Reflections on Democracy and Good Governance

by Rufus Kayode Oteniya

“You cannot grow democracy that does

not have opposing points of view! People must be allowed to organise political

organisations that argue, that shout, that fight with each other not in the

battle field but in the field of ideas. When a ruling party thinks there is no

need for the other party’s view, then you are already out of democracy and back

into tyranny”. – Colin Powell. Abuja,



This is inspired by a deep concern over Nigeria’s

failure to deepen or institutionalize democracy. The discourse has the main

objective of highlighting the rights of the electorate and the limit of the

powers of elected officers. It relies on the premised assumption that, when the

people know their rights and act on them, the revolution is already alive.

According to Voltaire, the 17th century French enlightenment writer,

“So long as the people do not care to

exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannize will do so; for tyrants are

active and ardent, and will devote themselves in the name of any number of

gods, religious and otherwise, to put shackles upon sleeping men.”

We have failed to understand democracy, for apparent

reasons tied to our antecedents as a society. First, we had been ruled by

monarchs – Obas, Igwes, Emirs etc. – who were lords. They owned the land,

owned everything and everyone in the land, and people were at the mercy of

their whims. A king could take over one’s wife, or any other possession from

one at will. People were not allowed to question the legitimacy or the

authority of the king, and if they did, the penalty could be as severe as

death. Then we came under the colonialists whose words were laws. They never

needed to consult with us before ruling us. We were also under the military

regime for most part of our national life as an independent nation. Under the

military, particularly, our rulers enjoyed absolute power and consequently

re-conditioned our national culture to militarism and undue regimentation.

Incidentally, having been subjected for too long to

authoritarian monarchs and dictatorial military rule, it is yet to be

acknowledged that, we are under a new order. In 1999, the same old military

dictators who had seized power for all but four years between 1966-1999, only

changed their military regalia for civilian ‘Kaftan and Agbada,

pretending to be democratic leaders. It is not out of place to expect them to

pretend not to understand democracy and democratic values in the real sense; it

is however improper for us to allow ourselves to be robbed of our inalienable

rights, unchallenged. Like it has severally been alluded to, right is not what

someone gives you but what no one can take away from you. Power concedes

nothing without a demand; it never has and never will. We are to let them know

that a democracy that cannot serve the electorate can never save the elected.

Our democracy will not work unless we know true

democracy and keep ourselves informed. George Orwell, the famed author of

‘Animal Farm’ once said: “In a time of

universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Now is

the time for all good people of our great nation to come to the aid of our

nascent democracy. Education is all we need for the revolution.

What is Democracy?

Democracy is the most bastardised of all political

terms in the modern world. It is often used by most governments, including the

most obvious of tyrannies to create the impression of a ‘participatory’ or

‘representative’ government. Although most governments are democratic in

principle, only a few come close in practice.

There is no universally acceptable definition of

democracy. No matter how it is defined, some key elements cannot be excluded.

Democracy guarantees equal access for all to the process of governance, that

is, ensuring the voting rights of those eligible in choosing their leaders or

be chosen as a leader. Democracy is mostly defined as government of the people

by the people and for the people. In other words, it is a form of government in

which the people determine who should hold power and how power should be used.

In a democracy, the right to govern is vested in the

citizens at all levels, and is thus exercised directly or indirectly through a

majority rule. This is usually done through competitive elections that are

essentially expected to be free and fair, in which one man has one vote and

every vote counts. In addition, freedoms of political expression, of speech and

importantly, of the press are essential so that citizens are informed and are

able to vote in their best interests. While the majority rules in a functioning

democracy, the rights of the minority stands protected.

Democracy must guarantee the declaration in Article

1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which

states that All human beings are born free and equal in

dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act

towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. In essence, the fundamental human rights must be guaranteed

within the limit of the law. These are the basic rights and freedoms which form

the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world to which all humans

are entitled. These include civil and political rights, such as the right

to life and liberty, freedom of expression, and equality before the law;

economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to food, work, and

the right to quality education.

Democracy is more than simply “one-man, one-vote.” In its truest nature, it takes into

cognizance that the general outlook on life, the sense of identity, and the

interests of the individuals acting in cooperation are essential for a

community and a nation to be formed. This sense of sameness allows a political

consensus to be maintained. Those who have been out-voted by the majority will

still uphold a sense belonging as part of the overall electorate in order to

agree to and drive the process of a majority decision. Where a consensus is

lacking, the out-voted will feel a sense of oppression and “one-man, one-vote democracy” will become the tyranny of

the majority, which invariably becomes nothing more than a gang rule where

fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other

forty-nine percent.

