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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Discourse 94: Chasing Our Shadows

Friday Discourse (94)

Chasing Our Shadow

Our nation needs to stop awhile and ask itself whether it not really chasing a shadow. Every time democracy returns, we receive it with the loudest ovation. But soon after we allow it take its course, we get disenchanted with its results and our hopes start declining until they reaches their lowest ebb. The issues of fairness in the political game and public sector corruption in its various manifestations have become the trait bugs that ravage our republics. Sometimes the disappointment is genuine; in many others, however, it is precipitated by a calculated campaign of opposition politicians.
The military takes over thereafter, as an alternative, and it too – after the initial applause – if it would hang on to power for long, will become consumed by the same affliction of corruption and stagnation, as we saw in the Gowon, Obasanjo, Babangida and Abacha eras. Otherwise, a clash of interest between those desiring to perpetuate the quandary and those desiring to alleviate it ensues and the regime is terminated either in a bloody coup like the one of 1976 or a palace one like the one of 1985. Whatever it was we had, the result was the perpetuation of the burden of corruption in politics and administration, of economic stagnation and common frustration among citizens.
Our discourse today seeks to take a close look at democracy in relation to our hopes and problems. We may be tempted, as would do the theorist, to blame the concept – democracy – alone. However, as soon as the torch is turned to our side, we soon realize that we have been less than noble in meeting the demands of the system we purport to support and welcome as our saviour from the myriad of problems facing us. In the end, little is there to show that any disease is cured as much as there is little hope that any problem would ever be solved.
The Promise
Political scientists do not have a straightforward definition of the word democracy. The same word has been used to mean different governments of different ideological inclinations. Broadly however, in this article, we have used democracy to mean a system of government that derives both its legitimacy and direction from the aspirations of the people who adopted it. In Nigeria, as in most other Western-oriented democracies, the word ‘people’ means citizens of the country irrespective of their differences in gender, ethnicity, education, affluence, and so on. Their aspiration is represented in the manifesto of the parties to which they voluntarily belong or in the dominant view they uphold on any matter of common interest.
For effective realisation of democracy, it is necessary that certain conditions are met; otherwise, the whole thing would end in a sham. It has been emphasized by many authors, like Nwabueze in Democritization, that any society desiring to be democratic needs to be a civil society that is virile, free, just, egalitarian, ordered, stable and infused with the spirit of liberty, rule of law and popular participation. Noble as these properties are, however, instead of making democracy a practice in most parts of the world, they have turned it into a dream, or a utopia – if you like.
One may ask, which society is just or free, for example? Which one is orderly, stable or virile? From the most established democracies of Western Europe and North America that are centuries old to the nascent ones that are found in the so-called developing countries, justice in the game of politics and freedom of choice devoid of manipulation are mere ideals professed, not goals intended be achieved. Disparity in income and in control of state resources has disproportionately divided all societies today into a handful of leading elite in economy and politics on the one hand and a huge majority of almost-peasant followers on the other, with so much contempt and distrust between the two. This forms the basis of the Elite Theory on which a lot of publications have been made especially in the United States.
The Result
Most citizens have therefore gradually come to distrust government, leading to almost a total loss of confidence. For example, in Public Policy: Perspectives and Choices, Cochran and Malone have cited a Washington-ABC poll that was reported in The Gullup Poll Monthly showing that “only 7% of the public (in America) indicates that it has a lot of confidence that when the government in Washington decides to solve a problem, the problem will actually be solved.
A survey cited in Power and Choice has shown that only 5% of the population in Austria contacted local official on a social problem, 4% in India, 11% in Japan and 14% in United States. The book contained a survey on the declining confidence that Americans have in government. The results showed that the percentage of Americans who trust the government to do what is right “most of the time” or “always” declined from 73% in 1958 to 21% in 1994. The percentage of Americans who think that the government is run for a few big interests rose from 29% in 1964 to 75% in 1994. Finally, the percentage of Americans thinking “quite a lot” of government people are crooked rose from 25% in 1958 to 50% in 1994. The results are increasingly becoming poor for Mr. Government!
These figures, coming from a country that has practised democracy for over 200 years and one of the most industrialised country in the world, only helps to aggravate our own loss of confidence in the ability of our nascent democracy to take us anywhere closer to salvation.
The Loophole
The fact is that democracy is generically imbued with contradictions and loopholes that could be exploited by the ruling elite in its attempt to perpetuate its monopoly over resources. Nowhere are these loopholes manifested more than in its emphasis on using elections as the main source of gaining legitimacy. If people’s minds were free from the influence of the ruling elite, or from manipulation of opinions through false propaganda of the mass media; if the elections were not capital-intensive, especially under a presidential system or subject to rigging of various forms even in the most technologically advanced country, America, as we witnessed in its last presidential election, people would not have lost so much confidence in many governments. People are simply helpless. Otherwise, it would have been difficult for the America that had 72% turnout in a national election to have 75% of its citizen believing that government is run for a few big interests.
