The lamentations of a democracy devotee
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t is not supposed to be this complex,” Opalaba thundered, bypassing courtesies as he began a half-hour phone tirade. “Democracy rests on some foundational principles, principal among which is the acknowledgement of the people as the repository of power. From this are derived several others.”
“The people are to determine the rules, procedures, and practices that will govern them directly or indirectly though their representatives. Where direct decision making is impossible, as in all modern democracies, the people must be trusted as capable of choosing their representatives without undue influence.
“The representatives so chosen are, to the best of their ability, to represent the interests of their constituencies. While there is a debate about whether representatives should vote their conscience or ascertain the will of their constituencies in pending legislations, it is understood that they would not be representatives if their constituencies had any doubt that they were chosen for their promise to represent them. After all, the wearer knows best where the shoe pinches most. It is the reason that a democracy is rated by how effective the interests of the people are promoted by their representatives.
“It is this crucial representation of people’s interests as they understand them that is missing in military dictatorships or monarchies and that therefore marks the difference between the various systems of governance. While the former two claim the right to ascertain the interest of the people without consulting them, interest of the people in a democracy is people-based and people-determined.
“Devotees of democracy, of which I consider myself one, have long insisted that our republic, as a democratic republic, must recognize and respect this vital character of democracy: accord the people the right to determine their interests and elect their representatives based on this determination. Second, the people should have an unfettered right to vote out representatives who fail to represent their interests.
“It is becoming clear, however, that for many of our politicians, this essence of democracy is unacceptable, clashing as it does, with their unfounded sense of entitlement to the most enduring aspect of individuals’ lives: figuring out what is their interest. But politicians would have no such audacity to impose their ideas of people’s interests on the people in the absence of an unwitting collaboration on the part of the people.
“Yes, we have strong men and women with a great sense of dignity and integrity who do not compromise with evil. When the battlefront in the war against military oppression was red-hot, they did not flinch. And with pseudo democracy in place now, they are not war-weary. Unfortunately, they are outnumbered and outspent.
“I know you want to ask why people collaborate with impostors who pretend they know the people’s interests better than the people.
“The answer is simple. Keep the people impoverished and ignorant. Dole out crumbs from the overflowing table of national treasure which you have criminally appropriated. Make them believe that you are helping them meet their basic needs even when you are discharging the obligations of your office with the resources of the state. Extract from them the gratitude that you know is undeserved. Based on their traditional belief in appreciation of good deeds, the people are eternally in your debt. Once they come to trust you, you could rely on their support even when the cause you advance is against their interest.
“This has been the pattern of our political participation over the years. It’s been based on personalities and personal relationships rather than ideological beliefs. We sloganize without a grounding in the requirements of the doctrines. Progressive sounds great, so we create “progressive” parties with arch- conservatives as members. Democracy is a political winner, so we create “democratic” parties with rabid dictators as leaders. But they all thrive because people who are drawn to these parties are drawn to personalities and not to any foundational principles. That is why, even when the promises of party manifestos are breached, there are no consequences.
“Surely, you could be a Puritan or a zealot for democracy and create a platform for genuine progressive democrats. But how far can you go against professionals with deep pockets and deceptively sweet tongues? How far did NCP go? Even with his well-documented record of achievement in the Old Western Region, how far did Awolowo’s UPN go in its quest for a united and progressive Nigeria?
“But what is the foundation of our present predicament? What is it that makes a simple principle and its accompanying procedure become so complex in our republic? Money, as the old saying has it, is the root of evil. In this nation, it is a trite point to make, but political evil is nurtured by money and the greedy quest for the wealth that it creates. But the entire society, not just the professional political class, is the culprit.
“If the wealth of the country is harnessed judiciously, there is no reason why we cannot build the nation’s infrastructure to galvanize its economic and industrial development. And this will ultimately benefit everyone including the least endowed. But it appears that our cultural affinity is opposed to the basic tenets of equality of opportunity. We seem to relish a selfish appropriation of as much resources as possible without paying adequate attention to equal distribution. Consider the gap between the super filthy rich and the poor rats among us.
“We love money and the wealth it creates. Wherever a Nigerian finds himself or herself on the economic ladder, whether as a professional, artisan, janitor, or clerk, he or she is preoccupied with what can be appropriated for self. It accounts for a reporter insisting on bribe for a story to air, a teacher demanding gratification in cash or kind for a passing grade, a police officer pumping bullets on a commercial driver who refuses to bribe him. It accounts for a Senate Committee demanding an upfront cut out of a department’s budget. This is all in addition to the regular income of these workers.
“Why do we need all these extras? We do because we have a culture that is obsessed with material accumulation, whether it be vehicles, houses, outfits, etc. Where an average working class American or British has his or her dignity intact with a pair of jeans and a shirt or blouse, doing his or her work and getting by with his or her salary, and holding his or her representatives accountable, an average Nigerian prefers to ingratiate himself or herself to her or his political representative for material gains. You cannot hold a political representative accountable when you depend on him or her for material resources which you crave but don’t need.
“When our cravings direct us to night vigils with political bigwigs, and we receive an illicit share of the ill-gotten wealth, we are implicated in the ensuing blatant disregard for the people’s right to determine their interests. We are saying to them that the crumbs from their tables are good enough for us. We cannot honorably accuse them of failure to invest in our children’s education. Or in infrastructure. Indeed, how can we legitimately complain when they impose their wills on us by choosing our representatives for us? Or when, in intra-party tribal collaboration, they create loyal factions which they use to upend the majority’s political calculus, what recourse do we have if we have been compromised?
“From the South-south to the Southeast, from the Northwest to the Northcentral, and from the Northeast to the Southwest, the story is the same. Intra-party crisis deriving from constraints on the people’s ability to choose for themselves is aggravating the stress on democratic structures and institutions.
“Where are the leaders baked in the oven of democracy when its walls are collapsing around them? Where are the warriors of yesteryears against military oppression when civilian narcissism now holds sway? Where are comrades who initiated and sustained the fight against election rigging in the days of the locust when partisan allies are now the shameless riggers and thwarters of people’s will?”
My friend never gave me a chance for a word.