Nigeria: Democratisation, Meaning and Practice

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By Chris Odinaka Nwedo

Democracy entails a popular organisation of culture, economy, politics and education, so much so that the citizens satisfactorily participate in all discussions affecting them directly or through their representatives. It demands, among other things justice and fairness, ‘a jealously guarded bills of rights, recognition and even deliberate encouragement of plurality of views and opinions, a culture of dialogue and debate, real popular participation of the people in their own affairs at all levels.1 This is why in Greek expressions ‘demos’, stands for the ‘people’ while ‘cracy,’ means rule or government.  Historically, in the ancient Athenian city-state, it was customary for Greeks to participate directly in taking collective decisions in all that concerns the governance of the city-state. ‘In order words, they were not being bounded by precedents or priests, or having matters decided for them by some minority group(s) or individuals.2 The contemporary idea of democracy, however, still re-emphasises attention to the will of the collectivity. Democracy has active participation of the people as the sole objective. It rises and falls on the desire of the people to take care of themselves in their own specific styles.

Abraham Lincoln’s often quoted definition of ‘democracy’ as government of the people by the people and for the people’ has remained the most successful of all definitions despite, serious attempts by scholars to offer better and more comprehensible definitions. However, whichever way one tries to define the concept, it is apparent that it implies simply rule by majority.3 For Benedict Michael, the merits of this definition are the brevity and the emphasis on the people. Thus we can state that the interest of the people is the corner stone of democracy. But this conception is somehow flawed; the enigmatic question has been the definition of the word ‘people’. Does it refer to the rulers or the masses, that is, the members of a particular state who are not in possession of governmental responsibilities?4 Yes, ‘people’ as a term does not refer to a thing in particular, this is because there is no particular-thing called ‘people’. ‘People’ is a terminology that is inherently equivocal, a relative phrase that refers to nobody in particular. But with a critical look at the context in which the statement was made, it is safer to assume that Lincoln was in actual fact referring to the masses, the citizens in their largest collectivity.


It is easier to pretend that Lincoln was describing, as pungent as it is, the government where the interest of ordinary masses are not only esteemed but made the spinning-point or the fulcrum of all debates and decisions. This is a government of mobilized majority, governance by ‘majority’ or ‘majority’ rule. On the contrary, Lincoln stands accused of dictatorship. Majority rule can also be viciously dictatorial, repressive and anti minority, there are limitless instances of this fact. This notwithstanding, Lincoln’s ‘characterisation of democracy goes beyond empirical evidence, in all the states, even in highly democratic states, there is no way we could say that the people govern themselves. At best, what happens is that people choose representatives who represent their interest and this is done through periodic elections.6  Although the ancient city of Athens was highly democratic, it was not structured in a way that every citizen was involved in the political activities of the city-state, issues such as age, state of birth, gender were factors in consideration. Yet, the city’s politics was an example of a form of direct participatory democracy.

Opinions tend to compare rule by all to rule by mob. Rule by mob is logically contradictory for it creates disposition for anarchy. Anarchism, therefore, describes the political and socio-philosophical doctrines that propose establishment of justice, equality and fraternity by elimination of the state and social means of coercion. Anarchists detest all forms of authority which they consider destructive to individual freedom. Anarchists contend that all forms of authority are detrimental to social and economic equality.7 What these critics failed to grasp properly is that there is a great disparity between majority rule and anarchism. Majority rule advocates popular participation in political decision making for an ordered development of the society. It is about everybody getting involved. The emphasis is the people and their mobilization for better. Anarchism is ideologically anti-establishment. According to Dipo Irele, anarchists combine a belief in the impossibility of societal transformation with a confidence in the reasonableness of men and the possibility of human improvement and perfection, as they contend that government is the source of most of social problems and that there is viable alternative to government, the voluntary organisations.8

