May 29 2018

19 years since 1999, democracy hasn’t delivered the promise of social upliftment for most Nigerians. But the solution doesn’t lie with the authoritarianism of Kagame and Lee Kuan Yew that many increasingly wish for. It lies in more democracy.

Last year, to mark the 18th anniversary of Nigeria’s return to democratic rule, I wrote that Nigeria’s democracy had not only failed to deliver everything that it promised, but had also become an oxymoron. One year on, things are worse. The rule of law has been so persistently suppressed by this government that it has all but disappeared from our political landscape. An escape from recession for the economy has not translated into any relief from the poverty and desperation that more than 100 million Nigerians face. Security, in the face of massacres by herdsmen, continuing attacks by Boko Haram and rising cases of armed robberies, is a mirage for most Nigerians, save for the rich and powerful. And the anti-corruption campaign, on which this government sought and claimed its legitimacy, is, for all intents and purposes, dead and gone. All of these factors form the diagnoses of a failed democracy which is leading to more clamor for “strong” leaders like Paul Kagame and Lee Kwan Yew.

“Rwanda can boast of a president who puts action to his vision. He is empowering his people with quality education, electricity, technology, well-constructed roads with good drainages, quality healthcare and the enabling environment and right policy for small and medium scale enterprises to expand and create jobs,” Ogochukwu Paul wrote in a report, advocating for Nigeria to take a leadership crash course. A few years before that and following the death of Singaporean strongman Lee Kuan Yew, an article in the extolled Yew’s leadership style as that which should be emulated by Nigeria. “Lee invented a pragmatic system of governance, void of pseudo-ideological frills, yet, artily integrated democracy with benevolent authoritarianism and the free market with state capitalism,” part of the article read.

Today, with the country bereft of any form of leadership, Nigerians, from street corners to social media handles, are openly wishing for some form of “benevolent authoritarianism.” This sentiment, in part, contributed to the victory of President Muhammadu Buhari at the 2015 polls. Once a military no-nonsense dictator, President Buhari was viewed as a strong leader who would coerce Nigeria unto the righteous path of anti-corruption and socio-economic progress. Three years down the line, that sentiment has been proven wrong; rather than knock some sense into our politics and enforce some direction for the country, President Buhari’s government has performed just as worse as the ineffectual and regressive governments before his. It is for this very reason that we must persist with our democracy and avoid the lure to look for leaders like Kagame and Yew.

Rwanda and Singapore are very attractive countries, and their stories quite romantic. However it is important to note that the success of their governance models, in the sense that it has delivered societal stability and economic growth, is an exception. The world is surfeit with authoritarians like Kagame and Yew who all claim to be the embodiment of their people’s interests, but their countries, whether in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe or the Americas, are riddled with corruption, wealth and income inequality and several layers of oppression. There is a very low chance that if we opted for a strongman as leader and closed our eyes to democratic values, we would get ourselves a “good” Kagame.

It is also important to examine what exactly a good Kagame and Yew means. This is because, if one stays true to the primary definition of good leadership within a democratic setup, neither of these “strongmen” would cut it. Kagame rules Rwanda by fear and compulsion, and Lee Kuan Yew marshalled Singapore by curtailing civil liberties and using the courts to silence criticisms and the opposition; these are certainly not examples of good leadership. If they were—and the hallmark of good leadership is leaving behind an enduring legacy—then Kagame wouldn’t have feared for the future of Rwanda so much that he extended rule for, possibly, the next 17 years. The party of the late Lee Kuan Yew would also not have to maintain a very tight and reactionary grip on power. Ethiopia offers a good example of what happens when some of that power slips; within the space of 36 months, the East African country has gone from the poster boy of African development, praised by Barack Obama himself, to a state teetering on the edges of socio-political turmoil.

So then, if Kagame and Yew’s “limited Democracy” aren’t good prescriptions for our ailing democracy, what is?

The answer is democracy.

The fact is that Democracy without prefixes—such as “guarded”, “limited” or “quasi”—delivers economic development and shared prosperity without sacrificing an iota of human rights or civil liberties. It isn’t a matter of coincidence that the top ten countries with the highest living standards also score very highly in democratic governance. What is even more interesting is the fact that the past and present leaders of most of these leading countries are virtually unknown when compared to the strongmen of Africa, Asia or the Americas. That is because democracy is not about a leader, it is about the people. However, we have gotten this fact wrong for the past 19 years.

Anyone who pays attention to the political conversations across the country would realise that most Nigerians are more interested in finding a good leader than building a good democracy.  Many believe that Nigeria needs its own Moses to lead the country out of the captivity of corruption and underdevelopment, as well as its own David, to bring all the tribes together. The problem with this narrative is that it mystifies leadership as some rare once in a century gift handed to a divinely chosen individual.

Nigeria doesn’t need its own Moses or David, what it needs are ordinary Nigerians coming together to organize, advocate, and campaign for stronger democratic institutions, standards and practices. This, and only this, will produce good leadership and transformational socio-economic development. Hence, the primary flaw of Nigeria’s democratic experience since 1999 is this; we have spent so much time praying for good leaders to emerge and wailing over our bad leaders, that we forgot to build the democratic foundations needed to enable their emergence.

Expecting good leaders to come out of Nigeria’s current political setup is more or less akin to expecting a brothel to produce chaste individuals. No amount of advocating for citizens to collect their Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) will make that happen. Only a deepening of democratic ideals will bring forth good leadership, curtail the excesses of the elite and uplift millions from poverty. Such deepening of democracy will entail going beyond asking “Who shall we vote?” It will, instead, answer the following fundamental questions:

  1. How do we reorganize our electoral system to ensure that it is transparent, fair, free from the control of a powerful few and reflective of the interests of the impoverished many?
  2. How do we ensure that anyone, from anywhere can competitively vie for political office?
  3. How do we ensure our elected officials do the job of representing our interests and how do we effectively hold them to account?
  4. How do we compel the institutions of the state to serve the needs of ordinary people, and not just the elite.
  5. How do we guarantee the rights and liberties of everyone even when they are of a different or minority orientation?

Until we deepen our democracy to the level that it answers these questions, Nigeria, and Nigerians, cannot claim to have tried democracy. And when we have tried democracy in this fashion, the longing for, and admiration of strongmen as leaders will disappear. Until then, it falls to us to keep defending more democracy, not less, in Nigeria.

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