“Instead of choosing public servants, elections in Nigeria have been basically to select a new aristocracy, an elected royalty.”
POVERTY AND TERRORISM THREATEN THE FOUNDATIONS OF OUR DEMOCRACY
I thank all of you for participating in this maiden Freedom House lecture on democracy. I want to express special appreciation to Professor Larry Diamond for honoring us by accepting to deliver this inaugural address. It is my fervent hope that what we embark on today shall become a perennial institution, a permanent feature of our democratic landscape.
Such lectures are needed because our nation needs a broader, deeper appreciation of democracy in all of its complexities and ramifications. To state it bluntly because I know of no other way to state it, we do not understand enough about democratic governance and practice.
What we practice is often not democracy. How this nation is governed is a hybrid process where democracy is often the junior partner and minority attribute.
As such, the system of governance we practice has not yielded the desired results – the dividends of democracy have been painfully elusive. How could it be otherwise? It would be wrong to anticipate a pear to grow from apple tree or a dog to give birth to a goat. Thus, it is wrong to expect this current form of governance to produce the fruits of democracy when it is the wrong type of tree.
To think otherwise is not to be optimistic. It is to engage in unproductive wishful thinking that precludes us from doing the heavy and hard work needed to transform “what is” into “what ought to be.” This lecture series is a modest contribution toward this benign change.
Since the 1999 transition from military to civilian rule, we have effectively limited our definition of democracy to the holding of elections with little regard to the quality thereof. There are two jarring problems with this self-imposed constraint.
First, most members of the Nigerian political class was weaned on the rancid milk of dictatorship and the imperial mindset upon which it is based. Fairness and openness of process and outcome discourse and debate, and compromise and conciliation have no place in this realm. In this authoritarian world, the ends justify the means and the only ends pursued are those that increase the power and wealth of the people wielding them. It is a top- down world where the top dictates the tune and everyone dances to it or gets kicked into the shadows.
Most adult Nigerians have spent the majority of their lives under military, or its antecedent, colonial rule. Neither one is a good primer for democracy. Nigerians are smart people and learn fast. Too bad, our history has presented bad governance role models to us. We have learned much. Sadly, most of it has been the wrong lessons from the wrong textbook.
Thus, the conduct of elections during the past fifteen years has been basically an unbroken trail of malpractice and connivance to steer Nigeria to a contrived result with scant connection to the popular will.
Instead of being the periodic celebration of democracy, elections in Nigeria have generally mocked the very notion of democracy they are supposed to uphold.
Worst has been what comes after elections. Since the winner often is not chosen by the people but by some subterranean process, he continues to dishonor the people while resorting to that subterranean process in how he rules. Generally, these office holders believe they have the inborn right to rule instead of have been given a duty to govern.
For the most part, elections have become a perverse form of modern coronation. Instead of choosing public servants, elections in Nigeria have been basically to select a new aristocracy, an elected royalty.
Government is run like a medieval court, full of intrigue and an excessive number of jesters and unproductive courtiers whose only reason for being is to use their proximity to power to extract rents from the improper operation of government.
One can only find rhyme and reason in governance to the extent one can decipher or anticipate the whim and caprice of the man in power.
Thus, we call ourselves a new, growing democracy yet we retreat further into the old ways. We slip into authoritarian darkness.
Faced with a growing number of state governors in the opposition party, the federal government arbitrarily has reduced the revenues flowing to the states in order to punish the political opposition. In effect, the federal government has imposed economic sanctions simply because some political leaders have the temerity to belong to another party. That the people are made to suffer means little for the people are not why they entered into governance. Power and privilege are.
This is why they shut down newspapers recently and restricted freedom of movement by prohibiting key APC members from travelling into Ekiti state prior to elections. This is why they deployed more security people to hover over the elections in Ekiti than they do to protect the people and tackle the security challenges in Borno state. The Minister of State for Defence has spent more time in Ekiti than he has in Chibok. This is not responsible democratic governance. It is a hoax.
This brings me to the point where I would like to say a few words about the topic of today’s lecture: Poverty, Terrorism and Democracy. In my view, the first two concepts have intertwined to form a terrible union against the third, against democracy.
Some claim the rise of Boko Haram has nothing to do with poverty. They blame it all on ideology. Some go as far as implying that Islam is at fault. Those who say this can be excused to some extent for they are as ignorant about Islam as Boko Haram is. However, Boko Haram cannot be excused. They are violent murders of both Muslim and Christians. There is not one word in Islam that supports the evil they do.
It is obvious that Boko Haram terrorists have lashed themselves to a dangerous and desperate ideology. But we must ask who does such a thing and why do they seem to have so many adherents and supporters?
Poverty is a big part of the answer. Poverty often distorts a person’s humanity. The destitute and the ignorant, casting about on their last strand of hope, are susceptible to a mean and wicked interpretation of the world that labels everyone not in that group as expendable sacrifices and objects of terror.
Again to put it bluntly because I know of no other way, Boko Haram is an extreme manifestation of the chronic and acute misgovernance that has spread gross injustice and mass poverty across the face of our beloved nation.
All nations have their wayward souls. However, in better governed, more prosperous societies, the number of anti-social actors is much less and even their extremism is somewhat muted. Because of their low numbers, they are confined to being a law enforcement problem.
But here, abject poverty swells their ranks. Here, they have become a small army. With that, they are a national security threat and a political challenge to a free and open society.
We must deal with them decisively yet wisely. Also, government must also be cautious in not using the fight against terrorism to truncate otherwise legitimate political activity by a legitimate and peaceful political opposition. Also, government must restrain itself from striking indiscriminately against people in the affected areas, in the process committing human rights abuses that undermine democracy and that become a recruiting tool for the terrorists.
As such, poverty and terrorism are truly a compound threat to democracy. Not only do those who manufacture terror undermine democracy through their direct actions. We also must take care that government’s response is not such a heavy-handed and indiscriminate one that it undermines civil liberties and chases people into the camp of the terrorists.
I shall end here that we may soon come to the meat of this gathering; Professor Diamond’s address.
Again, I thank you all for coming today that we may use this lecture to take a step toward the democracy we truly seek.
(The speech was delivered as opening remarks by Bola Tinubu, former Lagos State governor, at the inaugural lecture of the Freedom House democracy lecture series held at Muson center, Agip hall, Lagos on June 30).
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