As the 2023 election approaches, Nigerians need to be careful because the idea of democracy has become so closely identified with elections that we are in danger of forgetting that, historically, elections have been an instrument of authoritarian manipulation and a means of democratic governance.
By Prof. Victor Chukwuma
The title of this essay is the theme of the 2022 TheNiche Annual Lecture held at the Agip Recital Hall, MUSON Centre, Onikan Lagos, on September 8, 2022, in which I participated as one of the four discussants. Presently, in this article, I invite your company as I share my thought on the theme before the Lecture.
The theme of the TheNiche Annual Lecture invited us to ponder on what will happen to democracy due to the 2023 elections and, by its keyword: future, hinted at an expectation of advancement or progressive development. The democracy TheNiche contemplates is that of a government of the people, by the people and for the people. A government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them through a system of representation involving periodically held free elections. In this scheme, democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily an understanding of governance that facilitates living together for individuals under its fundamental concepts of the supremacy of law and justice, legal equality, personal freedoms, power to change the governance, right to elect and be elected and property rights. This understanding of governance demands that the 2023 elections witness electoral integrity among the politicians and INEC and the vigilance of the electorate to ensure that the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be a State based on the principles of democracy and social justice as stated in Section 14 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria
In most places, the 2023 elections will be about the future. Presently, here in Nigeria, as during past electoral cycles, politicians lacking an understanding of governance are oddly flocking to political idols for assurances of the future: for presidential aspirants, the pilgrimage is either to Minna, Abeokuta, or Aso Rock for those whose party is in power; in the States, it is the government houses. The palaces of traditional rulers and religious leaders complete their visitations. Sadly, these visits are all about safe interests but not how to evolve and implement policies that actualise the pillars of democracy or urgently arrest Nigeria’s continued slide into economic stagnation and ungovernability.
Section 17 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria specifies that the State social order is rooted in ideals of Freedom, Equality and Justice. However, this specification of our constitution is observed mainly in the breach, as evidence abounds that we are at the doorsteps of diminished authoritarianism. On August 31 2022, during Bishop Matthew Kukah’s birthday events, Dr Goodluck Jonathan warned that Nigeria is drifting towards dictatorship. He says, “The task before all of us is not to lower our guard, lest the democracy we cherish today succumbs to threats and recedes into fascism tomorrow, and there are signs already.
President Jonathan’s alarm about the future of Nigeria’s Democracy had earlier come from offshore. In an expert’s point of view published in Foreign Policy on May 27 2021, titled “Nigeria Is a Failed State” and co-authored by John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, the authors pointed out that “Nigeria has long teetered on the precipice of failure. But, now, unable to keep its citizens safe and secure, Nigeria has become a fully failed state of critical geopolitical concern. Its failure matters because the peace and prosperity of Africa and preventing the spread of disorder and militancy around the globe depend on a stronger Nigeria.” And recommended that “the first step to restoring stability and security is recognising that the government has lost control.”
Furthermore, it is needful to recall that in its editorial of December 22 2020, the Financial Times of London, while worrying that Nigeria is at risk of becoming a failed state, recommended “concentration on the basics: security, health, education, power and roads. With those public goods in place, Nigeria’s young people are more than capable of turning the country around. At the present trajectory, the population will double to 400m by 2050. If nothing is done, long before then, Nigeria will become a problem far too big for the world to ignore.”
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The Financial Times editorial quoted above assures that if the Nigerian State is based on democracy and social justice principles, Nigeria’s youth are very capable of turning the country around. However, for the youths to record this achievement, they need to be reminded that in his book “The Life of Reason”, the Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As such, concerning the 2023 election, the last seven years represent our immediate past, and Nigeria’s standing among nations in 2022 is as follows: for the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), Nigeria’s Score is 24% and ranks 154 out of 180 countries; her human development index (HDI) is 0.539, implying that the average Nigerian life is regressive regarding sound health, access to quality education and enviable standard of living. In other words, there has been no value for human life. The unemployment rate of 33%; the poverty rate is 42.6 per cent, showing that not less than 95 million are poor, while there are 18.5 million out-of-school children, 60% of whom are girls, and one in every five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria. A 50kg bag of rice that cost N10,000 in 2015 now sells for N35,000
Furthermore, as the 2023 election approaches, Nigerians need to be careful because the idea of democracy has become so closely identified with elections that we are in danger of forgetting that, historically, elections have been an instrument of authoritarian manipulation and a means of democratic governance. Hence, a country like Nigeria, with whittled intellectual infrastructure, will descend into authoritarian control, feudalism, aristocracy, political idolatry, and finally into a failed state. At national, subnational and party levels, we have governments that hold elections and tolerate some political pluralism and interparty competition but simultaneously violate minimal democratic standards so ruthlessly and steadily that it makes no sense to classify them as practising liberal democracy under any guise. These electoral regimes do not represent diminished forms of democracy. They are instances of modern-time feudalism.
To ensure a future for democracy in Nigeria, the people should distrust politicians until proven wrong. There is no reason to continue to trust the political class when a government like the present government, which was elected into power by a popular mandate, turned Nigeria into a country where not only a former President is worried for the future of democracy, reputable international media are concerned about Nigeria’s continued slide into economic stagnation and ungovernability. In this regard, Nigerians should be careful with the promise by President Buhari that elections will be conducted freely, fairly and transparently. I want to state that elections are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for modern democracy. The promise of free elections appears politically correct because the currency is that regimes cannot be existent without elections, but elections alone are not enough. Experientially and historically, regimes manage to “get elections right” but fail to institutionalise other vital dimensions of democratic constitutionalism, such as the rule of law, political accountability, bureaucratic integrity, and public deliberation.
Furthermore, under the Nigerian constitution, it is not the duty of the President to guarantee a free and credible election. It is that of INEC. The President’s claim shows that INEC is not independent.
Nevertheless, has INEC the capacity to guarantee a credible election using digital channels? It is not very likely. For example, the INEC silver bullet, the BVAS device for uploading the polling unit results to the INEC Result Viewing Portal (IReV) in real-time on an election day, runs on Broadband. However, according to NCC, the broadband penetration as of June 2022 stands at 44.30%. Then, how will BVAS be successfully deployed across the country? Also, there are many parts of the country where INEC will not be able to deploy electoral workers. All these factors could lead to manipulation of results.
Let us even interrogate the credibility of the promise as the following background:
1. On December 9 2021, during the Virtual Summit for Democracy organised by President Joe Biden, President Buhari promised that his government would ensure that Nigeria would not only record another peaceful transfer of power to an elected democratic government, but the elections would be free, fair and transparent.
2. On January 5 2022, during an interview with the Channels Television crew, the President said, “I do not have a problem with 2023 elections. Let anybody come in, but nobody should call me to come and give evidence.”
3. On February 25 2022, President Buhari reluctantly signed the Electoral Act Amendment Bill Into Law. But went to void a section of the same Electoral Act
4. The Supreme Court, on Friday, June 24 2022, struck out the suit President Muhammadu Buhari and the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN, filed to void section 84(12) of the Electoral Act, 2022.
The positions of Mr President mentioned above worry people who want a future of democracy in Nigeria with the 2023 elections, and I am one of them. Hence, in my opinion, Nigerians want not just credible elections; they need political leadership that understands that the first step to restoring economic stability and security is to recognise that the present government has lost control and demonstrates the capacity to concentrate on the basics of the people: security, health, education, power and roads that constitute public goods.
Finally, we earlier stated that democracy is mainly an understanding of governance, a statement highlighting democracy’s dependence on education, and as such planned and systematic education needs to be given importance in democratising a people. Seymour Martin Lipset, a leading light political thinker, stated that education acts as a means for democracy. Moreover, examples abound on why education is important if we need a future for democracy; here are a few:
1. In the Banking, Information technology and Fintech spaces, Nigerian highly successful institutions like Access Bank, Main One, and Paystack have, using digital channels, democratised financial services locally and internationally because their respective management has educated individuals who can make effective decisions that turn their operations into instruments of social emancipation. This example shows that if we have educated individuals who have free will and thought, can make the right decisions, and are aware that looking after society’s interests is essential for the total effectiveness and sustainability of democracy.
2. Available research results reveal that education positively affects democracy, showing the presence of sustainable democracy in countries with a high education level. For example, In Europe’s more democratic countries, the literacy rate is 96%; it is 85% in less democratic countries. It is an average of 74% for nearly autocratic countries of Latin America, while it is equal to 46% in the more dictatorship countries. In Nigeria, the literacy rate is 62.02% which probably explains the undemocratic tendencies among our political elite.
3. Another example of the positive effect of education on democracy is the use of digital channels in the mobilisation of the youths for voter card registration for the forthcoming elections, which further indicates that technology, especially the internet of things (IoT), will be an essential instrument in the sustenance of democracy post-2023. However, the mobilisation needs an extension to the rural areas with many ignorant voters. Educating these ignorant voters will help re-establish our lost structured value system and vitiate feudalism, aristocracy and political idolatry. The point that needs making is that rural ignorant voters hardly relate their deplorable circumstances to the corrupt practices of the political elite.
4. According to Bernard Shaw, Democracy implies the election of the corrupt few by the ignorant many. Therefore, education is the primary means to enrich the strengths and overcome people’s weaknesses. It is also a means for the widespread diffusion of democratic values”. Radhakrishnan commission (1948-49) said, “Education is the great instrument of social emancipation, by which democracy establishes, maintains and protects the spirit of equality among its members”.
5. Education as a means for democracy will degrade the culture of Political idolatry, which is the creation of political idols. Political idolatry bestows on political actors qualities that should belong only to God. Political leaders become omnipotent “saviours”: solvers of all our problems and provider of security, happiness, equity, and importance. Furthermore, political opponents are considered incapable of good and evil.
Prof Victor U. Chukwuma, Department of Physics Olabisi Onabanjo University Ago Iwoye, Nigeria
2023 elections and the future of Nigeria’s Democracy: A discussant’s view – The Niche