25th September, 2013
By Tayo Ogunbiyi
The concept of democracy has received varying definitions and interpretations from scholars and political observers depending on the ideological leaning or interest of the contending scholars. Samuel Lipset offered one of the initially recognized classifications of contemporary democracy which he hinges on majority rule and minority rights. Morlino further builds on Lipset’s hypothesis by describing a democratic system as “a set of institutions and rules that allow competition and participation for all citizens considered as equals … characterized by free, fair and recurring elections.” Though scholars’ definitions of democracy may vary for obvious reasons, there are, however, certain basic features of democracy that serve as consensus among the contending perspectives. One of such is accountability. Every democratically elected government is accountable to the people, to whom it owes its existence. The other is the conduct of free and fair elections. The true representatives of the people must emerge through credible electoral process. One other basic component of democracy is the availability and sustenance of basic democratic institutions.
In Nigeria, despite the several hiccups in our current democratic expedition, it is gladdening that we have had thirteen years of uninterrupted democratic experience. This, in itself is quite significant in view of the fact that previous efforts at entrenching democracy in the polity were either aborted midway or simply emerged dead on arrival. Now that democracy is gradually being entrenched in the nation’s polity, is the precise time to encourage certain tendencies that would further help in consolidating democratic principles and values in the country.
One of such tendencies is institution building. A good number of the crisis being currently experienced in the system is a reflection of the faulty nature of democratic institutions in the country. Non-adherence to the principle of internal democracy is partially responsible for the stalemates heating up the polity. Rather than adopt arbitrary rules in the way they are run, political parties need to tilt towards institutionalizing their mode of operation. One of the distinguishing features of democracy is its participatory nature. Therefore, any system that encourages ‘powerful’ individuals within a political framework to hijack party structure and operation is far from being democratic. For democracy to really overcome its teething stage in the country, political parties must make effort to promote participatory democracy.
Also of equal significance is the necessity for a clear cut separation of powers as affirmed by the constitution, between the executive arm and other arms of government. Fortunately, there seems to be a relative measure of independence in the way the legislative arms across the country now carry out their functions. This is against the backdrop of what used to be the trend in the early years of the current political dispensation. However, there is still much to be done in ensuring that every arm of government operates independently and interdependently according to the spirit of the constitution. Since legislatures constitute elected representatives of the people, it is important that they truly provide the checks and balances needed to guarantee transparency and accountability in the system. Any attempt by the two arms of government to deliberately short-change the people, aside being a betrayal of trust, would be fundamentally injurious to the system.
This is no less correct in respect of the judiciary arm of government. Indeed, if there is any government institution that needs to function outside of external influence, it is the judiciary. As it is often said, the judiciary is the last hope of the ordinary citizens. But for this to remain a reality, the judiciary must remain strictly independent, principled and upright. There had been instances in the past that painted the judiciary in bad light with judges giving frivolous injunctions. Since ‘what goes around comes around’, it is in the best interest of the polity, and indeed everyone, that the judicial organ of the state is preserved and protected from all manner of compromise. This is the only way to build an effective and enduring democratic culture.
Same goes for all the state’s security organs. While it could be said that the military has, to a reasonable extent, remained professionally focused on its constitutional role, unfortunately same cannot be really said of the police. The police are a core component of a democratic society. Over the years, the tendency has been for the police to operate as a stooge of the central government. While it should be stressed that things are a bit better under the leadership of the present Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar, it should be stated, in clear terms, that the Nigeria Police Force is yet to really grapple with its constitutional responsibilities in a democracy. When police operate under the rule of law they may protect democracy by their example of respect for the law but when they act contrarily they threaten democracy.
Though we are currently experiencing one of the most promising phases in the history of our political development, it should be stressed that the presence of democratically elected governments does not always correspond to democratic exercise of power, quality governance, or the effectiveness of government institutions. Recent developments have demonstrated that our democracy is increasingly being threatened by collective risks such as organized crime, public safety concerns and violence which endanger the exercise of citizenship and human rights. The relentless vulnerability of government institutions and, in some instances, the wearing down of the state’s capability to carry out its most basic functions and make available public goods eventually damages the authenticity and sustainability of democracy.
Another related threat comes from the “parallel institutions” gradually becoming more noticeable in many aspects in the country. These arise when informal or even illegal activities “capture” public institutions whose rules, practices and policies begin to favour or answer to private or even criminal interests, thereby destroying the ability of government to provide goods and services in the public interest. Most public corporations in the country are today in bad shape because of this contradiction that has made it difficult for government officials to draw the line between public interest and self interest. If our democracy is to thrive such contradictions must stop.
To consolidate democracy, restore a functioning economy, and promote sustainable economic growth, we need to strengthen the various organs of government and other institutions of governance. Perhaps more importantly, the people must begin to hold government accountable by becoming more active in terms of political culture and engaging the leaders more constructively. For democracy to truly be the government of the people, it is important that the people really understand the power they wield in a democracy. Indeed, as it is often said, and truly so, power belongs to the people, but certainly not for docile, weak and apolitical people.
•Ogunbiyi is of the Features Unit, Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja