Democracy appears able to survive in Nigeria amidst the sea of doubts caused by ethno- political violence and the period of recession through which the country is passing.
It seems as well that the people of my country, judging by the overwhelming interest and involvement of Nigerians in the last elections and the resistance of the attempt to close up the local government council polls, have not lost sight of the true significance of democracy.
The underlying problem therefore seems not to be that of any misunderstanding over the meaning of the term but that of identifying those who are in charge of perfecting it.
Over the years, Nigerian political parties and parliaments have sometimes proved to be the most discredited institutions, with low levels of trust from the electorates. Our political leaders have been incapable of nurturing trust in the population, and the majority of them have contributed to this instability in the democratic process.
Another problem is the institutional corruption and generalized kleptomania of leaders that have sacked the national treasuries, the lack of clarity and vision of the future among political leaders; and the lack of transparency in the justification of the policies implemented by these governments.
There is also a chronic lack of independence among the branches of government and continual bickering among representatives in the National assembly in Abuja as well as legislative assemblies across the country.
At the root of all these, there seem to be a major disconnect between the citizens and elected official. Politics in my country is seen as having been circumscribed and now directed by politicians and policy makers who speak another language: the language of avoidance. Citizens in Nigeria find nothing personal in most projects of the country. It is almost like there is no place for their initiative and actions. It is impression on gets from Nigeria is that their role as citizens ends on Election Day.
Nigerians abroad and members of the international community pay close attention to events in Nigeria as reported by Nigerian newspapers with web outlet. The call for the convocation of a sovereign National conference, which has been coming and going like an abiku as well as the violence in the Niger Delta region have been most interesting. It has been intriguing to monitor how public official’s -both those presently in power and those recently in power frame these issues. Not less so has been the way the Nigerian news media have been framing the issues for the public.
Being that I visit Nigeria frequently, the sense I got from a recent visit was that Nigeria now has a displaced citizenry. It is not that people are tired of remaining citizens after being electorates, it seem more like Nigerians are just not sure that citizenship counts for much these days. There is a feeling of impotence among citizens. This impotence has the negative effect of causing Nigerians to defer to those in authority-a deference that ultimately undermines their position as citizens.
Majority of Nigerians have simply been pushed out of the political process. Accusing fingers are pointed to past and incumbent politicians, political appointees and hangers- on in the presidency and National Assembly, campaign managers and to those in the media. Politics in Nigeria is now a game for the “big guns” made of a few people, which form the new political oligarchy that is replacing representative democracy. Citizens are relegated to the sidelines, where they stand unable to control either the players or the rule of the game.
This problem is however not limited to the relationship between elected official and citizens, there is also a seeming disconnect between what is reported in Nigerian news media and what one would call the major concerns of many citizens. To be sure, a lot of times, issues are covered in ways that bear little resemblance to the way people encounter them in everyday life.
Although the Nigerian news media generally see themselves as neutral referees who serve the public interest by keeping critical eyes on what politicians in government do, this is mostly not so. To be sure, there are reasons to believe that the news media is also partly responsible for the public distaste for politics.
The way the Nigeria news media reports on issues and actions of government, some have said, actually pushes the people further away from having a sense of relevance in politics.
Given that politicians have to couch things in away that the news media can understand it. -Brief and quotabe, what people see and read on the news does not resonate with what is most valuable to them or the realities of life as they experience it.
The project of bringing public initiative to bear on decisions affecting their lives is one that should be realizable in the framework of deliberative democracy. In a framework where there is genuine public will. This is true because, there is a public dimension to politics in Nigeria Yet, this is always missing from the way issues and policy matters are framed and presented.
Identifying major elements and the corresponding consequences that contribute to elected officials, media, and citizens working together around public policy and governance issues in a trilateral arrangement appears to be a natural process for application of democratic principles in the development and implementation of public policies that impact citizens within a city, a state or nation.
Would it not make a difference therefore in pursuing genuine peace and development in the Niger Delta if the major issues of Niger Delta crisis, are framed in terms of what is valuable to the people in their everyday realities. These citizens want to know their choices. Choices that are described in terms of what is valuable to them.
Of course to have these kinds of choice, there needs to be deliberation among the people as well as between them and the stakeholders. Now to deliberate is not just to “talk about problems” It means more than that. It also means to weigh carefully both consequences of various options for action and the views of other parties involved in the crisis.
On a larger scale, the use of a deliberative process cannot be over stressed as a viable approach for dealing with the nation’s political process. Is this what is termed as Sovereign National Conference? Perhaps not. Unlike the sound bite that flies across from Nigeria on the convocation of the conference, a public deliberation or a deliberative democratic process is not the sole custody of the political elites and news media but of them and the citizens.
Tokunbo Awoshakin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the pioneer Washington Bureau Chief of THISDAY/Anchor Newspapers He presently works with the Kettering Foundation on International Media, Democracy and Sustained Dialogue Projects. http://www.kettering.org