Democracy and the Wisdom of Crowds

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May 16, 2018

Guest Columnist: Chidi Amuta


The outcomes of most democratic elections these days carry a common imprint. They are best judged by the wisdom of crowds which translates simply as crowd idiocy. The crowd that gathers at election campaigns especially in rough unschooled places like Nigeria is actually a mob. Mobs are by nature irrational and mindless, even foolish. They will carry their idol shoulder high in triumph or boo and even stone him when ‘hail Caesar turns to nail Caesar’. Crafty and amoral politicians hedge their stake on this irrationality of mobs rather than the reasoned cold computations of we sit-at-home elite. We analyze, theorize, postulate and even pontificate only to disappear on Election Day, cocooned in the impotence of creature comforts that reduce us into grumbling victims of bad governance by reckless politicians.

It is precisely on the basis of the perceived enthusiasm of rented crowds in places like Kano and Bauchi that an electoral liability like President Buhari would derive the confidence to put himself up for re-election. But those who are wont to rise above the wisdom of the crowd have questioned the rationality and sincerity of Buhari’s declaration for a second term. Some of them, like Obasanjo, insist that the man’s embarrassing incompetence is a national security risk. Others, like Babangida, have raised the moral and common sense objection that a man in his late seventies has no business seeking a second term in a nation bursting with the energy of youth.

But why not? The constitution entitles President Buhari to a two-term limit. On the face of it, therefore, Buhari is legally and politically right. The best way to test your popularity and achievement in a presidential democracy is to get your party stamp to return to the electorate to validate your performance claims or revalidate your mandate. That is not exactly a crime against any known law. It does not matter what private opinion individuals hold or indeed how well meaning and glorified the names of the counselors and dissenters may sound.

For an incumbent, then, the decision to run again or run away is purely a matter of private choice. That choice, once exercised, needs of necessity to be respected as the right of the individual in a free society. Neither age nor the perception of others should deprive people of the right to choose legitimate things they want to do. However, citizens in a republic reserve the right to express an opinion concerning the private choices that leaders make because they bear the brunt. So, moral valuations of the individual choices that leaders make remain in the domain of public opinion and discourse. Nor should dissenters be branded as evil on face value. All that can be expected is that any responsible leader ought to have the self-esteem to know when their performance in office calls for dignified exit rather than stubborn continuation. But Nigerian leaders and public officials tend to suffer from a deficit of both shame and self esteem.

Having fully privatized the ruling APC into an instrument of potential personal autocracy, the least concession Mr. Buhari can extract for his troubles is perhaps a mere second term as president. But beyond the contingencies of the imminent elections, what Mr. Buhari has perhaps staked is a historic wager that could serve the development of democracy in Nigeria. Buhari, the compulsive autocrat, has found accommodation under ‘democracy’ and would like to test its assumptions to devious limits. And the assumptions are obvious.

First, it ought to be that when a party or leader fails to deliver on the measurable aspects of their campaign promises, the electorate should vote them out of power. Therefore, those who insist that the APC and Mr. Buhari have failed to deliver on ‘change’ have an opportunity to use the 2019 general election to throw the man and his wobbly party out.

On the contrary, Buhari devotees and their converts who see no alternative to the ailing Daura general now have an opportunity to prolong his suzerainty beyond 2019. Beyond keeping the gravy train on track, there is perhaps the hope that another four years would see to the full emergence of whatever constitutes the essential Buhari imprint on the Nigerian landscape. Either way, the classical assumptions of democracy would seem to be on trial in Buhari’s second term gambit. The question for now remains a simple one: Would the Nigerian electorate allow a president of doubtful competence to have a second four-year term?

Ordinarily, an election should be an instrument in the hands of the people to reward or punish political leaders on the basis of either their suitability for office or their performance on the job. Underneath this assumption are several others: a credible electoral process, voters who know what they are voting for and contestants who have confidence in the outcomes of the process. On all these assumptions, Nigerians know what we know!

