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Liberal democracy and development in Nigeria: 4th Republic in perspective

Ondo State Governor, Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, SAN, delivered the lecture at the 2nd Distinguished Personality of the Department of Political Science and Diplomatic Studies, BOWEN University, Iwo, Osun State.

PROTOCOL

Let me express my profound gratitude to the Management of the Bowen University, especially the Faculty of Social Management Sciences and the Department of Political Science and Diplomatic Studies, for sustaining this enviable tradition for which the academia is reputed. I thank this distinguished audience for their presence and hasten to crave the understanding and attention of all those present in the auditorium.

This is a somewhat different podium from the accustomed platform, legal practice and politics. I thank the organisers of this lecture for availing me this opportunity to ventilate my views on a current socio-political issue in our dear country. I shall strive to pass across my views concerning the system of government practised in our dear country at present.

It is my fervent hope that this culture of disquisition will not only be sustained in many years to come. I should like to see the interaction between the Town and Gown deepen beyond mere ceremonies and conferment of honours of recognition on the deserving. Our interrogatories should serve as a challenge and reminder to the academia of the onerous responsibilities expected of them by a doting society. Seminal interventions are, necessarily, required for periodic review of our affairs as a people.

Our citadels of learning must make their impact felt at all times. They must show the rest of us the path to tread. The community which finds an institution cited in it should consider itself blessed for the simple fact of beneficial symbiosis. That community must be distant from the pang of abject privation and want. The measure of relevance of any institution must be seen in the architectural masterpieces and serene ambience. These are also very important. An academic institution secures her place on the scale of importance in the environment for the utilitarian value of her research output.

INTRODUCTION

Democracy is about the most abused word in the world today. The word is used so loosely that it has become almost prone to multiple interpretations, depending on the potentates or demagogues who stand to derive direct benefit from the manipulation of the system. The political concept of popular participation is so attractive that even the most despotic of regimes in the world today flaunts some specious democratic credentials.

Every system bears one form of democratic appellative modifier or the other. There is the Democratic People’s Republic of China. North Korean is also a democracy of some sort, a republic of repressed souls. The countries of the Middle East are less pretentious. They are monarchies; they resist all attempts by reformists to suggest a change attuned to modernity. These countries operate under some pseudo-theocratic system which, increasingly, permits a free market economy and other limited correlates of the liberal democratic system of the Western World.

The African experience is bizarre; there are many countries, “republics” of supposedly equal citizens, purportedly subjected to the same political processes on the Continent. There are some of these Banana Republics, shy of proclaiming the true nature of the awkward system obtainable in their countries where a few persons determine the fate of the rest of their peoples. They cannot be regarded as “Monarchies”, either constitutional or traditional. The political leaderships in these places exist in perpetuity. The results of all elections are almost predictable. These “constitutional monarchies”, masquerading as democracies, hold periodic elections which give a semblance of legitimacy inherent in the right of the people to choose.

There seems to be a cessation of military incursion into politics in Africa. Some erstwhile military rulers have transmuted into life civilian presidents. These men continue to hold sway in their various countries under one form of “democratic” system or the other. They invite their hapless “subjects” to vote periodically to renew their grip on their countries. The endless struggles for power have rendered these lands devastated and millions of people have become refugees in their land.

Poverty rages relentlessly and there appears to be a wide gulf between the much vaunted right of choice and ability to determine the course of development. There is bound to be a certain curiosity as regards the seeming powerlessness of the mass of the people under the so called democratic system. If popular participation translates into decision-making, the people will, certainly, choose a much more impactful mode of sustenance. If the traditional societies, which existed before colonialism were self-sufficient as autonomous entities under kingdoms and chiefdoms, why are the people perpetually helpless now that they are supposed to be the ones in charge of their own affairs?

There has always been this erroneous but widely held belief that the current political system, with a global appeal in most parts of the world, is the pre-condition for development. The pervasive attitude seems to support the notion that once a system of government is christened democratic, development follows, necessarily. A critical analysis of the endemic challenges faced by most transitional societies, especially in the Third World, expose the tenuous ground on which the theory stands. The nature of a political system does not translate to development. Effective and efficient mobilization of both human and natural resources to address the need of the society are most crucial.

DEMOCRACY IN FOCUS

Democracy is commonly defined as the “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. This is the global catch-phrase made popular by President Abraham Lincoln of the United States at the Gettysburg declaration. The erroneous notion of equating periodic and limited franchise granted to a category of the populace to decide the course of development is at the root of the current misconception.

