Deepening democracy with intolerant politicians

by Joel Nwokeoma

In less than three days, precisely on Saturday, April 2, Nigerians will, again, troop to the polls to elect new leaders for the various legislative and executive positions at both the state and federal levels, in what some cynical political observers refer to as another “democratic ritual”. This is the fourth time for such a political enterprise since the inception of the “fourth wave” of democratisation in the country in 1999, the longest stretch of time Nigeria has experienced civilian rule since independence.

The first wave coincided with the emergence of the First Republic in 1960, following the nationalist struggle for independence, which, incidentally, was truncated after only six years by the first military coup of 1966. The second and third waves did not last any longer as they were similarly cut short just after four and less than three years respectively by the military.

It is thus understandable why it is seen as no mean feat, especially by the Nigerian political elite, that the country is on the verge of conducting the second civilian –to-civilian elections in its political history. In fact, the regularity of the elections since 1999 has led many into thinking that democracy is thriving and deepening in the country. Indeed, the Federal Government alluded to this sentiment recently when it responded to the statement credited to Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd), the presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change, that the “Egyptian-style revolution is possible in Nigeria if the April elections are again rigged.” In its reply, the Federal Government averred that the fact that Nigeria has held periodic elections as at when due for many years now qualified the country as a democratic state, unlike the North African countries.

However, it is apt to point out that a country is not democratic simply by holding and conducting “periodic elections”. This can be likened to thinking that, as the saying goes, the hood makes the monk. Egypt, Uganda and Zimbabwe, to mention a few African countries, have managed to conduct periodic elections in recent years, but that did not make them, as experts affirm, democratic states. For instance, until Hosni Mubarak was toppled by the popular uprising in Egypt recently, he had held periodic elections, which always returned him and his party to power, in the country. Same way, Uganda under Yoweri Museveni has always held periodic elections, the last one was even held in February, which, also, has consistently returned his National Resistance Movement party, to power in all the four presidential elections conducted since 1986.

In these places, the most defining feature of their “democratic” experiment, like ours, the conduct of periodic elections notwithstanding, has been the unfortunate criminalisation of dissent and muzzling of the opposition voices, using the instrumentality of state power and other strategies.

It must be stressed that building an enduring democracy in any country is anchored more on a subsisting culture of tolerance and mutual respect among the competing interests, tendencies, parties and individuals in the political system than on the façade of conducting periodic elections, which are mostly flawed and lack credibility. In fact, it has been argued that more than stressing the conduct of periodic elections, a democracy should, instead, be measured by how much it provides “opportunity for political participation, political equality and the possibility of an alternative government” besides ensuring, ultimately, “widespread habit of tolerance and compromise among members of a community.” Sadly, these variables appear absent in Nigeria’s democracy.

Indeed, if recent media reports are anything to go by, Nigeria is apparently confronted with a Herculean challenge in its avowed determination to build an enduring democratic political culture with its army of intolerant and desperate politicians. From across the country, there are disconcerting accounts of unspeakable intolerance ranging from violent conduct of party supporters to bombings, killings, destruction of opposing candidates’ billboards and denial of campaign venues as well as access to government –owned media outfits to opposition parties by some state governors in the ongoing electioneering campaigns leading to the April general elections.

On Wednesday, March 23, the media was awash with reports that four states, which include Anambra, Edo, Plateau and Oyo, were “turned to war zones by politicians and their supporters who resorted to all forms of violence to settle grievances with perceived enemies.” At least, a life was lost and many others injured. This, however, paled in significance to the carnage that took place in Akwa Ibom where over nine lives were lost, hundreds of brand new vehicles and tricycles destroyed and campaign buildings torched in a clash involving two rival parties in the state.

Though political violence, which is the culmination of unbridled intolerance, is not a recent phenomenon in Nigerian politics- dating back to the now famous “Operation Wetie” incident in the then Western Region during the First Republic- the introduction of bombings in the run-up to the April elections has added a very scary and disturbing dimension to it. What is more evident, however, is that it has brought to the fore the utter desperation of the Nigerian politician to acquire political power, in a “do-or-die” manner, because it is the surest and easiest route to stupendous riches, huge influence, state patronage and brazen appropriation of public funds for personal use, in a petrol-dollar oil state like ours.

This point was highlighted in a report entitled, “Nigeria’s Elections: Reversing the Degeneration?” released in February by the International Crisis Group The report notes that the “Stakes are high” in Nigerian politics because the “the state is the principle means of generating wealth” while “vast oil revenues are accessed through public office.” Politics, therefore, becomes a vicious struggle by desperate and intolerant politicians “who habitually exploit violent groups and social divisions to win elections.”

The tendency to muzzle the opposition in the polity by every means possible, a development made worse in recent weeks, partly explains why after 12 years of uninterrupted democratic experience, Nigeria is still ranked among “Partly Free states” in the world. According to the 2010 Freedom House index, “Partly Free states” are those countries that “frequently suffer from an environment of corruption, weak rule of law, ethnic and religious strife, and often a setting in which a single political party enjoys dominance despite the façade of limited pluralism”, characterised by “limited respect for political rights and civil liberties.”

Though commendable, it is not enough for the relevant institutions of government to “denounce” or “express worry” over the rising intolerance and election violence in the polity. The House of Representatives had adopted a motion recently condemning the crackdown on opposition parties by some governors, rightly describing the trend as “dangerous and one that may throw Nigeria into serious catastrophe and lead to the collapse of the current democratic dispensation.” The Independent National Electoral Commission, on its part, lampooned the governors for not creating a level playing field for opposition candidates to operate, stressing that the “parties needed to imbibe the culture of tolerance in all its ramifications before the nation could conduct free polls.”

Surely, there is the urgent need for the government to take stern and firm measures to rein in politicians of all shades in the country to play the game by the rules. It

should muster the needed political will to punish those involved in, or sponsoring, acts of political intolerance. Besides, the security agencies should be reminded that impunity emboldens intolerance and violence, and unless they come alive in the performance of their statutory functions and punish those found culpable, nobody can foretell the dimension and extent the pervading culture of intolerance among politicians can take and go.

As the greatest, and by far the sole, beneficiaries of this democratic experiment, politicians need to be more circumspect in their conduct and be more tolerant of opposing views, interests and tendencies. And, given that the huge returns from public office in Nigeria predispose many politicians to political intolerance and violence, deliberate efforts should be made to make it less lucrative so as to make politics less violent. Democracy is deepened when there is mutual respect for and tolerance of the opposition as well as the likelihood of an alternative government from the opposition. This was shown in the last presidential elections in neighbouring Niger Republic won by the opposition candidate, Mahamadou Issoufou.

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