A functional democracy has to ensure separation of

powers with the attendant checks and balances, to forestall abuse. Although

democracy is synonymous with a political state, its principle can also be

replicated or applicable to private organisations, associations and such groups

as trade unions.

Forms of Democracy

Democracy comes in different forms, but this discourse

limits the focus to: direct, representative and liberal or constitutional


Direct Democracy: This is a political system where

the citizens participate in the decision-making personally, contrary to relying

on representatives. This belief is based on the right of every citizen over a

certain age to attend political meetings, vote on the issues being discussed at

such meetings and indeed accepting the majority decision that may arise should

such a vote lead to the passing of a law, which one as an individual did not


Part of this belief also, is the right of everyone to

hold political office if he/she chooses to do so. In this system, everyone has

the right to actively participate regardless of religious beliefs, gender,

sexual orientation, physical well-being, etc. Only those who have specifically

gone against society are excluded from direct democracy. For example, those in

prison have offended the society in some ways and therefore, their democratic

rights are suspended for the duration of their time in prison. Once released

and having ‘learnt a lesson,’ their democratic rights are again restored.

Contemporarily, this form of government is rarely

practised except in some small societies, usually city-states and some town

meetings. However, some larger societies’ use of referenda or referendums is

akin to direct democracy. In Switzerland

for instance, about five million voters make decisions through national

referenda and initiatives two to four times a year.

Representative Democracy: As opposed to direct democracy,

representative democracy is a system where citizens within a country elect

representatives to act on their interests, but not as their proxies. The people

thereby hand over the responsibility of decision and law making to someone else

who wishes to be in that position, thus, excluding themselves from the process

of decision making. Each elected individual represents an area called a

constituency. If his/her performance is satisfactory, he/she can be re-elected

by that constituency at the next election to serve another term.

Representatives are however responsible to their

electorate. In this way, they are held accountable to them (electorate). If

they fail to perform, they can be removed by the people of their constituency.

In this way, the people exercise control over their representatives. If an

elected representative’s performance is dissatisfying, he/she may be recalled

by his/her constituency.

A representative is usually expected to have a

constituency office where the people can voice their opinions on different

issues, since they play no direct part in the mechanism of decision making.

There is no necessity for individual liberties to be

respected in a representative democracy. A representative democracy that

emphasises individual liberties is called a liberal or constitutional

democracy. One that does not is an illiberal democracy.

Liberal Democracy: Nigeria, as well as being a representative

democracy, is also a liberal democracy. As indicated earlier, a liberal

democracy is a form of representative democracy where elected representatives

who hold the power of decision are moderated by a constitution that emphasises

protecting individual liberties and the rights of minorities in the society,

such as freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of religion, the right to

private property and privacy (within the confines of the law), as well as

equality before the law and due process under the rule of law, and many more.

Jerome Nathanson noted that, “the price of the democratic way of life is a growing appreciation of

people’s differences, not merely as tolerable, but as the essence of a rich and

rewarding human experience.” A democracy like ours is usually expected to

have a universal suffrage, granting all adult citizens the right to vote

regardless of tribe, gender or property ownership. According to the principles

of liberal democracy, elections should be free and fair, and the political process

should be competitive with political pluralism, which is usually defined as the

presence of multiple and distinct political parties. This creates an

institutional check on the system, making the electorate supreme by virtue of

the power to choose and organise.

Separation of power is another key character of

liberal democracy whereby the government is limited in its impact on the

citizens, and should not enjoy arbitrary power. The government is also expected

to remove obstacles limiting the well-being of the citizenry without any

exclusion of any group. Usually, the government’s involvement in the economy of

a country should be minimal, limited mostly to creating the necessary enabling

environment through policy and legislation. In other words the government is a

buffer, and remains to deal with problems when they arise.

The Nigerian Experience

Having introduced democracy, I would like to assess

the Nigerian experience using the following pointers:

Election: As stated earlier, a key element of democracy is

guaranteeing the voting rights of the citizenry through a free and fair

election where every vote counts. This feature of democracy still seems to be a

mirage to us, considering that the polls which brought President Umaru Musa

Yar’Adua to power were marred with irregularities, intimidation and rigging, of

which the president himself duly acknowledged. The chaotic re-run of the

governorship elections in Ekiti State is instructive as a signpost that the

electoral system is far from improved – sadly suggesting that the 2011

presidential polls could be just as messy as the last if we do not act now.

