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The Paradox of Democracy; Identity Crisis, Passiveness and Citizen Participation.

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This piece is about the ineffectiveness of the public forum, identity crisis, voter apathy and improved citizen participation. Reference would be made to what is known as “the paradox of democracy”.

There is a general assumption mostly among the educated that a more educated population generates a better democracy. Some of the founding fathers of the nation had an absolute belief in the power and use of education in the transformation of the political scenery. It was argued that the impressive educational achievements achieved by the country since independence should translate into more democratic institutions, more transparent governments, and a more active citizenry. The theory says that a more educated population generates a better democracy; that increases in the level of education of the population, increases the quality of our democracy and general governance.

The paradox is that in the last several decades we had unprecedented increases in educational enrolments in Universities, Polytechnics and Colleges of Education but the quality of our democracy is not increasing at the same rate. In fact it can be convincingly argued that is not progressing but rather retrogressing.

In previous democratic experiences in Nigeria, the role of Political Ideology was undeniable, there existed true conservatives and actual progressives; party manifestoes were designed in line with the ideology of the party, including beliefs and views of the party adherents on issues such as free education, emancipation of the masses and downtrodden, politics without bitterness among others.

Moreover, party discipline, cohesion, internal party democracy and leadership scruples were the norms. All these alas are missing in this present political dispensation. What comes pretty clear is that things are getting worse and not better. Election after election in Nigeria, low voter turnout and general political apathy confirm the fact that the people do not trust politicians and political institutions, and that they believe that politicians do not adequately represent them. So, instead of higher quality democracies, what we have is cynicism and a general lack of faith in the democratic process.

While individual citizens take part of the blame, a greater part of the blame should go to broader institutional and social factors.

Karl Popper the Austrian Philosopher in the development of the argument for the “rational unity of mankind” says all are to be considered to be of value, and to be equal in rationality, because of one' role as sources of possible criticism. Criticism is the most effective agent of desirable change. The upshot is that the need for constructive criticism must be taken into account in respect of the institutional arrangements. Under the modified Presidential system practiced in Nigeria, criticism, while it may be voiced, is frequently ineffectual because of the weakness of the public forum and because the various internal divisions within governmental responsibility make it difficult to hold anyone politically responsible for anything.

In addition, the political institutions in operation are often woefully under-equipped to perform the function of mutual criticism. As the writer argued earlier, the whole issue of the reconstruction of a public sphere, in the sense of a forum within which most activities are opened to scrutiny, seems particularly crucial and the need very urgent.

The first is the discontinuity of representative democracy. Citizens engage in democracy once every four years, during election time and afterwards go home and follow the political show through the mass media with little if any participation at all for another four years. Politics and the political process are way too important to leave in the hands of politicians alone without any form of supervision, observation or monitoring. There is very little in the way of citizen engagement in-between elections, as a result, the political class becomes only accountable to itself, and its financiers. This has manifested itself in dire outcomes as corruption scandals that can be seen (and many that cannot be seen) rips through the three tiers of government local, state and federal.

Unpunished corruption and flagrant abuse of public office by politicians effectively nullifies the contract of representation that binds voters and elected candidates, since legitimacy is lost. The contract of representation is being routinely eroded. It is a crisis of representation. So, summarizing, the first cause is the discontinuity of representative democracy, which inhibits the democratization of democracy. Democracy should be more than going to the ballot box every four years.

Furthermore, most Nigerians are educated illiterates, never critical in reasoning, incoherent in causes, sentimentally biased, intellectually unchallenged and often illogical in supposition. Citizens often swallow conjectures and postulations hook line and sinker, rumor mills abound all around with no recourse to evaluation or positive justification of any hypothesis that is presented to them. In addition, the educational systems pay little attention to the development of an active, critical and engaged citizenship. The education systems do not promote citizenship; rather they promote leadership and followership. Leadership is cultivated among the few, usually in elite, and followership is cultivated among the rest, the future workers and consumers. This is not an accident it is a direct result of the master-servant relationship cultivated through colonialism and the elitist successor regime put in place after independence.

The issue at the centre of the argument is the crisis of identity, identity could be defined as the name or essential character that identifies somebody or something the fact or condition of being the same or exactly alike. Moreover, it could be said to be the set of characteristics that somebody recognizes as belonging uniquely to himself or herself and constituting his or her individual personality for life sameness. Its origin is the combination of the Latin words “idem” meaning same and “id” meaning that, thus the word “identitas”.

Identity could be creed, gender, ethnic, tribal, racial, political, religious or otherwise. However, in the Nigerian situation, ethnic and religious identities take precedence over any other form of identity. There is a pervading gang mentality, everyone behaves as if they belong to a gang and all others are enemies. Decisions are frequently made and conclusions arrived at even before facts or details are presented. Objectivity is often lost and so also is reason, rationality and deductive logic.

