Democracy is associated with the ancient Greeks and Romans. The term “democracy” first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens during classical antiquity (5th century BC) to mean “rule of the people”. In modern usage, democracy is a system of government in which citizens exercise power directly/indirectly electing representatives to form a governing body such as a parliament. Democracy contrasts with other forms of government where power is held by an individual (absolute monarchy); a small number of individuals (oligarchy); the military (militocracy); or the state/military (Stratocracy).
Contemporary Nigerian democratic experiment began in 1999 under the 1999 Constitution. As Africa’s largest economy and most populous with over 180 million people, Nigeria is a bellwether for the viability of the continent’s democracies. The 16th US President Abraham Lincoln said in his famous “Gettysburg Address” on November 19, 1863 that “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
Are Nigerians getting democratic dividends as professed by politicians? Presidents and governors conduct themselves sanctimoniously whenever they are commissioning over-budgeted projects, expecting Nigerians to be thankful because they are god-sent and delivering democratic dividends to them. Reacting to the conduct of politicians in the US, an American actor and newspaper columnist, Will Rogers (1879-1935), vociferated: “Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for”.
Nigerian political history is suffused with political parties which appeared in various guises, and have also disappeared under different guises. Before independence in 1960, Nigeria had already witnessed three different elections: 1923 election following Sir Hugh Clifford Constitution (1922); 1946 indirect election following Sir Arthur Richards (Lord Milverton) Constitution (1945); and 1951/1954 elections following Sir John McPherson Constitution and Sir Oliver Lyttleton Constitution respectively.
We had Herbert Macaulay’s NNDP (1920s-1930s) later dissolved into NCNC (1940s-1960s). Ahmadu Bello’s NPC, Nnamdi Azikiwe’s NCNC and Obafemi Awolowo’s AG. We also had dubious political alliances: Zik’s NCNC/Awo’s AG faction forming UPGA and Bello’s NPC/Akintola’s AG faction forming NNDP and smaller parties: Tobi Izedonmi’s DPNC, Aminu Kano’s NEPU, Joseph Tarka’s UMBC, Ibrahim Imam’s BYM, Alvan Ikoku’s UNIP, etc. The big three – NPC, NCNC and AG derived their political strength from their primordial bases of Northern, Eastern, and Western Regions respectively. Nigeria flirted with democracy operated by Shagari’s NPN, Zik’s NPP and Awo’s UPN (1979-1980).
With the PDP and APC, there is a viewpoint among “politically savvy Nigerians” that democracy, even the worst form, is the best for Nigeria – better than any military government, however benevolent. Supporters of this viewpoint cite freedom, accountability, separation of powers and development among others. While this may be true literally, it may not be true realistically – in the context of the Nigerian democratic experiment.
It will be recalled that all the trans-West African highways/interstate (multi-lane expressways), major universities, teaching hospitals, airports, new cities/towns including Abuja, hydro-electric/power projects, even post-civil war democratic constitutions, were all delivered by the military juntas. They delivered projects, now lacking maintenance, without constituency project allocations, partisan politics, executive-legislative standoffs, expensive legislative oversights, contentious budget allocations and humongous lawmakers’ salaries, the highest in the world.
On the state of the law under democracy, must we take as justice what the courts reel out as punishment in their eloquence on government officials and politicians found guilty of stealing billions of Naira from the treasury, in contrast, to justice delivered disproportionately to ordinary Nigerian petty thieves? Has democracy produced democratically elected politicians? Did Nigerians get what they voted for? Are these politicians all democracy can offer? Is democracy the lowest common denominator like “trickle down economics” which supposedly sends down dividends to the masses? Is democracy simplifying or “complexifying” the complex network of Nigeria’s tribal and ethnic environment?
Are Nigerians better off now than during the military era? It will take imagination and intestinal fortitude to decipher what exactly Nigerians are benefitting from this democracy. Intellectuals and academics contend that the problem is with the operators of democracy, not the system. Nevertheless, there is growing discontent among Nigerians that this democracy is not working. The position taken by many Nigerians is that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. The US 40th President Ronald Reagan said “Government’s first duty is to protect the people . . .”.
American writer Mark Twain once said that “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it”. The US 3rd President Thomas Jefferson said “The care of human life and happiness. . .is the first and only object of good government”. The US 32nd President Franklin D. Roosevelt said “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a president and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country”.
Under this democratic dispensation, are Nigerians patriotic enough in support of their country? Does government deserve support when it is not delivering dividends of democracy? Does the government care for human life and happiness? According to Roosevelt, the president, lawmakers and government officials are not the government – voters are the government. If so, why is there so much poverty, hunger, unemployment, insecurity and loss of faith in governance?
If democracy is working, why are many Nigerians risking their lives fleeing the country through the dangerous Sahara Desert to Libya en route to Europe? While not advocating a military government or inviting a coup d’état, this democracy-militocracy comparison is relevant with regards to what Nigerians expect from democracy. 2019 is looming and the “usual suspects” are mustering, regrouping, plotting and ready to employ their deep pockets to move around, once again, to ask for peoples’ votes. They will promise heaven on earth during campaigns, even as hell fights back knowing that these politicians are lying to voters, as usual. Is democracy working in Nigeria?