Complacency is a threat to democracy

Recently, Nigerians celebrated Democracy Day with time off work and government-sponsored events nationwide. The holiday was established to commemorate the restoration of democracy in 1999, after many years of military rule. Therefore, outsiders would be surprised to learn that two of the four presidents since then have been former military dictators.

Some Nigerians believe that it is pointless voting because the polls are always rigged in favour of the incumbent party. The last election in 2015 upset that assumption, when the ruling party of the previous sixteen years lost the presidency and their majorities in the Senate and House of Assembly. The change has been underwhelming, however, forcing voters to consider whether they prefer being in the current frying pan or the previous fire.

Others believe that another change is required but no one has the slightest idea what the alternatives are. That’s because democracy, as practiced in this part of the world, is only surface deep. Below the glossy facade is a murky system so rigged that the honest and upright majority have practically given up. Well, almost.

Francis, the driver assigned to me at work, is a good example of the few who have decided to persevere, “by fire, by force”, as he would put it. A few weeks ago, he took a day off to get his voter’s card and regaled me with the details the following morning. Apparently, he got in line at 5am and his patience was rewarded after 6pm. In between, he saw far wealthier citizens breeze in and out, card in hand, after dropping a discrete tip to lubricate the wheels of democracy. Naturally, this happened under the watchful eyes of local government officials and INEC, the electoral commission.

He knew that the process, which takes only minutes, was elongated deliberately to frustrate would-be voters. He was visibly angry and became angrier still when I told him that while I was growing up in Jamaica, enumerators would go house to house to register voters; and in the U.K., every household gets a voters’ form by mail at least once a year, to account for those who have moved, died or just turned 18 years old. It’s obvious when the government wants you to vote and values your right to do so.

I went on to explain that voting every four years is not democracy, but merely one expression of the democratic process. Without the protection of human rights, participation of civil society, the right to protest and the rule of law, in which all citizens are subjected equally to the same laws and procedures, there is no democracy. It didn’t take long for Francis to realise that he had been sold an illusion of democracy and not the real deal. In Nigeria, human rights are trampled on routinely; civil society groups are often fearful of making their voices heard, for fear of victimisation; and common thieves meet justice in the marketplace, while elite looters never go to jail.

With elections looming in 2019, political activity is already winding up and there is a feeling of tension in the air. That tension is a mixture of concern, resignation, desperation and apathy. However, the overriding feeling is that very little will change, no matter the outcome. I fear that the naysayers are right – there is nothing on the horizon that appears to threaten the status quo – at least not for next year. It’s a little like asking someone to choose between two thieves and decide which one will be nicer to him when he gets robbed.

Friends always ask, “What can we do?” I don’t have all the answers but I do remember when our democracy was threatened in Jamaica in the 1970s and 80s by murder, intimidation and widespread voter fraud. Civil society fought back. They did this by writing to the newspapers, calling the radio talk shows, disavowing the politicians with bloodstained hands and getting involved in politics. Just a few years ago in the U.K. when the ‘expenses scandal’ erupted, members of parliament were summoned by their local constituency parties and either replaced, or forced to resign or retire before the next election. All of them had to repay the money they fraudulently claimed and five of them spent time in prison.

What Nigerian politics needs more than anything else is the involvement of middle class professionals because they are unlikely to be bought off by bags of rice and will be held accountable by their peers. That is where the real change will be made – when local wards and constituencies are controlled by conscientious citizens who democratically select the candidates to face the ballot box. That’s when Nigerians will be able to choose between a doctor and an architect, a local entrepreneur or a head teacher – all level-headed people – instead of the unsavoury touts and hangers-on who are forced upon them currently.

When your democracy is threatened, you can not afford to be resigned or complacent; you have to get involved at the local level, make your voice heard and try to change the dangerous trajectory of the society. I know so many amazing people in this country who genuinely care about their fellow citizens and want to make things better, but try to pretend that somehow things will improve by themselves. Millions more are in church, believing that they can do nothing more than pray.

To them I say, “It’s time to take matters into your own hands – start now, start small and make a big difference in 2023. Please, don’t tell your children that at such a critical time you stood by helplessly and watched. They may never forgive you.”

