It was Abraham Lincoln that gave the world the simplest and the most concise definition of democracy: “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” It is a definition with a thesis that packs quite a bundle. And yes, the wittiness of its language has another advantage: it makes it very easy to memorize. If you are a leader, one duly elected by the process of democracy, this definition is very easy to remember.
It says everything without saying a lot. The recurrent phrase, “the people” should serve as a mnemonic for the elected official; a consistent reminder of why he occupies the office entrusted to him/her. Democratic governance, therefore, is not about who signs the budget or how many cars constitute the convoy of a government official. It is leadership that is centered on the people and does not lose them. It is governance by the people and for the people. This cannot be emphasized enough; democracy is about the people.
When we talk about “the people” in a democratic system of government, we mean the people, the masses, the folks, the community, and proletariat, the common people, through whom the privileged occupiers of office derive their power. Power belongs to the people, and “democratic governance” recognizes it holds power in trust for the people. Its legitimacy is derived from the authority invested in it by the people. It therefore listens to the people, not out of a sense of benevolence but because it has no choice. It has to carry the people along all the time to retain its legitimacy. But all these of course, are near-ideal, or ideal situations.
I acknowledge that no democracy anywhere is perfect; either the one practiced in North America -and which constantly holds itself up as a standard for other less fortunate nations-, or the version of democracy that subsists in post-colonial African countries, fully grants sovereign power to the people. Democracy in itself, is an ideal, but one worth striving for by the society that claims to be practicing it. There have been series of debates that have questioned the appropriateness and sustainability of democratic governance in Africa. Scholars and analysts have asked the question over and over again, is democracy right for Africa or is there something in our DNA that makes the quest for attainment of true democracy possible? These postulations do not always offer an alternative form of government Nigeria –and by extension the rest of Africa- can explore if democracy refuses to work for us. And so, until they come up with a viable alternative, we have to stick with democracy and make it work for us.
By making it work, I mean, we should consistently audit the system of democratic governance we claim to practice in Nigeria and ask how well it is working out for we-the-people. We must never shy away from asking this very legitimate question at any time. If democratic governance guarantees equality, we should not merely stop at lamenting the gross inequality in the Nigerian society. We need to go further and challenge our country to give us equal rights, access and privileges to the commonwealth of our nation. We must not stop at theorizing how much our lives will forever be circumscribed by corruption and its pernicious effects. Instead, we must strive to meaningfully participate in issues that affect our lives. We should refuse to be always treated as an afterthought; instead, we should effectively participate in the collective choices that define our membership of the nation. We all should have equal access to the process of political participation, not a few privileged villains who clog the mechanism of our society, turning everywhere into an extension of their fiefdom.
The central question here is, can we ever truly attain citizenship of our own country beyond the ceremonial process of carrying our country’s passport? To be citizens is a guarantee of equal rights, responsibilities and privileges. It means we are treated with dignity and respect that we deserve as human beings and sacred rights enshrined in our Constitutional protect us all the time. These factors –rights, privileges, equality, responsibility, and participation- as I have listed them above are consequent of democratic governance. That is why the process of democracy is integral to our existence as a people. It is an ideal worth striving for; there are no negotiations around this obvious truth. Democratic governance has the potential to guarantee us the rights and privileges we desire as a people. Therefore, no matter the level of difficulties we experience in the process of democratic practice –and God knows we have been through a lot- it is still a sound option for a difficult and complicated country like Nigeria to explore. But like I said earlier, we need to consistently audit the process of democratic governance to see how well, if at all, it is working for us.
Democratic Governance in Nigeria
The late music maestro and activist, Fela, criticized democracy in his 1986 album, Teacher, Don’t Teach Me Nonsense, when he sang, that democracy is a crazy and under-achieving experience in Nigeria. Fela, in his typical way of simplifying and satirizing a complex phenomenon, inverted the two syllables in the word “democracy” and came up with “crazy demonstration” to typify the absurdity pervading the Nigerian society at that time. Again, he put the two syllables of “democracy” together again and came up with “demonstration of craze!” Democracy, as a framework with which we try to organize our society, Fela claimed, is ruining things for us rather than repairing them. What we were experiencing in our body polity, Fela’s album concluded, is not democracy. Democratic governance, he implies, has to have a deeper and more prudent meaning than the mindlessness that was reigning in the society. A system of government in which as Fela puts it, “rich man dey mess, poor man dey cry” cannot be said to be democratic governance because it weighs down on the very people it promises to protect. A government where the rich and the politically powerful trample on the rights of the poor is not a system that should claim it practices democratic governance.
