25 April 2013

Nigeria: Can We Really Afford This Democracy?


I can understand if, from the title of this piece, you conclude that I am nursing some nostalgia for military regimes and their authoritarian impulses. This is certainly not my drift. On the contrary, I believe that the seed of many of the problems we confront in this country today - from mistrust to cries of marginalization and the crisis of nation-building they engender - were sown by the military when they used soldierly fiat and decrees to impose rules and structures that would never have seen the light of the day in a free contest of ideas. I am rather worried at the cost of our democracy - which is increasingly being corrupted to 'democrazy' and 'mob rule' as well as the tendency of this bastardized form of governance to aggravate the structures of conflict in our country.

Let me take this one step at a time. On April 10 2013, the Minister of Information, Labaran Maku disclosed that the Federal Executive Council had approved the sum of N2.1 billion for the printing of 33.5 million Permanent Voters Card for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which had earlier printed 40 million of the said cards at the cost of N2.6 billion. We were further told that the Permanent Voters' Card would be used only for the 2015 and 2019 elections after which they would be replaced by the National Identity Cards. Apart from the tantalizing technical term of 'biometric features' which the cards are said to possess and which its proponents argue will imbue transparency in the entire electoral process through a proper identification of voters, those who are not, or who refuse to be intimidated by the invincibility often ascribed to technology and its jargons, will not be afraid to ask some critical questions: is a proper identification of voters the only way elections can be rigged? Will plugging just one process in an election that comprises several processes, and which could be rigged at any stage, even at the stage of result collation or announcement, really worth the whopping sum being allocated to it? If banks and other institutions can accept drivers' licence and other forms of identification, why can't individuals whose names are on the voters' register in an area be asked to come forward with any acceptable form of identification as is the case in several countries? And if INEC really wants to play as safe as possible, why not use the temporary voters' card issued in 2011 and update it for those who did not get the card in 2011 or who were then not qualified to vote? And don't forget that by 2015 there may be new demands and new budgetary allocations to take into consideration those who may just have qualified to vote.

My personal opinion is that elections will remain a do-or-die affair in the country for as long as the state remains the major means of production and material accumulation and de-accumulation. The President or Governor can decide today to turn one pauper into a billionaire or a billionaire into a pauper. The stakes during elections are simply so high that it cannot be anything else but anarchical. The late Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana put this more euphemistically when he counseled Ghanaians to seek first the political kingdom and every other thing would be added unto them.

Not surprisingly therefore the cost of our democracy and the seeking of political offices that can be said to constitute its superstructure tend to be far more expensive than you have in other countries. For instance while in the run-up to the April 2011 elections, INEC insisted and received N87.7 billion ($576.9 million) for registering about 70 million voters, Bangladesh, a fellow developing, corrupt and populous country spent only $65 million, (about N9.7billion) for a similar exercise of biometric voters registration of some 80 million voters conducted over a period of 11 months in 2008. In 2010 Canada, spent 19.2 million Canadian dollars (or roughly N2.8 billion) to register 23 million voters. If we multiply this by three to approximate the 70 million voters registered by INEC, the cost would still be about N8.6bn for 69 million voters compared to the N87.7 billion spent by INEC to register 70 million voters.

One Opeyemi Agbaje of the Resource and Trust Company Limited estimated that in 2011 the average cost of public holidays on the national economy for the four days' holiday declared during the April 2011 elections was N270.85 billion, while the average cost of public holidays on the economy for Bauchi and Kaduna where gubernatorial elections were postponed was estimated at N3.66 billion. He also estimated that the average cost of the public holidays declared for the re-run of elections in four Local Government Areas in Imo State during that period was N350 million.

Though the April 2011 elections were infinitely better than the charades that Professor Maurice Iwu presided over as INEC chairman, it remains unclear to me whether the improvements were the result of the huge investments into the conduct of the elections or whether it was because the bar of expectation was set very low for Professor Jega after he aborted the elections mid-way on April 2 2011. My strong feeling is that irrespective of the investment in the elections, the extent to which it will be free or fair will depend on the body language of the President and on Nigerians themselves. We are the problem of our elections, not the processes.

The second limb of my concern with our democracy is its implications for nation-building.

One of the main attractions of democracy is its free speech component - the ability of people to speak their minds without censorship. Freedom of expression - a broader concept than freedom of speech - is sometimes used as a synonym not just for freedom of verbal speech but also for any act seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, irrespective of the medium used. Free speech is of course never absolute in any jurisdiction primarily because it competes with equally important values such as the right to privacy, the protection of people's reputation or the need to protect the society from potential harm from unrestrained hate or obscene speech. In general four key arguments are put forward to justify a free speech principle - the importance of discovering the truth, free speech as an aspect of self-fulfilment, free speech as being indispensable for citizens to participate in a democracy and the belief that there is a strong reason to be suspicious of the government. It is in general also believed that suppressing free speech could heighten the suspicion of authority, destroy the important civic education of tolerance and drive underground the suppressed speech where it could be romanticised in more dangerous forms. Besides, suppressing free speech is contrary to the marketplace of ideas theory popularized in the dissenting judgment of Holmes J in Abrams v US where he declared that the "ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas, that the best of the truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out."

In societies where the basis of statehood are agreed upon, the British and American models of democracy and the periodic elections that underpin them will no doubt be deepened by an almost unfettered freedom of speech. I am not so sure this is the case in societies like ours where the basis of statehood remains sharply contested. With deep institutionalized memories of hurt and suspicions by the constituent nationalities, the British and American models of democracy often end up strengthening the pull of the centrifugal forces in the society. One of the consequences is often a concerted attack on the state and its institutions by various constituent units of the state, each claiming it is marginalized or not getting a fair deal from the Nigeria project.

The crisis of nation-building tends to be more severe in the country under 'democracies' than under the military. Having lived under military dictatorships in Nigeria, I can never nurse any nostalgia for what is a good riddance. I am however arguing that it may be time that we began to look at the cost of elections and the implications of our type of democracy for nation-building. This may lead to a new debate on whether there is possibly a third way where we can preserve the freedoms that democracy guarantees without the concomitant threats to the corporate existence of the state which it seems to engender in our type of societies.

Some have argued that the current challenges in our democracy project is temporary and that in the long-run everything will be OK as our democracy matures. This may be true. But was it not the British economist John Maynard Keynes who told us that in the long run we are all dead?

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