Who are “the people”? Who or what determines the level of participation of “the people”? In whose interest is a political system deviously designed to exclude the majority? Who or what determines the mode of production which best approximates the quest for development? How has the current system beneficial to the generality of the people in any given society? Do the majority actually possess the power to decide? Can this system yield the necessary dividends as expected? There is the need for a critical assessment of the term “democracy”, from the standpoint of etymology and use, to come to a realistic conclusion as regards its desirability as a form of government for real development.

The ancient Greeks conceived of the idea of the “demos”, often mistaken for the generality of the people living in a society. Nothing can be farther from the socio-political reality in Athens than this gross misrepresentation. The Greeks were less pretentious in their approach to governance. Oligarchy, the rule of the few in terms of nobility, was replaced with democracy. The transformation from aristocracy through oligarchy to democracy was only in form and not really in content. The people were excluded from the mainstream decision-making process.

The “demos” in Athens excluded women, children, slaves and foreigners. Only adult males constituted the body of “the people” cloaked with franchise. Even at that, the economic crisis of that period made it a challenging venture for any man of modest means to abandon his farm or other economic activities for politics. In the final analysis, only those who could make it to the market place called “agora” participated in the decision-making process.

They voted by acclamation on whatever issue brought up for deliberation. The wealthy nobles still determined the subject and course of the deliberation. The deluded rabble, who constituted “the people”, were simply invited to stand behind their patrons to vote on any issue. The patronage and clientele system ensured that the poor people were tied to the whims and caprices of the nobles in perpetuity. Democracy as practiced in Athens, therefore, was the dictatorship of the minority over the majority. It was limited, severely, in scope and practice.

The uncritical embrace of this concept continues to undermine genuine quest for advancement. The Athenian experiment reminds us of the current debate in our party, the All Progressives Congress, on the desirability of “Direct Primaries” as against “Indirect Primaries” and “Consensus”. Direct participation in deliberative governance is predicated on certain objective and presumptive conditions. It is not just anchored on happenstances and mere wishful thinking. Our recent attempts at choosing representatives at primary level betrayed a certain misunderstanding or patent lack of knowledge with regard to the workings of the concept. I hope to come back to this later.

For the Greeks, the issue of homogeneity was crucial. It eliminated centrifugal friction often engendered by ethnicity and religion. The size of the Greek city-states commended the system of direct participation. Athens was the largest among the Greek cities. It had about 500,000 inhabitants. All the adult males who participated were known. They were identified through their “Demes” or political unit. The sanctity of the “voters’ register” was viewed with seriousness. No credible election is possible without a valid register. The Athenian State was upwardly mobile because of her embrace of the libertarian principles.

Complexity in the composition of the modern states makes the so called “Direct Participation” impracticable. Representation is inevitable at various levels of governance because of large population and size of the countries. Modernity has eroded many of the important features which cloaked democracy with the semblance of popular participation and authority. The issue of growth and development in relation to the conditions of living of the people also calls attention to the benefits in the adoption of this concept.

LIBERAL DEMOCRACY AND DEVELOPMENT

Liberal democracy, also known as Western Democracy, is a political ideology which finds expression in a representative government. It is the modern form of the Greek democratic model which survived the Age of Enlightenment when Monarchy started to yield part of its authority to the people through the Parliament. This political arrangement ensures that the people give their consent to a set of rulers for a period of time. In extreme cases, the consent is presumed and a despot rules in perpetuity on the ostensible claim that he derives legitimacy from the people.

The features of this form of government are the much publicised guarantee of individual rights, freedoms of varying grades, periodic elections through multi-party system, separation of powers among the tiers of government, private ownership of property, rule of law, free market economy and a preponderance of civil society organisations. The government assumes a somewhat detached posture and acts as if alien to the people on behalf of whom it purports to derive legitimacy.

The principles of this system of government are the guarantee of the protection of individual’s freedom, the conduct of free, fair and competitive elections among different political parties jostling for political offices, separation of powers among the Executive, Legislative and Judicial arms of government, to ensure the protection of human rights, civil liberties and freedom to participate in politics by all persons in accordance with particular municipal laws of different countries. Individualism is an abiding article of Faith.

There is always a suggestion of order under this form of government. There is a constitution, either written or unwritten, which creates offices, defines the scope of their powers and limitations and set the terms of the Social Contract between the State and the citizens. This type of government may appear in various constitutional forms. In countries such as United Kingdom, Norway, Spain, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Netherlands and Australia, Constitutional Monarchy is the Order. The United States of America, France, Italy, Ireland, India and our dear country, Nigeria, are known as Republics.

