We must think outside the box. For some reason we have been unable to think beyond OA Lawal, that ‘Government’ textbook in secondary school that defined how everything every system of government should be… theoretically. We failed to read that book in the context of history, and we treated the study of ‘government’ like a science, instead of an art that evolved with time. Therefore, non-existent terminologies such as ‘true democracy’, and ‘true federalism’ made landfall in Nigeria and refused to go away. Rather these phantom terminologies have only gathered steam and are threatening to define our collective future. I have heard professors and proletariat alike swear by these terms. But here we were, and Ghana somehow has a sitting, democratically and ‘popularly’ elected president, just as Kenya, France and many more countries around the world. That did not stop those countries maintaining parliamentary systems side by side with the presidential. Which textbooks did they copy from? None of them came to Nigeria to confirm whether they could tweak their governance systems to suit their cultures, their peculiarities, their histories. None of them sought American, British or United Nations approvals too. Yet we in Nigeria are stuck in the rut of dishonesty and if you like, physical, mental and intellectual laziness, digging in the sand for a ‘true democracy and true federalism’ that will suddenly solve our problems. And we are willing to make a mockery of ourselves on the international scene, as a people who cannot solve their own problems
In the same vein we also seek a perfect constitution, as if a constitution has ever a nation made. What I see, scanning the world, are nations that have been made because men, women and children decided to come together and somehow found sense in their unity in spite of diversity, and so worked so hard, sacrificing much, until they were reckoned with by other nations. Constitutions are documents by which these nations maintained order among their citizens and residents. Nobody wakes up daily to consult the constitution before interacting with their fellow citizens. At best people consult religious books to validate their moral codes or to try and keep themselves in check. If anything, this is how we raise our children. Show me a man who raised his children by the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria – or indeed of anywhere else – and I will show you a lunatic. In short, morality supersedes any constitution. A nation that has lost moral compass among its elites, politicians, professionals and hoi polloi can never recover normalcy by carving a new constitution like some modern-day Ten Commandments. In fact, such a nation will not be able to sit and agree on the first clause of a new constitution. Therefore, constitution is what our elites whip out as an excuse each time they seek to deflect attention from themselves. For a man who is not ready to change his ways, and start from within, or to influence his environment positively, a national constitution is an easy scapegoat.
My concern today is not the constitution though, even as I wish us luck as we forage around for the perfect one. My thoughts are about democracy. I was spurred to write this article, reading through an article written by Prof. Jibrin Ibrahim, titled ‘Democratizing Nigerian Democracy’. In a nutshell, the good prof was saying that even our democracy needs some democracy. We know we are not practising democracy in Nigeria. But whatever it is we are practicing, if we somehow became a ‘perfect democracy’, what will we achieve for our country? Those were my thoughts. Do we need a perfect democracy? One where majority carries the vote and they are always contacted before any decision is taken? The way I look at it is to ask what exactly we are trying to achieve. Nigeria today faces an existential crisis on several fronts; a collapsing economy, burgeoning poverty, food inflation, spiraling unemployment, the worst housing crisis in the world, even as the rest of the world powers on into a future driven by robots and all sorts of arcane technologies. Given between a choice to save all of ourselves and make rapid progress to transform our spaces, to achieve a better standard of living for almost every Nigerian along the lines identified above (security, education, water, electricity, healthcare, social services, good environmental services and so on), and a choice at ‘true democracy’, where everyone speaks at the same time, exercising their itching ‘opinionitis’ (apologies to Reuben Abati), where everyone feels too big to stoop for the other, where everyone suspects the other and accuses them ad nauseum, where everyone shows their democratic smarts and kowtows to the approving gaze of western hegemons, and no one gives an inch at all as we retrogress into extinction, I will choose progress. Yes, I will choose an imperfect democracy that delivers for humanity first. We will get to that perfect democracy later.
