Democracy, Free Elections, One-Party Rule, et al

23.09.2003

DemocracyReminisce. Nigeria had been jinxed on the road to a smooth ‘civilian to civilian’ transfer of power. Hence, as the nation recalled 1963, then 1983, two decades later, expectedly 2003 (another two decades later) looked ominous. Midway into both bi-decades still, General Gowon aborted a transition to civil rule programme in 1973 and General Babangida annulled the presidential elections in 1993. The mental trepidation across the country was palpable when the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, announced the dates for the 2003 general elections with the presidential and gubernatorial elections scheduled for April 19, or, as it later came to be known derisively though, 4/19.

In addition to other fundamental requirements, democracy requires free and fair elections. The ability to conduct such elections is a strong virtue of democracy. As is self-evident, the 2003 elections were generally flawed. By his own admittance, the Chairman of INEC, Dr. Abel Guobadia confirmed that the Commission is “under no illusion that all was well with the elections.” He went on to enumerate the issues and problems arising out of the elections as: legal and constitutional issues; funding; logistics and operational problems; voters registration and education; polling day activities/results management; political parties (issues of monitoring, party auditing, campaign and fund raising); and electoral violence. With all these, and coming from the Umpire-in-Chief, one can then understand the myriad of post-election whinges across the country. The elections have since come and gone, what is left remains for the judiciary to tidy up.

However, away from the hypnosis on the ballot box, a free, open and transparent election does not just make a democracy. Such elections are very essential though but there is life after elections. Free, fair, open and transparent elections can indeed produce awful cartoon caricatures of democrats for democracy, after all, Adolph Hitler emerged as German Chancellor through free elections. In Russia, Vladimir Putin was freely elected in March 2000 and like his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin (also freely elected) he has created a superpresidency. He has appointed seven ‘super governors’ to oversee Russia’s 89 regions and weakened the regional governors; appointed legislators to replace the governors in their parliamentary seats (he can remove any governor at his wish); and by his coercion, the legislature enacted a law reducing the tax revenues to the provinces. He has also clamped down on private media firms. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela also won a free election in 1998 and afterwards got a mandate in a referendum to change the constitution, eviscerate the powers of the legislature and the judiciary and place governing authority under a Constituent Assembly. His party easily won more than 90 percent of the seats in the new assembly just three months later. The new constitution increased his term by one year, allowed him to succeed himself, removed one chamber of the legislature, and reduced civilian control of the military, among other absurdities. Another bastard child of free, fair and transparent elections is Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko who extended his term by one year by means of a rigged referendum and was re-elected in 2001 by another rigged election. The freely elected president of Krygyzstan, Askar Akayev now wants to increase his powers by appointing all top officials except the prime minister, even though he can dissolve the parliament if it turns down three of his nominees for that post. Indeed, shadow democrats have been produced by free elections in recent times that show utter disregard for democratic ethos.

On another front, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, the acclaimed Asian Tigers, were all poster children of development and modernisation and to an extent, Mexico in Latin America. They all demonstrated both rates of annual economic growth and indicators of poverty reduction that became the cynosure of the entire world. For once the world saw concrete evidence that development could happen and poverty and misery could be conquered. They are the envy of the Third World. They are the envy of Nigeria. And so too is Botswana which still confounds the minds and understanding of African development thinkers, transforming itself from a near-subsistence economy into one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing economies in Africa and the world.

But there is a flip side of the coin. Singapore was under one-man rule, Lee Kuan Yew and his Peoples Action Party (PAP) for 25 years. The PAP remains in power till this day. Malaysia’s Mahatir bin Mohammed has been in power since 1981, his party the National Front since 1974. Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party controlled the presidency for 71 years while the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has held power in Botswana since independence in 1966. In Indonesia, Suharto ruled from 1966 to 1998 transforming himself from a military dictator to an elected leader. During the period of South Korea’s economic growth between the mid 1960s and early 1990s, power rotated within a junta. In the communist state of China, the Chinese Communist Party has been in power since 1949. Taiwan only had its first free elections in 1991 (China still maintains sovereignty over Taiwan). These model states were all governed, or are being governed, for decades by one-party rule, most times through elections. With the archetypal rotation-oriented ethnic, religious and political behaviour of Nigerians, these countries only remain admirable during our fits of romanticism. Nigerians always desire some form of change from time to time.

Democracy, therefore, is not based on a particular political, economic or social system and cannot be practiced as from a cookery book, one ingredient before the other. However its ultimate end should be good governance. The history of Nigeria has not been very fair to democracy no doubt but now that it has found itself within the boundaries of Nigeria, the best must be made of it, so that what is past will be prologue. And this is possible; after all, Spain and Portugal have managed successful transitions from military dictatorship to become major players in the global village within just two decades, not just as functional democracies but also as economic giants. And so we commence.

