Is Our Democracy Dying?


Guest Columnist By OKEY ANUEYIAGU

In February of 2017, I wrote an essay published on the backpage of Nigeria’s eponymous daily, Thisday, with the title; Democracy, Is This The End? This essay elicited tremendous reactions, and, to my surprise, mostly skeptical and suspicious questions about the motivation for writing the essay.

In summary, that essay sought to examine the major problems facing Nigeria’s democracy and its processes, essentially pointing out the failure of the State and its apparatus to consolidate on some of the gains and momentum generated with the 1999 – 2007 democratic experiment. The essay x-rayed the failure of governments to solve their governance problems and meet Nigerians’ expectation for freedom, justice, security, a better life, and a fairer society. That old essay, concluded on a somber, if not tearful note that if our democracy did not move effectively with rapid speed, to contain crime and the wanton massacre of innocent civilians by terrorist and criminal elements, generate economic growth and relieve economic inequality, curb corruption, secure and guarantee freedom and the rule of law; that people will eventually lose faith in government and inevitably turn to authoritarian alternatives.

As I write this follow up essay, I am afraid that we may have taken our democracy for granted. The fact is that there are no measures intrinsic in our history or culture that immunize us against chaos and disorder. Our unimaginative wobbly constitution, wobbly institutions and shaky political actors, are far from equal to the challenge of guaranteeing the survival of our democracy.

It is common knowledge that democracies are fragile, even in developed countries with their strong creed of freedom and equality, tested institutions and a crop of robust as well as distinctive citizens with high level of education and wealth. Given our atrociously below-par attributes in these areas, we are certainly not inoculated from certain kinds of democratic breakdown that have occurred here in the past. The reality that we may be living through the decline of our new democratic experiment, is indeed frightening.

In recent months, we have witnessed certain and definite polarization in our body politic. This palpable tension has occurred, primarily between the Executive and the Legislative arms of governments, and has even extended to the Judiciary. Although our political norms and variables are traditionally vulnerable to polarization which is intrinsically healthy and necessary for the thriving of our democracy, the prevalence of existential, irreconcilable deep- rooted inter- and intra-party fights and hatred have become the order of the day in our democracy and is about to extremely harm our country.

Our political parties and politicians have come, not to view their rivals as legitimate opponents, with different views and opinions for the common good of the country, but as dangerous enemies that must be destroyed by all means necessary. Is this how our democracy will die in the hands of vicious men intoxicated with greater political might?

My political science knowledge teaches me that democracies may not necessarily die at the hands of generals with guns, but, sometimes, out of the machinations of elected leaders and politicians who abuse and subvert the very process that brought them to power. Students of Political Science and World History would remember Germany’s Adolf Hitler and how, in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire, he started the process of slowly eroding the ethos of democracy in Germany and around the world. Another case in hand, which closely mirrors the Nigerian case, is the Venezuela example of Hugo Chavez when he was elected president in 1998. He rode into power on the backdrop of the failure of what he called a corrupt government, with promises to bring about a more “authentic” democracy that will guarantee equitable distribution of resources and justice.

By 2003, Chavez had firmly taken a turn toward authoritarianism. He grew repressive, arrested or exiled opposition politicians, and emasculated judges and the press on trumped up charges. He usurped the power of Congress and established a level of autocracy that was unbelievable for a man who came to restore “authentic” democracy and curb corruption.

My fear is that the Chavez-like pattern may be playing out in our country. And if my intuition is right, then I must warn that this is how democracies die. I strongly believe that our politicians, while pretending to be the champions of democracy (and claiming to be its protectors), are constantly, by their actions, eviscerating its substance. We are witnessing, I fear, a game of dangerous deception and duplicity, the very subversion of our democracy, an illicit

goal legalized through the backdoor.

How else does one explain the recent happenings in our political systems where elected officials and all the component elements, even those that should be aligned in one and the same projective manner, are constantly at loggerheads, engaged in charades, shamelessly fighting in public, much to the world’s bafflement and Nigerians’ chagrin?

Again, how do we explain to the world, the wanton disorders in our polity and our other institutions. How do we explain the disgraceful ordeal of a serving senator sitting on the filthy ground on the streets, surrounded by gestapo security agents, waiting to be bundled to prison in a stretcher, and the senator leaping from a moving vehicle into the thick forest in a move resembling a badly written nollywood script.

The big question is: How vulnerable is our democracy to these forms of disorder and anarchy? Is our democratic foundation strong enough to withstand these backslides? My answer is yes, but only if we awaken to the challenges facing us as a country and as a people today.

The electorate has a major role to play in ensuring that our fragile democracy withstands these challenges. Enlightened citizens and voters must take up the litmus test of identifying and singling out would-be dictators and autocrats before they are elected. The doors into elected offices and power must be closed to would-be authoritarians and extremists. The failure, from the outset, to prevent opportunists and extremists who, when elected, transform into full- blown dictators and enemies of democracy, will imperil the institutions and the country.

