Democracy 101 – Part 1 (Introduction) by Rufus Kayode Oteniya


In my last article entitled “finally, our J.J. Rawlings is here” I promised to start the series 'Democracy 101' out of concern for somewhat misconception and incomprehension of our democracy with the main objective of highlighting the rights of the electorate and the limit of the power of the elected officers. When the people know their rights and act on them, the revolution is already on the go. 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.”

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. In order to refresh a little, I'd like to quote two paragraphs from my last article.

“We have failed to understand this democracy. Historically, having been subjected for too long to the authoritarian monarchs and dictatorial military rule, we have forgotten that we are under a new dispensation. First we have had the monarchs – Obas, Igwes, Emirs etc - who were lords. The owned the land, owned everything and everyone in the land. They could do and undo. A king could take over your wife or any other possession from you at will. You were not allowed to question the legality or the authority of the king and if you did, the penalty could be as severe as a death sentence. We were also under the military regime for most part of our national life as a an independent nation. Under the military, the rulers had absolute power and we seem to have been accustomed to being under authoritarian rule.”

“In 1999, the same old military dictators who have 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 natural of them to pretend not to understand democracy and democratic values in the real sense, it unnatural of us to allow and watch them take away our inalienable rights unchallenged. 'A right is not what someone gives you; it's what no one can take away from you.' Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will. We are to let them know that a democracy that cannot serve the electorate can never save the elected.”

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 obvious tyranny to make believe that their political system is democratic. Every government is democratic in principle but in practice, only a few are close to it.

There is no universally acceptable definition of democracy but whichever way one defines democracy, some key elements cannot be excluded. Democracy guarantees equal access for all to the government that is ensuring the voting right of everyone who is eligible in choosing the leaders or be chosen as a leader. Democracy is mostly defined as the government of the people by the people or chosen by the people and for the people. It can simply be described as a form of government in which the people have a say in who should hold power and how power should be used.

In a democracy, the right to govern is vested in the citizens of the country or a state or a local government and it is 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, freedom of political expression, freedom of speech and freedom 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 is always 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; and economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, the right to work, and the right to education.

Democracy is more than simply "one-man, one-vote." True democracy takes for granted that the general outlook on life, the sense of identity, and the interests of the individuals acting in co-operation are similar enough 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 feel sufficiently part of the overall electorate in order to agree to the 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 otherwise it 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 functioning democracy has to ensure a distribution of power with balances as in the 'separation of powers' in such a way that too much power is not concentrated into one hand such that it will not cause an abuse of power. Even though democracy is synonymous to a political state, it's principle can also be applicable to private organisations, associations and other groups such as trade unions.

Democracy In Nigeria
Having introduced democracy, I would like to compare the ideal elements with what we have on the ground in Nigeria looking at the following points:

Election: As stated above, 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 tall dream to us considering that the polls which brought Yar'Adua to power over two years ago were so marred with irregularities, intimidation and vote-rigging such that the president had to agreed such. And more recently, the chaotic re-run of governorship elections in Ekiti state showed no sign that the electoral system has improved, suggesting the next presidential polls in 2011 could be just as messy as the last if we do not act now.

Equal Access to Election: All eligible citizens should have equal access to voting and being voted for from the party level 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 is a direct breach of democratic principle denying others the access to contest for senate. The same call is also being made by first term governors of the same party.

Human Right: Our human rights record remains poor and government officials at all levels continue to commit serious abuses of office. There are extrajudicial killings and use of excessive force by security forces; impunity for abuses by security forces; arbitrary arrests and threats to journalist; prolonged pre-trial detention; political corruption and executive influence on the judiciary; 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 right of citizens to change the government.

In the next piece, different forms of democracy, separation of power and the rule of law will be discussed as they apply to Nigeria .

God Bless Nigeria !
Nigeria Go Better!
Rufus Kayode Oteniya ([email protected]) is the founder of Nigeria Think Tank a Facebook discussion forum created to confront problems confronting us as a people.

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