Democratic Deficits and Nation-Building

March 30, 2019

For Bola Ahmed Tinubu…in the spirit of foul weather friendship

The elections have now come and gone but not the acid recriminations. Despite repeated warnings by this column, those who believe that elections are sure fire talisman for solving national contradictions are now biting their nails in regrets and angry remorse. Some of the younger ones have taken to vile and vulgar abuse of their former benefactors.

They are actually in excellent company. Their ancestors who also put about all their faith in elections are now nestling in the bosom of their maker in fretful repose. Their fathers having eaten sour grapes, the children’s teeth are set at the edge. The demographic gridlock has become even more compelling.

Twenty six years after the annulment of the best conducted election in the history of the country, the national confabulations which led to the annulment remain. Recently yours sincerely asked one of the wives of MKO Abiola how the Gbagura-born mogul would have felt were he to return to Nigeria at this particular moment. “He would have thanked God for early recall and firmly h”, the woman shot back.

What Wole Soyinka has called the eternal cycle of human stupidity does not just disappear in a generation; nor does it come with a timeline to vanish. It goes on for a long time until something snaps, or a rupture of attitudinal perception brings a revolutionary gale on the head of everybody. This is what happens to societies without the strength or energy to manage inevitable change.

Meanwhile, the national contradictions and conflicts of interests that elections are supposed to resolve or at least temper in vehemence and intensity persist with a baffling resolve of their own. If anything, the recent elections have actually exacerbated the national fault lines with some sections of the country in open revolt against federal authorities while recent regional hegemonies are under fierce assault from counter-progressive forces parading as new redeemers of their race.

Never has the fabric of national unity been stretched this thin. The attitude of some sections of the political elite has been particularly reprehensible. You would have thought that having failed in their electoral gamble of trying to capture state power from well-entrenched power players they would go home quietly to lick their wounds.

But charity and sobriety are not strong virtues of many sections of the Nigerian political class. And it has nothing to do with class, ethnic group or educational attainment. Rather than licking their wounds in the privacy of their bedroom, they are up and about stoking the fire of national disunity and fanning the ember of ethnic conflagration. Not even self-canonized statesmen and former heads of state are exempt from this political lunacy.

Where are their international pollsters and masters of prefabricated rigging who predicted emphatic victory for their preferred candidate?  Is it not the same INEC they are condemning that is also responsible for the string of stunning upsets in favour of their preferred party at the sub-national elections? Was this possible under the old template of electoral predation perfected by their master and self-deluding despot?

In their desperate lack of shame, some of them are even advancing the illogic that past political evil is past. No, it doesn’t work like that. What goes around must come around in order for restitution to complete its ethical cycle. You cannot institutionalize electoral violence and the brutal violation of popular will and then choose to opt out when the balance of forces shifts. That, unfortunately, is the savage logic of political perversion. The cycle must complete itself for everybody to realize that it is no way to go.

Yet despite all this something is going on that appears to escape the Nigerian political class in its gross entirety. The nation is astir in a way and manner nobody could have foreseen or foretold. The INEC spokesperson is right on this one. Aside from bungling and incompetence, the string of inconclusive elections that has characterized the last  elections in the country point at the increasing  negative competitiveness and countervailing possibilities in Nigeria’s electoral evolution particularly at the level of sub-national elections.

The forces are so evenly poised and so perfectly matched that at many levels, and unlike what obtained in the past, it is no longer possible to speak of a clear winner or a solid mandate. How do we proceed in gubernatorial circumstances in which only three hundred and forty three votes separate the winner from the loser in an election in which millions voted, or in a presidential poll in which only ten thousand votes gave the edge to the eventual winner?

Can we adopt a winner-takes-all attitude in such circumstances and expect peace and tranquillity? Could it be that proportional representation is finally staring the nation in the face in an oblique and covert validation of the claims of those who insist that the polity is structurally lopsided and is going nowhere until the situation is redressed?

