16 March 2010

Article: Can we afford this democracy?

"Can we afford this democracy?" is an article by Moses Ochonu that appeared serialized over the past few weeks in Nigeria's "Peoples Daily" newspaper.

The article can be read free of charge online:

Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

Excerpts: "I am starting a three-part commentary to raise some pertinent questions about our so-called democratic dispensation. [...]
I am resentful of the finality and triumphalism with which democracy fanatics define their fanciful concept. I have also sensed a disturbing complacency in our politicians and intellectuals as they try to enunciate democracy for the rest of us. They assume erroneously that democracy is its own justification – that simply being baptized with the moniker of democracy is sufficient. And that Nigerians, dispossessed they may be, will be satisfied with a political concept that, as currently practiced in Nigeria, stands empty of its substantive content. [...] My good friend, Ikhide Ikheloa, a literary critic and Next columnist, has been on a personal mission. His aim: to orchestrate the demise of our current 'democracy.' He is so convinced that democracy is a mortal danger to Nigerians that he equates its dissolution to an epic struggle for political liberation; liberation from predation and legalized, 'democratic' oppression.

"For Ikhide, democracy has, far from doing Nigeria good, set the country back decades and provided a perfect alibi for the political class to bankrupt and bury the country once and for all. [...] The material promise of democracy, that is, the supposed correlation between democracy and improved standards of living, has yet to materialize for Nigerians in almost eleven unbroken years of 'democracy.' [...] Even advertized abstract benefits like press freedom, human rights, the right to free political choice, and the right to make deliberative input in governance have all been denied Nigerians under this democracy. While we saw flickers of these benefits in the wake of military disengagement in 1999, today's 'democratic' environment resembles the regimented, freedom-less days of military rule. [...] 'Democracy' has provided the perfect alibi for corruption – massive corruption. 'Democracy' has – forgive the redundancy – democratized corruption. Under the military, corruption was essentially a quasi-monopoly; it was tightly controlled by a small cohort. Under our 'democracy,' the need to cultivate political support and immunity means that the loot has to circulate.

"Democracy has also made corruption legitimate. [...] Under our current 'democratic' practice public officials steal legally. They only have to underwrite what they steal as a licit item in the budget bill. [...] Democracy has licensed and unleashed novel evils on our country. [...] Nigerian public office holders at all levels are the highest paid in the world. Together with their string of assistants and advisers (who also have their own paid advisers), our public officers gobble up at least half of our revenue and budgetary appropriations in legitimate rewards. [...] This prohibitive overhead has left us with a smaller pool of funds than ever to invest in the things that matter to Nigerians: roads, healthcare, schools, water, electricity, and food. This odd financial state of low return on 'democratic' investment is unsustainable. Something has to give. [...]

"The country now teeters precariously because the ritualistic niceties of democracy stand in the way of pragmatic, decisive, patriotic action. This preference for process over productive outcomes is one reason why democracy is losing its appeal with many Nigerians. [...] The irritant [...] is that 'democracy' has been reduced in practice to – and accepted as being constituted by – only one of its many elements: the ritualistic conduct of periodic, incumbent-rigged elections. Every other hyped benefit of democracy has eluded Nigerians. [...] Instead of asking how a policy might help Nigerians, officials ask how it would win them the next elections – how it would enrich campaign donors and party godfathers and how much it would generate for the election war chest. This permanent campaign culture is a costly drawback of democracy [...]. With such a low return on democracy, and with 'democracy' being so costly and toxic to the body politic, it is no surprise that many Nigerians have begun to question their loyalty to the received wisdom that democracy is superior to its alternatives.

"For many Nigerians and Africans democracy has failed. [...] So glaring is this failure and so painful are the betrayals of Africa's 'democrats' that ten thousand Nigeriens recently poured into the streets of Niamey to rally in support of the new military regime there. Westerners may be scrambling to comprehend this dramatic reversal of public opinion from a craving for a democratic overthrow of a military dictatorship eleven years ago to an enthusiastic embrace of a military overthrow of a 'democratic' regime today. But this is something that people in neighboring Nigeria can explain and understand. [...] There is no innate or sacred loyalty to democracy in Nigerians – or, for that matter, in any other people. The degree of Nigerians' attachment to the concept corresponds to the benefits that they see it delivering or the damage it is doing to their lives. This is why democracy is suffering setbacks across Africa. [...]

"The question is: what is democracy's worth if the way we practice it imperils our country and its people and widens the crevices that divide us? Would we rather preserve a pretentious democracy and lose the nation? [...] Most Nigerians [...] would prefer an effective military regime that consciously improves their lives to a 'democratic' regime that is preoccupied with a systematic violation of their lives and rights. [...] Nigeria's intellectual and political elites are fond of saying that the worst democratic regime is better than the best military regime. This is at best elitist, out-of-touch rhetoric, a talking point of pro-democracy advocacy. Most Nigerians would reject this proposition outright."

Nigerian-born Moses Ochonu is Assistant Professor of History at Vanderbilt University in the USA.

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