We often make the mistake of equating ourselves with present day USA or some other matured democracy. That is a grave error. What we should do more is understand history – not only of ourselves – but of how the world arrived at where it is today. Many Nigerians are ignorant of the reality of many of these developed countries. Two examples will suffice. A medical doctor friend of mine living in the USA once told me ‘you guys are so free in that country!’. He said to me that we get away with so many things in Nigeria. In the USA he feels caged and under surveillance. I know for a fact that there is more freedom in Nigeria. Then look at the constitution. The ‘WE, THE PEOPLE’ that commences the USA constitution is equally a fraud, if the Nigerian one is a fraud. In fact, ours may be a better representation, for in the year 1776 none of the landowning aristocrats who came together to write a constitution and unite the colonies that formed USA asked for the opinions of any of the poor people. They wrote in that constitution that black people are at best two-thirds of human beings, and that women were not fit to vote, neither were white men who are poor and own no land. But in spite of the initial fraud that should have read WE, THE ARISTOCRATS AND LANDOWNERS, the Americans have continued to forge ahead. The constitution has been amended 27 times and counting.
I find more evidence in classical thinking, to support my position that the embrace of ‘pure democracy’, ‘perfect constitution’ and ‘true federalism’ are ill-timed and delusional for us Nigerians at this time. Again, I call instead for a keen focus on elevating the minds of our people through a keen focus on accountability in governance and the provision of public goods that improve our lives. There’s a reason people like Socrates and Pluto disliked democracy and I will expand on that below. It often leads to the tyranny of the uneducated and poor majority. America for example could be said to have developed rapidly under very imperfect democracy such as ours… and slowed down when people started to demand for rights and get very entitled on all sides. I recall listening to someone say they now live in the USA at a time when almost everyone is wired to do as little as possible while claiming as much benefits and space as possible. Countries don’t grow in leaps and bounds that way. China also grew fast at a point when people sacrificed greatly. Luckily for these two countries they did so many profound things that will tide them over for long, so when and if their people change, the countries still continues to improve because standards have been set. I know it’s possible to also get people to sacrifice for their nation in a democracy and opposition politics could be fierce to get sitting governments to strive for perfection. But that is very difficult to achieve and takes a long period of time and consistency which are unattainable luxuries for us. Also, we haven’t been lucky to see any sustained period of superlative growth and productivity. We need a push. We need a leap. We need action and not endless talk. We need to focus on individual responsibility to self and country, and not wire our people to only demand for rights. Indeed, rights will never be available in adequate quantity if a people don’t do the right things at some point, that creates and guarantees an organized society and a multiplicity of rights. There are no rights in the jungle, and the results of our present engagements has made something close to a jungle out of our country. In short, the better a country or society is, the more rights are available to its people. I think it is the responsibility that people sow first, before reaping rights.
Are there anything called TRUE DEMOCRACY or TRUE FEDERALISM? Everything is rooted in history. Federalism can only be as ‘true’ as the Americans imagined it to be – because it is their federalism we seek to copy. That’s why I said we keep looking into textbooks. But if we look into history we will see that it took a long time for even the role model federalist Americans to get to this flawed situation where our friend Donald Trump almost overturned everything some weeks back. Indeed, between the ‘Federalists’; John Jay, James Madison and Alex Hamilton and the Nationalists like Thomas Jefferson they could not agree on what Federalism meant or is supposed to achieve. Jefferson and friends believed federalism should guarantee stronger states or component regions. Jay, Madison, Hamilton and friends (who are known as the Federalists), believed that the federal government should be strong in order to ensure unity. Till today in the USA there is no consensus on what federalism should mean; a weak centre or a strong centre. And I see that Nigerians continue to commit grave errors even in the face of hard evidence. This is the wrong impression that in the model country (USA) the federal government gives nothing to the states but receives from them. No way! Different federal governments have always given ‘Block Grants’ or ‘Categorical Grants’ to the states in the USA. Also, there are 3,006 counties (Local Governments) in the USA so what is this idea about subsuming LGAs under States to the extent that that level of government which is closest to the people is strangled out of existence? What is a federating unit? Can it be composed of two or more levels? Certainly. The peculiarity of the USA was that the colonies were the ones who came together from the ground up (through an undemocratic process) to form a country in rebellion to Britain, France and Spain. The colonies later became states and there were criteria to be achieved before new states could be created especially in terms of population, as America grew. History is very important. I read of how Louisiana and Florida were acquired from the French and Spanish, and how the limits of the territories were unknown. Many things evolved through trial and error. Nigerian states are not federating units in the same sense as the old colonies of USA. Our states are artificial creations – usually of the Nigerian military. So, if we want to do the right thing, only ethnic nationalities could be federating units here… and we must set criteria to ensure we identify what constitutes an ‘ethnic nationality’ and recognize those that qualify without abbreviating anybody’s rights.