It is more than 26 years since Fela released the album. Nigeria has transited from military rule to 14 years of unbroken civil rule, a fact that Nigerian leaders are very proud of. Yet, I fear we have not moved too far from the society Fela described when he sang, “This o, no be democracy.” Truth is, we still have a long walk ahead to freedom. What presently goes on in Nigeria does not qualify to be called democracy in the true sense of the word. It is defective, wasteful, and too self-possessed. It forgets the people exist and makes itself the center of all issues. The Nigerian sort of democratic governance turns the very concept of democracy on its head and reduces all conversation to the political actors. This is reflected in the day-to-day activities of Nigerian government, ranging from official lying to blatant corruption. Let’s take a quick assessment with a few illustrations:
One, consider this story. In August 2012, when the story broke that the Nigerian first lady had been hospitalized in Europe, the government denied it. Her aids said she had only gone to Europe to take a moment’s rest because she had been busy doing a job nobody elected her to do. The president’s spokesman, Dr. Reuben Abati added his voice saying that the whole story was a rumor. In October, when the first lady herself returned, she told journalists that she was not sick and had not been near the hospital they linked her with. But, months later, in a burst of rhetorical efflorescence, the first lady confirmed all that she had been denying for months! Without a sense of shame at having lied to the people all along, she and her husband admitted she had been in the hospital and had been operated upon multiple times. So far, there has been no apology to the people neither did they deem us worthy of any form of explanation for this executive deception. And, let’s not forget, her eventual confessions happened during a lavish party reportedly worth N500m. It is bad enough that the woman and her husband lied to the people, it is worse that they could throw such an improvident ceremony in the midst of grueling poverty in the land. There was no sense of embarrassment, self-cautioning and definitely, no iota of consideration for Nigerians who do not have a choice than to use poorly equipped local hospitals in Nigeria where they routinely die of treatable afflictions. And whoever was the preacher for their flamboyant thanksgiving service forgot to choose “Thou shall not lie” as the title of his message. How daring for men in cassock to think they can mock God! Where is the courage to speak truth to power? Do our men of God hob-nobbing with those in the corridors of power still have conscience? And if I may ask where are the people in this entire charade? Who is thinking of the people, the very ones to who power belongs in a democratic system of governance?
Let’s take a second example, also a very recent one. It is about the altercation that occurred between the governor of Rivers state, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, and the aviation authorities in Nigeria; a situation that has been skewed as political victimization of a governor who will not kowtow to an arrogant president. Please listen carefully to the press release by the governor’s aide:
“We had set out from Abuja in the morning of Friday April 26, 2013 for Imo State to attend the funeral rites of the younger sister of the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha…. Our plane, a Bombardier jet owned by the Rivers State government, landed at the airport in Owerri. It was in Owerri that the pilot of our plane was first tipped off that there was a plot to ground our plane in Owerri that Friday. Fortunately, we took off from Owerri airport and arrived Akure airport en-route Ekiti for the burial of the Deputy Governor of Ekiti State, Funmilayo Olayinka without any incident. On the flight to Akure was the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Aminu Tambuwal who we met in Imo State and was also heading to Ekiti for the burial of Mrs Olayinka….
By now, you are probably wondering what the governor is doing with a private jet and why the jet, nicknamed “our plane” should turn into a private taxi service used to convey these so-called VIPs to private functions? Who pays for all the costs incurred in flying this jet? The people, of course. They bear the cost of their governor’s profligacy. The news story also continues, telling us that after their plane was grounded, they began to make frantic phone calls to get the plane released. The story continues:
Calls were made as these two “democratically elected” leaders, furious and perplexed, tried to fathom what could have caused this monumental embarrassment.
After trying fruitlessly for some time to get the plane released, Speaker Tambuwal offered to fly Governor Amaechi to Port Harcourt with the plane (another small aircraft) that brought the other four Honourable members to Akure. To accommodate Governor Amaechi in the small aircraft, one of the House of Representatives members offered his seat to the Governor. The pilot of the Rivers State government plane was already locking up the aircraft for us to leave for Lagos by road when a call eventually came through that the plane could now leave. The Controller received a directive to allow the plane fly out of Akure. The decision to let us go, we later learnt, was due to the pressure brought on the aviation authorities by Speaker Tambuwal.
