The illusion of democracy

Yesterday, I could hear the cacophony of blaring horns, booming music and excited chatter coming from a political march, less than 200 metres from my house. It signalled the beginning of a long and hectic campaign season, leading to the Nigerian presidential election in late February 2023. Roads were blocked for hours while people exercised their constitutional rights on Independence Day, 62 years after an optimistic nation looked forward to a peaceful and prosperous future that has since descended into chaos.

Naturally, many Nigerians are hoping that this election will lead to lasting change and a halt to the steady decline in the country’s social, economic and political fortunes. However, it seems strange that many are looking in the same places, to the same people who have led them down this tortured path. Could it be that when things have been so bad, for so long, that they feel the problem can only be solved by the leaders who have grappled with the issues the longest? Or, is it that the fear of the unknown is even greater than their hunger for change? Perhaps, it’s better to stick with the devils they know, than take the risk of things getting worse, right?

The answer to this conundrum lies in the extent to which voters are able to make informed choices and how confident they are in being able to hold newly elected candidates accountable. So far, Nigeria has a questionable record in this regard. Unlike the Democrats and Republicans in the USA who organise presidential debates jointly before every election, the candidates of the PDP and APC, Nigeria’s main parties, failed to show for their last debate in 2019. Tellingly, one became the president and the other is contesting again next year. In terms of accountability, the situation is hardly different. The Nigerian media does not engage in investigate reporting and journalists do very little research, often reporting on behalf of the highest bidder or squashing a revealing story for a fee. Even the biggest scandals, often involving millions of dollars, disappear from the headlines eventually.

The commitment of the nation’s politicians to accountability was aptly demonstrated by the 12-year debate, the longest in Nigerian history in the National Assembly, before they passed the Freedom of Information Act grudgingly in 2011. Designed to enable citizens to hold the government liable for the misappropriation of public funds or failure to deliver on its services, the Act has been resisted in every area of the public sector since then. My guess is that most Nigerians are not even aware that they can request information and demand answers from government ministries, agencies and services, and that those requests, by law, have to be met.

Nigeria’s political class has succeeded in creating an illusion of democracy, cleverly supported by a four-year election cycle. Rather than governing on behalf of the majority, through building consensus on important issues, promoting tolerance between religious and tribal groups, and trying to create social inclusion, their strategy is to seize and abuse power for their own interests, rather than those of the people they govern. Elections result in ‘winner takes all’ battles, with no room for the vanquished opposition to play their part in holding the government responsible for its promises over the next term.

In an environment where almost all government business is conducted with an element of corruption – bribes, kickbacks, favours and political ‘godfatherism’ – democracy becomes a criminal enterprise that emerges eventually as impunity.

How does a democracy function on behalf of the people, if more than 200 buildings collapse in just 20 years, with thousands of lives lost, simply because regulators look the other way when developers flout planning laws or use substandard materials? How do people feel safe, when more than 50% of police officers are busy guarding VIPs and the rest are best known for extorting bribes from motorists? What’s the future for its young people, when university lecturers can go on strike for 230 days (as of 30 September 2022) and not a single minister, governor or senator, to my knowledge, has children that are affected – because they are all studying abroad or in private universities. Where is the rule of law, when kidnapping is seen as a lucrative, low-risk occupation by desperate young men all over the country?

With nearly four more months of marches and rallies left; the payment of millions of dollars to regional and religious leaders; and the distribution of rice, motorcycles, naira and merchandise; I’m hoping against hope that Nigerians will make wise choices, determined to ensure that this election will be a break from decades of disappointment and the first step in building a liberal democracy – with a foundation of strong public institutions; greater social inclusion and participation in public debate; freedom of speech; a higher level of education for all; a strong, independent media; a judiciary free from undue influence and interference; security and safety for the majority; regulatory agencies that operate for the greater good; and a government that is responsive and accountable to its citizens.

A liberal democracy can only be created and sustained if the Nigerian people insist on it, because it is the opposite of what every power-hungry, self-interested politician desires. Nigerians will have to fight for it, every step of the way, to ensure no ethnic, regional, social class, or business interest tries to dominate or exploit the others, and that there is popular consent for government policies. Once enshrined, such a democracy will provide progress through peaceful coexistence and the promotion of the best ideas for the interest of all. With progressive economic policies, prosperity will increase and, in turn, create an environment for greater innovation and freedom of expression for all Nigerians.

Isn’t that worth fighting for?

A healthy democracy requires a decent society; it requires that we are honorable, generous, tolerant and respectful. – Charles W. Pickering

Corruption is a cancer: a cancer that eats away at a citizen’s faith in democracy, diminishes the instinct for innovation and creativity; already-tight national budgets, crowding out important national investments. It wastes the talent of entire generations. It scares away investments and jobs. – Joe Biden

8 thoughts on “The illusion of democracy

  1. Excellent albeit sad commentary. If only the citizens who ultimately vote for the leadership had access to essays like this and truly gave thought before voting as usual. Still, there is always hope, new generations arise, understanding develops and one day, one day, things just might change for the better in Nigeria.


  2. A powerful commentary. Unfortunately this type of democratic or kleptocratic system is present in various degrees in most of the former European colonies. Hoping one day the people will organize and force a system that work for the greater good.


  3. I thought by levels we are ,we suppose have common knowledge .Nigerians should be standard country through our mineral resources by letting others country know things we have.62 years no achievement.


  4. I have never seen a set of youth as determined and full of energy as we have now, infant, if i were a king maker, i would say that we should not bother to vote next year because we already know who the Messiah will be as we can see everyday.

    But you see, it is not a matter of weather we conduct a march, crusade, parade or openly declare who we want as it is seen now, neither is it a matter of the answers we get verbally when we ask people who they support, it is not even a matter of openly criticizing a particular candidate just to prove that you support aspirant A, B or C, but how prepared are we for that D-Day?.
    what we see everyday is what i would like to call “PUBLIC SOCIAL – MEDIA DISPLAY” (PSD).
    the other party supporters have been in the game for so long that they know how to go about these kind of important matters, they don’t stress, you don’t see them outside anyhow

    it will interest you all to know that from my little chat with a large number of youths i come across every time, about 60% of these youths that are clamoring for a change are without the voting instrument through which they can actually decide who rules this great nation. some of them have registered for their cards without doubt, but will they ever see the card before the voting day?

    what we need now is a unanimous call for the release of the already registered cards and not a public showcase of candidates.

    i trust we are not the set of youths that proves right the adage that says “it is the empty barrel that makes the loudest noise”

    my name is Chris, i have my PVC, and i am proud to say that i will go out and vote.

    God bless Nigeria.


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