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Is Democracy and Freedom Good For Nigeria?, By Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú

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The real issues and problems in our democratic experiment should concern us all. The issues are the lack of institutions to protect us from ourselves, education, poverty, the social and economic roles of families, the lack of democracy in our economic lives, and the need to redefine our local governments. We should protect political democracy from the transgressions of economic power.

In the last few years, we have seen the weaknesses of democracy and freedom. We are witnesses to how the Nigerian criminal enterprise has been extending the frontiers of freedom and democracy to commit crimes, engage in indecent acts and avoid being held accountable for their misdeeds. Under democratic rule, Nigeria has recorded widening income disparity, increasing insecurity, and the multiplication of irrational voters moulded by poverty, baked by hunger to vote against their interests; as well as threats of political instability, and oppression by the elected.

Socrates and Plato must have envisioned Nigeria in their shared criticisms of democracy. The fears they had about democracy as a system of government is demonstrated on a frightening and exaggerated scale in Nigeria’s democracy, where an equal voice is given to those who deserve to be heard and those who don’t. As it is with borrowed things, the Nigerian ruling elite has found ways to corrupt the system, to undermine its goodness and exploit its failures. The elected and those seeking to be elected have perfected a system of patronage that encourages more irrationality from irrational voters who are uninformed about political and economic issues. Given systemic poverty and a degraded system of education, voters are ill-equipped to interpret cogent political and economic information confronting them. These built in faults help voters make ignorant decisions when they vote by voting the wrong persons with the wrong values into sensitive positions of authority. In our democracy, we elect people who inevitably do a poorer job of governing while we shun capable hands with the necessary knowledge that can liberate and grow the nation. As a consequence, government policies affecting millions of lives are being influenced by knowledge deficient individuals, thus compromising their effectiveness.

The idea that Western style democracy is a one-size-fits-all solution to our social and political problems shows our lack of depth and a total disrespect for our historical and cultural conditions. Democracy works and has worked in the West because of institutions. Our lack of institutions and failure to see that democracy is only made possible by institutions is one of the reasons why we will continue to wallow in poverty, want and sociopolitical retardation. Democracy, individual freedom and the protection of human rights are intertwined. Even then, these three ingredients of Western civilisation are distinct and separate. They only become a triune under specific circumstances.

We have freedom but we have no means of using it for good. What is the point of having the liberty to ruin our lives, the lives of others and the lives of future Nigerians? For a people without institutionalised democracy, freedom and its illustrious associations can only be worthy if we are not left alone to destroy ourselves.

Without doubt, the most cardinal of political goods is freedom and it comes with a price. The price of freedom is responsibility. Freedom does not mean that an individual is entitled to do anything they so desire as we have interpreted it. When freedom mean doing anything a person or persons wants, it is no longer freedom, it is licentiousness. Nigerians have failed to understand that difference with distinction. With our democracy has come a lack guidance, self-understanding, self-control and direction. We have freedom but we have no means of using it for good. What is the point of having the liberty to ruin our lives, the lives of others and the lives of future Nigerians? For a people without institutionalised democracy, freedom and its illustrious associations can only be worthy if we are not left alone to destroy ourselves. Our freedoms must be guided or even restricted to help us from polluting our space and stinking up the world.

The West from whom we borrowed democracy, had institutions to prevent or punish individual and collective malfeasance. What are these institutions? The first among them is the judiciary, which is independent. In Nigeria, a person or persons or the government can bribe or order a judge to deliver a verdict that favours them. It does not matter if a law is breached or not. It means nothing if dangerous precedents are set. Actually a new law could be invented by a judicial officer at the last moment. The rule of law in Nigeria is fiction. Can democracy serve the interest of the people without the rule of law? No! Another institution is that of impartial law enforcement. Do we have that? Does it function? Does it serve us?

We cannot afford a country where people view government as the goal and not the means. We can ill afford a people who have no interest at keeping government cost effective and modest. The endgame is predictably atrocious if we continue to pay politicians with borrowed money. To grow, compete and create a country worth living in, we must reform or perish! We must create a country with norms that are grounded in real reforms.

Given Nigeria’s profound ethnic and religious divisions, democracy has proven its cons. From our experience, liberal democracy has been shown to produce illiberal outcomes. From 1999 to date, democracy cannot be said to have safeguarded nor represented the interests of Nigerians. It cannot be said to have promoted equality before the law and equal rights to power. Many decent and hardworking people cannot be elected into positions because they have no stolen money to distribute nor the connections to gain visibility within the political parties. As a political doctrine, democracy emphasises the duty of the government to promote peace and unity. Where is our peace, where is our unity? Our form of government is not driven by public will, hence the various sectional agitations. Every part of the country feels marginalised depending on who is at the centre. On close examination, the country’s population itself impedes true representation of every person’s interests. Aside from official arrogance and inaccessibility, it is near impossible for all Ngerians to express their interests to their elected representatives at state or federal level. Each Representative, each Senator theoretically represents thousands, and in more populous states, millions of people. How can such persons represent the majority? A majority they do not consult nor engage unless it is election time.

For us, democracy is the rule of money with might. Our freedoms at every level have been without responsibility. Our positive freedom (freedom to act) has no correlation with the negative freedom (freedom from interference) of another. Democracy and freedom is proving to be our greatest undoing since we have no institutions to curtail excesses nor punish infractions. Why can’t we create and nurture what can work for us or modify what we copied to suit our realities?

The real issues and problems in our democratic experiment should concern us all. The issues are the lack of institutions to protect us from ourselves, education, poverty, the social and economic roles of families, the lack of democracy in our economic lives, and the need to redefine our local governments. We should protect political democracy from the transgressions of economic power. Nigeria cannot sustain a bicameral legislature. We cannot afford a country where people view government as the goal and not the means. We can ill afford a people who have no interest at keeping government cost effective and modest. The endgame is predictably atrocious if we continue to pay politicians with borrowed money. To grow, compete and create a country worth living in, we must reform or perish! We must create a country with norms that are grounded in real reforms.

Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú a farmer, youth advocate and political analyst writes this weekly column, “Bamidele Upfront” for the PREMIUM TIMES. Follow me on Twitter @olufunmilayo

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