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Gradualism and Nigeria’s Democracy

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STEFAN HEUNIS / AFP

Part of giving the electorate the chance to periodically conduct performance appraisals on political office holders, elections in young democracies like Nigeria’s also provide the opportunity to take stock of democracy itself and how well it is delivering on its promise. And where there is a recent and pervasive immersion in the aberration of military governance, the temptation to compare the present with the past is almost irresistible.

The events over the past weekend ranged from the arrival of two bullion vans at the private residence of a leading bigwig and his incoherent and nonchalant dismissal of its significance when asked by the press the next day, the disruption of vote counting by thugs burning cast ballots, the disruption of voting by armed hoodlums and armed military and paramilitary personnel and the sad loss of life due to various forms of violence.

There have been a few nostalgic messages on WhatsApp casting a wistful glance back in time to the days of military rule. Of course, it is a damning indictment that after 20 years of uninterrupted civilian rule, anyone still finds the military attractive. It is probably not unconnected with the stubborn clamour for benevolent dictatorship.

The usual counter-argument from ardent believers in democracy is that we are only 20 years into this journey and we are evolving; that it is gradualism, rather than overnight transformation. The argument is that we are refining processes, establishing precedents, learning from some mistakes and fixing them through legislation and slowly, albeit extremely slowly, the conversations about the crucial decisions we need to make about our future as a country are being tabled. If anything, my generation is not as reverent of the red lines drawn by our parents and grandparents. The argument, or defence, is that there is progress that we can point to.

However, these 2019 elections have severely tested what had been a sturdy defence up to 2015. The refusal of the incumbent president to consider a legitimate loss, however remote he and his associates believed it to be, is a step back from 2015’s “If I lose, of course I will hand over.” The language of the “fitna”, ballot snatchers warned by the president that they could very well pay for it with their lives and even of learned silk Festus Keyamo on television, stressing that the government will “cure legality with illegality” were all undemocratic, extremely alarming and only served to inflame simmering tensions.

The challenge the column faces this week is being written whilst results are pending but likely being in print after they have been announced. As such it could well be that the president has been announced as re-elected despite my most strenuous protestations. If that is the case, and if he cares as much for his legacy and posterity as his speeches sometimes indicate, he needs to do what President Yar’Adua did, in acknowledging the flaws in the process that brought him to office and setting about putting measures in place to remove the credibility question.

Because gradualism is only valid for as long as there is a determination to improve with every iteration. Gradualism is only valid if every four years when we get together to vote, we can look back and think, our democracy has matured and our processes are improving. If disillusionment with governance is consistently followed by disillusionment with those who put themselves forward for “governatorial” positions, we must seriously question our version of democracy and how we practice it.

That said, the onus is not merely on our leaders to deliver on democracy and improve our election cycles. To borrow from American abolitionist, Wendell Philips, “…eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by intermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”

If our democracy is to get better, we must never be satisfied with the performance of the political class, especially when the bar they have set for themselves is so low that it is subterranean.


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