Posted by News Express | 2 September 2019 | 580 times
We have been travelling for nearly 59 years since independence, and the last 20 years non-stop. That is a long time to travel. But, why is it taking us so long? Where are we really going to? Where are we now? How far have we travelled? How long would it likely take? How long should it normally take? Why are we so slow? Is it because of our vehicle? Is it because of our drivers? Is it because we are too many in the vehicle?
This article is about the journey to democracy. It is about power and people. The vehicle is our country and our political structures and systems of laws, policy choices and actions. The people are the passengers who are asking the questions, and they are also co-drivers. We are all in it together. About 200 million Nigerians. But, particularly adult Nigerians who should by now have agency and power. Who, by working together have the power to constantly assess and change the direction and pace at which our country is travelling. So, that we can handover a much better country to future generations.
What model, are we following?
We have modelled our presidential system of government after the United States of America (US). The US is also not on a perfect journey. It has been on its own journey for over 243 years (since it declared independence on the 4th of July 1776). It is still travelling. So, we have just started! But we can make fair and nuanced comparisons within the contexts of our own complex history and circumstances. To learn from the successes and failures. After all, the US is also the product of colonisation and authoritarianism. Its early beginning was even more complicated. With a diverse immigrant population in search of freedom; slavery; native Americans; and many more challenges.
But the founders of the US were thinkers who had much cognitive depth and flexibility, and who had an abiding faith in God. They wanted a different trajectory and future for America. It had to do with a radical idea about power. Inspired and courageous to defend their convictions, they declared at independence:
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The declaration of independence challenged the existing thinking at the time. That “might” is “right”. There was a monopoly of power. The people were subjects. They had no rights. Access to property or any economic means was at the discretion of the authoritarian king and advisers in court. Some people of power claimed to be representatives of God on earth. But, the founders of America believed that all people are created equal in God’s image, therefore, endowed with certain inalienable rights by God, and not by the government. That it is not within the power of government to take away God-given rights. The role of government it was, to create an orderly environment, that guards the people’s God-given liberties to achieve their potential.
This radical idea changed the power equation and course of history in America and the world. It transformed the people from subjects (to an authoritarian king), into free citizens of the republic. Thereby restoring their God-given rights and power. For, in a republic and constitutional democracy, such as the US, the source of power is the people. Sovereign. Together, people lend some powers to the constitution from which the government exercises limited authority. People retain their rights and their power in spite of, and not because of the government. “Limited government”, therefore, means that the government should concentrate on creating the right regulatory (legal, political, economic, social and physical) environment to the extent that order and the God-given rights of the people are guarded, but not to take rights away.
Learning from modelling our system of government after the United States
Whilst times and circumstances may be different, Nigeria has the experience of others to learn from. Nigeria and the US share some commonalities. Both countries have diverse ethnic nationalities, due to the history of colonisation and authoritarianism. Although in the US, ethnic diversity is the result of immigration.
However, while the history of colonisation and authoritarianism continues to define Nigeria, the US found the inspiration from the courage of the convictions of its founders, to undertake fundamental restructuring of power. Trusting in God and convinced about the God-given rights to all people, Americans built strong communities and strong mediating institutions. They determined the letters and spirit of the American Constitution, based on their idea and ideals. The American Constitution then defined the roles, behaviour, and the limits of government, ensuring that the Constitution did not facilitate the replacement of one authoritarian by another.
The other important things that we should have learnt from the US when we decided to model ours after theirs (in terms of the nature of the freedom they understood and fought for, to define the independence of not just the country, but for individuals and communities), include:
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed down for them to do the same.”
‘The oligarchy trap’ on way to democracy
In the journey towards democracy, we travel through different power-relations zones. From a zone where one person (the king or dictator or despot) has absolute power (often abused to dominate and oppress), as we travel towards democracy. We expect that as we journey towards democracy, our vehicle would turbo-charge and we would soon enter a zone of democratic freedoms combined with an economic revolution that would improve the living standards of everyone.