Clearly, dependence on constitutional norms to provide the desired checks and balances in governance, as we can see in Nigeria today, is not a sufficient guarantee as the bulwark of imagined theoretical democracy. In this instance, our politicians and their allies in power use our political institutions as weapons to forcefully control and dictate to those who do not agree with their ways and actions. They control the media and are positively viewed as fighting to improve democracy, fighting and imprisoning corrupt people, establishing a just and efficient judiciary and the civil service and even reorganizing the electoral process. Paradoxically, the tragedy we face here is that the same institutions designed to ensure proper electoral probity and transparency become essential tools in the hands of our authoritarian political practitioners who desire authoritarianism and the very death of democracy.

Our democracy-as our present-day “religious purists” would say; “God forbid”- may be going the way of Chile. Before General Augusto Jose Ramon Pinochet’s coup of 1973, the South American country was the region’s oldest democracy, with well-structured and vibrant democratic structures and norms. The level of mutual intolerance and forbearance escalated between the country’s politicians, the elite and the political parties, resulting in spirals of bloody coups and ultimate destabilization of the country’s democracy.

Let us not mince words: the present-day erosion and radical alteration of our democratic norms and structures through unacceptable political behavior by our politicians, is taking our country to the brink of complete polarization and political anarchy. And the trend has begun to eviscerate our shaky and wobbly democracy as happened in Chile.

As I drafted this essay, an old schoolmate, peering over my shoulder and peeking at some of the paragraphs, while acknowledging the validity of my points, nevertheless admonished me and other “well-meaning citizens” in a very stern voice. He argued that the reason our systems are so warped and frayed is that we choose to stay away from politics, allowing people he referred to as “nitwits” to run the affairs of our country. To buttress his point, he counted many individuals with sordid pasts and indecorous presents, men and women with less than admirable credentials, who have become legislators, governors, ministers and even presidents. I agreed with my friend that we have allowed misfits to rule us, but also stressed the fact that those of us who continuously vote for the mediocrities and allow them to stay in power and pilfer our fortunes and squander our future are, in a sense, greater culprits.

What is the way out of this quagmire? I believe that acts of patriotism on the part of the political class and the governed may usher in, and strengthen, our common interest in the preservation of sound democratic ethos. True patriotism, animated by the common good, will eliminate divisiveness. That mindset will ensure that people are obliged to do good by bearing a fair share of our respective burdens, creating the kind of groundswell that propelled the success stories of advanced nations. Education is key to this regenerative project. We should teach and learn that we must build the requisite capacity in our political processes and structures to enable us wisely govern our country and to build and promote a just and egalitarian society. Our democracy must empower citizens with the capacity to recognize lofty values, and to cherish the kind of civil debate that illuminates the path towards economic growth, cultural dynamism, and political progress-including the survival of our democracy. As citizens, our cardinal obligation ought to be to strongly defend, preserve, protect and fortify our democracy.

The upheavals plaguing Nigeria today are pointers to scary facts: that we have lost our collective sense of the common good; that we have lost a huge chunk of our shared commitment to do good for the common person; and that we have lost our shared commitment to the preservation of the rule of law, and the ultimate spirit as well as the letter of the law to our democratic norms and institutional structures. We have abandoned our fidelity to the ideal of equal political rights and opportunity. We have cultivated contemptuous intolerance for our vast but potentially unifying differences and have embraced, disgracefully, polarizing habits. Unless we make vital sacrifices and establish a new ethic of leadership and followership based on honor and commitment to truth, the prevalence of greed, hate, avarice and narcissism is bound, willy-nilly, to kill our democracy.

Why is it that our 2018 budget has not been passed by the National Assembly in well over one hundred and fifty days after its submission? That a National Assembly that houses majority members from the ruling party in power is incapable of agreeing with the budget submitted by Executives of its own party, is an abnormal occurrence capable of creating an extensive crippling of the micro economic variables required to sustain and stabilize our country. As a result of these delays and going by international Open Budget Index, in which participating countries are assessed by their transparency, participation and oversight of their budget processes, Nigeria is ranked very low, falling from a score of 24 in 2015 to 17 in 2017. The political wrangling in the system, are no doubt, responsible for the unpredictability of the country’s budget, which in turn creates fiscal dangers and uncertainties that inhibit investors’ confidence and economic growth. Are these ugly and disgraceful incidences and misnomers not going to kill the democracy that a majority of our people have struggled and paid dearly for?

The current intensity of partisan animosities in our country reflects, amongst other issues, the effect of growing religious and ethnic polarization and a stagnating economy. I am convinced that, without policies that, can address and reduce the economic and social inequalities that fuel resentment and jingoism among all the component elements of our society, Nigeria’s democracy will never be aligned with the politics of nation building.

The ultimate survival of our democracy depends on us all. Despite all the inherent checks and balances in our so-called constitutional system, we are still deeply vulnerable to similar pathologies that have killed democracy in other countries. With the primitive and the gratuitously negative behaviour of the political actors, and the incivility of its leadership, we are thoroughly making a mockery of our democracy. We are essentially, in such an alarming and catastrophic manner, denigrating our sensibilities and sensitivities to the critical elements that nurture and stabilize democratic institutions. As our democracy is a shared enterprise whose fate depends on each and every one of us, no single political figure can doom or kill a democracy; nor can one single person rescue our imperiled democracy.

• Dr. Okey Anueyiagu is a Political Economist wrote from Ikoyi Lagos.