Prospects of Liberal Democracy


In an age in which thinkers now nudge politicians and civil society activists alike to ponder the “crisis of liberal democracy,” the caption of this column today might seem somewhat ironic.
Why should any one be talking about the prospects of liberal democracy in Nigeria when liberalism itself is said to be in retreat globally? Populists are making a big mess of the time-honoured western democratic traditions and institutions. And this is quite explicable.

The West, in particular, is still coming to terms with the political consequences of the Great Recession triggered 10 years ago partly by the recklessness of casino capitalists. Just imagine what Donald Trump is doing to America and the xenophobic politics of the ultra-nationalists in Europe. This is probably what has prompted one of the most influential organs of liberalism, “The Economist” of London, to make an impassioned advocacy for the “reinvention” of the liberal order so as to advance the “freedom and prosperity” of the individual. To its credit, the weekly newspaper has consistently defended liberalism for the 175 years of its existence.

In this respect, one cannot but salute on this occasion the memory of one of the most eloquent liberal exponents ever produced in this land, Dr. Stanley Nkachukwu Macebuh, who died eight years ago at the age of 67 largely unsung. It is eminently remarkable that as a public intellectual and philosophically convinced liberal, Macebuh injected a good dose of liberal thoughts into public debates especially in the late 1970s and 1980s. That was long before the public sphere got extremely polluted with hate speech, prejudice, insults and utter shallowness arising from poverty of ideas.

Now, as the liberal ideology suffers deepening crises in America, Europe and other places, Nigeria is basically contending with its own crisis of underdevelopment. The grim poverty statistics about Nigeria being pushed out by think tanks (even if sometimes disputable) demonstrate the enormity of the crisis. In such a context, radicals (as opposed to liberals) would rather call for a revolutionary transformation of the society. Sadly, it doesn’t seem that a revolution will happen tomorrow. So the contradiction of focussing on prospects of the liberal order is even further compounded by the fact that this reporter (not being a liberal) is never convinced about the efficacy of liberal ideas in resolving fundamentally the crisis of the Nigerian political economy. The ultimate solution to the problem of mass poverty is beyond ad-hoc liberal reforms.

Yet, to be realistic, there is the inescapable need to explore for the moment the possibilities of liberal democratic development in this country. It may make a dialectical sense to do so in the circumstance.
After all, when our politicians, civil society leaders and public intellectuals talk of “deepening democracy,” they can say so only as a matter of aspiration towards liberal democracy. Indeed, not a few of them still see liberal democracy as the apogee of human civilisation, years after even Francis Fukuyama has since revised himself. And like the eminent historian of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Yuval Noah Harari, puts it in her new book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” “the end of history has been postponed.” Period!

It would, therefore, be less than appropriate to be talking of the crisis of liberalism in Nigeria and most parts of Africa when the liberal order has hardly developed in this clime. It might be more useful instead to diagnose the huge liberal deficit in Nigeria’s political development as liberal thinkers across the globe reflect on the renewal of their ideology. By the way, some might find such an exercise an abstraction because for them what passes for democratic discourse is just a little more than profiling candidates in the forthcoming elections as saints or demons depending on who is their favourite to be elected into political office. Public intellectuals hardly bother to examine candidates based on any set of ideas for development. The growth of the polity will remain stunted unless larger philosophical questions are asked about liberal democratic culture in the land as it is being done right now even in the advanced liberal democracies.

To start with, the prospects of liberal democracy would remain dim so long as human freedom is not politically placed as the real dividend of democracy.
The human rights of all individuals should be defended without the qualification of identity of class, religion, ethnic group, or gender. So when terrorists and other mass murderers kill Nigerians anywhere, liberal democratic principles demand that the killings should be protested whether the victims were Christian or Muslim, Fulani or Yoruba. Liberals in Nigeria turn a blind eye to the unjust incarceration of fellow citizens by the security agents because the victims belong to a different religion or ethnic group. Some of those nursing liberal democratic aspirations for Nigeria do not seem to embrace Wole Soyinka’s proposition that “justice is the first condition of humanity.” Nigerian liberals are selective in matters of social justice as the principle is coloured with prejudice.
The other side of the coin of Nigeria’s political economy is that it would also amount to an optical illusion to expect liberal democracy to flourish amidst burgeoning poverty.

Indubitably, the survey of the poverty levels in the land and the projections being made thereof are assuming frightening proportions. Hence, those who wish Nigeria to be a stable liberal democracy should also work for a comprehensive agenda of poverty eradication. The central role of the state in such an agenda cannot be denied by any perceptive liberal. In other words, to be a relevant liberal in the Nigerian context would require going beyond the formal political rights of the individual and joining the struggle for socio-economic rights. These socio-economic rights include the democratisation of access to universal healthcare delivery, basic education and social housing.

