assembly to stop any deliberation on the 2014 budget, stay action on ministerial confirmation hearing and block approval of new service chiefs forwarded to the Senate by the president “until the rule of law and constitutionalism is restored in Rivers State in particular and Nigeria in general.”
No matter the gloss anybody would want to put on that directive–and I have read some ignorant allusions to “government shutdown” in the United States—the APC position is, to put it mildly, a bad judgement call. That then explains why it has rankled many Nigerians, including non-partisans who believe that obstructionism cannot be the philosophy of any serious party seeking power to govern. Yet the response of the APC to the misgivings being expressed has been to abuse those who disagree with their stance, with a statement dripping with invective and name-calling.
It was the late American journalist and scholar, H.L. Menchen, who wrote that the whole aim of practical politics “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins; all of them imaginary”. So to that extent, it is not too difficult to understand what the Nigerian opposition is trying to do. But at a time our country is seriously challenged on all fronts, political parties and those who seek power (or want to retain same) must begin to come up with practical ideas on how to resolve some of the contradictions that have for long held Nigeria back.
In societies where the people are taken seriously, the essence of the multi-party system is to expand the space for reasoned elaboration while affording the electorate the opportunity to choose between a set of alternatives. From history, party structure was actually meant to respond to the internal forces within a society but in a situation where even under a plurality of political parties, there are no debates about issues, programmes and ideas, such a system is endangered. And we can see evidence of that in our country today.
Just 12 months to the next election, nobody is telling us anything about how he or she would address our pressing challenges. To compound the problem, the media is not helping to set agenda on the way forward. That is not going to help the country. There are issues we should put on the table: The collapse of public education at virtually all levels, and how those who aspire to lead us would address the problem; the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) that is taking forever to be passed by the National Assembly and for which nobody within the executive seems to be committed, beyond dotting the landscape with expensive but meaningless billboards; unresolved issues relating to the deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum industry; the ever rising recurrent expenditure; the seemingly intractable security challenge in a section of the country etc.
The foregoing are some of issues on which those who aspire to lead us must be tasked and the media can help by redirecting the conversation. Unfortunately, we are failing on that account.
In 2006, I attended a conference in Maputo, Mozambique, where Mr. Wachira Waruru, then Managing Director of the Kenyan Film Corporation, joined a panel to discuss “What defines excellence in African journalism and how do we get there?” According to Waruru, African journalists, no matter from which country, have something in common: We always express frustrations “about leaders without vision, leaders without integrity, leaders that are corrupt” then he posed the questions: “Where are the African journalists when these leaders are elected? Why do you people (journalists) sit idly by when the electorate vote wrong people?”
The mindset of most African voters, in Waruru’s summation, is the same and because politicians understand that, they exploit it. The average voter, he argued, exercises his/her franchise on the basis of some narrow and primordial considerations. Using his country, Kenya, as an illustration, Waruru gave the example of a member of parliament who devised an election-winning mechanism. With his constituency comprising of four districts, the man married four wives, one from each of the districts. While he may not have made much contribution in the Parliament, at election time, according to Waruru, the lawmaker would remind his constituents that as their son-in-law they had a responsibility to vote for him.
After charging the media on the need to help the people in setting agenda for leaders, Waruru gave another example of what happened in Kenya in 2005 in the course of the campaign leading to a major referendum. He said both the people in power and the opposition politicians decided to do their campaign by criss-crossing the country in helicopters, perhaps because the roads were not motorable. Quite naturally, whenever these politicians reach any village, they would create a spectacle with their helicopters to dazzle the people and in the process throw some debris in the air. “The major part of their stay is spent on being entertained by drummers and dancers after which they will spend about five minutes abusing their opponents. They will say nothing about the merit of the referendum or the issues involved. Not surprisingly, after they leave, the villagers will spend the next weeks talking about the beauty of their helicopter!”
In the run up to the 2015 elections, it would appear that Nigerians are already preoccupied with ‘helicopter’ debate rather than the real issues which affect our lives. But if you look at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) timetable, it seems we have all concluded that campaigns don’t matter and that office seekers do not have to sell anything to earn our votes. According to the INEC timetable, those who aspire to rule Nigeria are only allowed to campaign for less than three months!
Of course we cannot blame the INEC that is working within the parameters set by the Electoral Act but the question remains: Where in the world do you have such a system that decrees a period (and a very short one at that) during which office seekers have to sell themselves to the electorate?
In most advanced democracies, politicians spend at least 18 months on the campaign train, during which they sell their ideas, have their temperament tested and are scrutinized even on the way they conduct their personal affairs and how they live their lives. But here, all it takes to aspire for office is to print some glossy posters with which they deface the environment and then make some outlandish promises on the pages of newspapers.
Because they are not tasked, most politicians in our country today seek power for reasons that are not inspired by a desire for justice or social reformation. Some want to be able to dispense favours to friends and cronies, some simply to enjoy the good life at the expense of the people and others just for the vanity of being driven around in long convoy of cars with siren blaring and police men terrorizing innocent road users. But for how long do we continue like this before something gives?
In 1999 when we had the elections that ushered in this democracy, the first set of people we elected to public offices told us nothing and made no commitments to which we could hold them. Unfortunately, we have sustained that tradition of promise-nothing, do-nothing. Now that we are moving towards another election cycle, our politicians are busy abusing and threatening one another and they are likely to do that until they get to the point of their acrimonious primaries that will be followed by endless litigations. And then we will have the elections without knowing what the contenders actually offer us.
It makes no sense that it will take less than 90 days of campaigning for mostly ignorant politicians to canvass their views and engage with the public on our disgraceful education, our sorry infrastructure and the increasing alienation of most our young population. The tragedy is compounded by a media culture which is either indifferent or too lazy to help set the agenda of public discourse. Yet a democracy based on a ritualistic and mechanical conception of elections alone can at best showcase an appearance of popular participation without advancing the course of the people. The end result will always inevitably be the enthronement of pockets of autocratic imposition led by persons who neither understand the meaning of democracy nor the rudiments of governance.