I equally wager there is nothing like a true democracy except what you read in textbooks… some idyllic situation that nobody practices. In the 1930s up to 70s and probably to date there are places in the US where people are offered cigarettes at polling booths to vote particular candidates. Used to be pork. In the UK especially in heavily Bengali areas and some of the very poor boroughs till today, rigging is the order of the day. Google ‘elections in Tower Hamlets’ or parts of Birmingham, Bradford and Huddersfield among others. So, there are basically no perfect elective democracies anywhere but what mitigates the situation in those countries we admire, is that they have ensured that their people have food to eat, education and a reasonable life, and over time, desperate poverty has been banished. This done, the people can begin to ask intelligent questions of their politicians – an important requirement of a working democracy.
This is what Socrates believed about democracy as written in his discourse with Adeimantus circa 380 BC:
If you were heading out on a journey by sea, asks Socrates, who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring? The latter of course, says Adeimantus, so why then, responds Socrates, do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country?
Socrates also believed that a desperate person cannot make the right decisions in a democracy. He likened it to a scenario where someone needs bitter pills to get well, but most people despise the doctor that administers such bitter pills and will choose to befriend someone who allows them access to all the things that will kill them. He describes the good medical doctor (good leader) in the mind of a patient (voter);
“Look, this person (the medical doctor) here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will” Socrates asks rhetorically: “Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer – ‘I cause you trouble, and go against your desires in order to help you’ would cause an uproar among the voters, don’t you think”
Plato adds to Socrates’ concern that uneducated people may not be able to choose a captain because they don’t know what it takes to run a ship. Like Socrates, he likened leaders to ship captains. Hear him;
… the true navigator must study the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds, and all the other subjects appropriate to his profession if he is to be really fit to control the ship…[the electorate] think that it’s quite impossible to acquire the professional skill needed for such control and that there’s no such thing as the art of navigation.
Plato, therefore, believed that philosophers should rule – philosopher kings. A true philosopher being someone that is in love with knowledge and the search for true reality. Plato digs in further, by touching on how democracy usually pans out:
“An excessive desire for liberty at the expense of everything else is what undermines democracy and leads to the demand for tyranny”
In other words, democracy often comes full circle, giving way to tyranny because people spend all their democratic time grabbing rights rather than performing responsibility. They often are obsessed with the alure of an illusionary liberty and end up losing everything, then they demand for tyranny. This reminds me of Nigeria over the years since independence.
In the final analysis, I am not calling for an abrogation of our democracy, by perhaps a tweak – beyond what the textbooks say. I am also saying that we are not doing well by not doing everything to focus on making the lives of our people better so that they can understand democracy more, and make better decisions. In short, the focus should be on improved standards of living of our people, taking tens of millions out of desperate poverty and illiteracy. I believe we should adopt an intellectual approach – perhaps like countries like Ghana, Kenya, France and others have done, to evolve a political system that consistently delivers for our people, rather than continue to rummage through secondary school textbooks, searching for what does not exist. We have very little time to get our acts right.