Democracy And Freedom Of Choice: Still A Mirage In Nigeria

by Ritchie Ejiofor

Democracy in the words of American ex- President Bill Clinton, is the manifest expression of popular will of the people, which as a matter of fact may not be the best choice, but it is autochthonous with and freely expressed by the people. What this means is that, democracy encourages and allows people the unlimited use of their free will in choosing and expressing their choice through speech or voting.

It is the primarily duty of all to protect this basic rights for democracy to thrive on a firm foundation. Democracy allows and nurtures the journalist to properly be watchdogs of the society and compel the leaders to be accountable to the populace since they are the servants of the people. Democracy as practiced in its original intention, allows every citizen the protection of this freedom because vigilance is the price to pay for liberty.

While this maybe true in larger propensities among the so called developed societies, a study of Nigeria democracy and practices leaves one gaping for breathe. It shows clearly the ugly impact of long years of military culture in government. Elected civilian leaders are most times drawn in a conundrum of accepting the fact that they are elected civilians and not military appointees with all the trappings of autocratic powers. The result is elected civilians acting with military dispatch or use the now infamous “immediate effect syndrome”. Professor Wole Soyinka in an interview aptly echoed this fact that, democracy most flourish when temperament, patience are exercised to the maximum.

Like every other sport, the basic rules that guide it must be followed for one to enjoy the game. Our present crop of civilians are not even attempting to follow the basic rules rather, they are following the steps of their predecessors. They preached the virtues of democracy and swear they would abide by the rules religiously. What happens today is a far cry from that oath of allegiance to the people and supreme laws of the land. The situation can be compared to the biblical leaders who told us to listen to Moses, but they go back dancing round the golden calf.

Shortly after their swearing in, most governors resorted to autocratic and undemocratic “immediate effect” dismissal of public servants whose terms and service of appointments clearly stated how their conditions of service would be terminated. Our people hailed those rash and unconstitutional actions as well deserving, instead of condemning it .The labor unions, still suffering from several years of military control was too fickle to lend their voice to this ugly and dangerous precedence.

As has become customary with abuse of executive use of power, several of these life threatening actions affecting the lives of people where taken without legislative approval or consent. Our legislators too lame to fully understand their important roles in government were busy with dividing the spoils of war, who gets what committees, furniture allowances, impeachment sage etc than to put in perspective the adherence of the rule of law and good government.

It is difficult to fathom where our leaders’ concept and understanding of democracy emanated from. Once a person is elected to public office, he sees himself not as the servant of the people, but now as controller who is not accountable to any one. This has become the rule rather than exception. It has been elevated as the norm of leadership. Nigeria is one country in the comity of nations where looters of public funds are hailed and allowed to walk freely on the street and treated with all decorum. No one is concerned with the impact this would have on the next generation. We just hope it is going to stop one day! This has helped further to promote the culture of official looting of public fund by all in a position with impunity. The attitude of the people is a reflection of leadership at any sphere of influence. This sub-culture has permeated to almost all strata of the society and it is reflected in most daily occurrence and perception of how the society operates.

Aside to that, the police as an instrument to protect the lives of the masses are rather the nemesis of the masses and abuse of rights. It is a common sight to see “bail is free, Police is your friend” signs posted in all police stations but the truth of the matter is, Nigerians know it is that the police institution has failed in the protection and preservation of democratic values viz.: enforcement of rules of law, liberty and rights protection. Bail is never free in Nigeria and corruption has become glorified within that institution.

This is widely known truth, the late Fela, Afro musician aptly stated in one of his music album, that the police station is comparable to a bank and the inspector general is the managing director…he was only saying the obvious fact. The police tramp on the rights of the masses every day, either through roadblocks, illegal duty, stop and search, etc., which serves as a conduit pipe for extorting innocent people.

Many writers tend to ignore the police and citizen’s right and protection as a very serious issue whenever the issues of national questions are raised. All that people are focussed to is revenue sharing and structural imbalance. When corruption reaches an epidemic proportion particularly from an institution that serves to protect fundamental rights and liberty, an impartial arbiter to protect lives and property, then the type of society that Nigeria hopes to build is left to the imagination.

Even when those issues are addressed, without the guarantee of basic freedom of movement, speech, life and property and threat from police brutality, the basis of a nation would still not have been achieved. Some writers have opined that the police should be quartered with civilians as it is done in the US to improve police-civilian relationship. While this may provide some respite, it still leaves so much to desire. It is either we practice federalism and democracy in its purest form or we don’t and therefore should not deceive or pretend that we practice it. What this means is that, the police should be decentralized and responsible impartially from the taxpayers from whom they receive remuneration and independent from any unit of government.

Freedom of speech and liberty are the bulwark and tripod on which democracy survives. Any attempt to suppress or trample on it should be resisted. That accounted for my disgust with those calling for Senator Waku’s head and the attack on senator Nzeribe. Why in God’s name will a man be denied his right to free speech let alone restricted from entering Lagos. Those antagonist against the lawful exercise of Waku or Nzeribe’s freedom of speech blindly rally around primordial ethnic loyalties or what is referred to as “Kparakpoism”. If democracy must thrive in Nigeria on a firm footing, compromise, ethnic loyalty, intimidation must be discarded.

Nigerians saw what happened to US president during the “Clintongate” scandal. Monica Lewinsky would have been languishing in Police cell if it were in Nigeria. She wouldn’t have been given the chance to be heard. Am sure some over zealous ethnic loyalist would have ventured to “donate ” some more wives to the embattled president if it happened in Nigeria.

The lesson of the Clintongate or the McVeigh trial and execution is how durable the legal system and democratic culture is in America. Nigeria must not practice democracy for donkey years before the system is tested. It should start today. If it fails, then we start again but it sure must be tested to see how durable the system can withstand.

Finally, freedom and democracy are twin partners. For democracy to survive, freedom must be unimpeded. I hope our leaders are listening and Nigerians should be encouraged to know what rights they have and efforts should be geared towards the preservation of these rights so that they are not tampered or infringed upon.

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1 comment

mfonobong June 6, 2007 - 5:59 pm

excellent write up


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