But, as the journey begins, problems start to lead to systematic failures. Thus, we are unable to accelerate the journey fast enough towards democracy. Then, the people inadvertently enter an ‘oligarchy trap’, where only a small group of people control political and economic power meant for all the people. In this circumstance, the journey towards democracy slows or may even stop to create an orderly and enabling environment. One that is based on strong institutions, and that guards and protects the people’s God-given rights. Without the freedom and liberty that democracy promises, oligarchy becomes the cover-up and the impostor.
It is the exercise of the people’s rights that unleashes human potential in a way that continuously pushes the envelope and the limits, to conquer new frontiers. It is new ideas that subject existing knowledge, assumptions, ways and means, to scrutiny; making obsolete the ‘old and usual’, while often creating new pathways for progress. It is freedom that accommodates alternative reasoning and voices. And, in a diverse country, it is freedom that increases the pool of fresh perspectives even when they may be disruptive.
Freedom promotes a culture of scientific research that observes high ethical standards in search of evidence and new discoveries. It is evidence that is the fuel for facts-based political debates on social and economic policy choices; and for the innovations that create jobs and wealth. It is freedom that reinforces democratic principles while localising political discourse.
The ‘oligarchy trap’ strikes at and can destroy, the roadway to democracy. The journey becomes prolonged, perilous and frustrating. As the few with the means are so heavily invested in the status quo to retain power, there is limited (or no) space for dissenting voices. Old ways and means continue. In the words of Albert Einstein:
“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”
In the absence of new ideas and fresh perspectives, the political, social, economic and environmental problems are more likely to worsen. If this scenario sounds familiar, it is likely that it is an ‘oligarchy trap’. To progress on the journey to democracy requires to first break loose from the trap.
How did we get into the ‘oligarchy trap’ while travelling to democracy?
It is important to know how we got into the ‘oligarchy trap’ so that we can get out of it fast. Also, to avoid it as we restart our journey towards democracy. We got into the ‘oligarchy trap’ because civil society and the independent media took their eyes away from the journey ahead. It is true that they fought military dictatorships and others. After that exhausting fight, it was like “freedom at last” and there was no one else to fight.
But they were mistaken. It was only the beginning. Whereas the people could now ‘somehow’ be said to elect their representatives, the people had little credible information, and the facts about the politics, policies, and the fitness of nominees and candidates to serve. The people could not objectively assess based on merit. Therefore, they did not yet have the power and agency needed to strengthen the voice behind their vote – yes, informed consent. This is the sense in which one can say that those 'elected' are not the representatives of the people. No wonder they have not pursued the right policy choices and environments to bring order to society and to guard the people’s freedom.
The people need the right environment to enable individuals and community volunteers to solve common problems. The people need strong mediating institutions whose mission should be non-discriminatory and fair to all. Institutions that will resolve bottlenecks, bring clarity and certainty, and not become constraints. The people need well trained, equipped and better rewarded and motivated law enforcement (the institution and officers). A service that would understand their roles in a democracy. One of intelligence-led security. That understands law enforcement as guarding citizen’s rights and providing an orderly environment for liberty.
Some of what the people needed could have been directly provided by civil society. There are also the things that civil society should have facilitated by holding elected officials and government to account, in continuation of the fight. Instead, while some members of civil society became part of the ‘political process as usual’, others took too long breaks away (and are now reacting instead of responding), confusing civilian rule with democracy. Indeed, we were only beginning our journey to democracy.
Civil society, our watchers and keepers, did not examine the ‘vehicle’ that we were travelling in well enough. For they would have found that the very political structure, system of laws and policy choices that they had expected to convey us safely towards democracy would trap us in an oligarchy. If they scrutinised long enough and did not wane, civil society would have found that the very fundamentals on which the progress and outcomes of our journey towards democracy depended, were weak. They would have continued to fight much harder to strengthen the fundamentals. But here we are, in it together.
What is the way out of the ‘oligarchy trap’?
