Freedom, the Real Democratic Gain



It has become customary since the beginning of this civil dispensation in 1999 to measure governance only in terms of bricks and mortar.

The popular perception of a chief executive officer “who is working” is that of an efficient awarder of contracts for the construction of bridges, roads, buildings and other items of infrastructure.

In the popular imagination, a governor or minister is often expected be televised inspecting projects and closely monitoring the implementation of programmes of infrastructural developments.

Hence, in the build -up to the anniversary of May 29, the date in 1999 when President Olusegun Obasanjo and 36 governors were inaugurated, the federal and state governments advertise yearly the projects executed or planned for execution by their respective governments. The projects are celebrated as “dividends of democracy” and indices of development.

More frequently, it is also the tradition that at the end of weekly federal executive council meeting announcements would be made of the approval of awards for construction of bridges, roads, laboratories, water schemes and other constructions. Nothing is ever said about the policy perspectives informing the execution of the projects in the context of national planning.

So, governance is often perceived as just a little more than awards of contracts for constructions and projects.

In many respects, it is a gross misnomer to limit the concept of dividends of democracy to physical constructions and establishments.

Democracy is not necessarily a condition for awarding contracts to revamp infrastructures. Anti-democratic regimes too execute projects. Many of the important roads, bridges and buildings in Nigeria were constructed by dictatorships. Abuja was largely built by the military government of President Ibrahim Babangida. The military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo established three refineries between 1976 and 1979 when he honourably handed over power to the elected government of President Shehu Shagari.

The real dividend of democracy which the people lack under any military government is human freedom. This intangible thing is the most precious one for the people in a democratic milieu. Any threat to it in any political experiment should worry the people.

In fact, human progress is truly measured by how much the frontier of freedom is expanded. It is a crucial part of governance, therefore, to have political, ideological and moral leadership for this purpose.

Recent developments in Nigeria should compel a deep reflection on the ideas of justice and freedom.

Freedom is so central to liberal democracy that if you remove it as a factor, all that’s left is a political farce.

These are the freedoms guaranteed by the 1999 constitution.

Watchers of the civic space in the last few weeks must be intrigued by the inspiring phenomenon of the #ENDSARS agitation and its sad aftermath.

The peaceful protests organised with unprecedented sophistication were widely acknowledged as popular democratic expressions. Not a few people read the development as capable of deepening democracy.

Correspondingly, the responses of the federal and state governments were unprecedented on a very positive note. After a little delay, President Muhammadu Buhari said the government heard the voices of the youths who occupied the streets “loud and clear.”

In a most appropriate manner, the federal and state governments moved swiftly to respond to the five-point demand of the protesting young women and men.

The target of the protest, Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police, was immediately “dissolved” by Inspector-General Mohammed Adamu. He quickly set into motion the process of establishing a new outfit the Special Weapon and Tactic (SWAT) unit.

An emergency meeting of the National Economic Council (NEC) comprising the Vice President (as chairman) and the 36 state governors as well as the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) was summoned. Panels of enquiry were inaugurated by state governments to receive petitions on the alleged atrocities committed by some bad eggs in the scrapped SARS. As a matter of fact, the Nigerian army is already appearing before the Lagos panel in a ringing reminder of the subordination of the armed forces to civil authorities.

Steps are already being taken towards police reform. There is also a visible effort at the implementation of the report of a presidential panel submitted in 2018. The panel recommended the dismissal of 37 policemen and the investigation of 22 others.

State governments are also to establish human rights committees.

The CBN has put in place a scheme in which N75 billion would be available as soft loans to the youths.

Some governors have announced plans to employ thousands of youths to take some social pressures off the society.

It was simply unpredictable even three months ago that the foregoing actions could be taken by the federal and state governments in a matter of days! These could rightly be called the well-deserved gains of the #ENDSARS protests. Yes, they happened.

However, the rhythm of #ENDSARS in public perception became distorted when lumpen elements exploited the situation of the protests to unleash violence in the land. Policemen and soldiers were killed in different incidents. Public properties including police stations as well as businesses of private individuals and organisations were destroyed in the mayhem. This was soon followed by the activities of some other desperate elements ransacking warehouses in which palliatives were stored to bring succour to the poor affected by the socio-economic impact of the spread of coronavirus.

Even at that, it is implicit from official rhetoric across the country that governments realise that deepening poverty and widening inequality are at the roots of the crisis. Far from rationalising criminality, many of the citizens involved the destructive and murderous activities are indeed socially excluded.

