The de-democratisation of democracy

We have travelled far but covered little distance in our political development. The major problem with our political development is our narrow concept of democracy as a form of government defined entirely by the conduct of elections. One question, important though it is, has thus pre-occupied us since independence nearly 64 years ago. The question is: how do we conduct our elections in such a way that they win national and international acceptance as free, fair and credible?

This question always crops up against the background of our revisionist history, to wit, that the bloody coup of January 1966 was forced on the young majors by the inability of the politicians to conduct free, fair and credible elections – and therefore, getting it right is not an option. It is an obligation. We are worried, as indeed we should be, that while other nations have found the right formula, we are still groping in the dark. We regard each election period asanational challenge for finding the elusive formula. During the long harmattan period of military rule, one general after the other came up with a formula to get us over the fence. The sieve still leaks water.

A free, fair and credible election is one of the fundamental pillars of democracy. And, yes, it is important for us to get it right if our democracy is to cease being an elaborate sham in the eyes of the international community. But alone, it does not define democracynoris it even the full measure of how far a nation like ours has travelled in its democratic journey.

The primary purpose of an election in a democracy is not for the people to put people in elective offices, however free they may be allowed to do so. The integrity of democracy as the most preferred form of governmentrests on the competence of the people to give a fair judgment at an election. That judgment can neither be fair nor informed if there are no facts given to the electorate on which to base their decision. The electoral process is the means through which political parties and their candidates for elective offices provide the facts to the electorate.

To put it another way, an election is the means through which political parties market themselves to the people. The electoral process provides them the platform for doing so. This marketing is done at two levels – the parties and their candidates. Parties market themselves through their ideologies and manifestoes. The latter spell out how, based on the philosophy of their ideologies, they intend to either make life better for the people or at least make it less nasty and brutish. A party selects as its candidate an individual whose proven competence, pedigree and temperament it considers most ideal for delivering on its promise to the people. These two marketing strategies constitute electioneering campaigns.

Given our current emphasis on voting in isolation of a credible process that would provide the voters the facts and the basis on which to make their decisions, campaigns have virtually been eliminated in our electoral system. A casual comparison of what now passes for an electoral process with what we had in the first and second republics, gives a fair idea of our backward march in our political development. Each of the five political parties in the second republic stood for something.

To take two of them: NPN stood primarily for agriculture and housing with qualitative education thrown in; the UPN stood for free education at all levels. Each of them brought intellectual rigour to bear on the marketing of their products to the people. Chief Obafemi Awolowo turned up at some campaign rallies with blackboard and chalk and demonstrated the mathematics of how the federal government could afford free education at all levels.

What do the parties now stand for? What do they offer or market to the people? I am searching for the answers to those two important questions. It worries me that our democracy is being asyphixiated through lack of rigorous national debates on issues that trouble and which we would like to see how the political parties plan to address. This is how political fortunes are made and lost in other democracies. It is not about empty sloganeering such as seven-point agenda or transformation agenda, full of sound bites, signifying nothing. We are denied the right to really choose our leaders because we are limited to casting our votes for those the moguls in each party throw at us.

During the 1959 campaigns, Chief Awolowo flew around the country in a helicopter.That was how seriously he and the other party candidates respected the people as the custodian of power in a democracy. They had to sell their parties and themselves to the people to convince them to buy into them. What do we have today? Who is marketing anything to us? It is the irony of our unenviable situation that while I do not intend to glamourize the past, the first and second republics, once vilified, thanks to military propaganda, have become the gold age of our democracy.

The cynical de-democratisation of our democracy is deleterious to our democratic health. We go to the polls on February 14 next year – about one year from now. But no political party is marketing itself or its candidates for elective offices.The law covers them. The electoral act prescribes whenparties should nominate their candidates and when campaigns can begin. It pegs the time for campaigns at 60 days before the elections.

I call it restrictive democracy. It is all about the conduct of elections rather than the processes for deepening our democracy. Our law is even mealy-mouthed on the nomination of party candidates for elective offices. Section 87 of the Electoral Act prescribes two methods – direct and indirect primaries – and leaves each party to decide on its choice. It more or less dismisses the direct primaries in subsection (3): “A political party that adopts the direct primaries procedure shall ensure that all aspirants are given equal opportunity of being voted for by members of the party.”

The rest of the provision is given to the indirect primaries in which candidates are nominated through special conventions of their parties. Good laws intended to guide democracy and protect the rights of individuals make no room for such options at the discretion of political parties. As you would expect, all the parties prefer the indirect primaries because they give the party lords the absolute right to impose candidates on their parties. The result, of course, is the seasonal migration of politicians from one party to another – and back again in a sickening to-ing and fro-ing in search of political opportunities.

The way we are going is hardly the most sensible or rational way for a country to deepen its democracy and grow its democratic culture.I fear that despite the solemn promises of INEC chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega, the elections next year as those in the immediate past, through no fault of his, will still be hobbled by the millstone to which ourelectoral process is tethered.

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