Nigeria and the Promises of Democracy

I was impressed with the first few paragraphs of Buhari’s Democracy Day speech. I thought they were quite good, unifying and inspiring. The speech started this way:

“Fellow Nigerians, the 2020 celebration of Democracy Day marks 21 years of uninterrupted civil administration in our dear country. This day provides us an opportunity to reflect on our journey as a nation, our achievements and struggles….

“Sustaining our democracy thus far has been a collective struggle, and I congratulate all Nigerians and particularly leaders of our democratic institutions on their resilience and determination to ensure that Nigeria remains a shining example of democracy.”

I felt the above was the best part of the speech – not only because it focused  on the struggle for democracy   which should be the theme on such an occasion –  but also because it made Nigerians, not the government, the agency that drives the struggle for democracy. I was hoping the President would expand on the above and avoid the temptation of narcissism but as they say, politicians will always be politicians. So in the very next sentence the President turned the occasion into a political party campaign.

According to him:  “In my 2019 Democracy Day address, I promised to frontally address the nation’s daunting challenges, especially insecurity, economy and corruption. I therefore find it necessary to give an account of my stewardship on this day.”

Turning the Democracy Day into an occasion to give account of his stewardship immediately raises a vital question: What are the promises of democracy? In essence, when Nigerians talk about the ‘dividends of democracy’ what do they mean? This question is vital because quite often when people talk about the ‘dividends of democracy’, they end up with a checklist of values such as the increasing economic challenges faced by Nigerians and the rising insecurity in the country. These are obviously important issues but are realistically speaking not among the promises of democracy in any country.

In fact, discussions of the relations between democracy and economic development dates back to Plato’s and Aristotle’s debates regarding the best form of government that will bring economic gains to society. More than two millennia after, there seems to be no clear consensus about whether democracy (in and of itself) can deliver more economic growth than other forms of governments. In fact several studies have concluded that while democracy does not seem to be the key to unlocking economic growth, it would also be a mistake to conclude that an autocratic or dictatorial regime would fare any better.

I feel Buhari fell into the error of conceptualizing in very narrow economic terms ‘dividends of democracy’ (as many Nigerians do), and therefore felt the need to tell Nigerians how his government has delivered on those dividends. In essence since the form of government has little bearing on economic prosperity, Buhari’s Democracy Day speech would actually have been more appropriate on May 29, the country’s new Inauguration Day – when a new government takes over and unveils its vision for the country or marks the passage of every one year of its rule.

In the same vein,   democracy as a form of government never guarantees security to anyone, meaning that using the Democracy Day to focus on the unfortunate state of insecurity in the country is judging democracy by what it has not promised.  In fact, contrary to this, those who believe in notions of ‘transitional democracies’ or ‘democratising societies’ will argue that in societies like ours, democracy is actually likely to aggravate the structures of conflicts in the short to medium terms  because the free speech guarantees of liberal democracy will  uncork bottled up feelings from the period of dictatorship.

Essentially because we have not properly articulated what should be the focal theme of each of our three important Days – Independence Day, Inauguration Day and Democracy Day, we end up rehashing basically the same checklist during each occasion.  I feel that while we should focus on our journey to nationhood during our Independence Day celebrations, Inauguration Day (May 29) should be an occasion for a new government to unveil its vision for the country and programmes for actualising it while Democracy Day should be about our struggle for democracy, including how the government of the day has impacted on the institutions that support democracy such as freedom of the press,  elections, the doctrine of separation of powers and checks and balances.  While it is in the DNA of politicians to try to seize every opportunity to gain political mileage, structuring a theme for each of these three big Days, will enable people to engage in earnest conversations, using appropriate metrics, about how far we have come in those areas.

Was Buhari right not to create space in the speech for  MKO Abiola, in whose memory June 12 was named as the country’s Democracy Day? This is like the Devil’s Alternative – whichever option he chose would have resulted in criticisms anyway.  If he tried to focus on the annulled June 12 elections and lionize Abiola’s struggles to reclaim his mandate, it would have been termed opportunistic – even hypocrisy and ethnic baiting. In fact, had he used the occasion to talk about Abiola’s mandate,  he would have been reminded that he served the Abacha regime that was ruthless towards those agitating for the revalidation of  the June 12 mandate. Not mentioning Abiola on that Day also opened him up to criticisms for ignoring the man on whose memory June 12 was immortalized as Democracy Day. I feel however that not talking about Abiola during the speech was the less evil.

What should have been the important issues to address during the Democracy Day speech?

One, I think  the President should have used the occasion to underline that democracy is a journey, not a destination; that democracy  has various moods and varieties and that our country’s variety is necessarily different in some respects from what one finds elsewhere. He should also have used the speech to underline that despite the challenges, the fact that this ‘wave’ of democracy has endured for 21 years is a cause for celebration. It would also have been nice if the speech had recognized  that most Nigerians have been active participants in the democratic process in one way or the other  – from the ordinary Nigerians who queue up for long hours  under inclement weather  just to cast their votes to the journalist who constantly keeps the government on its toes.

Two, Buhari’s speech should also have focused on the gains and challenges in some of the features of our democracy –  such as  the free speech principle, our democratic institutions like the legislature, the judiciary, the conduct of elections, needed electoral reforms and inappropriate political behaviour driven by environmental variables and what the government has done to ameliorate these challenges.

Three, Democracy Day should equally have been an appropriate occasion to focus on the value of tolerance of opinions which we find abhorrent. This is the whole notion of the marketplace of ideas theory of democracy.  Just like in any other market where goods and services compete for customers, the free speech guarantee of liberal democracy creates a marketplace where ideas compete, sometimes aggressively and nosily with one another. In this marketplace, people can agree to disagree or disagree to agree. However despite its noise and imperfections, it gives us the opportunity to ‘jaw-jaw’ through our problems.  Buhari should have used the Democracy Day speech to appeal to various dissatisfied individuals and groups and remind them that despite the imperfections in our democracy, it still gives us the room to talk through our differences and challenges.

Focusing on the above would not have saved the government from being criticised because criticism comes with the territory of being in office and politics. But at least it would have ensured that the critique would be within the ambit of what democracy promised, not what it never promised.


Twitter: @JideoforAdibe

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