Democracy and Africans: Who failed who?

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo loves to hug the limelight. I was expecting him to write one of the damning letters he is noted for to President Bola Ahmed Tinubu but he diverted his grouse to democracy. I still expect him to write to Tinubu sooner or later. Penultimate week he came down heavily on democracy, magisterially returning the verdict that the ageless system of government developed by a Greek city-state has failed his African people.

Cleisthenes (Born: c. 570 bce; died: c. 508 bce) is reputed as “the father of democracy”; he was a statesman regarded as the founder of Athenian democracy, serving as the chief archon (that is, highest magistrate or ruler) of Athens. Democracy comes from the Greek word “demos”, which means “common people” and “kratos, which means “force or might”.

Under Cleisthenes, what is generally referred to as the first example of a type of democracy in 507 BC was established in Athens. Cleisthenes created a new system of government where the people of Athens were given a chance to vote on the way the city was governed. How did he do this? He broke up the unlimited power of the nobility by organizing the citizens into 10 groups based on where they lived, rather than on their wealth.

Other notable Athenians who were reputed as having contributed to the birth of democracy were Solon (in 594 BC) and Ephialtes (in 462 BC). Solon, it was said, never intended for the “demos” or common people to rule; nevertheless, he introduced a new idea about broad citizen participation that put Athens on the road to democracy. He was reputed to have laid the basis for democracy by eliminating debt slavery. Although the Athenian democracy lasted only for about two centuries, its reverberations stand, till date, as one of ancient Greece’s most enduring contributions to our world.

Pericles, nicknamed ‘The Olympian’ and described as a populist, was another great Athenian ruler under whose leadership Athenian democracy and the Athenian empire flourished, thus making Athens the political and cultural focus of Greece between the Greco-Roman and Peloponnesian wars. It will, however, amaze you to know who gave democracy the definition it is famously known as today.

No Greek leader did but the United States of America’s Abraham Lincoln was the man who defined democracy as “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” Said Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States of America: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth” But Athens’ democracy officially ended in 322 BC when Macedonia imposed an oligarchic government on Athens after defeating the city-state in battle.

Scholars posit that there are three types of democracy, out of which only one is popularly known as such. The three are consensus democracy, which is rule based on consensus rather than the traditional and better-known majority rule system. The second, which is the most well-known, is constitutional democracy. The third is deliberative democracy, in which authentic deliberation, and not only voting, is central to legitimate decision-making.

Today, democracy as a system of government is known as one-man, one vote, in which the people are held as sovereign. Power, it is said, belongs to the people. Those who bear rule over the people – the three arms of government as defined by Montesquieu (the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary) – are described as the servants of the people, subject to the will of the people.

Democracy of the Greek city-state style is, however, impossible in today’s world. Population explosion alone has made it impossible for every citizen to gather at the village square, the type Chinua Achebe described in “Things Fall Apart”, to deliberate and take decisions on issues affecting them. The democracy that we practice today is thus called representative democracy, in which the people elect representatives to take decisions and bear rule over them.

Representative democracy, also known as indirect democracy, is a type of democracy where elected delegates represent a group of people, as opposed to direct democracy. The democracy that is practiced in Nigeria today and, indeed, everywhere else, is representative or indirect democracy. This is what Obasanjo said has failed us in Africa. Has it failed us or we are the ones that have failed it?

Why did Obasanjo, a former military as well as civilian Head of State, return such a damning verdict on democracy? The reasons are both immediate and remote. For one, it is a carry-over or hang-over of his frustration over the last February 25, 2023 presidential election which his preferred candidate, Mr. Peter Obi, failed to win. Obasanjo has never stopped sulking after APC’s Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu coasted home to victory in that election.

In the countdown to the country’s first presidential election in 1979, Obasanjo, who was preparing to hand over power to a democratically-elected government, made the statement, which later came out to be true, that the best candidate might not win in that election. Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the presumed best candidate in that election; he failed to win while an unprepared and the least qualified of the front runners, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, was declared the winner of the election. What do we make of a democracy that picks the worst over the best? Since 1979, that has been our experience here, again and again. The worst bears rule over the best in Nigeria’s democratic system.

