Opinion

Nigerian elite and democracy’s uncertainties (1)

Oseloka H. Obaze

Description of Nigeria’s nascent democracy and its increasingly uncertain state can be redacted to a simple phrase – paradox of plenty and deprivation. Oddly, the presumption persists that democracy in whatever context, will default naturally to equity and distributive justice that enhances security and social order. This presumption is rooted in the belief that the so-called dividends of democracy, naturally taken for granted in entrenched democracies, will manifest in nascent democracies, and help in securing an irreversible process of democratization, even if incrementally. Nigerians are learning otherwise. The fallacy of this thinking, which has been slow in manifesting fully, is now stark, as emergent democracies in Africa, Asia and Latin America evolve in a stunningly halting manner.

Nigeria’s democracy is foundering on the issue or restructuring. Nineteen years and four successive administrations after her return to democratic rule in 1999, Nigeria’s still evolving democracy is fraught with great uncertainties, including challenges of participatory democracy and development. The causative prebendal factors are many, and include corruption, nepotism, weak institutions, impunity, ethnocentrism, disfranchisement, marginalization, and underachievement. Yet there is a singular factor that triggers each cause or various combinations; elite unaccountability.

This raises two heady and inevitable questions: Is Nigeria truly a democracy? And more generally, why is democracy everywhere struggling? The latter question pertains to several countries on the African continent as it is specific to Africa’s largest democracy, Nigeria. Understanding Nigeria’s democratic challenges require placing the Nigeria-pertinent questions in the proper global context.

Globally, the democratic order seems also to have become conflictual in character as nascent democracies grapple with establishing legitimate and effective governance. Democracy is proving insufficient as the salve or antidote to destructive nationalism. Older democracies also struggle as exemplified by the deep and divisive impact of Britain abandoning the European Union via BREXIT. The election in the U.S. of President Donald Trump with his insular “Make America Great Again” and “America First” narrow world-view and protectionist policies, deemed mostly as nationalistic but undemocratic, has only compounded the unfolding loss of faith and diminution of democratic ideals. Some democratic countries in Eastern Europe have also regressed. Poland and Hungary, once bellwether and democratic exemplars, “Have shackled the media, cracked down on public gatherings and attacked the independence of their court system. “Incidentally, recent attempts by leading democracies to foist democracy on presumed rogue regimes in places like Iraq, Libya, Syria and Egypt failed woefully. The resultant discontent offers awkward but concrete lessons that contrived democracy is not a panacea for illiberal governance.

A common strand in the slew of challenges faced by democracies in a globalized international system, is the tendency to openly question authority and all forms of power; an acceptable tenet in the democratic context of freedom of thought and speech; but nonetheless, one incessantly fueled by the open system of information communication technology in the age of rich and accessible information. The baffling subtext is that globally democracies are struggling. Dramatic and abnormal manifestations abound since normalcy is hard to dramatize. Expert opinion has encapsulated the phenomenon thus; “New or struggling democracies are experiencing blockages and backsliding while older established democracies are roiled by new internal challenges and questions regarding democratic values and process.” It is common knowledge that “in the United States and Britain, working people have suffered joblessness and declining living standards while political leaders have prescribed policies that have enriched the elite – more trade deals fewer strictures on bankers. These countries’ economies have been bolstered by trade, but not enough of the gains have filtered down to working people.” These and other challenges confronting established democracies are now manifest in Nigeria and other African democracies.

Furthermore, growing concerns of external meddling aimed at influencing democratic electoral outcomes, is on the rise and are as egregious as internal manipulations, such as underage voting, vote buying, tempering with voters’ register and voters’ card and pre-loading and post-loading of data cards readers outside actual votes cast. These latter challenges are rife in Nigeria, and scant attention is being given to them by the national elite that represent constituted authorities, some of whom are beneficiaries, or presumptive beneficiaries.

The paradox of deprivation amidst plenty continues to resonate in Nigeria, raising deep concerns. As Nigeria seeks progress and ways of advancing and developing, the nagging and confounding realities are constant reminders of what Barrack Obama once said: “Progress isn’t always a straight line or a smooth path.” Yet, as Nigerians try to square the democratic and governance circles, and tackle the ills confronting the nation, almost every aspect of the Nigeria’s problematique is being looked into, except the role of the national -civil, political, military, religious and economic – elite and their collective unaccountability. Nigerians seem oblivious of the postulation that, “the failure and success of any nation reflect the aspirations and political astuteness of the elite in that country. If the elite are dishonest, selfish and preoccupied with political gamesmanship, their example will affect the standards of the national character of its citizens. If conversely, the elite is not swayed by nepotism, are progressive, nationalistic and enterprising, their qualities can constitute the very hallmark of leadership, and constructively guide the nation.”

By being unaccountable to the nation, Nigerian elite as a collective, continue to undermine the nation and thus endorse democracy’s uncertainties. The reason is simple. “Part of the Nigerian problem is elite indiscipline. A certain elite restiveness, political, economic and social, arises out of lack of socialization beyond that which is available in homes and schools; a lack of certain ordered attitudes.” Moreover, “Nigerian elite continuously placed vested and enlightened self-interest above national interest, even in matters of universal virtues.” This is possible since Nigerian elite consist in one breathe, the leadership, the players, the regulators, the reformers, and the enforcers in the governance of corporate Nigeria. Members of the Nigerian elite mimic long standing democracies– they hardly go to war against each other.

Obaze writes from Lagos.

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