Again, to the credit of the President he made a distinction in his October 22, 2020 between the legitimate peaceful #ENDSARS campaigns and the criminal actions of the lumpen elements.

It would, therefore, be anti-climax to the popular-democratic momentum already generated for agencies of the state government departments to turn round to punitively curtail the freedom of the #ENDSARS protesters and their supporters. It would be a huge irony if those protesting human rights abuse (which the state has not denied) now become targets of repressive measures.

Democratic heroes and heroines should not be treated as villains unjustifiably. The protesters fought for the human rights of the whole society and asserted the collective humanity of the Nigerian people.

In any case, the protests were largely supported by the Nigerian public. The ferment was felt in every part of the country despite the unhelpful attempts to sectionalise things in some quarters.

Indeed, warehouses were looted in Lagos, Calabar and Yola. So the problem of the socio-economic vulnerability of some citizens is a national one.

Hunger has no ethnic or sectional colour.

Those in power often find it convenient to rationalise the abridgment of the freedom of other citizens. It is even more dangerous when the judicial system is seemingly employed in the process. In any just system, the matter of human freedom should transcend technicalities. It should rankle all lovers of freedom when waving the flag of technicality, the state refuses to release an accused person granted bail by the court in the course of prosecution. Officers of law who are in power should be more interested in the justice for the accused instead of rushing to appeal against the freedom granted him by the court.

This case for freedom is made in the supreme interest of all – the powerful and the powerless – at the present time.

It is a surprise that politicians in power forget that persons who once wielded powers later had their own freedoms assaulted by their successors. This has been amply demonstrated in the history of this country in the last 40 years. Outside power, presidents, heads of state, governors, senators, senior officers, top civil servants etc. have had their freedom tampered with by those holding power at various times. Members of the public have had cause to cry for justice on their behalf at critical periods of history. While some were incarcerated, others had their daily activities under menacing surveillance while their movements were restricted. It has been a tragic play of transience of power. Once upon a time, one former head of state had cause to lead the campaign for the freedom another head of state in custody. Less than a decade later, the former leader who fought for the freedom of another had his own freedom taken away by a brutal dictator.

So, the principle of the fundamental human rights actually applies to all including those deciding on the freedom of others today. That’s why human rights are said to be universal in application.

In the struggle against military dictatorships, a huge inspiration was drawn from this universal conception of human rights. If that could be done in a military regime in which there was no pretext to democratic principles, it would be doubly justified in a civil dispensation.

The same human rights would be the battle cry of the Nigerian people against any attempt to constrict the civic space by any agency of the state.

Besides, efforts at economic development in terms physical constructions would be democratically empty without freedom.

It is the dialectical link between freedom and development that makes the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics, Amartya Sen, define development as the “the enhancement of freedoms that allow people to lead lives that they have reason to live.” In fact, the title of his 1999 book is Development as Freedom. In the book, Sen draws a chain of freedoms that leads to human progress – access to justice, socio-economic rights to education, healthcare, the legitimacy of political and civic dissent etc.

For any of the Buhari’s advisers who might contemplate discounting freedom while pursuing implementation of projects, Sen’s proposition could be worth reflecting upon: the process of the “expansion of substantive freedoms” is “both an end and a means of development…”

That’s why in assessing the activities of a government, what is done or not done in the arena of freedom are considered as intangibles as different from punitively the tangibles – the magnificent structures sometimes labelled as landmark achievements.

Yet, taking a long view of history a greater weight is often assigned to the intangibles more than the tangibles.

It would not only be a great political mistake for any government or its agencies to seek to delegitimise protests, it would also be immoral to do so.

The Fourth Republic itself is a product of protests against assault on human freedom and dignity by military regimes. Between 1999 and now, some of the leaders of the party in power, the All Progressives Congress (APC), have had cause to legitimately protest on the streets while they were outside power.

The Buhari administration is borrowing a lot of money to put sorely needed infrastructure in place.

Posterity may forgive the administration for the huge indebtedness if the projects are solid enough to stand the test of time. In contrast, the administration doesn’t need a loan of one kobo to expand the frontier of civic freedom. The verdict of history would certainly be harsh on any administration in the 21st Century that tampers with the freedom of Nigerian people.

Freedom is so central to liberal democracy that if you remove it as a factor, all that’s left is a political farce.