Liberals jostling to be state governors, legislators and local government chairmen should see it as a mission to put an end to the national shame of Nigeria having the largest number of children out of school. Liberals at all levels of government should also embrace and improve upon the policy on universal healthcare coverage so as to reverse Nigeria’s soul-depressing statistics on infant and maternal mortality.
Even if liberalism resolves its current global crisis and renews itself, the prospects of liberal democracy in Nigeria would still depend on how liberals in power pursue policies that would ensure “the greatest good of the greatest number,” as the great British social reformer, Jeremy Bentham would put it.

•In Praise of CBN

• By Issa Aremu

Contrary to the speculation in some quarters that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) might soften the sanctions it imposed on four banks for helping MTN Nigeria Communications Limited illegally repatriate funds, CBN was reported to have gone ahead to debit the lenders’ accounts (namely, Standard Chartered Bank; Stanbic IBTC; Citibank and Diamond Bank) with the fines it slammed on them for the alleged violations.

The devil is the details. The CBN had announced that it had fined Standard Chartered Bank N2.4 billion; Stanbic IBTC, N1.8 billion; Citibank, N1.2billion and Diamond Bank, N250 million for allegedly assisting the telecoms giant to illegally move $8.13 billion abroad. It also ordered the lenders and MTN telecom giant to immediately refund the repatriated sum.
Following the public announcement of the fines, the four banks-lenders had separately issued statements, indicating that they were prepared to engage with the CBN to resolve the issue.

The CBN usually debits the account of banks when it imposes a fine or to implement aspects of its monetary policies such as Cash Reserve Requirements (CRR) if such lenders do not comply.
Of course, the lending banks had reiterated their positions that they did not breach any extant laws relating to Certificates of Capital Importation (CCIs) executed on behalf of MTN. They promised to, provide the CBN with documents and details to support their stance that the transactions on behalf of MTN were not illegal.
In other words, the corporate telecom giant at the heart of the matter has strongly denied any wrongdoing while the CBN insists corporate guilt and indeed emphasised that the telecoms company must comply with the directive.

The CBN has also dismissed reports that MTN may refund $8.1 billion demand in local currency. Isaac Okoroafor, CBN’s spokesperson, said MTN would not get a naira-denominated benefit to refund the $8.1 billion. He was quoted as saying: “The report is very clear, what we have here is in dollar terms and not naira.”

Still on the devil in some historic details; it will be recalled that this is the second time MTN Nigeria would be running into troubled waters with the Nigerian government since it began operations in Nigeria some 17 years ago. “In October 2015, the telecoms giant was fined N1.04 trillion by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) for failing to disconnect around 5.1 million subscribers from its network for not having been registered as of September 2015, as prescribed by the regulatory agency. The total sum was based on a fine of N200, 000 for each unregistered subscriber.

However, after prolonged negotiation with both the regulatory agency and the Federal Government, the company had the fine reduced to N330 billion. With the resolution mid- June 2016, there was an agreement for settlement over a three-year period. As at last February, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Commission, Prof. Umar Danbatta, disclosed that MTN had paid N110 billion out of the N330 billion, meaning that the company still had N220 billion to pay to the regulator.”

So much for the devil in the above sordid details about alleged bank-lenders collusion in what some observers described as “MTN capital flight” from Nigeria! It’s time to revisit the Godliness in the principle of capital control for a developing (or is it under-developing?) economy like Nigeria.
The celebrated Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing, China held from 3 to 4 September 2018.

The “star-take away” (Africans are always delighted at “takeaway”) by heads of state or heads of government from 35 African countries who attended this Summit was the sum of $60 billion pledged by the Chinese President Xi Jinping in financing for projects in Africa in the form of assistance, investment and loans.
The $8.1 billion allegedly illegally repatriated from Nigeria by just a single corporate telecom, MTN is about 20 per cent of the China’s celebrated pledge for the entire continent.

Indeed the amount CBN commendably orders MTN to repay is as much as $10 billion Chinese President Xi Jinping, promised to “encourage Chinese companies invest in Africa over the next three years”!
The money MTN repatriated is also twice the $5 billion China pledges “to buy imports from Africa.” It is self evident that Nigeria and indeed Africa is not short of investment funds if only it can tame and control the greed and almost criminal business behaviour of its multinationals. China generously offers Africa “$15 billion in grants, interest-free loans and concessional loans” and all Africans are clamping.
But half of that grants is precisely what MTN and its ally-lending banks in Nigeria at act of collusion takes out of the country.

The lesson of MTN’s corporate saga of repeated sharp practices in Nigeria is that we must revisit our assumptions about direct foreign private investment as drivers of growth and development.
First as a nation we must reject the assumption of capital inadequacy such that we are always cap in hand seeking for handouts from China and Europe. All we need to do is to tame and control huge capital multinationals such as MTN take out of an economy coming out of recession such as Nigeria. The real issue is capital application and capital control.
Only public control of capital through the CBN can make private capital economically responsible.
Foreign Capital, without control is capital on the loose; it can undermine and corrupt banking regulations and even undermine national growth as we are sadly reading about MTN’s alleged illegal capital flight of $8.1 billion.

• Aremu is a Member of the National Institute, Kuru, Jos.