Their Democracy, Our Demon-crazy


Nigerian politicians are a funny lot. They enjoy making a ready reference to the American narrative when discussing presidential democracy and its practice in Nigeria. They love visiting the US Congress, and attending all sorts of leadership and training programmes organized by all sorts of bodies and institutions in that country. They revel in mouthing rule of law, and transparency, and accountability, and credible elections, and fairness, and justice – democratic ideals, which have made the United States of America a country of freedom and liberty and equal opportunity. They thrive in writing petitions to the US government alleging that the persecution and repression of opposition elements may endanger democracy in Nigeria. However, between words and action, there exists a deep, wide chasm that has made the Nigerian version of presidential democracy a phony adaptation of US’s. The just concluded presidential nomination primaries of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in the US boldly highlight what a joke our own narrative has been since 1999. Follow me as I identify some critical issues in the organization of, and presentations at, the Democratic National Convention (DNC) while drawing a parallel with what happened at the presidential convention of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) before the 2015 April polls.

1) On the podium, no hiding place: In the US, the convention ground is specially designed for politicians to showcase their art in political rhetoric. At the Wells Fargo Centre Philadelphia, venue of the Democratic Convention, every one of the over 60 speakers during the four-day event, stood alone on the podium, encircled by 50,000 cheering and clapping party supporters in their seats. The podium was spacious enough to allow a speaker walk up and down some 20 metres or more as s/he stood under the TV cameras and beamed to a global audience. Alone on the podium, every speaker had a duty to hold the attention of party supporters for at least 20 minutes. There was simply no hiding place.

In Nigeria on the other hand, the convention is designed to allow politicians hide their inadequacy. In the APC or PDP presidential convention last year, the podium did not breathe. It was crowded and congested. Every speaker was surrounded by a crowd of party chiefs involved in the organisation of the convention. And when it was time for the presidential candidate to accept his nomination, party elders and leaders and state governors and security men surrounded him on the podium. His face buried behind many TV microphones, it was difficult to see him properly, and impossible to read his expressions. And with the grunting and puffing and clapping of those around him, it was even more difficult to make sense of his speech.

2) Simple salutation: Speaker after speaker at the Democratic Convention preferred the simple salutation technique. For President Barrack Obama, it was simply “Hello America!” For first Lady Michelle, it was, “Thank you all. Thank you so much.” For Hillary Clinton it was, “Thank you. Thank you for your amazing welcome.” And for Bill Clinton, it was, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Indeed for every speaker, the salutation was simple, smart, uncomplicated.

But at the APC convention or any event involving Nigerian men of power for that matter, salutation is always a complicated and ponderous exercise. Every speaker would acknowledge “His Excellency…” the national chairman and his deputies and presidential candidate and senate president and state governors and party leaders, one after the other, all by their individual title of Dr. or Chief or Distinguished or Honourable or General or Alhaji or Pastor or a combination of two or three of these. By the time every speaker had wasted five minutes or more observing “all protocol”, the audience is tired, lost and has moved on to initiating or joining discussion with the person sitting next to him.

3) At one with the crowd: At the Democratic Convention, there was always a connection between the speaker and the audience. For the audience, there was a time for applause, a time to cheer, a time to listen, and a time to laugh. And for the speaker, there was a time to acknowledge the cheers, a time to pause, a time to speak, and a time to call the audience’s attention to an important point. There was an uncanny understanding between the speaker and his audience, a mutually abiding respect between the sender and the receiver, a given order amidst the boisterous passion and music and even protests at the convention ground.

This cannot be said of any party convention in Nigeria. The convention ground is usually noise in motion. Party leaders move everywhere and nowhere, pretending to be busy; as delegates, who do not have the patience or presence of mind to listen to cliché-ridden speeches, mill around. There are constant announcements appealing to delegates to stay in their states’ stands. Watching such chaos on TV could be boring and tedious.

