“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.
This is inspired by a deep concern over
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
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
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.
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
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.