Parliamentary system is a constitutional order practised in the UK, Australia, Canada, India, Israel, Ireland and Italy. The United States and Indonesia adopt the Presidential system while France and Romania settle for the Semi-Presidential system. Nigeria claims to be practising the American political model. In all of these afore-mentioned countries, there is universal adult suffrage. All adult citizens enjoy the right to exercise their franchise regardless of race, gender or wealth. Only persons who suffer disabilities as a result of judicial pronouncements and statutory provisions are excluded from the body of eligible voters who make decisions through ballot in their respective countries.

Liberal democracy takes its roots from the Age of Enlightenment in 18th Century Europe. Democracy was alien to most of European countries as a political system of government. Most of these countries were monarchies. Political powers were the exclusive preserve of the royal families and aristocracies. They claimed divine authority for perpetuating themselves in power. They opposed democracy because of the entrenched belief that the people could not be trusted to take important decisions to run the affairs of the state.

The people, in the estimation of these people, lack self-control and are too flippant to be taken seriously. The rule of the rabble was against nature itself. It was they, as special beings ordained by God, who must be allowed to rule. Any attempt to question them was a direct affront against God and was viewed seriously. Succession was mostly by birth; election was considered a heresy. The system was designed to reduce the people to a permanent state of subservience.

A major challenge to this idea came from a small group of intellectuals in Europe. These people held that human affairs could not be left in the hands of some decadent, unscrupulous and largely unproductive members of royal families. They opined that reason should be the overriding principle guiding the affairs of the people. Since all human beings are created equal, the principles of equality and liberty must be held sacrosanct. The purpose of government must be to serve the people and not a select few. Above all, any law enacted must be of general application to all. Nobody should be above the law of the land. In other words, the law must rule.

This movement started and gained momentum in England in the 17th Century. Several Bills such as Magna Carta, Petition of Right (1628), Habeas Corpus Act (1679) were passed into law to curtail the absolute powers of the Monarchy. The Putney Debates of 1647 popularised the idea of political representation through political parties. The Civil Wars fought between 1642 and 1651 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought the Bill of Rights of 1689. This Bill specified some rights and liberties granted subjects. The new law allowed regular elections, freedom of speech in the Parliament. It curtailed the absolute powers of the monarch progressively. Thus the Parliament began its ascendant march to prominence against the Monarchy.

Political philosophers like John Locke (1632-1704) posit on the inalienable rights of the people to give consent, either expressed or implied, to governmental actions. They argue for the right of the people to certain freedoms such as the Right to life and security of person, Freedom from slavery, Freedom of movement, Equality before the law, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Information, Freedom of association and assembly, Freedom of Education, Freedom of Religion and Right to own Private Property.

It is important to note that these ideas were catalysts for two main revolutions in modern history, The American and French Revolutions respectively. The systems of government established after these social upheavals gave rise to the liberal democracy which gained currency throughout Europe and America. These democratic ideals gained ground and progressed relentlessly, a situation which monarchy into a state of permanent retreat and eventual capitulation. This continued even after the First and Second World Wars.

 

LIBERAL DEMOCRACY IN NIGERIA

The Nigerian political history is all too familiar for us to be detained by details here. The most important issue which must be of concern to us now is development through the inherited political system. The colonial experience was designed to exploit the local populace. Infrastructural development was meant for effective dispossession of the natives. Capacity building was moderate and efficiently structured to produce servile subjects.

The inherited structure was left intact at independence in 1960. The adoption of the Parliamentary system was considered inappropriate for a country with the size and complexity of Nigeria. The colonial structure simply ensured that the alienation between the ruling class and the people was almost complete. Local leaders had replaced the colonial overlords. Their stranglehold on the people and the resources of the nascent nation-state was suffocating.

They could hardly sustain self-rule for two years before the crisis which led to the demise of the First Republic started. The efficient bureaucracy bequeathed to the local elites and the infrastructural development for a systematic rape of the rural communities engendered a steady economic growth. The evidence was, however, absent in the lives of the people. The urban-rural drift became accentuated due to the truncation of the traditional mode of production and its substitution with an alien pattern which emphasizes exportation of cash crops as against the local staple.

The small scale farmers lost their farmlands to the big time money bags from the cities. The new rulers of the country failed to effect fundamental adjustments which would have compelled adaptation to accommodate local variants. The lack of capacity to maintain and sustain the level of advancement of the inherited infrastructure exposed the vulnerability of the young independent country. Nigeria appeared not ready for the challenges of development.