It would be unthinkable to even suggest that crude oil, this great natural resource, is an impediment to the development of democracy. But it can surely be. Like the seminal Editor of Newsweek International magazine, Fareed Zakaria pointed out in an essay, countries with treasures in their soil (trust-fund states he calls them) do not need to create the framework for growth; they simply drill into the ground for black gold. For him this easy money means a government does not need to tax its people because when they do, then the people will demand something in return – honesty, accountability, transparency and, eventually, democracy. Quite right. Just think of Nigeria. It is this oil money that funds the super-bureaucracy of Nigeria’s democracy, which explains the comic characterisation of public service as an opportunity “to come and eat”. As a way out, the oil industry should be fully privatised so that revenues accruing from the activities of the industry will equate as from taxation. Also, a form of control of the natural resources beneath the soil should be conceded to the inhabitants atop such soil from whom taxes will then be collected. This should also lead to land and property reforms to encourage private property not just because democracy should guarantee freedom of private property but its ownership and proper application is why, according to the influential economist Hernando de Soto, capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else. There is a functional connection between capitalism and democracy. Such reforms have proved successful in Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico and Chile. In addition, Nigeria must embark on tax reforms to exploit the direct relationship between taxation and representation.

Democracy bestows an enduring confidence in man therefore Lord Bryce asserts that “perhaps no form of government needs great leaders as much as democracy”. Out of the bowels of democracy a leader emerges to inspire and motivate his people and challenge them to reach the commanding heights of their potentials as they assert their intelligibility. A leader offers the finest gifts of democracy. Leadership sustains democracy. In Nigeria, the emergence of mirror images of Nelson Mandela, or of Julius Nyerere, is required as human symbols of nationhood. Such leaders treat the people as ends and never as means to achieve their own ego or power needs, or even to achieve the legitimate goals of the society. When leaders think of their own authority, privilege and wealth, democracy suffers.

It is often said that Nigerians are difficult to lead. If this is true, then why, as someone once asked, do we obey mentally and physically challenged men (the so-called disabled people and invalids) and commercial motorcyclists as they control traffic at major traffic hold-ups in Abuja? Why is it that in Lagos, the so-called jungle city, people now wear seat belts and obey traffic lights? Nigerians know a good leader when they see one. And a good policy too. Certainly, democracy requires strong governmental institutions like an independent judiciary, impartial electoral body, dutiful police, and a military under firm civilian control. Rebuilding these institutions must start with the question of leadership. Any institution is only as good, credible and functional as its leadership.

The most potent institution for a democracy, however, is education. A literate and educated citizenry is a sure bet for the sustenance of democracy and economic development. All the countries mentioned earlier – Russia, Venezuela, Krygyzstan, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea, China, the Philippines, Taiwan Belarus and Mexico all have an average literacy rate of 98 percent. Little wonder People Power 1 and 2 succeeded in the Philippines and when powerful elements of Venezuela’s military (supported by the United States) overthrew the largely unpopular but democratically elected Hugo Chavez in April 2002, the people reversed the illegitimate act in just 2 days and restored him to office. They seemed to say, “No, thank you, we know how to get rid of him in our own way and at our own time.” The Venezuelans knew that Albanians ousted an unpopular leader in June 1997 through elections. The literacy rate in Albania, by the way, is 98 percent. Wealthy nations today are those that are rich in educated and developed human capital and not just natural resources. Therefore, free schools up to secondary education and a subsidised university education system is very imperative in Nigeria at this time. A valuable investment in schools, colleges and universities will also produce competent lawyers for an independent judiciary as well as well-trained policemen. Abraham Lincoln believed that the philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next; therefore, the quality of the curriculum in schools need to be reviewed to reflect more scholarship in civics and governance education.

An improvement of the electoral system is also crucial now that it is still morning in democraland. In this regard, the observations of Mrs. Funmi Roberts, the Chairperson of the Oyo State Branch of the International Federation of Women Lawyers as an observer to the 2002 Kenyan elections in her article was expository. It is worth taking another look at it. The political parties also need to be reformed into strong and organised political institutions. In a simplified model of plebiscitary democracy, political parties are the institutions of choice. The role of a political party in a democracy can be characterised into three. First, it should have a vision of what Nigeria ought to be as a nation. Two, it should come up with policies and programmes, complete with strategies and tactics towards realising that vision. Then, it should mobilise Nigerians towards that vision. A party functions as an organisation, a government (or an opposition) and a mass movement. To assess Nigeria’s democracy today, it is equally important to appreciate that the political parties have not yet come to terms with these roles. A virile and responsible opposition must also spring forth to check the intrinsic delusions of incumbency.

I deliberately excluded the vexed question of religion and ethnicity because it really does not threaten our modern democracy as was seen during the 2003 general elections despite all its imperfections (though it strains our unity). This is so because given that democracy is impossible without politics, our patronage politics, our turn-by-turn politics, our politics of give and take have all combined to take the venom out of tribe, tongue and faith in our democratic experience. As the Secretary General of the United Nations, His Excellency Kofi Annan said while receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, “The obstacles to democracy have little to do with culture or religion, and much more to do with the desire of those in power to maintain their position at any cost.” Also, somehow, religion and ethnicity have ensured that a Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, Askar Akayev or Alexander Lukashenko does not emerge in Nigeria. There is always that ‘stranger’ watching.

These paths will surely lead Nigeria to a democracy characterised not only by free and fair elections, but also strong institutions, the rule of law, respect for the constitution, separation of powers and economic development in addition to the protection of basic liberties and rights of the individual and then to good governance, which is the end in itself.

As my immediate younger brother once wrote, our “all conquering quest for good governance will remain undying and this has inspiration from the Nigerian culture of expecting the unexpected.” “Therefore,” he continues, “the gauge for recognising good governance is left to the judgement and barometer of each individual based on his own share of his experiences, dilemma and the longevity of his common life since we believe that nothing goes for nothing and the labours of our heroes past shall never be in vain.” He may be right.

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