Last week I had the honor of playing host to Honorable Durosinmi Meseko, a member of the Nigerian Federal House of Representatives in Abuja. The congressman, who is a long time friend, was visiting the United States for the first time to attend an international conference.
Fortunately, we were able to attend an Independence dinner organized by members of the Nigerian community and also to meet with David Mathews and Harold Saunders, both cabinet Secretaries in the Ford and Carter administrations respectively.
Expectedly, discussions moved back and forth on politics and how to make democracy work better. Honorable Meseko had a lot to say in support of our country’s nascent democracy but he also admitted that it is not yet uhuru. The American politicians were also quick to admit that the present U.S government has no business trying to export democracy to Iraq.
As the discussion went on, it suddenly occurred to me that without realizing it, the position of the Nigerian Congressman was that constitutional liberalism was still a problem in Nigeria even while democracy was beginning to flourish. This is however paradoxical. The paradox becomes obvious in the sense that democracy is supposed to be a political system marked not only by free and fair elections but also by aspects of constitutional liberalism such as by the rule of law, separation of power and the protection of basic liberties of speech and assembly.
The fact however is that democracy as described above is liberal democracy and the opposite of that is illiberal democracy. The plausibility of the argument that democracy in Nigeria has become illiberal can be supported by many examples. The recent palaver over another increase in price of gasoline in Nigeria, the presidential fiat with which the decision was made and the subsequent arrest of labor leaders in the ways reminiscence of the regime of General Sani Abacha, our former dictator, lend credence to the rise of illiberal democracy in Nigeria.
To be sure, Nigeria is a democracy in the sense that since 1999 when the military handed over power, there has been the emergence of multiparty system, two elections have been held and representative of the people are at the helms of affair in the country. Similarly, Nigeria is a democracy with a substantial degree of illeberalism as evident in the inability of our country’s democratic system to actually ensure rule of law and separation of power. The Nigerian democracy is made up of a strong executive, a weak legislature, a weaker judiciary and a few civil and economic liberties.
The democratic practice that has become popular in Nigeria is one in which our elected government who claim to represent the people steadily encroach on the powers and rights of other element of society. We have in Nigeria a president who appoints cabinet of cronies rather than senior party figures to ensure few internal check on his power. Our democratic situation is such that when executive acts conflict with those of the legislature of even the courts our president can “act on behalf of the people” and bypass the tasks of bargaining or coalition building.
The irony of the deregulation of the downstream oil sector is that the politicians that fought for Nigeria’s independence 44years ago used economic doctrines like nationalization of industries while today’s leaders now desperately seek to privatize same industries. No doubt the deregulation of the downstream oil sector has its strength. If properly implemented it is capable of removing once and for all the acute petroleum products scarcity in many parts of the country as well as the periodic shortages in Lagos area and Abuja. What is mind boggling is that an elected president will unilaterally impose deregulation on the country.
It is beginning to look like a pattern. Our democratically elected president seems to be routinely ignoring constitutional limits on his power and depriving citizens of basic rights and freedoms. This usurpation is both horizontal (affecting other branch of government) and also vertical (affecting citizens, states and local administration) any wonder that the present regime in Nigeria is interested in the extinction of the third tier of government? Any wonder than the regime is also not interested the proposal of an independent discussion of national problems and challenges. Any wonder why activists are beginning to quiver again in Nigeria?
There is a standard response from government. The president himself gave the response recently when he said: “The time has come when this government must decide whether it was elected by the people to serve the interest of all Nigerians and establish a firm foundation for growth, stability and development… or whether it would succumb to the clearly misguided and irresponsible leadership of the NLC.” What this kind of statement shows is that our president is yet to fully appreciate the fact that the very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority.
Our country has indeed taken on the fashionable attire of modernity, which is democracy but we are not wearing it properly. We are simply basking in the euphoria of democracy while remaining blinded to the need for constitutional liberalism that deals with preventing the accumulation of power, the abuse office and the construction of a system in which rights are not summarily violated in a democratic society.
It is even sad that politicians from Nigeria will come to the United States to meet with U.S officials and not see beyond the glass of the American project of encouraging democracy even if little effort is given to creating imaginative constitutions in such societies. It is more pathetic that the foreign policy in Washington is one that simply endorses a regime like the Nigerian one as following democracy, just because elections have been held without too much care about life after elections, especially for Nigerians.
I was glad that my visiting friend and congressman was able to be part of a roundtable discussion on politics and democracy while here in the United States. I wish he would be able to communicate to the occupants of Aso Rock villa that politics is not about campaign, polls, foreign trips and appearance on CNN. It is about engaging public discourse and initiating collective action guided by that discourse. Politics is about relationships with citizens.
So, while politics is indeed best practice under the umbrella of democracy, and democracy is the acceptable and most credible for of government, there seem to be little attention to what happens within democracy. To be sure, democracy without constitutional liberalism brings dangerous consequences like the erosion of civil liberties, abuse of power and of ethnic division. All these negative aspects of a nation are rearing their ugly heads again in Nigeria’s illiberal democracy.
Tokunbo Awoshakin 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.