Nigeria: Time To Lean Towards Radical Democracy

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There is no doubt about the fact that Nigeria has always prided itself in its evolving democracy. Every so often, we hear or read about concerned Nigerian citizens warning perceived mischief makers about saying or doing things which are likely to abort the nascent democratic process of the country. Unfortunately, however, as much as 95% of Nigerians won't even know what type of democracy their country practices, if you ask them.

The situation is made even more complicate by the fact that a third of the 36 states in their country are governed by sharia laws. The remaining 24 states are under secular laws. The voting masses remain the most important stakeholders in this type of arrangement. It is possible that these voting masses don't recognise the several versions of what is today known as democracy. Nor do many of them know that their country, Nigeria, seems to be involved in no less than five of these versions of democracy, all at the same time. And I think the moment has come to define Nigeria's position in its democratic evolution in order to move the nation forward in the right direction, given the prevailing socio-political atmosphere.

When we take a cursory look at the political spectrum of Nigeria today, we discover that the country is, first and foremost, into pure or direct democracy where citizens more or less govern their country directly without governing directly. Before the different protectorates were amalgamated in 1914, certain parts of country, especially the Eastern part, practised this type of democratic dispensation. Elders of the land and respectable well-to-do citizens of the community made the laws for everybody.

Every citizen was subject to and obeyed the laws. The local police made sure that laws were obeyed. But there was scope also for the citizenry to agitate against any laws or forms of the law they considered arbitrary, obnoxious or repressive. In the system, no one was above the law and that version of democracy is still practised in some parts of Nigeria today. Nigeria is also into what is known as popular democracy which is a version of direct democracy that is based on referendums and other political devices which empower the people and consolidate their popular will. From the recent National Conference, and the ones before it, it is obvious that Nigeria as a nation has continued to utilise this version of democracy in its quest for true nationhood.

Nigeria is, furthermore, deeply entrenched into representative democracy, the type of indirect democracy where authority is held by the peoples' representatives. This is the type of democracy that is basically in vogue in Nigeria today.In this type of democracy, what can be regarded as the ultimate power should actually belong to the people, through the ballot box. That means that the people, through a free and fare election, vote their representatives into parliament.

These representatives are expected to hold meetings with their constituency members every week or every fortnight as the case may be. In these meetings issues concerning the welfare of the constituents are tabled and discussed and they may range from the lack of adequate supply of water and electricity to educational problems like children travelling long distances to school or not having adequate furniture or facilities; from high cost of housing for families to shortage of food supplies in the markets; from infrastructural developments like better roads leading from rural agricultural producing to urban consuming areas of the locality to recreational facilities like public swimming pools, tennis lawns, football fields to recreation parks and so on.

During these meetings, constituency members are expected to discuss anything and everything that will enhance the living standards of their members with their parliamentarian. The MP takes their message to the parliament and lobbies his or her mates who will enable his or her bill on behalf of the constituents to sail through House Debates and become law. That is the ideal procedure. But whether Nigerian parliamentarians live up to their billing or not is another matter for another day.

Suffice it that Nigeria also practises the totalitarian version of democracy which is the system of government in which lawfully elected representatives of the people maintain the sovereignty and influence of the nation state. In this version, the citizens have the right to vote but are denied the right to participate, or at best only allowed to participate minimally, in the decision-making processes of government. This is predominantly true of states in Nigeria which are governed by sharia laws. Situations may be changing, who knows?

Today, the educated Northern elites who do not come from the old, ruling families but now find themselves in governance, seem hell bent on consolidating their new-found regional power because they feel they have been marginalized long enough, and because the trappings of power are never easy to relinquish. To give credence to their quest, they have clung tenaciously to religious democracy where the values of their particular religion directly affect law and order. This is what is happening today in some states of Northern Nigeria where a vast majority of the population belongs to the Islamic Faith. But whether at the end of the day, when the battle is fought and won, these elites are going to carry their people along and allow them participate fully in decision-making processes of government remains to be seen. For one thing, these two last versions of democracy that Nigerians practise could in fact have been responsible for introducing the insurgency that is now raging on in the country.

But hold it!

They have also, albeit inadvertently, ushered in the gradual evolution of radical democracy into the system which is the right road Nigeria should now follow. This version of democracy focuses on nurturing a responsible opposition by making it necessary for the ruling party to tolerate differences and accommodate divergent opinions in the decision-making processes of government. With the emergence in recent times of the PDP and APC, the two predominant mega parties, the nation is set for this step forward in its democratic evolution, no doubt. In deed, with some of the observations and utterances of people like Mohammed Lai, the national publicity secretary of the opposition APC, one would not be far from the truth to say Nigeria has begun to evolve a responsible opposition.