Globally, however, democracy seems to be on trial and in mortal danger in recent times. The rise and increasing appeal of populism means that increasingly it is the wisdom of crowds and the irrationality of mobs that are determining electoral outcomes. Even in climes where the electorate is educated and informed, recent trends have put a dismal pall on the credibility of democracy itself. Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential elections in the US against the rational projections of elites like this writer. In the UK, a confident David Cameron lost the Brexit referendum to the ramshackle club of populist politicians; rabble rousers like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. These gentlemen had no idea what the agenda would be the day after the referendum hence they plunged the United Kingdom into the worst economic uncertainty since the Great Depression. More recently, Jeremy Corbyn, the cranky Labour leader, has just been re-elected leader of the party in spite of his anti Semitic and other serial bumblings.

Nigeria is not insulated from the increasing appeal of the exploitation of populism taking place around the world. Most of our people are illiterate, politically uneducated, dirt poor and disenchanted with the leadership of the politically correct elite. With some modifications, these are the Nigerian equivalents of America’s rust belt factory and agricultural workers, a rustic coalition of xenophobes and redneck racists that gave Mr. Trump the Electoral College mandate to preside over the free world. These people vote for candidates whose sound bites address their condition. They are to be found in nearly every country where the aggressive competition of global capitalism has driven the silent majority to the fringes where they now constitute the critical majority. A demographic majority is all that democracy needs to erect leaders.

The historic irony then is that while liberal democracy seeks to end or at least mitigate inequality, populist autocracy feeds on inequality to harvest the populist crowd to win elections. Populist politicians have seen the existence of this huge army of hopelessness and poverty as a new gold mine. These politicians feed the crowd with images of lost nationalism (‘America First”), Xenophobia (Jacob Zuma’s South Africa), isolationism and a roll back on the gains of globalization. To thrive, populists seek to limit the bounds of free expression by embattling the media (Donald Trump and ‘Fake News”, Tayeb Erdogan in Turkey, Al Sissi in Egypt etc.). This is the spread of illiberal democracy and the breeding ground of autocratic populism as we find in Russia and Ethiopia.

Make no mistake about it; Mr. Buhari understands the appeal of populism in Nigeria. He has repeatedly defined his base among the unschooled and unwashed army of vagrant humanity, the crowds who throng his rallies and imperial visits in those parts of the country that he calls home. To a great extent, Mr. Buhari has branded every politician other than those he needs to remain in power as thieves and unpatriotic adventurers. He insists that the entire leadership of the main opposition PDP is a bunch of thieving gangsters and in the process carefully insulating his friends and cohorts some of whom are acknowledged glorified pickpockets. The popular crowd likes such simplistic rhetoric. They have been made to believe that once Buhari consolidates in power to cage the thieves, their lives will be a swim in a sea of honey and milk funded with oil money.

Here then is my shocker for my readers and the public. It is part of the illogic of democratic consensus in an impoverished country that Mr. Buhari, powered by the unwisdom of crowds, could actually win a second term in office. The finer points of good governance that the elite worry about hardly resonate to crowd wisdom. What will perplex most people is that although the crowd bears the greater brunt of bad governance and incompetence under a government such as the present one in Nigeria, their collective political ‘behavior’ at the polls does not reflect their private deprivations. What may matter to the crowd has been well captured by the irreverent outgoing governor of Ekiti State, Mr. Ayodele Fayose in his familiar thesis on ‘Stomach Infrastructure’, the odd instant loaf of bread with a bottle of Coca Cola, the immediate N500 or the mouth watering prospect of a good pot of soup once in four years!

To the crowd mind, it will not matter that Mr. Buhari has seen to a massive erosion of the value of the national currency. It is irrelevant that this administration has literally supervised an industrial scale massacre of fellow citizens by roving herdsmen and sundry ‘unidentified gunmen”. The wisdom of the crowd cannot see the hand of bad governance in the migration of millions of Nigerians into poverty in the last three years or the neglect and unemployment of millions of youth. They just do not get it.

Here then is the unintended irony of the political dividend of crowd wisdom: politicians who need the foolishness of crowds to win elections may not be in a hurry to embark on massive education or real poverty eradication. The persistence of inequality is the political gold mine of politicians who depend on the votes of unthinking crowds to capture and retain power.

  • Dr. Chidi Amuta, Chairman of Wilson & Weizmann Associates, Lagos.