To start with, I am a bit pained I have to write this piece. I was hoping that 12 years after our return to democracy, Nigerians would have come to understand what democracy means and entails. But of course, that has not been the case. I still hear a lot of people saying that we do not have a democracy because we are still lacking in infrastructure and languishing in poverty. A few weeks ago, I engaged in a Twitter debate with a certain activist, who shocked me by saying our democracy was a charade because we still lack stable power, good roads and so on and so forth. This is someone who hundreds literally hang on every word of his to provide them with political direction. I was surprised at the display of ignorance. This is not to mention the countless people who say they wish the military will come back, as ‘things were better then’.
It is very evident that there is a lack of understanding on what it means to have a democracy. Democracy is not a destination; it is a journey, an on-going process which never ends. It is a system of governance where the people decide who gets to govern them and how. This is most especially based on the saying that people should not be afraid of their government, but rather that government should be afraid of their people. What we have been made to believe are the ‘dividends of democracy’ by our political office-holders are rather dividends of good governance. We can have the best infrastructure under a dictatorship as well as have the same under a democracy. As a matter of fact, if my memory serves me well, the Obasanjo Military Government of 1976-1979 gave us one of the most infrastructural advancements.
Why then do I prefer a democracy to a dictatorship? A dictatorship or military government has absolute power, which they could deploy for good. But therein lays the huge risk that absolute power corrupts absolutely. You do not give a man the power and feeling of God. He is bound to misuse that. This is what democracy helps us in avoiding, in giving us that political space to talk, express ourselves in various ways and most importantly, to decide who gets to make governance decisions for us and how.
I understand the fact that the most pressing needs of the Nigerian population are infrastructure such as power, roads and water; social services such as excellent, available schools and hospitals and economic advancement to lift millions out of poverty. This is what Abraham Maslow put at the bottom of his Hierarchy of Needs as physiological needs. The need for, and attendant lack of these things makes whatever relative freedom we have compared to the time of military dictatorships to be taken for granted.
We are not there yet in our democracy, and we are still far from it. But one thing I know is that we are on the road. The process of building democratic institutions is not an easy task. But I know there have been massive improvements. We have a vibrant and growing media, especially print and online; our civil society organisations are getting more space to operate compared to times past; there have been improvements in the fairness of our elections and our justice system is making bolder decisions by the day. Not all of that change has been top-down, but also bottom-up. For example, the vibrancy of the Nigerian Twitter community has made public officials take note of it and a growing number of them are becoming active there, where they engage Nigerians. These are things that we once never thought of being able to do.
It is through the presence of such political space we can continue to debate what is the best way forward for ourselves as a nation and a people, rather than putting our fate in the hands of a few we can never even dream of questioning. Moreover, we have the power in our hands to boot out whoever we feel is not living up to expectations, and that power is ever growing.
Let us remember that economic prosperity is not what translates to democracy, or the freedom to be politically. If it were, then the people of Libya would have forever been under the strong hand of the Gadhafi clan. Let us not take for granted the advances we have made politically, and most importantly, let us not rest on our oars in demanding for the best in terms of economic and political advancement.
The worst democracy is better than the best dictatorship – Author Unknown