BACKPAGE BY KAYODE KOMOLAFE
“So much of liberalism in its classical sense is taken for granted in the west today and even disrespected. We take freedom for granted, and because of this we don’t understand how incredibly vulnerable it is.”
― Niall Ferguson
At a time like this, one cannot but sorely miss Stanley Macebuh in the public sphere.
The eminent public intellectual, who passed on nine years ago at 67, was one of the most efficient exponents of liberalism ever produced in this land.
So, in a way, this column today is a well-deserved tribute to his intellectual depth and commitment as a convinced liberal.
A man immensely rich in ideas, Dr. Macebuh succeeded greatly in always contextualizing the discussion of Nigerian problems within in the mega ideological trends in the world.
That was long before the glorification of shallowness in the media and the gross pollution of the public sphere with hate, lies and prejudice. Yes! One upon a time, it was possible to vigorously debate issues in this country unlike the shouting match taking place among budding fascists, bigots and irredentists prowling in the social media.
In fact, the title of this piece is an inspiration from a Macebuh’s famous essay published in the opinion-editorial page of The Guardian 36 years ago. This was just a few months to the end of the liberal democratic experiment of the Second Republic.
In that essay entitled “The Liberal Tradition and its Enemies,” Macebuh identified “the politicians of the Right” and “the ‘intellectuals of the Left” as the enemies of liberalism.
The piece, of course, received robust responses from the right, left and centre of the ideological spectrum. It was as if he provided the intellectual meat on the table for erudite public intellectuals to chew for months.
For Macebuh, liberalism should be the philosophical foundation of the polity, economy and society.
However, if Macebuh were to be alive today to receive what many liberals would consider a soul-lifting news from the British Supreme Court, he would perhaps slightly revise his position: the latter-day enemies of liberalism are the emerging populists in the West led by Donald Trump in Washington and Boris Johnson in London. The Supreme Court in London ruled that the “prorogation” of the British Parliament by Prime Minister Johnson is “unlawful, null and void” The president of the UK Supreme Court, Brenda Hale, said of Johnson’s action: “The effect upon the fundamentals of our democracy was extreme.” Based on the Brexit election three years ago, Johnson has resolved to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union (EU) by October 31, “do or die.” The Brexit drama assumed a constitutionally outrageous dimension when Johnson suspended the parliament for five weeks on September 3, 2019.
The reason he gave was that his administration needed time to formulate policies in preparation for the Queen’s speech. But it was clear to even a casual observer of the British political scene that Johnson’s action was a cynical ploy to prevent parliamentary scrutiny of his desperate march to a no-deal Brexit. He seems unmindful of the consequences of his brinkmanship on the Britain’s economy.
Johnson’s brazen political steps amount to a grand assault on the British cherished political institutions. Here we are talking of institutions which have sustained the British liberal democracy for centuries. Johnson and his Brexit cohort complain that the parliament is delaying with “endless debates” their plan to crash out of an institutionalized continental body. They forget that part of the moral cost of democracy is the time and patience needed for decisions to be reached. Liberal democracy doesn’t have the luxury of the diktat which is readily available in a dictatorship. That’s why the elaborate process of discussions, consultations, explanations, elections and respect for institutions are considered as festivals (and not burdens) of democracy.
But Johnson, the man they call the British Trump, appears to have lost his patience with the British traditions of liberal democracy. The British call their parliament “the mother of parliaments.” Yet, their Prime Minster didn’t blink an eye in manipulating executive powers to suspend it. Some of his political opponents have called the suspension of parliament a “coup.”
With the Supreme Court verdict, the Johnson coup has failed woefully. It would be interesting to watch the aftermath of the judicial crushing of the coup.
The trajectory of liberal democracy has been rather intriguing for a while. In 1992, American political theorist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “triumph of the West” and the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.” This “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” is embodied in his celebrated book, The End of History and the Last Man. It is a development of an essay written three years earlier entitled “The End of History?”
By the way, the book was very popular among public intellectuals in Nigeria at the time. A seminar or lecture was not complete without triumphant quotations from it by enthusiasts of liberal democracy under a military regime. It was, of course, unthinkable for a Nigerian liberal scholar then to imagine that 30 years later a prime minister would suspend the British Parliament, a model democratic institution.
It is, therefore, worthwhile to pay attention to the trends from both the Right and the Left.
For instance, the legitimate leftist struggles for social justice, humane society, genuine freedom and popular democracy are better waged in a stable atmosphere of liberal democracy. Such a space may be unavailable in a regime of fascism or populism.
