Between Majority Tyranny, Democratic Space and PDP’s Zoning

Alexis Tocqueville, the French political thinker and historian, developed the phrase ‘tyranny of the majority’ in his treatise on possible threats to representative democracy in America, including the tendency for democracy to degenerate into ‘soft despotism’ and ‘tyranny of the majority’. Since Tocqueville, representative or liberal democracy has come a long way, with different political states developing policies to prevent their system from being corrupted into a ‘tyranny of the majority’. The notion of human rights, which is necessarily anti-majoritarian in principle, and which is vigorously protected and defended in many mature democracies, is one such safeguard. In other political states, where the basis of statehood remains contested or where the state is made up of an agglomeration of different ethnic nationalities, the notion of ‘concurrent majority’- in which great decisions are not arrived at through numerical majorities but often require agreement or acceptance by the major interests in the society – is quite popular. In such political states, contrivances like ‘government of national unity’, the need to reflect the ‘federal character’ of a country in appointments and ‘zoning’ are often popular political vocabularies.

A liberal democracy is an embodiment of a gamut of civic rights and individual liberties geared towards preventing it from degenerating into a tyranny of the majority. The extent to which these liberties are guaranteed and the degree to which they are protected differ from one democracy to another, and could be regarded as the democratic space available in each state. Obviously the democratic space is elastic, and can contract or expand based on new laws, policies, conventions and the activities of relevant social groups.

This raises the question of the interface between the fear of majority tyranny in Nigeria, the need to defend the country’s democratic space and the PDP’s zoning arrangement. Several observations could be made.

One, zoning could both extend and contract the democratic space depending on the way it is applied. In a zone where the elites are Cohesive, Conscious and Conspiratorial, there is a real possibility that such elites could hijack the process that throws up candidates from that zone. In such an instance candidates ‘produced’ by that zone will become an imposition on the rest of the country since popular candidates who may not be in the good books of those elites will not be allowed to emerge in the first place. In this sense the freedom to choose elected representatives becomes circumvented, leading to a corruption of the democracy and a contraction of the democratic space.

There is however a sense in which zoning could actually help in expanding the democratic space by removing the threat of majority tyranny. For instance one of the common complaints, especially by people from the Southern part of the country, is the domination of the North in the country’s politics. This charge is not totally unfounded. Statistically, the Yorubas have held the executive presidency of the country for 12 years (between Obasanjo in his military and civilians incarnations and Shonekan as head of Interim Government); the political North for 37 years, the South South for approximately 18 months (under Jonathan until May 2011) and the Igbos for six months (under Ironsi). Although this domination is essentially through military coups and counter coups, it was feared that given the role of ethnicity and religion in Nigerian politics, the North, with its population and number of States, might continue its domination in a democratic dispensation. This was perhaps one of the immediate reasons why the defunct NPN came up with the idea of ‘zoning’ in the Second Republic. Of course there were also those who believed that zoning could facilitate the country’s journey to real nationhood by assuring every group that they have a realistic chance of producing key political officers of the country. The policy of zoning was subsequently borrowed by the PDP.

Two, the decision by Goodluck Jonathan to contest for the presidency in 2011 despite being a signatory and beneficiary of the zoning arrangement, simultaneously benefits and undermines our democracy. It benefits our democracy in the sense that arguments for, and against his running, has contributed immensely to the vibrancy of our marketplace of political ideas – a key bedrock of any democracy. Few issues have dominated political discourse in our history more than the controversy surrounding the decision of GEJ to run for president. True, there have been threats and counter threats from both the pro-and anti-zoning forces but there has not been any substantial recourse to violence by the two contending groups. In other words, the decision by GEJ to contest has generated robust discussions and arguments which have benefited our democracy by enriching the vibrancy of our marketplace of political ideas. On the other hand, if GEJ contests and wins, it could undermine our democracy because zoning, a key safeguard against majority tyranny in our type of society, will have been discarded. This will then be a reversal of the gains from our experiments in democratic governance since the Second Republic and will throw us back to the era of WAZOBIA, when the country’s politics rested on a tripod – Hausa/Fulani (or North), Igbo and Yoruba. In other words, if zoning is removed, and our democracy becomes an unfettered electoral competition in which one person has one vote, and the winner is determined by simple majority, the prospect of majority tyranny becomes real.

Three, there is a sense in which zoning could be salutary to development. It is true that having a President of one’s own ethnic stock will not, on its own, bring development to such an ethnic group. However it is generally recognised that having one of your own at the top can generate a ‘hurrah effect’ and a certain ‘can do’ attitude among members of the ethnic group, which could be salutary to development. It is largely on the basis of this that African Americans and indeed Africans in general supported Obama’s candidacy during the last presidential election in the USA. Has any one noticed for instance that some Ijaws now walk with a certain swagger? It is certainly a good development and some are bound to convert the self confidence into economic risk taking.

Four, just as zoning could lead to rule by incompetent people, it could also improve the quality of governance if it leads to the various zones competing to produce candidates that will excel, and in the process do the geo-political zone proud. We are already seeing this among Governors as they now compete to make a mark and leave lasting legacies. In this sense, zoning could be improved if each zone is given the power to recall a representative of the zone seen not to be performing satisfactorily.

In summary, zoning could both undermine and advance our democracy –depending on how it is applied. Perhaps it is time to advance the debate on zoning by focusing on how it could be applied such that its negatives are blunted while the positives are accentuated.

Written by
Jideofor Adibe
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