It seems as if we are back to square one, and in a manner of speaking too. These are democratic deficits that ordinary elections do not address. National Questions, as we have repeatedly stated in this column, are beyond the purview of routine elections and formal democracy. Not even the classical model of Athenian democracy could be said to be a cure-all for all societies. Like its Roman mutation, Athenian democracy was powered by a slave-holding economy.

After making their grand entry on the world stage, both models disappeared for a long time, leaving human societies to sort out their existential problems in the way and manner they deemed fit until the Americans came with a radically novel vision of human society which was only possible because it took place in a faraway place amidst the ruins of feudal Europe.

Even then, and despite a terrible civil war, freed slaves were not allowed to vote and be voted for until after protracted bouts of civil protests lasting another century and a half. This epic drama of human political emancipation was enacted outside the purview of normal and regular “democratic politics” even where the solitary political visionary occasionally lent his weight and prestige to the cause.

In traditional societies where the majority are allowed to have their way, the countervailing wisdom of the minority are respected rather than brutally suppressed. The Yoruba people, for example, with their long history of check and balances as well as their mutually neutralizing institutions, believe that the demographic weakness of the minority should never lead to the tyranny of the majority.

Human emancipation is too important to be left to democracy. Democracy referees and regulates the struggle for the control and allocation of human resources among political elites. The vast underclass, the rural and urban hoi polloi, are usually seen and regarded as mere supporting cast that is very expendable and surplus to requirement.

The most critical and important struggle for the political and economic advancement of society usually takes place outside the purview of democratic politics. In Nigeria, the struggle against military despotism and draconian economic inquisitions against the working class by various civilian regimes took place outside the normal run of politics. In the old west of the nation, the Action Group began as a cultural movement for political emancipation and distinct identity before testing its strength in competitive politics.

In the current epoch, everything is in a state of amoral flux. The fluid nature of party affiliation, the ease and facility with which people and groups move from one party to another as if there are no defining characteristics or internal logic, has led to a substitution of party principles for the politics of personality and the subordination of group identity to individual ego. It is no longer possible on the grounds of ideology and distinct worldview to separate the ruling APC from the PDP.

It will be a profound irony of history if this homogeneity of political promiscuity and its transnational efficiency is all there is to show at the end of the day for the historic reapproachment between the dominant political forces of the old west and the northern political establishment. This is the political homogenization of the Nigerian ruling class that Chief Obafemi Awolowo fought against all his political life.

Yet for the sake of clarity of analysis and fidelity to historical truth, it is useful to point out that contrary to insinuations that the coming together of the old, mutually antagonistic political tendencies represents an attempt to sell the Yoruba people short, this attempt at inter-regional connectivity in Nigerian politics has been going on for quite some time and it appears to be the defining characteristic of the Fourth Republic.

It can be seen in the Obasanjo Settlement of 1998 which miscarried from the word go as a result of the flat refusal of the Yoruba establishment to play ball. It was obvious in Obasanjo’s own attempt to corral the AD into an alliance and the subsequent Third Term fiasco. It can also be glimpsed in the 2007 attempt by the Afenifere grandees to enter into a tactical alliance with the self-same General Mohammadu Buhari and his party.

It was only in 2015 that these attempts gained full national traction as a result of the political ingenuity of one exceptional individual. For Bola Ahmed Tinubu, it has been a very severe price to pay for success where others had faltered. But why did these attempts persist particularly in the Fourth Republic? In retrospect, they can be seen as attempts to solve national contradictions through the route of conventional politics and democratic norm.

At the end of the day, we may discover that we have been putting the cart before the horse, despite all the brave and heroic efforts. No nation can achieve political homogenization without first homogenizing national ideals and violently conflicting notions of the nation itself. This is the enduring lesson of the elusive quest of the last fifty nine years.

As we have clearly enunciated above, national contradictions require statesmen and not politicians.  This is what is expected of President Buhari in the next four years particularly in the absence of a clear national consensus about the most pressing issues of our time. To do this, he will need to cultivate more cosmopolitan friendship outside his severely restricted circle. Otherwise, the historic dalliance which produced the APC will end up as another doomed quest in pursuit of a phantom national integration.

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