That’s one credit you cannot deny the liberal order despite its structural limitations in fundamentally addressing the problems of a capitalist society. The liberal order nurtures institutions, principles and traditions that even its opponents can invoke to argue in the course of arguments. Socialists and others on the left are the ultimate targets of demagogues. And make no mistake about it, the Nigerian polity has become a breeding ground of such ideologues. Trump and Johnson have followers and admirers in this underdeveloped polity.
That partly explains while although this reporter, by no means ideologically a liberal, is highly perturbed about the seeming retreat of the liberal order.
To be sure, the threat to liberalism and its traditions had been noticeable before the emergence of Trump and Johnson. The Scottish liberal historian Niall Ferguson once remarked: “No civilization, no matter how mighty it may be appearing to itself, is indestructible.” This dialectical formulation is worth pondering by all those concerned about the liberal order.
As if he envisaged the coming into power of the Trumps and Johnsons in the West, Ferguson identified the “nature” of the problem in a 2012 book entitled The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. According to Ferguson, the “key components” of the western civilization are “democracy,” “capitalism,” “rule of law” and “civil society.” The institutions of these components make western civilization work. The institutions are now under severe assault. Yet, the values of this civilisation are being universalized. Other peoples are, in fact, actively borrowing from the West. Hence, there is the need to pay adequate attention to the degeneration taking place in a realm from where you borrow.
Ferguson posits that institutions are degenerating in the West. The reign of populists would seem to be confirming some of the symptoms of the disease observed earlier by the historian. While Johnson is suspending the parliament in the UK, Trump is asking Ukraine to investigate the son of his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump once threatened to jail another opponent, Hilary Clinton. Reporters are barred from the White House because they report negatively on President Trump. The president once described a state judge who gave a judgment against his government as “so-called.”
The pattern is always clear: the populist is often at war with the judiciary, media, parliament, the rule of law, civil society and of course, opportunistically, the “elite.”. The populist has no patience for the democratic process. In the western horizon, the resurgence of the extremist right-wing parties makes the emergence of more Trumps and Johnsons predictable. In Hungary, Prime Minister Vicktor Orban has even proclaimed an “illiberal democracy,” in his own words. There may be more of such proclamations if the National Front comes to power in France or the Alternative for Germany ever forms a government in Germany.
The threat to liberal democracy in the West should be of interest to those committed to building liberal democracy in Nigeria. Politicians and pundits alike here are fixated with the ethnicity of the political office holders in charge of “juicy” ministries and the geo-political origins of those who win the fat government contracts. Barely three months after the inauguration of the president and some governors, politicians are already busy making 2023 calculations and pundits are busy pontificating on those who would be candidates in elections to be held in four years from now. The liberal space in the polity provides the field for this sort of game. In such a political climate, there may be little or no time for even public intellectuals to reflect on what is happening to liberal democracy itself.
Yet, attention should always be drawn to the big issues of our time because of the inevitable consequences of not taking the necessary actions.
After all, the Nigerian political and economic elite often turn in the occidental direction to seek their inspiration and models. When a Nigerian politician calls on the “international community” to intervene in the Nigerian situation, what he actually means is an invitation to the same illiberal Trumps and the Johnsons of this world to help.
In reflecting on the threat to liberal democracy, the immediate lessons to learn from the spectacles of Trump and Johnson is that building institutions is as important as being mindful of the strength of character in the choice of leaders. For a long time, the West has lectured the rest of the world, especially, Africa, to focus on building “strong institutions” and not “strong leaders.” Doubtless, strong institutions matter a great a deal as the British Supreme Court, a judicial institution, proved admirably yesterday by saving another institution, the parliament, from the machination of an impulsive populist.
However, the role of the individual in history cannot be discounted. Here comes in the factor of the orientation of the leader. A nation should be to be wary of the ideas that influence those in charge of governance. If by accident, a fascist is elected in a liberal democratic election, the tendency is for him to smash the very basis of liberal democracy. No matter how awesome an institution may seem, a desperate charlatan wielding power would not care a hoot to undermine it for selfish interest.
If for nothing else, the threat to liberal democracy should be of interest to democrats in Nigeria because of the centrality of human freedom to the democratic enterprise. It is a misnomer to refer to bridges, roads and boreholes as “dividends of democracy” in Nigeria. The real dividend of democracy is freedom. No government should be permitted to thrash it.
Again, as demonstrated in the opening quote of this column today, even a rightwing scholar is expressing the fear that freedom has become” vulnerable” in the West. In such a global situation, there is a greater need to be vigilant in Nigeria and other African countries.
For instance, Nigerians across the political spectrum should be united in opposing the disobedience of court orders and detention without trial by the government of President Muhammadu Buhari.
If doing so amounts to keeping the liberal tradition, it is a worthwhile thing to do when viewed in historical terms.
For it is in the ultimate interests of those who cherish freedom as conservatives, liberals or radicals to be united in defence of freedom.