There is a pervading belief that one identity can only be validated or, at worst, constituted by suppression of another. Samuel Huntington in his book “Clash of Civilizations” seems to pertinently capture this scenario, he argues that the advocates of identity politics across the globe believe “for one to have real friends, one must have real enemies; because in order to truly love who or what you are you have to truly hate and despise what you are not”

Again, mutual acceptance of reasonableness is exactly what is lacking in a society this divided. Ethnic hatreds are the product of symbolic politics in particular political circumstances. As such, they are learned, and so can be unlearned or transformed, though that can be an uphill task in the face of negative understandings and myths that have persisted over decades. Citizens and the society at large have to learn tolerance, acceptance, integration and mutual respect for views, opinions and perspectives other than their own no matter how dissimilar and diverse. Cultural diversity, religious multiplicity and political pluralism are realities in the society, thus an efficient and pragmatic system that takes into consideration cultural idiosyncrasy and societal peculiarities must be instituted.

The society's problem is that of elitism and not ethnic or religious schism. The elites use cultural, ethnic and religious sentiments in dividing a society that is yet to realize that the problem of the society is a struggle between the haves and the have-nots. The haves do all they possibly can to keep the have-nots exactly where they are at present - bemused, bewildered, divided, ignorant, perplexed, and fighting an imaginary enemy where none exists. All these taking place while the real enemy continues to prey on them, keeping them in abject poverty and absolute penury. In all the chaos and confusion something remains crystal clear, that is the absolute universality of poverty which does not differentiate between, creed, culture, ethnicity, gender or religion as most members of the society are incredibly poor and impoverished. What the society needs to do is to work more of what unites all rather that what divides citizens. A system or methodology is required to correct these ills, and the participatory budget is one of such solutions.

The Participatory Budget is one tool to address the two challenges of the continuity of democracy and the development of an active citizenship. The participatory budget is just one tool, among many others, to promote democratic participation at the lowest tier of government; the local government. Like many other social tools, it is imperfect, and should not be seen as a magical solution to the democratic problem. The participatory budget is essentially an open and democratic process of participation that enables ordinary citizens to deliberate and make decisions collectively about municipal budget allocations. This includes neighborhood discussions and decisions about priorities regarding domestic issues and investments in local infrastructure like primary and secondary school managements, health care, basic education, and solid waste management among others. The participatory budget goes beyond alternative budgets, which are mainly academic exercises that do not deal with real budgets, and beyond traditional consultation mechanisms, which are often characterized by tokenism.

The participatory budget has four key moments: diagnosis, deliberation, decision-making, and follow-up (control). Each one is important in itself and is connected to the other three. In the participatory budget, participation is governed by a combination of direct and representative democracy rules, and takes place through regularly functioning institutions whose internal rules are decided upon by the participants.

The rules reward high citizen participation and encourage public debate and co-administration processes and the distribution of resources among communities based on social justice criteria. They redistribute resources and promote transparency. For a successful participatory budget program, an important condition is the political will of the authorities to ensure the sustainability of the process. Authorities also need to be able to resist pressures to cancel the process in the early years, when everyone is still learning through try and error and frustrations abound. Authorities also need to have a commitment to accept conflict, to respect democratic decisions and to resist the temptation to co-opt the process.

This is a democratic process that takes proactive initiatives to include those that are less likely to participate and make special efforts to reduce internal inequalities including the rotation of delegates to avoid perpetuation in power and concentration of knowledge in a “people's bureaucracy”. Among its many advantages is that, it helps to promote equity in the allocation of municipal resources. Those who need more receive more.

Moreover, it helps to democratize the state, making it more transparent, accountable, efficient and effective in serving local communities. It is a partnership between government and civil society, a type of co-governance. It is more transparent because ordinary citizens have a clear grasp of the budget revenues and expenses, and hence there is less room for inflated budgets and other corrupt practices.

Furthermore, it provides an avenue for diverse populations who otherwise would be unlikely to meet and co-operate.

In addition, it helps to create a model of co-governance in which the local government and civil society work together to pursue the public good. In the traditional model of governance, which is characterized by confrontation and clientelism, citizens' role is reduced exclusively to demand and protest.

Nevertheless, this is a school of citizenship. It is a place where citizens learn democracy by doing, where people acquire a great variety of political skills, knowledge, attitudes and values. It is a place where people acquire self-esteem and political efficacy. In this sense, the participatory budget contributes to the redistribution from the haves to the have-nots. Through participatory budget, the real aim and potentials of the community can be realized.

The time for freedom, liberation and good governance is always now, not later, never in the future it is always right now. Now is when it gets better, now is when it changes for good, the time for change is now. God bless Nigeria.

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Akinniyi Abioye Oyewusi and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

Articles by Akinniyi Abioye Oyewusi