4) Family first: Every speaker on the podium first made it a point of duty to introduce his wife or husband and celebrate his family. “In the spring of 1971 I met a girl”, former president Bill Clinton opened his speech with an anecdote of his first meeting with his wife Hillary, their courtship and their political romance. And Hillary acknowledged Chelsea who had earlier introduced her: “I’m so proud to be your mother and so proud of the woman you’ve become.” And to her husband, she said: “And Bill, the conversation we started at the law library 45 years ago is still going strong.” For Michelle Obama, the first thing was to recall how she campaigned for her husband’s election eight years earlier on the strength of his “character and convictions, his decency and his grace…” Then she used the experience of her daughters from their first day in the White House as a powerful symbol to build a case for the election of Hillary Clinton as “this election and every election is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years.” And Obama said of his wife, “You fell for my brilliant wife and partner Michelle, who’s made me a better father and a better man; who’s gone on to inspire our nation as First Lady; and who somehow hasn’t aged a day.”

I cannot remember any party convention down here in which any of our politicians took the time to acknowledge their wives with such flourish. On this side, politicians only recognise their wives in passing (Her Excellency, my darling wife), mere decorative ornaments. Then Candidate Ayodele Fayose, at the official flag-off of his campaign in Ado Ekiti, was reportedly reminded that he missed out his wife while acknowledging the many of “Their Excellencies” on the podium. In any case, with many politicians having some two, three, four or more wives in their harem, wouldn’t there be a problem celebrating one?

5) Anchor on the past: American politicians never forget their founding fathers and the ideals for which the union was formed. Their constant reminders ensured that one generation after another never forgot, and the ship of state never lost its anchor. Obama remembered when he affirmed at the Democratic Convention: “Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago; We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that together, We, the People, can form a more perfect union.” Michelle remembered when she said, “I want … a president who truly believes in the vision that our founders put forth all those years ago that we are all created equal, each a beloved part of the great American story.” Hillary remembered when she stated, “We’ve come to Philadelphia because what happened in this city 240 years ago still has something to teach us today… When representatives from 13 unruly colonies met down the road from here, some wanted to stick with the king and some wanted to stick it to the king… And by the time they left Philadelphia, they had begun to see themselves as one nation… Our founders embraced the enduring truth that we are stronger together.”
How many times have politicians on this side ever bothered to recall the founding fathers of this country or remind generation after generation the ideals for which the nation was built?

6) Always gracious: American politicians understand what it means to be gracious, knowing that in victory or defeat, issues at play are bigger than the individual; it is about the country. That was why Hillary could, in thanking Bernie Sanders, her major competitor in the primary, say, “You’ve put economic and social justice issues front and centre, where they belong. I want you to know I’ve heard you. Your cause is our cause.” That was also why Obama could say “with confidence (that) there has never been a man or woman more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as President of the United States of America.”

In Nigeria, however, electoral contest is loaded with bile and bitterness. Victory at the polls is never enough; winners must use the apparatus of state to crush the opposition. And losers would never accept defeat without challenging the result in court. And then whining and griping until the next election cycle.

Since party politics is central to democratic development, our democracy is still far from the real deal because our politicians do not walk their talk and we have not done enough to force their hands to so do. When we allow them turn the podium, ordinarily a place to remove the king’s clothes into a hiding place, we are unable to assess their ability and the age of their ideas. A politician who does not know how to put his family first is one who would publicly advise a married colleague to take another wife; he is one who would commoditize the female folk by urging Nigerians to marry locally produced women; he is one who would marry a minor; he is one who would make the menopausal status of another man’s wife the subject of a press conference; and he is one who would frustrate the passage of a gender equality bill. When our politicians do not know where we are coming from, they could not possibly know how to lead us to where we are going. That is why many of them are opposed to fiscal federalism, one of the ideals on which our founding fathers built this country. Politicians who cannot organize an orderly and disciplined party primary cannot possibly organize the country to work for the good of the greatest number of people. And Nigeria has become a war zone because our politicians do not know what it means to be gracious to both allies and opponents. That is why this democracy is simply not working.