We Need More Democracy, Not Less

Postscript by Waziri Adio

The major conclusion of a midweek summit in Abuja was that Nigeria and the rest of Africa need to deepen the practice of democracy, not abandon it. This is a timely and important message in the context of the recent rash of coups in West Africa and as Nigeria marks 25 years of unbroken civil rule this week. It is a message I fully endorse.

The summit, which focussed on the state of democracy in Africa, was organised by the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation (SMYF) and the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library, and supported by Ford Foundation and Trust Africa. It was a well-organised, inter-generational event, with speakers and participants drawn from within and outside the continent. Interestingly, the first president of Nigeria’s 25-year-old republic, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, delivered the keynote address while the current president, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, delivered a special address through his deputy, Senator Kashim Shettima.

As expected, the summit served as a forum for ventilating ideas—some fresh, some stale; some complementary and some clashing. On the whole, however, there seemed to be a consensus: that Nigeria and Africa need a democracy that works for, and delivers prosperity to, the vast majority of their citizens, not just a few.  This consensus aligns with my conclusion on this page three weeks ago when I wrote on the quarter of a century of continuous civil rule in Nigeria.

I will share my three key takeaways from the summit, then conclude by expanding on my earlier points on democracy and development.

My first takeaway, supported by data, is that the growing frustration with democracy on the continent is not necessarily synonymous with support for military rule or any other form of autocracy. Rather, it is an earnest yearning for improvement in the content and the value of democracy itself. Professor Gyimah Boadi, co-founder of Afrobarometer, underscored this point with the latest data from his reputable polling organisation.

The majority of those polled by Afrobarometer in its 2021/2023 series rejected one-man rule, one-party rule and military rule by 80%, 78% and 66% respectively. On the contrary, 66% preferred democracy to any other kind of government. Also, there was overwhelming support for what can be classified as proxies for the norms of democracy such as regular elections (75%), presidential compliance with court rulings (73%), constitutional term limits (72%), parliamentary oversight of president (66%) etc.

“When some African leaders say their people do not want democracy, I know they are lying,” said Boadi. “Ordinary citizens across Africa desire to live under governments that are democratic and accountable. These aspirations have persisted overtime though aspects of the data portend danger. Delivery by leaders/governments has typically fallen short of citizens expectations.”

The last sentence is the real crux of the matter. Afrobarometer’s data shows a 7% drop in the support for democracy in Africa between 2011 and 2023. The decline is evident overtime in the gap between the demand for and the supply of democracy in the polled countries. So, while there is still a high preference for democracy in Africa, the perception about the quality of democracy practised is declining. For example, the percentage of those who think their countries operate a democracy (either full democracy or democracy with minor problems) declined from 54% in 2011 to 46% in 2023 and the proportion of those who think recent elections in their countries were free and fair fell from 66% in 2011 to 59% in 2023. In the same vein, the percentage of those who believe they are free to say what is on their minds declined from 75% to 69% over the same period.

To be sure, the decline in the support for democracy and in the opposition to military rule should be of grave concern. But a nuanced reading will show that the dip is actually a protest against the perceived fall in the quality of the practice of democracy in those countries. So, what to do is to improve the quality of elections, the respect for freedoms and sanctity of the rule of law etc.  Interestingly, these norms are not guaranteed by military rule or other forms of autocracy, which a majority of polled Africans reject. As Leena Hoffman, an associate fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, succinctly captured it: Nigeria and Africa just need more democracy to cure the observed decline in the quality of their democracy. Touche!

My second takeaway is that we need to further risk-proof democracy on the continent by increasing its inclusion quotient. Dr Ebrima Sall of Trust Africa pointed out the incongruence of demographic majorities that have become political minorities, a point echoed by Dr. Kole Shettima of MacArthur Foundation in his short intervention. Such incongruence, which is visible across the continent, is a subversion of the very idea of democracy.

For example, those under 35 years constitute 74% of Nigeria’s population while women account for 49% of the population. But the youth and the women barely have 5% each of elective positions, even with a Not Too Young to Run Act and the National Gender Policy. People with disability (PWD) fare significantly worse—and they represent more than 20% of the population. It is difficult to continue to guarantee overwhelming support for representative democracy when those who make decisions are not representative of the population of the countries. It should be noted that the concern here goes beyond mere representation. It is also about ensuring that governance reflects the priorities and needs of the vast majority. This is a good segue to my third takeaway.

With reference to why people put their lives on the line to fight for self or civil rule, Mr. A.B. Mahmood, SAN (a member of the board of trustees of the SMYF) reminded the summiteers of a famous quote by Amilcar Cabral, the Guinea-Bisau/Cape Verde nationalist and revolutionary poet: “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children…”

In short, democracy as an idea or ideal is great, but the ideal is only useful and enduring when it translates to tangible material benefits for citizens across the board. Democracy must yield dividends, and the dividends must be concrete and, in some instances, edible. This takes us back to the fine distinction that Amartya Sen (the economics Nobel laureate) and others have made about the intrinsic and instrumental values of democracy. With its suite of guaranteed freedoms, democracy extends the voice, the agency and the innate the worth of the human. This is the intrinsic value of democracy. By itself, democracy is thus valuable.

But it is also widely expected that democracy should also translate to citizens having the kind of life that they have reason to value—in short, to a marked improvement in their material conditions. In ‘Democracy as a Universal Value’, ‘Development as Freedom’ and other seminal works, Sen has argued that the checks and balances, the freedoms, and the power to change governments imbue democracies with incentive to deliver economic growth and prosperity. This is the instrumental value: democracy serving as an instrument, a means to a larger end that is more concrete and more meaningful to citizens.

It must be said that this instrumental link is at best tenuous. For a start, the strongest incentive in this conception—the possibility of changing a non-performing government—does not exist equally in all democracies. Also, there are no guarantees that free and fair elections, respect for rule of law, and the presence of accountable governance will automatically translate to economic growth or to shared prosperity. You can have a decent democracy and not have a decent economy, and you can sadly be deficient in both.

True, the countries that rank highest on measures of freedom/democracy are also the frontrunners in economic development. But this may just be another case of correlation not necessarily being the same as causation. What it takes to have a sound democracy is not necessarily what it takes to have a sound economy. Sometimes, the complexities and demands of a democracy may even stand in the way of economic development.

For us in Africa, the challenge then is how to deepen both the intrinsic and the instrumental values of our democracy. We are backsliding on the first as is evident from the growing gap between the demand for and the supply of quality democracy in most African countries. But more disturbingly, democracy is not translating to more jobs, better educational and health facilities, improved security of lives and property, higher standards of living etc., for a majority of our people. This instrumental deficit is what puts democracy at risk the most in Nigeria and the rest of the continent.

When people do not see a marked improvement, or when they experience a sharp deterioration, in their material conditions, they are unlikely to remain wedded to the idea of democracy for democracy’s sake. They become open to alternatives, and they can be easily seduced not just by military adventurists but also by those who hawk religious utopias and separatist designs. We have ample evidence from post-colonial Africa that the seductive alternatives rarely deliver the goods either.

To sustain democracy in Nigeria and other parts of Africa, we therefore need to work deliberately and conscientiously on two areas. The first is to improve the quality of democracy on the continent, and to use legislated quotas and participatory mechanisms to compensate for some of the observed lapses of representative democracy. The second is to build more prosperous and equitable economies. We need more democracy, no doubt. But we need greater and more evenly spread prosperity too. And we don’t have the luxury of prioritising one over the other.

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