All eligible citizens should have equal access to

voting and being voted for from the party levels to the main inter-party

election. The current campaign being spearheaded by the Senate President David

Mark, that the PDP senators should have automatic return tickets is a direct

breach of democratic principle – denying others the access to contest for the

senate. The same call is also being made by first term governors of the same


Human Rights: Our human rights records remain

poor and government officials at all levels continue to commit serious abuse of

office. There are extra judicial killings as recently being alleged by Amnesty

International (Boko Haram example) and use of excessive force by security

forces; arbitrary arrests and persistent threats to press freedom; prolonged

pre-trial detention; political corruption and executive influence on the

judiciary as being alleged in Ibori’s case and other cases involving political

heavyweights; torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of

prisoners, detainees and suspects; harsh and life threatening prison

conditions; vigilante killings; infringement of privacy rights; and the

abridgement of the rights of citizens to initiate a change in government.

Rule of Law

This is a term we often hear from our government

without them taking time to explain the meaning to us. The government has often

claimed to make rule of law and due process its core points of

governance. How absurd, given our experiences over the years.

Rule of law or supremacy of the law is a featured

characteristic of a constitutional democracy like ours, which in its most basic

form, is the principle that no one is above the law. This means that, the law

is the King that rules. It is a general legal saying according to which

decisions should be made by applying known principles or laws, without the use

of discretion in their application or any act of will.

The most important application of the rule of law is

the principle that governmental authority is legitimately exercised only in

accordance with written, publicly disclosed laws adopted and enforced in

accordance with established procedural steps that are referred to as due

process. The principle is intended to safeguard against arbitrary governance,

whether by a totalitarian or a democratic leader. Thus, the rule of law is

hostile both to dictatorship and anarchy.

In a society where it functions, the rights of

individuals are determined by legal rules and not the arbitrary behaviour of

authorities. There can be no punishment unless a court decides there has been a

breach of law. Everyone, regardless of his/her position in society, is subject

to the law in fairness and with no favour. Another critical feature of the rule

of law is that, individual liberties depend on it. Its success depends on the

role of impartiality of judges. It also depends on ‘Prerogative Orders’ whereby

a case is taken up from an inferior court to a superior one, to ensure justice

is done. It also prohibits an inferior court from hearing a case it does

not have the power to try, and gives ‘mandamus’ orders to enforce an inferior

court to carry out its duties.

Rule of law in Nigeria

According to H.L Mencken, “a good politician under democracy is quite as unthinkable as an honest

burglar.” Yes! It is true that there is no perfect democracy and no perfect

rule of law, but how much democratic is our democracy and how much do we adhere

to the principles of the rule of law?

Rule of law is more often pronounced than acted or

adhered to, and the more our government says it, the less it seems to

demonstrate the understanding of it. The more the government preaches and

claims adherence to it, the more events prove it is farther from it. There is

no rule of law where there is selective justice, where the government chooses

which law to obey and which to disobey; where there are human rights abuses;

where there is no care for human life and happiness; where there is failure of

budget implementation (note that a budget is an enacted law); where governors

and other representatives cross to other parties without relinquishing their

offices; where the government appropriates excess crude account without any

constitutional provision for it; where votes do not count, where elections are

not free and fair and where some are above the law. Even though democracy does

not guarantee equality of conditions, it guarantees equality of opportunities

in the face of rule of law.

Where are the twelve Northern states governors who

adopted the Shari’a penal code – Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina,

Kebbi, Jigawa, Niger, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara? They chose this code that

provides such harsh sentences as amputation, lashing and stoning for alcohol

consumption, theft, and infidelity. By now, they should all be amputees. While

they ensured penalties for petty thieves, nearly ALL of them ended up stealing

billions from the State coffers. Should some be above the law? That spells Animal


Rephrasing the word of Howard Winters, a developing

democracy should be a government which gradually increases the number of people

included in the term ‘we’ or ‘us’ and at the same time decreases those labelled

as ‘you’ or ‘them,’ until that category has no one left in it. It should carry

people along!

Nigerians should know that there can be no punishment

unless a court decides that there has been a breach of the law. That is, one is

innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. Every individual has the right

to be tried and proclaimed innocent or guilty only by a court of law. The

police or any other force has no right to manhandle, torture or beat anyone,

neither do they have the right to kill, except if their lives are in danger.

People’s fundamental rights ought to be protected

under this dispensation. Remember again that right is not what anyone can give

you, but what no one can take away from you. The central tenets of democracy

are equality and freedom.

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