Again, we see a number of things wrong with this story. Interestingly, those who put out this press release do not even see it. Their attitude has become so warped that there is a very thin line between good and bad. The same people who described themselves as “democratically elected leaders” have suddenly grown so big that they cannot travel on the same road as the millions of Nigerians who “democratically elected” them. These leaders, for not getting the privileges they love to indulge themselves in, described themselves as “furious and perplexed” and their experience as a “monumental embarrassment.” But, what does their fury and the trauma they experience at having their self-awarded gratifications do for the Nigerians who travel on those stretch of roads Amaechi requires a private jet to fly? Those same roads on which many have died and much more have had their lives permanently damaged? You guess right, nothing! Absolutely nothing! What does this “monumental embarrassment” they choose to whine about do for the Nigerian people who elected them into office? Nothing! It is all about them, themselves and theirs. Their idea of democratic governance is centered around what they can get, what they can indulge in and that is where it ends. It does not pretend to think of the future because all it sees is itself. There is nothing in this press release that details the so-called traumatic experience Governor Amaechi went through in the hands of government officials, that shows that those who we have in power in Nigeria think of the people at all. It is all about them and what makes them comfortable. Even though they took care to describe themselves as “democratically elected leaders,” they do not live it. I go back to Fela who says, “This o, no be democracy.”
Let me give a third example quickly. Recently, the US released a report that indicted the President Goodluck Jonathan administration, accusing the government of massive and widespread corruption. The report stated that government officials and agencies are steeped in the culture of corruption and they carry it out with impunity. The report, interestingly, did not state anything new. We have always known about the level of corruption that pervades the Nigerian society. It is a culture that has become part of our national bent, and no longer a breaking news story. The year 2012 saw one of the biggest heists take place in official quarters but where did it all end? Sting operation and permanently delayed justice. But rather than the government face up this reality, and admit that it was ready to work on itself, what did their officials do? They started an aggressive campaign of defense, describing the report as “parachute researches” and an “over-amplification” of a minor problem. Their reaction is typical; nobody should be surprised that they will rather put up jejune defenses, telling us some long story of how transparent their government has been and how they have been fighting corruption. Really? This present government is fighting corruption? After the fuel subsidy debacle which turned up the billions of dollar sleaze, this government still claims it is fighting corruption when, in reality, what we have going on is a demonstration of craze. Again, they display same grossly undemocratic attitude that takes the people for granted. They have totally forgotten or are not familiar at all with the wise words of Wael Ghonim:
“The power of the people is much stronger than the people in power.”
I admit I might have given a rather bleak picture of the state of things in Nigeria. These instances are no exaggerations; they are cut and paste descriptions of our quotidian experiences. These are the basics of the reality of our Nigerian existence. But then, the question is, where do we go from here? How do we return the people to the center of the discourse around the structures of democratic governance in Nigeria? The answer can be found in the slogan of the ruling party in Nigeria, “power to the people.”
The Peoples Democratic Party, like other parties in Nigeria, is fond of its slogan, ‘Power to the People’. When they gather, they chant this slogan with gusto. They shout it at the top of their voices and, like many other Nigerians also do, the PDP has neither taken time to ponder the meaning behind “power to the people” nor do they even plan to do so. When the PDP shouts “power to the people,” what it actually does is to redirect more and absolute power towards itself because in their small world, “the people” begins and ends with the members of their coterie. They are that narcissistic. The ruling party, over the years, has successfully run its kleptocracy right before our eyes. As against democracy, kleptocracy is defined as government of the thieves by the thieves and for the thieves! The people as an entity, do not feature anywhere in this equation. The PDP simply does not have time to waste on the people. They are the people and everybody simply comes last.
Instead of democracy, what has been perfected in Nigeria, as at today is kleptocracy; which is the combination of military bravado in milking Nigeria, and civilian pretense for the same objective. The result is increasing underdevelopment of Nigeria, in colours of shame and perpetual embarrassment.
The immediate outlook is a landscape dotted with a small list of men and women who are suddenly and inexplicably rich. You wake up in the morning and there are all these men and women who own property in cities and towns and villages all over Nigeria and abroad; you wake up and you are in a country where wealth is counted but not character; a country where mediocrity is rewarded with National Honours and lucrative contracts. This is how kleptocracy works.
That is why, 53 years after independence, and hundreds of billions of Nigeria’s oil dollars later, just a few Nigerians have unimaginable wealth that is paralleled only by the astonishing poverty of most of our people. And while most of Africa yearns for a courageous, patriotic leadership, Nigeria allows itself to be manipulated by a duplicitous, mediocre cabal. Fifty three years later, our leaders can claim a Ph.D, but since anyone can beg, borrow, buy, hire or steal those or any combination of letters, it is perhaps mere shorthand for Port Harcourt Degree, not Doctor of Philosophy.