For Nor, democracy is rather interested in quantity and not quality. This notwithstanding, common sense and experience show that majority is never always right. Besides, the majority has the tendency to turn dictatorial while subjecting the minority to their will.9 This value or moralistic perspective effectively fits into the defects of the system just as it is in every act of the finite. Human beings are finite and therefore limited in perfection. This limitation, however, follows man terminally. In both theory and practice, modern democracy ‘aims at multiplying man’s welfare and building a free society, a society of free of expression, political equality, liberty to develop oneself as one chooses, tolerance of opposing views, etc.10 For Robin Barrow democracy is a system designed to take advantage of diversity and uncertainty and allows flexibility, in order to permit necessary change and tolerance.11 The modern democracy even though has its pedigree from the political behaviours of ancient Greeks, has undergone series of involuntary transformations, it has become refurbished to suit the literally quick and fleeting interests of the contemporary man. It is said that ‘man is a being driven by insatiable quest for dynamism. He has since the evolution of the society been preoccupied with how to effect change(s) in the society to maximise his well-being. Man, therefore has never at any point abdicated the pressing responsibility of searching for, and evolving models of governance that would facilitate a better understanding and organisation of the society.12

This constant drive for change, the responsibility to always work out a new formula in the strategy for renewing and increasing the values of the human community forced out of trend the primeval styles of democratic politics. Today, nobody envisages the reality of unanimous decision endorsed by everyone before political actions or programmes are made. For such is impracticable. The Greeks of today obviously do not find it easy and purposeful any more to crowd to town-halls for decisions on which road to be built, cities for construction of hospitals, stadia or how much fund to be budgeted for efficiency of social service delivery. It is secure, more convenient and result oriented to vote in delegates for value representation. It is not only the Greeks, the former citizens of Athenian city-state that have chosen some dependable people to do their everyday politics for them. And now the democracy which is the rule by all has absolutely given way to indirect representation. It is now the acceptable contemporary trend to entrust the collective-will to an individual or group of individuals to act for, and on behalf of all, on issues of politics and daily welfare resolutions of the government. By this accord, the people are confident that they are indirectly but actively involved in the routines of governance. Thus the representatives have the ominous responsibility of thinking and acting wisely for and on behalf of the political group(s) they represent. The contemporary political trend in most liberal democratic states is indirect or representative democracy. ‘In this form of democratic arrangement, people choose through periodic elections those who will represent for a period of time.13

Political representation therefore has become the function of parliamentarian(s) duly accredited by virtue of election(s) or appointment to speak for, and safeguard the interest of the people within a zone, constituency or region. Here, the representative(s) are expected to do whatever they think best for the people and indeed the whole political system in which they are part and parcel. Birch sees political representative as one who is by custom or law assigned a representative role within a political system. Nor conclusively noted that the modern democracy essentially incorporate representative principle which aims at continuing the moral tradition of the philosophy of classical Athenian democracy.14


Representative democracy therefore, is a system of democratic governance that is superintended by representatives of the people selected at periodical elections. However, proper representation is nearly impossible even when the selection processes are manifestly objective or free and fair. This is why in some quarters the idea of political representation is denigrated as systematic slimming down of access to proper political expression. This is because it is not insulated from exploitation, corruption and misrepresentation. Meanwhile, the contemporary democratic governance will remain steadfastly committed to representative principles for convenience and practicability for the purposes of harmony and promotion of collective values.

Unfortunately, liberal democracy has not been completely liberated from primitive clutches and slavery in Africa. Here it is represented or seen as a dexterous combination of the old and new tactics of oppression for the sake of preserving the privileges of the few. For instance, Nigeria’s the democratisation processes incorporated in some regions the oppressive structures of discredited old elite system. It revitalised the old system of ‘sole privileges’ especially in the northern part of Nigeria. It is known that political processes in some of the areas are renegotiated for synchronization of the interests and the safety of the very powerful with that of the rest. In fact, the powerful are lobbied for acceptable template for the democratisation processes. Alternatively, the processes will be rebranded for easy rejection by the generality. It is the prerogatives of the few to endorse political processes and the participants. It is stressed that liberal democratic countries particularly in Africa under the cleavages of elitist dominance cannot guarantee the freedom of individuals as long as they remain manipulated by the neo-feudalists. ‘In most countries in Africa, democracy in whatever its form is perceived as insensitive to the plight of the poor, thus making the claim of freedom and self-development illusory. In general the term ‘Democratization’ describes a more open, more participatory, less authoritarian society. It is a process of building or creating democracy.17

To be continued