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