Fifty three years later, we are a nation in fear. Our youth have no jobs, and many are learning to employ themselves as robbers, kidnappers, thugs and militants. In place of hope and inspiration, one ruler after another inflicts on them despair and cynicism.
Fifty three years later, we fear whether we will survive. We fear whether we will survive as one. Whether we will survive to tell the tale. Whether we will ever have water to drink or electricity by which to see our children smile; or jobs to go to, roads to get to them, or safety from “unknown” gunmen, known militants, and indiscriminating security agencies.
Fifty three years after independence, it is almost impossible to provide younger Nigerians with any inspiration they can grow and compete with the best of other nations. Government Ministers who cannot spell “Naira” correctly lie fluently about the dollar.
Ladies and gentlemen, Traditional respect for authority reinforced by colonial authoritarianism has made it difficult to establish democracy in Nigeria. And to compound the matter the collusion between the electoral body, I-NEC (The Independent National Electoral Commission) and the ruling party inspite of all the propaganda to the contrary has made a free, fair and credible election in Nigeria a pipe dream inspite of the yearnings and the aspirations of the conscientious electorate. The judiciary is not also totally neutral in this collusion as the past three elections and post election tribunal judgments have shown. Can we then conclude there is no hope whatsoever for the future of democracy in Nigeria? Not so soon. For if there is a will and a people who are ready and able there will be a way. We just need a handful of well meaning, totally committed and uncompromising people who can influence the coming together of the progressives in Nigeria under a unified vision to turn the tide and bring about the much needed change in our nation. Such is the hope of our people in the on-going merger process of three or more political parties in Nigeria. Let’s all cross our fingers that this time around, the major players in the merger process will put the nation first.
In addition, one can only hope that the emerging party from the merger can rightly use the slogan “Power To The People” to develop a blueprint for sustainable democratic governance in Nigeria? How about working towards building a system of government in which the people actually come first? How about wresting the farce of “power to the people” from the hands of the PDP and turning it into reality? How do we force the government to center the people in their activities and stop treating us as if we are destined to exist only at the margins in our own country? How do we return the power in a democratic government to where it truly belongs, the people? Remember, I said at the beginning of this speech that true democracy is an ideal, which no nation has fully attained, but one thoroughly worth fighting for; one truly worth committing our energies to achieve. So, I ask, how do we achieve a society in which the principles of democratic governance are not acted only in breach?
For one, after my participation in the 2011 electoral process, and my observation of activities in our country since then, I have come to the conclusion that not all voters and citizens are sophisticated enough to understand how critical their participation is to the destiny of their country. In Nigeria, we have gradually become inured to bad things such that we are no longer startled when we hear news of how many more billions have been stolen from the state coffers. This is why I strongly believe the way to enhance democratic governance in Nigeria is firstly for the best, the brightest and the fittest among us to be involved in our politics at all levels and secondly to educate, enlighten and empower the people; they need to ask questions and challenge their own government. If an average young Nigerian devotes as much time as it does to European soccer to the governance of her country, we will be out of the doldrums fast. The greatest asset of a badly run government is a disempowered and unconcerned citizenry. A nation where people routinely look away from cases of abuse of office by her government officials is a nation where people will be routinely abused. It is a nation that will remain in the muck for a long time.
Let me conclude this piece by appealing to this distinguished audience that more than ever before, our activities as social crusaders, activists, critics, patriots and particularly as Nigerians must be that of exhorting and educating our territories of influence especially within Nigeria. We need a more sensitized and engaged citizenry, one that actively participates in the process of governance beyond merely casting a vote. As the former British PM, Winston Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” If the people become the very structure of our democratic governance, we can begin to chart our journey towards the ideals of democracy. We might not get there in the same day but we would at least have begun. It is, altogether, a lifetime journey, one that does not offer a short cut. Democratic governance in Nigeria does not promise to make us perfect, but at least, the process of striving will make us a better people.
To make this happen, there must be a core-catalyst group, ready, willing and able to ignite the fire of change, foster the enlightenment of our people and pay the price for their total liberation from the stranglehold of power prodigals who possess power for self and not for service talk less of the overall welfare of their people and development of their nation. Across this room, I see such people but will they pay the price and take on the challenge by accepting responsibility for the greatness of their country? Only time will tell whether the “yes we can” response can emanate from here and reverberate globally among the well-able Nigerians in the diaspora and those back at home.
Thank you for listening.
God bless you all and may God bless Nigeria.
Convener, Save Nigeria Group.