“People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.” ~ Alan Moore

“Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” ~ James Bovard

11 thoughts on “Complacency is a threat to democracy

  1. Thanks Michael….Maintenance of Democracy is hard work. There is no taking it for granted. I would like to see this piece posted prominently in the newspapers in both Jamaica and the USA. Truly worth the read although Nigeria is the subject-country at hand. Love and blessings

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  2. Many of us are disillusioned and those who have hope regardless are diminishing by the day
    Truth be told, it’s really difficult to survive in Nigeria ie getting access to the basic necessities of life like healthcare, food, power, security. Nigeria is a crippled system. In fact, there’s no system for how anything should be
    The majority of the populace whose votes can actually swing the pendulum are uneducated (illiterate) and overextended just trying to survive.
    We’ve all just found different coping mechanisms be it drinking, partying, shopping, social media addiction to the more extreme drug abuse, etc
    And thinking about it critically, most Nigerians aren’t ready for true democracy where integrity, honesty, rule of law and such like will be enforced to ensure that we build structures & systems that will enable us progress and grow as a people. We are our own problem. The average Nigerian operates a set of double standards. What is unacceptable when done to me should become acceptable when I’m the one doing it to others. This thinking/attitude is what keeps us where we are

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    1. Princess, you are absolutely right. That’s why I’ve said it’s the middle class who have the responsibility. They have life’s necessities taken care of and, most critically, they are educated, well-connected and maintain the values that have been lost for the majority. All is not lost but only action will change the situation, not wishing, hoping or praying.

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  3. I’ve learnt so much about life in Nigeria, (& by extension, Western Africa), its governance & economy since you have been there. I’ve also gained a greater appreciation of the political/economic system in Jamaica & here in the USA, as deeply flawed as they both are. I am disappointed to hear that the status quo still rules in Nigeria as from what you’ve reported in earlier blogs & discussions after the 2015 general elections, I was encouraged & hopeful that the new president’s anti-corruption stance would be the start to Nigeria finally being propelled into true democracy. Instead, it seems, apathy & hopelessness still abound. Your point about a strong & politically active middle class is well taken. This in conjunction with an impartial. vigilant & aggressive free press seem to be the catalyst for positive & sustained change. I truly hope more Nigerians would read your blogs.

    Peace

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    1. Hey Wayne, it’s wonderful to have you here! Yep, we were all cautiously hopeful that things would change but it seems that the system gets the better of anyone who tries. Fear of the anti-corruption drive has made quite a few looters return billions of dollars to the treasury but none of them have gone to jail. However, many are openly defiant and even take legal action to release funds from accounts that have been frozen by the anti-graft agencies. The president’s credibility has foundered on his inability to go after anyone in his party – the ultimate irony is that many obvious targets were in the previous government and simply switched parties to gain protection from the wrath they believed was coming. It worked. I was reading a fascinating account by an investigative journalist last week, about an arms dealer who inflated an arms contract, including the minister’s cut, and secured an order to supply the army with 20 armed boats to fight militants in the creeks of the oil-rich Niger Delta. He got a 90% deposit, went to Holland and placed the order, eventually taking the first 8 boats and delivering them to Nigeria. He collected the balance of the money but never delivered the remaining boats – no one demanded the rest of the boats or a refund of the money. Several years pass and some Dutch men are in Nigeria trying to sell the 12 boats that no one came to collect! A new middle-man does a deal with them at a nice discount and sells the boats to a different security agency at 4 times the cost of the original deal. The chairman of the agency promptly pays a 25% deposit which is converted to $2 million and delivered to him in a bag. And so it goes on. No one has been indicted.

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  4. Great post my good friend.

    The popular adage says that ‘All it takes for evil to thrive is for good men to do nothing’.

    There is a false belief in the resilience of Nigeria and Nigerians to withstand abuse.
    Unfortunately this depraved society of ours can implode in unimaginable ways.

    You are spot on about a need for ‘middle class folks’ to engage the political process. There are no leaders in the country. People are led to a destination.
    We are yet to experience true leadership and the suffering remains unimaginable.

    Some middle class folks including myself have pitched our tents with a new political party.
    Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party ANRP
    http://www.anrp.org.ng
    Folks, this is the real deal, please check it out.

    There is no savior coming to save Nigeria cos the saviour is us!

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    1. You’re absolutely right, doc. There’s this idea that if Nigerians just hold on and pray, everything will turn out just fine. Thankfully, we are beginning to see new parties like yours forming that may fill the void eventually and bring middle class values and responsible governance to the forefront of political life. Keep pushing.

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