We have just gone through the annual ritual of observing May 29. Its canonization as democracy day in the first year of our return to civil rule was intended to mark an important point in our political development. The years the locusts devastated, otherwise known as the military years, had been put behind us. After being locked up for years by the generals, democracy had been set free once again in the land. Casting the date on stone as an historical national landmark recommended itself.
The culture of observing this important national day imposes on us at least three important rituals. The first is the ritual of a public holiday, an officially sanctioned bacchanalian fiesta in a celebration-saturated nation. The second ritual is the parade by the armed forces, the police and school children. The parade reminds the oldies among us of Empire day before the sun set on the British Empire.
The third, and perhaps the most important ritual, is the one in which the president and the state governors make a public show of telling us how far democracy has travelled in the last twelve months under their watch. They dish out their self-assessed performances in office. The press calls them scorecards, as in children’s school reports. The politicians have a better expression for it: accounts of stewardship.
The import of these accounts of stewardship is to drive home the idea that democracy as a superior form of government also provides the best enabling environment for a rapid social and economic development of a country. It is no surprise, therefore, that these accounts of stewardship tout the construction of roads, the building of hospitals and other health and medical facilities, the sinking of boreholes, etc, as the dividends of democracy. Ignore for a moment the fact that the real dividends of democracy such as freedom of speech and association, the people’s right to choose their leaders at all levels of elective offices and the plurality of choices open to them are more fundamental and more critical to democracy than the provision of basic amenities by the federal and state governments.
The fourth ritual of democracy day comes at the bottom because it does not excite as much public interest as the first but it is, nevertheless, an important ritual that deserves more than a casual acknowledgement. We refer here to the conduct of vox populi by the news media. Newspaper, radio and television reporters go to the streets to seek the opinions of ordinary Nigerians, roughly defined here as those who have no business in the corridors of power except as cleaners, on our democratic journey so far. Their unrehearsed responses are usually brutal rebuttals of the self-assessment by the shepherds of democracy and how they tend the democratic sheep. Taken together, the people’s verdict boils down to this: there is nothing to celebrate on democracy day because there is no democracy in our country.
This verdict makes two important points about the rituals of democracy and what ordinary people expect from democracy. Firstly, it says we have democracy without democracy. Or, to put it another way, our democracy is blowing in the wind. It may come as a rude shock that the ordinary people cannot be taken for granted here. They know that democracy means much more than the conduct of elections at the regular intervals of four years. They know that democracy is about good governance and a political culture that respects the tenets of democracy such as individual freedoms and the conduct of free and fair elections. They know that after 14 years of uninterrupted civil rule, what they see is not the expected beautiful face of democracy but one pork-marked by intolerance, discredited elections, corruption and poor governance. And they know where the blame lies – on the shoulders of the politicians. What a country makes of its democracy rests squarely on its political leaders. What they do, how and why they do it and what they fail to do and why they fail to do it, tell us more about the internal working of democracy in our country than anything else.
The second point flowing from these responses of the ordinary people is that there are clear differences between what the people think of and expect from democracy and what the political leaders think of and do with democracy. In other words, there is a disconnect between the leaders and the led. A telling consequence of this is the pervasive cynicism about politics, democracy and our political leaders. It is safe a bet that not many Nigerians outside the ranks of political hirelings and the chorus crowd think much about the commitment of our political leaders to democracy. The third and perhaps the most important point is that public cynicism has a long history in our country and has affected for better or for ill but mostly for ill, our political progress in the nearly 53 years of our independence. This cynicism is the symptom of a more malignant disease and that is the crisis of expectations. A crisis of expectations arises when people’s expectations are unfulfilled through acts of commission or omission on the part of the leadership.
There are five phases of the crisis of expectation. The first phase covered the first republic and lasted from October 1, 1960 to the military take over on January 15, 1966; the second phase was the first phase of military rule from January 15, 1966 to October 1, 1979; the third phase was the second republic that lasted from October 1, 1979 to December 31, 1983; the fourth phase covered the return of military rule that lasted from December 31, 1983 to May 29, 1999. We are in the fifth phase that began on May 29, 1999.
Each phase of the crisis of expectations has had a deleterious effect on the health of governance in our country. The crisis of expectations inevitably led to the crisis of disappointment that in turn led to the loss of trust in our political leadership. It should not be difficult, therefore, to see that the crisis of expectations has given rise to other crises that together have hobbled good governance and, in our present circumstances, hindered the full flowering of democracy, warts and all.
Our founding fathers sold independence from British colonial rule as the most desirable thing for the country. They promised that independence would bring us better governance and a better country under indigenous political leadership. This expectation was the driving force behind the people’s enthusiastic support for the independence movement.
But the expected new, idyllic and democratic country failed to rise from the ashes of British colonialism. Instead, the ordinary people watched with growing concern as the politicians tore at one another and put the future of the country in jeopardy. The sabres rattled and the drums of ethnic cleavages beat loud and clear. A fractious country marked by regional and ethnic loyalties was the not the country the ordinary people expected. The expectations of the gains of independence did not materialize.
The first republic came to a sudden and inglorious end on January 15, 1966, only five years and four months after the departure of the colonialists. Five young majors in the Nigerian Army decided that only the intervention of an apolitical national institution like the military could save the country from a possible disintegration, and possibly turn the disappointed expectations into fulfilled expectations. The new men on the white promised us a new and better country, the country of our independence dreams the politicians could not give us; a corruption free and more united nation in which regional and ethnic loyalties would be subordinated to the loyalty to one, indivisible Nigeria. And Nigerians would be Nigerians first and tribal and regional loyalists not at all.
Again, we were in for a rude shock. Taken together, the 29 years or so of military rule under eight military rulers saw Nigeria struggling to be a reasonable distance from the socio-economic Eldorado of our common expectations.
The first, second, third and the current fourth republics, each in its own way raised new expectations in the magic of democracy and the future of the country. Sadly, each in its own way dashed the people’s hope for a better country, thus deepening the crisis of expectations.
Can the political leaders restore the people’s hope in the magic of democracy?
The question hangs over every man’s door in Nigeria today. How it is answered by those who matter will determine how much longer the rest of us can accept the cynical offering that the dividends of democracy are the poorly constructed roads, the abandoned hospitals, the boreholes without water and an educational system that produces half-baked young men and women.