2023 Elections and the psychology of public expectations in Nigeria
By Femi Olugbile
‘Election’ is a much-discussed topic in Nigeria. It embodies the beginning and end of many people’s understanding of ‘Democracy’. Even a schoolchild understands that ‘election’ here is a matter of life and death, the difference between access to power and the public purse and life as an ordinary ‘civilian’. If it was not crucially important, the student would reason, some voters in the recent elections in Osun State would not have received the princely sum of ten thousand naira to cast their votes, and there would not have been such a frantic struggle for US dollars to be used to ‘empower’ voting delegates at the recent primary elections of the two big political parties in Nigeria that the ‘black market’ dried up.
The relationship between election and democracy is somewhat more complex than what those desperate shenanigans would suggest. For one thing, election is not always necessary for democracy to exist. In ‘Direct Democracy’, everybody in a population participates equally in discussing and deciding the affairs of the group. There is no requirement for ‘election’. The problem with Direct Democracy is that it is only applicable to a ‘state’ which has few actual or eligible ‘citizens’ who can all sit and interact together in the same space. Direct Democracy was practised in the times of ancient Sparta.
Representative Democracy, the version that all the world is now familiar with, requires that citizens of a country select a small number of people to represent them in a governmental structure and to take decisions and actions on their behalf.
In modern times it is not popular for anyone to speak against ‘Democracy’. The ritual of elections is used by dictators to demonstrate their loyalty to the democratic ideal. Sani Abacha, in Nigeria, was happy to go into elections to prove his democratic credentials, though the five parties he allowed to function, who all nominated him as their presidential candidate, were ‘five fingers of the same leprous hand’. African strongmen like Yoweri Museveni go through the formalities of elections and routinely return landslide victories, after having harassed, arrested, detained, or frightened off any serious opposition.
Nigeria has been going through a harrowing experience in the seven years of the present administration, with rampant insecurity from herdsmen and terrorists, kidnapping and other violent crimes, runaway inflation, and a looming economic collapse. Trust in national institutions has been subverted almost to extinction. On the rebound from all of this, many, especially the youths, are suddenly fired up about ‘taking our country back’ and they are generating excitement around the prospect of voting in 2023. ‘Get Your PVC’ somehow suggests the election, in itself, will solve the nation’s multifarious problems.
For Democracy – ‘the government of the people for the people by the people’, an equitable and transparent process of choosing the people’s representatives is only the first basic step. The heavy lifting lies in creating an open, achieving society – with political pluralism, a precise, inclusive definition of citizenship, equality of all citizens before the law, entrenchment and enforcement of due process, and a vigorous and vigilant civil society. In addition to all these is the need to tread with sensitivity to evolve an effective system of governance, relevant to the identity, peculiarities and needs of the people.
In a multi-ethnic society such as Nigeria, the mind-set that is used to create the government’s decision-making mechanism is the first pitfall. Elections, even where ‘clean’, invariably lead to ‘majority rule’, which creates a ‘tyranny of the majority’. In a desperate bid to be defined as the ‘majority’, population figures are doctored and manipulated. The assumption of politicians in decision-making is that they need to ‘go with the numbers’, even at the risk of stressing ethno-religious fault lines.
The pursuit of Majority Rule, which many assume is the meaning of ‘Democracy’, has proved the bane of fledgeling democracies in Africa and elsewhere, despite serious efforts to copy the ‘Western’ model. The ‘centre’ becomes all powerful. Minorities become disillusioned, disaffected, and they want out.
An alternative model is Consensus Democracy where deliberate and continuous efforts are made at achieving and sustaining inclusion. An ambience is fashioned where anybody from anywhere may attain any height they are equipped for, including control of the highest organs of governance. Unfortunately, attaining the level of psychological disinterestedness required to drive this form of democracy has been a bridge too far for struggling third world countries and their politicians, and they have ended up either in a state of dysfunction like Nigeria, or in the hands of some strongman who can ‘hold the nation together’ by force. Occasionally the strongman approach appears, paradoxically, to impose and even sustain froth and development, as with Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, and, increasingly with Paul Kagame in Rwanda. But it is a dangerous experiment, as the strongman may be flawed in his psyche, as with Abacha.
Nigeria is currently led by a man whose understanding of ‘Democracy’ is that those who give him ‘95%’ support in elections should be rewarded more than those who give ‘5%’. The nation runs a ‘majority rule’ system in which ethno-religious fissures have widened dramatically. Organs of governance are bent out of shape. Legislators earn humongous, ‘hidden’ income. ‘Constituency projects’, not known elsewhere, have become a major item and a budget drainpipe. ‘Empowerment’, a patronising corruption-funded way of bribing and silencing citizens, has become a major plank of relationship with the public, and a replacement for effective governance to fight poverty, promote development, and build prosperity for the citizenry. The judiciary is vulnerable on all sides and is in shambles.
There is a requirement for root and branch restructuring of the physical and mental mechanisms driving Nigerian ‘democracy’ to take it back to the grassroots, demystify the ‘centre’, and redefine the basis of all relationships. This is the minimum required to give it any chance of working. A successful election, the prospect for which looks increasingly precarious, anyway, would be only a first tentative step on that journey.