March 12, 2021

Is our democracy working? - The New Fabián Society

IF one lesson comes clear from 2020 it is that democracy is in deep crisis in Nigeria where questions abound about the state of the social compact between the people and those who lead and personify the state. Impunity seems so rife the youth mounted peaceful protests on police brutality and were greeted with bullets from the Army; people feel the benefits of good governance are eluding them, with poverty so pervasive and insecurity so threatening; and anxiety prevails as Nigeria enters a second recession in five years. What is the state of our democracy and how can we redeem it? Of the many definitions of democracy, the one that has gained the most widespread usage is offered by Abraham Lincoln. That definition sees it as a government of the people, for the people, by the people. 
This definition clearly lays out the agency role of public officials, elected or appointed. In the role of a person in public life, as an agent, his or her duty is to carry out the will of the people. Just like with corporate governance, in company life, the agent has a duty of utmost care, a fiduciary obligation to advance the best interest of those for whom they serve as agents. With so many voices being raised, complaining about government performance on these and many other issues, with little response from the Presidency in the direction suggested, or even in a show of empathy for traumatised people, is the social contract broken here? This fundamental idea that people have agreed to give up some of their freedom in exchange for the assurance of security of life and property and the provision of common services, like infrastructure, has come to define the modern era.
In a contemporary western democracy, the need to be responsive to the will of the people has resulted in tin politicians who almost have to look at the opinión polls to act. Tony Blair, as Prime Minister of Britain, and Bill Clinton as President of the US seem to have become archetypal of this form. At a point, some experts expressed worry that poll gazing was removing leadership from politics. The leader who knows better than the followers, they argue, should act for their good, the perceived common good, when the people do not know enough to act in their own best self-interest. Abraham Lincoln himself was given as an example of a transforming leader who acted almost against popular will, at the time, and better advances the interest of the people. It is thus with the benefit of hindsight that Lincoln is now globally acknowledged as the great example of a transformational leader.
James McGregor Burns in his grand tome on Leadership etched that into Holy Grail. In contemporary Nigerian experience, the Federal Government repeatedly seems to act almost with contempt against publicly expressed views of major stakeholders and the currents of public opinion. Is this the new super transforming leadership or is this the antithesis of the public opinion poll-sensitive Clinton/Blair style democracy? Where ignoring public opinion is driven by a higher ideal than the people calling for a different cause have seen, the leadership with this more noble position usually engages the people and tries to persuade them towards the more noble track. But there is no more taciturn Federal Government than the incumbent, in recent memory, the sound and fury of its information managers, which generates more irritation and opprobrium than meaning and sense, notwithstanding. In contemporary Nigeria and extant Federal Administration, the agency function suffers disregard for reasons yet to be explained.
Feelings that the Trump era, in triggering warfare between moral tribes in America, is threatening democracy, is widespread. It is already seen as inclining political culture toward subverting democracy and has resulted in books from Professors at Cambridge in the UK and Harvard with titles like This is how Democracy Dies; How Democracies End… what lessons do we find in our current challenge? Are we headed towards fascism as a few noted commentators have lamented on television? How should we read the dismissal of views of the National Assembly, Northern Elders Forum, the Sultan of Sokoto and many other eminent persons on the Service Chiefs and the State of Security in the country? Or of disregard of invitation to the President to address the National Assembly on Security. Or the government’s failure to pay attention to the call for restructuring the federation from Pastor Adeboye, leaders of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Afenifere, Prof Atahiru Jega, Northern Elders Forum, etc. One view is that to understand the disposition of the government is to understand state capture. State capture which is the systemic and systematic political corruption in which the apparatus of government is deployed to orient public choice to advance the personal material and power interest of those with a stranglehold on state apparatus has crippled many societies.
A perspective on state capture is that it blinds you to what may be the common good and results in contempt for the will of the people as exemplified by Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. The South Africans seeing its grave danger has set up the Zondo Commission to free their country from its evil even though it is hardly as entrenched there as in Nigeria. Economic development is usually very slow with this form of the governmental system as the interest of the few beneficiaries tend to trump the common good objectives in government decision making. Understanding what our current realities are is critical if we are to resolve a myriad of existential crises facing Nigeria at this time. So why did government perennially ignore public opinion, snub the outcomes of rational public conversation and often unleash social media avatars to ridicule people who help to articulate the voice of the people, which traditional wisdom sees as the voice of God; vox populi vox Dei. Explanations may be helpful to gauge the barometer of our democracy. Where does the legitimacy of the government come from if it does not consider the voice of the people as being of consequence? What lessons should we learn from former UK Prime Minister David Cameron in the handling of Brexit? He had his preferred way but turned to a referendum to determine the will of the people. Nigeria needs a few referendums at this time. If the government is accountable to the people it ought to consider this now.