By Morak Babajide-Alabi
Let us take a little lesson in democracy. It is a topic that is generating a lot of comments nowadays in the African region. We are not surprised by this, though, as until recently, it was a word that is commonly spoken of, by African leaders who know little or nothing about. In this confusion, the leaders are the teachers and only pass on their “idea” of the word.
Democracy globally is accepted as a system of government by the citizens of a country which gives them the right to elect representatives to run their affairs. Democracy, however, has different meanings to various people and this globally accepted definition is gradually losing its meaning.
The Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo simply defined democracy as “demo-crazy”. In the popular song, “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense”, Fela sang “Demo-crazy. Crazy demo. Demonstration of craze. Crazy demonstration.” He questioned that if not it is not crazy, why is it for Africa? Fela was philosophical in this song and this might have changed the perception of democracy by some Africans.
Ask a Zimbabwean of his idea of democracy; it will be completely different from a Canadian or an American citizen. The meaning of democracy in Zimbabwe was shaped by the dictator Robert Mugabe, who ruled the country for forty years. A whole generation of citizens had grown up with the idea that the only individual born to rule them was Mugabe. To them, trooping out to vote in elections where only Mugabe’s name appeared on the ballot paper or where opposition candidates and agents are chased away from polling booths is accepted as a democracy.
We can, therefore, not blame a Zimbabwean if he defines democracy as the art of “reinstalling” and “reinstalling” an old and despotic man in power. It may sound strange but this is the democracy they know and which gets talked about in their media, on the streets and everywhere. This probably explained why some citizens were die-hard supporters of Mugabe while in government. Opposition to Mugabe was unimaginable.
A trip to the West African country of Cameroun throws up another definition of democracy. The thoughts of the citizens about democracy are what they learnt from the 85-year old, long-time President – Paul Biya. He could not have won many elections without a sound knowledge of democracy and the ability to pass it on to his people. The Cameroonians cannot fault his definition because he has schooled them for over thirty years. This is why every time he puts himself forward for elections he is elected by “majority votes”.
Paul Biya is an old school autocrat that has refused to move with time. While some African countries have yielded to pressures to allow multiparty democracy, and improve on the strategy to vote and be voted for, Biya has held on to power as if it is a birthright. This is a democracy.
To the Kenyans, democracy means a different thing. It could mean if you don’t get what you want by-election, democracy allows you to declare yourself the rightful winner in a re-run election you boycotted. A good teacher of democracy in this country is Raila Odinga, who lost in the 2017 presidential election but held a presidential inauguration ceremony for himself. Uhuru Kenyatta had muscled his way back to power.
Democracy should be universal as it is the right of citizens to elect their leaders. In a democracy, citizens have the choice of candidates and the freedom to choose who they think will be best suited to move their countries forward. Democracy allows equal participation of citizens in the affairs of their countries – they can vote and be voted for.
The African country has had a fair share of military rule, which is akin to autocracy. At a time, not too far in history, most of the countries in the continent were ruled by dictators whose only claim to governance was the guns they carried. The fad at this time was for military leaders to gang up and overthrow the government in power, elected or not.
The giant of Africa, Nigeria is termed a democratic country. Just like Cameroun, Zimbabwe and Kenya are also on the list of democratic countries. Nigeria’s journey to “democracy” is akin to what most African countries went through. A few years after independence, Nigeria was overrun by the military guys. They were more interested in governance than defending the territories of the country. It took the efforts of some citizens and pressure from the international community before the country finally became free from the shackles of the military boys.
The world heaved a sigh of relief when the largest African country kick-started the Fourth Republic. They cared less of the process, as long as men and women in khakis do not show up anymore to represent Nigeria in world meetings.
With the simplicity of plans to keep the military guys in the barracks, citizens accepted a “homegrown democracy” that cobbled together, preached and presented as the best suited for the country. Like the pattern across other parts of the continent, democracy in Nigeria is plagued by violence, election rigging, financial inducement or votes buying, intimidation, snatching of ballot boxes and announcing electoral figures that do not tally with the number of registered voters.
Every four years, the citizens file out, in rain or sunshine in a pretence of electing leaders to steer the wheel of administration of the country. It is the same process at the ward, local, state and federal levels where handpicked candidates are rushed through the systems and declared winners.
I chuckle to myself when people complain that democracy in Nigeria is disappointing. I find it strange that people are yet to recognise the fact that democracy in Nigeria was designed right from the start to disappoint. It was a democracy of compromise when in 1999 Olusegun Obasanjo was taken out of prison and literally handed the reins of power. There may be a semblance of party primaries; it was obvious that Obasanjo was the “chosen one”. This is democracy in Nigeria.
This faulty foundation has affected every area of the polity. Nigeria pretends to have what is modelled after the very expensive American system of government. We have modified the US system and I am sure the Americans won’t recognise it was modelled after theirs.
In a democracy, a level playing ground is ensured for all, but in Nigeria, the party primaries are won by money bags or with the support of godfathers. In Nigeria’s democracy, there is no need for manifestoes. Candidates rarely have and where they do, they are lists of unachievable projects, designed only to woo voters. Nigeria’s democracy is defined by the huge amount of money budgeted by candidates to win elections.
In this democracy, there is no accountability. The incumbent is untouchable and unquestionable. Any opposition to an incumbent’s action or policy is regarded as “hate politics”. Democracy in Nigeria do not guarantee the opposition a voice, as a result, members decamp to the ruling party for an opportunity to get a crumb of the national cake.
Yet, this is democracy in Nigeria.
As written for the Diaspora Matters column, Sunday Vanguard, November 4, 2018.