It is civil society and the independent media that will get us out of this trap. But it is only patriotic zeal, inspiration and the courage of conviction that can (and should) motivate. Nothing else. It is therefore not going to be easy as oligarchy would disguise in plain sight of a faltering ‘journey to democracy’, to quieten dissent, and stifle new and contrasting ideas.
To succeed in getting us out of the ‘oligarchy trap’, civil society would have to work differently this time and be more strategic. But it has the benefit of good examples. It would have to go back to basics. To revisit the experience of the American people. What is a democracy? It is as much about the rights of individuals as it is about how individual rights are exercised within thriving [‘political’] communities. This is the point we missed. So:
People working together in communities to accomplish the greater good will restore the social bond and capital, required to transform the way we govern. From governing isolated individuals to governing communities that have collective agency. This will systematically take back power to the people on our journey to democracy. Vesting in oligarchy the power to determine the very things on which the survival of the people depends would only justify bigger government. It would mean grabbing of more political and economic powers, and the misuse for regressive ends.
But civil society and the independent media should also advocate for a unique national identifier for every Nigerian as part of a social (national) insurance system. This will provide the backbone for integrating, harmonising, securing and strengthening data systems on Nigerians. When we strengthen registration systems and insist on ‘data in every policy’, we build the foundation for transparency, planning, smarter and more intelligent policymaking. The public, private and social sector performs better; our economy becomes more efficient and outcomes more predictable. It also becomes easier to enforce laws and to keep us safe.
Election rigging is one of the worst forms of corruption. It is an assault on the free will of the electorate, therefore, an existential threat to our journey to democracy. We should not spare any cost in securing the integrity of our elections; and in ending the chaos, violence, deaths, election petitions and many litigations that waste resources and embarrass our country.
The mobile phone, Internet technology applications, and expertise required to support, and secure online voting exist in Nigeria. If we are serious and determined to continue our journey to democracy (to guard the rights and increase opportunities for all Nigerians), electoral fraud should be considered in our laws as most egregious to attract proportionate sanctions. Agreed that online voting would have its own challenges, but it is the future to manage. For now, we know that it is more likely to limit most election rigging, protect lives and properties, and provide the evidence to secure a prosecution. Online voting would enable Nigerians to freely elect their true representatives, who will fear the people indeed.
The case for restructuring must be based on the underlying economic data. How would restructuring transform local governance into focusing on strengthening community systems? Leveraging on factor endowments and human capital to build stable local economies that improve the living standards of everyday people. A restructuring that pursues progressive fiscal and monetary policies as appropriate to the locality.
The kind of restructuring that would promote peace through inter-community collaboration and trade, community relations, and strong mediating institutions that is fair. But restructuring will require constitutional changes. Civil society and the independent media should lead in gathering, presenting and communicating the evidence that convinces the sovereign to act.
There is a relationship between democratic rights and choices. Especially, economic choices should complement the journey to democracy. While the Nigerian economy has done well for few Nigerians, enormous wealth has been extracted from the economy through the systematic transfer of public resources into private capital, and the subsequent monopolies that mostly offer Nigerians limited or no choices at all. The former happens within the definitions and margins of corruption. The latter, often as part of global supply chains, into an economy that depends heavily on imports for consumption.
It is difficult for Nigeria to sustain this economic model, given its limited foreign exchange earnings. Our economy is not yet able to sell that much ‘value’ to the rest of the world. It, therefore, makes common-sense to transition our economy. Civil society should lead these enlightened debates.
Our policy choices must consider the nature of the post-world war II rules-based, global monetary and financial systems; the increasing use of trade to conduct foreign policy; and Nigeria’s large population (majority youth) in need of decent jobs, affordable goods and services. Civil society must lead in the use of credible evidence in public discourse, on the implications of climate change, resource competition and migration. It should also lead, on appraising technology and possibilities. For example, how artificial intelligence would impact labour markets, global competition, security and the diversification of threats and opportunities.
Civil society and the independent media should lead in the conversation to create the enabling environment for local businesses. So that our economy can retool and grow, based on local production and consumption, denominated in Naira.
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