Democracy Day and anxieties about 2019


Ayo Olukotun

On Tuesday, May 29, government at the centre as well as subnational governments will dutifully present report cards about their performances to the Nigerian electorate. Importance is attached to this year’s celebration of Democracy Day, to the extent that it is the last account of stewardship to be rendered by our leaders, before it comes to the turn of the voters to deliver their own verdict.

Politicians, being the eternal optimists that they are, go round the country predicting victories for themselves and their parties. They are so engrossed in their animated discussions and confident predictions of victory that you can hardly get a word across to them. “The All Progressives Congress, or Peoples Democratic Party or the newly born African Democratic Congress will win the 2019 elections hands down”, you often read in our newspapers; and you feel like shouting “So, what if they win, see where their past victories have landed us.”

In other words, the many Democracy Days as well as elections that have come and gone have not significantly improved our lives or even consolidated our fledgling democracy. Recall the anecdote, involving one of the former leaders of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, who was at some point involved in modernisation projects tagged collectivisation. Though well-intentioned, collectivisation, an attempt to drag the country forcibly into the modern world, brought great suffering to the Russian people causing deaths in droves. So, it was narrated that on one occasion at   the height of the suffering of the Russian People, the ghost of Vladimir Lenin, a Russian statesman and Stalin’s predecessor appeared to Stalin and asked him: “How goes it; I hope there is no problem? Rising to his feet, Stalin answered, ‘No sir, there is no problem; the people are all with me’. The ghost of Lenin then retorted: “One more collectivisation plan and the people will all be with me”. Obviously apocryphal, the anecdote is a kind of morality tale on the dangers of leaders driving full speed, into a vision without carrying the people along.

In the case of the former Soviet Union, it was the tragedy of a bold vision that shoved the people into the dustbin and into early graves. In the case of Nigeria, there is commensurate suffering, but it is hard to discern an overarching vision of governance, and we are forced to speculate thereby, that our unending woes are the result of incompetent leaders and failing institutions. For example, when you compute how many Nigerians are dispatched to the great beyond daily, through road accidents, derived from dilapidated and dangerous roads; from infectious diseases; from herdsmen killings; from armed gangs operating unfettered in poorly policed neighbourhoods, you wish that you had efficiently governed structures along with visionary and compassionate leaders.

Part of the anxieties about 2019 is the foreboding that it may turn out to be no more than the electoral vanity of holding elections for the world to notice. This is a phenomenon which influential political scientist, Prof Adigun Agbaje, described recently as electoralism, referring thereby to a polity such as ours where elections are held routinely, but everyone knows that they will not bring about basic changes in the lives of the ordinary people. That said, it is at least a comforting illusion that our leaders still accept to subject themselves to the principle of voter sovereignty, even when the voters know that they do not decide much. That is another way of saying that there’s something to be said for a system that regulates itself by the principle and practice of holding periodic elections.

As known, preparations for the 2018 and 2019 elections, Ekiti and Osun governorship elections are just around the corner, are in high gear. Politicians are busy forming alliances, making deals, creating new parties, and wooing political rivals. However, the coast is far from clear to the extent that a great deal of apprehension attends the onset of the current election season. To amplify the point, is it not queer that on the eve of elections, massacres of innocent civilians in the course of their duties are going on apace in North-Central Nigeria? Only on Tuesday, a programme of mass burial was held for two Catholic priests and 17 parishioners, in Benue State who were murdered a month earlier. The ceremony was accompanied by nationwide protests concerning the deteriorating state of insecurity.

Sadly, some of the people returning from the mass burial were again ambushed and massacred by the increasingly ubiquitous, yet to be identified roving gangs. That happened the day before scores of passengers travelling between Birnin Gwari and Kaduna were ambushed and dispatched to premature deaths. So, while it may be alarmist to talk about postponing elections considering the mischief that could be perpetrated by such a step, the question must be asked whether those in charge of security, beginning from President Muhammadu Buhari have really thought through the kind of atmosphere that is needed before elections can be safely held.

The other danger signal to mind concerns the internal state of the parties and the tendencies of politicians to resort to violence as dramatically illustrated in the recent nationwide primaries of the All Progressives Congress. True, there is nothing unexpected about a big party like the APC having internal cracks, what is worrisome however is the scale of violence, unlawful conduct, thuggery, and free-for-alls that attended the event. Although this did not occur in all the states, the situation calls for strategies to prevent elections that may be marred by violence either externally generated or created by disaffected party members. Obviously, if the situation gets more awry, the Independent National Electoral Commission may be prevented from carrying out its polling duties. The politicians apparently are yet to learn the lessons of previous elections that were ruined by violence with tragic consequences.

The issues involved here go beyond security to connote justice and fair play, as well as the need for party leaders to spare no effort in fence-mending and conflict resolution. Notwithstanding the fact that the vogue these days is to abandon governance for politics, our leaders must take note that rising dissatisfaction, not just about identity conflicts, but about economic deprivation does not provide an even keel to mount successful elections. Hence, the economy with the revealed possibility of another recession must continue to be the focus of policymaking. In this respect, it will be helpful to mainstream the welfare dimensions of policy, taking account of the growing army of unemployed youths and others whose personal desperation conduces them to violence.

The other point to be made concerns the emptiness and lack of clear ideas of the politicians. It is as if each party is hoping to win by the default of other parties. The PDP is banking on the possibility that dissatisfaction with the governance of the ruling party will give it a sneak victory. The ruling party is hoping that other parties will, by virtue of their disarray, be unable to give them a good run for their money. We know what they are against, but now we need to know, and that urgently, what they are for.