After the June 12, 1993 presidential election, adjudged the freest and fairest in the history of the country, the same Obasanjo went outside the country to declare that the winner of that election, MKO Abiola, was not the messiah Nigeria needed. Yet, that election was credible, free and fair. Abiola won it free and square in all the nooks and corners of the country, except in Igboland. He beat his challenger, Bashir Tofa, even in Tofa’s polling booth and home state of Kano.

Yet, Abiola was not allowed to rule. He took up the gauntlet to reclaim his annulled mandate and was arrested and detained. He died in detention years after, fighting gallantly but unsuccessfully to regain his mandate. What kind of democracy is this, in which a man won the popular vote but was not allowed to exercise his mandate? He died fighting for it and all was calm!

The truth of the matter is that democracy as a system of government that respects the wishes of the people, acting freely and electing their leaders and or representatives in periodic elections has failed to take root on African soil. Democracy has operated in fits and jerks here. We have witnessed spells of success stories in which we celebrated, only for such joy to quickly turn into ashes in our mouth.

On a joyful note, we have the recent example of Liberia where the sitting president, George Weah, allowed free and fair election, lost it, and calmly accepted the verdict. He congratulated the winner and handed over power. No court cases, no acrimony. No baying for blood and no blood-letting. But we must wait to see whether this will prove a lone affair and pyrrhic victory for democracy. Should the shoe be on the other foot in the next election, will the new sheriff act like Weah has done?

Said Cassius to Brutus in William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: “Why, man, he (Caesar) doth bestride the narrow world/Like a colossus, and we petty men/Walk under his huge legs, and peep about/To find ourselves dishonourable graves/Men at some time are masters of their fates/The fault, dear Brutus/Is not in our stars? But in ourselves? That we are underlings” The fault is not in democracy, dear Obasanjo; it is in us Africans!

Twice, the complainant himself, Obasanjo, has supervised the failure of democracy here. Should we blame democracy or Obasanjo? When the same Obasanjo decided to subvert the Constitution by going for a third term in office, he failed miserably because people stood up to him; otherwise, he could have had his way and our history might have been different. In the United States of America, Donald Trump tried to subvert one of history’s longest running democracy but failed woefully because the people and the institutions of the State stood up against him. Otherwise, the course of democracy in the US might have been altered.

The Law, the institutions of State (strong institutions) and the People themselves must defend democracy for it to succeed. In Nigeria, we already have a Constitution, however imperfect (and, truly, it is imperfect!) that prescribes democracy as our system of government. We have a plethora of laws that attempt to safeguard the practice of democracy and virtually every organ and institution of government in saner climes where democracy thrives are also replicated here: But why do they succeed elsewhere but fail here?

The fault, O Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, is not in democracy; it is in us that we are underlings in this business of democracy! Alexander Pope posits that the problem is not in the system or type of government adopted; what is best administered, is best. In other words, “We, the People” are the defining factor, not the system of government. And no matter the system of government adopted – call it African whatever – it will still fail for as long as we remain who we are.

Now, there is nothing novel in what Obasanjo has proposed; he has only dusted up the propositions of notable African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Nwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania without giving them the credit. Does that sound familiar? Nkrumah came up with what he called “Scientific Socialism” while Nyerere romanced Ujamaa and African Socialism. Mouamer Gaddafi toyed with Arab nationalism and Arab socialism and later Third International Theory. The problem of democracy in Africa lies in the mindset of African leaders and peoples; until positive change is effected there, nothing will change for the better.

Milton Obote got a second chance to rule Uganda. He failed more spectacularly in his second coming than in his first. On both occasions, he was chased out of power. Obasanjo himself failed as military head of state and failed more spectacularly as a civilian president decades’ after. Muhammadu Buhari failed as military head of state and failed more fantastically as civilian president decades’ after. In all the three instances, the leopard could not change its skin. They failed as autocrats; they also failed as so-called democrats.

Tell me, is democracy the culprit?

  • Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-chief, BOLAWOLE was also the Managing Director/ Editor-in-chief of THE WESTERNER newsmagazine. He writes the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune and TREASURES column in New Telegraph newspaper on Wednesdays. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.


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