VOTER APATHY AND CHALLENGE OF DEMOCRATIZATION
As the memory of the recently conducted local council election in Lagos State gradually recedes; and as the winners proceed to savour their triumph, leaving their vanquished opponents to nurse their electoral tribulations, it becomes pertinent to examine some of the critical fall-outs of that election with a view to understanding our present location along the democratic trajectory, the extent of deviation (if any) from where we are meant to be, and the necessary remedial steps needed to navigate our way back on the right democratic path.
Strictly speaking, the Lagos State Council polls were characterized by two salient features. First, the bitter rivalry between the leading contenders - particularly, the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN; and the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP which inevitably defined the tone, character, and intensity of the competition for power at the council level. Second, the palpable display of apathy and general disinterestedness in the entire electoral process by the voting public.
This leads me to the kernel of this analysis which is to explore, highlight and interrogate the sad and highly disturbing paradox of making a show of practising democracy at the grassroots or local government level without a corresponding sense of inclusion, ownership and participatory appeal from the ordinary citizens. How come that in spite of the familiar recitations about 'democracy being the government of the people..' we seem to have contrived a bizarre practice of democracy in which the people are expressing themselves in chronic apathy, disgruntlement and powerlessness even as we are democratizing? Why is it that in spite of being portrayed, theoretically, as 'the closest tier of government to the people,' the local government system has become generally perceived by the people as 'an irritating nuisance' whose relevance is imperceptible, negligible and downright non-existent.
Can we really sustain the unfounded illusion of grassroots democratization without the active participation , democratic incorporation and guaranteed centrality of the ordinary citizen?
One of the tragedies of local government administration in Nigeria is the sheer lack of effective and functional grassroots governance defined in terms of the initiation and meticulous implementation of people-centred policies and programmes which will impact directly and positively on the living conditions of the citizenry as well as on their immediate environment. As the experience of the Lagos Council polls eloquently illustrates, the citizens are generally appalled and highly incensed by the fact they could hardly pinpoint plausible developmental initiatives, programmes or projects faithfully executed by the various Council Chairmen to warrant their sustained interest and keen participation in subsequent elections.
It is, therefore, hardly surprising that a casual visit to any of the constituent streets, towns, villages and localities domiciled within particular Local Government Areas across the country will elicit nothing but a sordid chronicle of abject, precarious condition of human existence, infrastructural decay and decrepitude as well as an entrenched culture of corruption and general maladministration. Most of the feeder-roads are highly impassable, exhibiting, in certain cases, an amphibious character in which case you would require a combination of canoe and vehicle to navigate your way ashore. Sewerage and drainage systems – where they exist, are completely broken down. Community schools - both Primary and Secondary, are under-staffed, ill-equipped, and poorly supervised; just as cottage hospitals and maternity centres have become certified derelicts - or more appropriately, licensed transit centres on you way to the graveyard.
Strangely, this deterioration and abject neglect of social and infrastructural facilities is matched by the uncanny coincidence of intensified harassment, intimidation and mindless extortions by uniformed thugs ably empowered by their various Councils to extract all manner of levies and taxes from a pauperized populace all in the name of 'revenue generation.' Following from this sad reality, it is hardly surprising that the electorate at the grassroots level are compelled to interpret their participation in Council elections as 'an affirmative legitimization of their disempowerment and marginalization.' Expectedly, their expression of apathy is, in large measure, a latent protest and show of disgust against a tier of government which is supposedly very close to them but one which, in reality, is so far away from them and almost utterly useless to their rustic existence.
This culture of voter apathy – which in itself, is a major drawback to grassroots democratization, is further complicated and aggravated by the anti-democratic practices and propensities of the various political parties, especially, in the run-up to any major election. It is a curious absurdity that Nigeria is democratizing in the context of a political party system that is inherently allergic to internal party democracy. Virtually all the major political parties - including those that have acquired distinction as mushroom parties, revolve around the dictates and calculus of certain hegemonic individuals who personalize and privatize the parties and use them as self-serving platforms to pursue and propagate their parochial political interests. In the case of the Lagos Council polls, most of the Local Government Councils – including even the State Government house, were awash with protest rallies from residents and party supporters within these Councils over what they described as 'illegal and undemocratic imposition' of certified non-performers as candidates to represent them and fly the parties' flag in the election.
What is the essence of democracy if the people are so callously disinherited and disenfranchised of their 'rights' to choose who represents them even at Party Primaries. Where lies the wisdom in asking people to come out and 'vote' when they are being presented with candidates whose emergence as party flag bearers are framed by forces totally beyond their control and by calculations essentially alien and inimical to their legitimate political interests. In short, by aborting and subverting internal democracy within their various political parties, our political elites have become the principal culprits in the truncation of political democracy and the violation of popular sovereignty.
Shockingly, in less than six months of his ascension to power, the President has made a stunning supersonic summersault and has proceeded to stupefy and bewilder his adherents - and by extension, most Nigerians, by embarking on what could rightly be described as 'a transformation against the people.' The President, at the moment, is threatening to unleash severe torture on Nigerians by ensuring that come January next year, they will be buying fuel at extortionist rate in the guise of fuel subsidy removal. This is in spite of the citizens' vociferous resistance and rejection of such a policy as an obnoxious contemplation. Amazingly, an election that was intended by the voters to be a mandate for change and empowerment has, inexplicably, become their 'death warrant.' Of course, they might have voted, but whether their voting has translated to the exercise of sovereign political power, whether it has amounted to making the custodians of state power to be accountable to them is quite a different kettle of fish!
In conclusion, the notion of grassroots democracy seems to have lost its essence and have become progressively bastardized on account of the tendency by our political elite - including even the citizenry, to reduce democracy to the monotonous ritual of periodic elections in which the voting public are enjoined and cajoled to 'choose' amongst political options which have been predetermined without the benefit of their consent or input. Invariably, voting has become a metaphor for powerlessness, to the utter chagrin and disillusionment of even the supposed voters.
Democracy entails much more meaning and demands much more commitment from all of us beyond the periodic mechanics of holding elections.
Ogubuariri writes from Lagos.