How Democracy Fails Nigeria

There has been too much optimism invested in what is widely touted in Nigeria as the ‘dividends of democracy’ i.e. the benign and enabling outcomes of democracy. After 18 years of a return to democracy in Nigeria, the dividends of democracy on offer has only meant the military is no longer in government. The dividends have neither been delivered in the form of better leadership nor better governance. Unsurprisingly, the crisis of leadership in Nigeria cannot be solved by democracy as a system all by itself. Democracy can fail societies terribly.

Some here are looking surprised at my last comment so I shall attempt to explain myself even though I did not intend to go down this route. We are all homo institutio, people of rules and institutions, whether they suit us or not unless we deviate from them by way of exceptions, violations and errors. Democracy is about the conformity of citizens to rules and institutions. Democracy is also based on the primary conceptions of a duad of societal universalisms. We have democratic universalism which assumes and promotes democratic practices are to be constantly and consistently evident in every aspect of society and that such a universalism should be upheld by both leaders and followers in relevant measures. Relevant measures simply mean that everyone is not equal in society and are vested with different levels of privilege depending on one’s power status e.g. executives (terminal leaders) in government have immunity from prosecution while in office for crimes that other citizens do not have. Democratic universalism is practised with at most minor variations across say a federation like Nigeria. Deviations to democratic universalism do occur but as exceptions, violations and errors where and when detected.

Then we have moral universalism which assumes that everyone under the law must conform to the normative and positive expectations of the established moral codes, rules and laws of society with a large dose individual freedom to be enjoyed, be it by leaders or followers. Morality is about choices between right and wrong and the more the right choices citizens make the better the societal outcomes will be. Again, deviations to universal morality occur as exceptions, violations and errors. Societies that practice both democratic and moral universalism with high fidelity are the ones that routinely enjoy the proud dividends of democracy. How well does Nigeria practice such universalisms?

Due to poor leadership, Nigeria perennially encounters democratic particularism in which the institutions of democratic universalism is reduced or perverted to satisfy the narrow distributive interests of the political elite at the expense of the citizenry. This makes it difficult for existing or new governments in power to tackle the corrupt political elite. Election promises routinely remain unfulfilled no matter who gets into power. This democratic particularism breeds many corrupt practices. Expensive election fraud preponderates rendering elections unfree and unfair and making the votes of the masses worthless (cf spectre of ‘Political ricism’). Nigerian legislators are the highest paid in the world while poverty, hunger, unemployment, inflation, water shortages and blackouts ravage at least 120 million citizens daily. Top politicians steal their treasuries dry by the million or billion-dollar with unbelievable impunity whereas the needy who steal food to fill their stomachs or items costing less $1 get lynched usually by immolation daily. While the Panama Papers scandal destroyed many political careers in societies where democratic and moral universalism is practised robustly, the Nigerian politicians implicated have become more celebrated. After all, the courts that are supposed to uphold positive morality in society have become nothing more than auction houses for politicians. “Power is everything” is the motto of democratic particularism.

Moral particularism simply means the moral, immoral and amoral are all worthy options to the political elite and their followers. Corruption is not wrong in Nigeria unless someone you do not like or is not related to you does it. And spare me the accusation of generalisation. That is the moral particularism of corruption. It is moral particularism that makes it desirable and commendable for Nigeria politicians and their clients engage in the obscene practice of “spraying” big naira bills and foreign currencies at ceremonies as if money were mere confetti. Oil money wasted. “Anything goes” is the motto of moral particularism.

In my conclusion, without the duad of democratic universalism and moral universalism robustly, constantly and consistently practised in Nigerian society, democracy will neither deliver good leadership nor good governance in any significant form. The crisis of leadership will remain and even worsen.


Grimot Nane



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