The stiff competition among the contending political groups led to the first military coup in 1966. The suspension of the 1963 Republican Constitution and the introduction of a unitary system of government in a multi-ethnic and religious country further worsened the already volatile situation. The long period of interregnum before the return to civil rule in 1979 made adjustment increasingly difficult. The Second Republic lasted for only four years. Nigerians seem to have accepted this aberration as the norm permanently.

FOURTH REPUBLIC AND THE CHALLENGES OF DEVELOPMENT

The commencement of the 4th Republic in 1999 was not without great expectations. The people of the country had great hopes on the possibility of development after a long period of repression under the military. Successive civilian governments have continued to find solutions to the myriad of problems confronting the polity.

The Presidential system of government is retained just as it happened in 1979. The over-bloated bureaucracy, which militates against proactive measures conceived to solve problems, gobbles a disproportionate chunk of the revenue accruable to the country. Nigeria appears to observe all the principles of liberal democracy. As should be expected, there have been periodic elections held since 1999. The nature and character of those elections are the issues worth examining.

There are three tiers of governments functioning, progressively. At least our National Assembly is able to pass the budget seven months after presentation by the executive. The members are quick to amend any provision which stands against their interest. Separation of powers among the three arms of government is guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution, as amended. Freedoms, as enshrined in the law, are provided for in the basic law of the land. Market forces regulate economic activities in a basically consumptive environment where production of goods and services is very low. The curricula of education are not designed to produce problem solvers. Nigeria has an embarrassingly high rate of youth unemployment. Certification has replaced sound education. Any aspiration towards development in such a country is misplaced.

The activities of the political class since the inception of the Fourth Republic do not suggest that our elites understand the enormity of the challenges facing the country. Since this is the case, it is not surprising that they do not appreciate the urgency which the issue requires. Nigeria prides herself as a country which practises democracy. The current agitations among citizens on challenges of existence support the notion that the country has a long journey towards development.

Multi-party democracy is thriving indeed. Nigeria has almost 100 political parties. Many of these platforms do not exist beyond registration by INEC. The political merchants who own these parties wait till the period of election to ply their trade. The big parties are still far from being run as public parties. Movement from one political platform to the other appears fluid because of lack of basic ideology. Individual rights are trampled upon routinely. Structures of control are built round personalities.

Civil society organisations are active in the country. There is hardly any aspect of our lives not covered by the activities of these special breed of Nigerians. Some act as vultures. They possess the ability to smell potential harvest of carcasses from a very long distance. Very many of these commercial enterprises are run by certain individuals and families. They are ready for hire at any time. They are so mobile that distance means nothing, so detached to empathise. The highest bidder mobilises them to the site of agitation.

There is a free press. The ownership of the media is almost private. Governments, at all levels, play a limited role outside their regulatory obligations. Our media practitioners report events but the zeal to track and follow things poses great challenges for the polity.

On the whole, Nigeria’s current experiment with democratic practice has all the trappings of liberalism. The same rhetoric is being employed to showcase commitment to real development. Agitations for inclusion by those who stand at the fringe of political influence have nothing to do with the emancipation people. All noises subside as soon as the protagonists of the politics of inclusion are accommodated.

The country has been moving in circles. The economic policies of successive governments, before the current regime, were designed to alienate the government from the people. The commanding heights of the economy were sold off under the privatization policy. In a country with a very low production base, market forces were allowed to determine economic growth. Development ceased being about and for the people.

CONCLUSION

From the points highlighted above, it should be clear to any discerning mind that the inherited colonial structure cannot engender development. Collectivization of values and mobilization, for the common good, remain the only plausible solution to the challenges of underdevelopment and the attendant poverty. A new orientation which emphasizes self-reliance as the basic aspiration for advancement must be put in place.

The current political structure is too artificial; it does not assist in mobilizing the people for the task of nation-building. It is a major cause of division among the people of this country. It was a colonial design to achieve the purpose of dividing the people with a view to exacting firm control on them. it must be reworked to forge a new country where citizens will be free to choose any part to live and prosper.

I must not fail to commend the Federal Government under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR, for the current paradigm shift. Generations yet unborn will remember this current attempt to re-order the priorities of the country and mobilise the citizens for the great task of working assiduously for economic prosperity.

Our people are beginning to earn respect as producers of crops. The almost total dependence on foreign countries for survival is gradually winding down. It is obvious that democracy does not necessarily translate to economic growth. The people must not only be allowed to vote without choosing periodically. They should be able to decide on the most suitable course of production.

Development should be about and for them. Democratic practice shorn of the capacity of the people choose in the real sense is alienating.

Owena Press Limited (Publisher of The Hope Newspaper), Akure

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