“Responsible Opposition” simply means that both the ruling and the opposition parties recognise and fully endorse the fact that the interest of the nation should supersede the interest of any party. A clear example is the current security challenge that the Jonathan administration faces. It is obvious that given the depth of the challenge and the determination of the insurgents, parties must sweep their ideological differences aside and work together in the interest of a united and strong country. This is where a responsible opposition comes in. Anything that would jeopardize the interest of the nation is instantly repudiated.

Since Nigeria had its self rule in 1960, radical democratic ideas have gradually but consistently become important as a political force among the country's intellectual elite. What is important at this point in time, I think, is to lay a solid foundation for the future of country based on this understanding. Many ordinary Nigerians consistently feel that government has failed them. They feel that government has failed in its duty to improve on the living standards of the people and has been unable to carry most citizens along. They look at the schools. The teachers and the students are at home half of the year because of industrial actions.

They look at the electricity supply. It is nothing to write home about. It is erratic. It is epileptic, even when the neighbouring countries that Nigeria supplies electricity are said to be faring better with their own people. They look at the houses in the city with the cut-throat prices insatiable landlords tag on them. They look at their roads. They see death-traps in some places. The acrid smell of dust that continues to pollute the atmosphere coming from road constructions that never seem to end appears to suffocate them. They look at a whole lot of other basic infrastructure. It is not there, or it is not adequate. They sigh. Government has failed them.

But there is good news.

Rome, they say, was not built in a day. With the emergence of a responsible opposition, the country will definitely move in the right direction in its democratic evolution towards great nationhood. It is the first step towards acquiring the capacity to engage the energies of ordinary Nigerians. Elections are on the way, organized by competing political parties. Electoral victory means control of government. It means that winning candidates have authority to shape public policy through legislation. It also means that a responsible opposition will set the tempo right for government, even as it projects and markets its party's image through its commitment to national issues.

When this happens, as it is bound to do, the strong foundation Nigeria needs to build a formidable nation state can, in all honesty, be said to have been laid. It will have been laid in the sense that radical democrats are usually committed to wider public participation in the decision-making processes of government. A responsible opposition will ensure that citizens will have greater and more direct participation in the affairs of their communities.

A responsible opposition will ensure that the citizens engage prevailing political issues more articulately, assured that their representatives will be there for them and that they will remain responsive to their constituents' concerns. This is why MPs must hold regular meetings with their constituents. Radical democracy emphasizes deliberation. Instead of the politics of power and personal or party aggrandisement, radical democrats favour a more interactive style in which citizens address their social problems by reasoning together about how best to solve them. In this development, no other force will be at work except that of the better argument.

In developed nations like the United Kingdom, political leaders are consistent with this basic style of governance. Any money that is available goes to service from bottom to up because, even at the ward level, the citizens are given the opportunity to debate what they want and how to fund the project. In other words, government looks into the needs and aspirations of the poorest segment of the society first and attends to those needs and aspirations with the funds that are available. They need good and affordable education, government contracts loan companies at college and university levels to borrow money to prospective students to go to school.

When they graduate and get employment, they pay back with some interest, and others are able to borrow and go to school. They need clean drinking water, they meet with their MP and decide how best to fund it. They need food. They need shelter. They need employment. They need affordable Medicare. They sit down and discuss with their MP. Government tries its level best to fix these basic needs. And that is why the people are said to be rich. That is why they answer the rich nations of the world.

In the case of African countries like Nigeria, available funds first go to service the President, then the Vice President, then the National Assembly, then the State Assembly, then the local government chairmen and the councillors. By the time the money reaches the grassroots, it is finished. And that is why countries like Nigeria remain a paradox. That is why they are ranked among the poor nations of the world despite their legendary oil earnings. The side effect of this inability or unwillingness of the political class to democratize the nation the right way becomes partly responsible for the do-or-die attitude of Nigerian politicians in their approach to national issues.

But now, it is time to move the country forward. Now that a responsible opposition is solidly in place, the country needs to move on to radical democracy. The political class needs to consolidate the importance of a responsible opposition now. The developments that saw the merger of many hitherto vibrant political parties into the mega-party, APC, could not have been in vain. God is still on His throne, working out His purpose for Nigeria. And by His divine will, Nigerians will overcome.

· Mr Asinugo is a London-based journalist and columnist

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Articles by Emeka Asinugo