The American form of democracy, which Nigeria has adopted for two decades now, places its highest premium on election; once elections are over, politics is over as far as the electorate is concerned, what remains is the affairs of the elected. Whatever is done in between elections, as in Nigeria today, is done either in the interest of the ‘few big interests’ or with the intention of winning the next election. This has made elections fraud-ridden, especially, though not limited to, the developing countries. While we understand our own game of rigging, what happens in America baffles any observer from a developing country world since he has been made to believe that malpractices are limited to developing countries alone. It is true that American parties work hard to win over voters to their sides before the elections. As the election approaches, however, various devices are used to ensure success. In The American Pharoah, a biography of the former Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, the authors – Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor – gave us one of the most striking accounts on the issue of election in the ‘First World.’ They have proved that we are not alone in the game of election malpractice. The authors, who were fans of Daley who was once a precinct worker for the Democratic Party, had the following ‘confession’ to make:
“On election day, precinct workers often turned to more blatant forms of persuasion. Precinct captains handed out turkeys, nylons, and cash in exchange for votes. A captain from the poor West Side 27th Ward was once convicted of buying votes for one dollar a head. In the South Side 4th Ward, a newspaper reporter observing the voting caught a precinct worker handling out bags of groceries. ‘We gotta get these voters out any way we can,’ the worker explained.”
We also complain today that in Nigeria poverty alleviation funds, UBE contracts and other state benefits are used to maintain or buy political loyalty. The same obtains in the United States. The authors said:
“Ward organizations also wielded sticks to round up votes. Captains in black precincts frequently told voters they would lose their government benefits if they failed to vote a straight Democratic ticket. ‘Every welfare recipient is afraid to oppose the wishes of the precinct captain,’ the pastor of a Mennonite church once complained. ‘Everyone living in public house is afraid. They have been told that the machine alderman is the one who ensures them living quarters.’ … Saying hello to the precinct captain at the polls every year also came in handy when a public-housing recipient’s refrigerator or stove broke down.”
We now know what to tell Carter any time he leaves the country without congratulating his friend, Obasanjo, for winning any future election, as it happened in 1999.
But the loophole of democracy is wider than what election malpractices alone could fill. In governance, elected officials desiring a second term – and I am yet to see anyone who does not – would more often than not, choose to touch on soft points rather than tamper with hard ones that would likely ‘bite’ their citizens initially. This rule explains the preference that most politicians have for short-term projects that will yield quick appreciation of the majority against the next election. Problems requiring long spans to mature or whose relevance cannot readily be discerned by the masses will hardly be embarked upon. This point is clearly elucidated when talking about economic policies in the United States. In some instances, officials of government have to resort to cooking figures to convince the opposition in parliament or to save their President being branded as a ‘bad guy’ by the public. Cochran and Malone gave an example of David Stockman, the one time Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Reagan administration, who confessed that he “out-and-out cooked the books…’ inventing spurious cuts to make the deficit appear smaller.”
In another place, the authors said; “A conspicuous solution to increased spending needs and huge deficits would be large tax increases. But such increases would cause pain to taxpayers and threaten a reduction in consumer demand that could lead to greater unemployment long before a reduction in the deficit would reduce inflation or free up new government monies. In this case the political ‘bads’ would arrive rather promptly, while the ‘goods’ would likely arrive much later and be felt only gradually. Not surprisingly, the three Presidential elections in the 1980s were won by the candidate who took the hardest line against raising tax… Political entrepreneurs thus have a bias toward expansionary fiscal and monetary policies since lower taxes and increased expenditures for special-interest groups provide strong support for an incumbent’s bid for re-election…”
The authors thus concluded that “there is a considerable irony that voters deplore the federal deficits and rail against the inability of government to act decisively to end them, yet threaten to retaliate against candidates who support the painful economic measures needed to do so. But cutting government spending inevitably means reducing benefits to someone who is currently receiving them, and raising taxes means someone must pay more. Voters who are hurt by government policies are thought to have long memories at election time, a notion that definitely has long-term effects on politicians’ voting behaviour.”
What impact does this stuff make on our hope that democracy will lead us to salvation? What shall we achieve by adopting American democracy wholesale regardless of the realities of our level of development? Whatever is our confidence in our present republic, we cannot run away from our earlier stated fact that the high premium that democracy places on elections – and hence the opinion of the majority, which itself could in many times be a majority of a minority or a majority concocted out of a malpractice – makes it difficult for most democratically elected governments to rid their societies of problems like ours: the problems of economic stagnation, of corruption in government, of dependence of government, of electoral misconduct and ta-zarce, and so on.
There is no doubt that many times democracy really becomes a burden for those leaders desiring to fulfil their promises. In an instance, such leaders would look back at the pile of promises and the mountain of hope of their people during election that brought them to power, in another they would look forward and think twice on anything, no matter how desirable, that would likely sink the ship that has brought them to the island of success. The option is undoubtedly to concentrate on short-term projects once they allowed the first year of their tenure to lapse without embarking on them.
The other implication of these loopholes of democracy is that wherever they express themselves in the most bizarre of forms, the decline in confidence may be too sharp that republics often are terminated prematurely. Since poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and consumption have become characteristic of our society, money has become indispensable prerequisites of winning elections, regardless of the good performance put up by the incumbent or the competence of the aspirant. In that case, in almost all past elections, influence, funds and other resources have been used to win elections. I have just finished reading a passage on Nigerian presidential election in Power and Choice where the author was citing an example of a village in Modakeke where in 1983 ruling NPN got the average of 500 votes per household!
In many instances, still because of the high premium it places on election, democracy tends to humiliate leadership, instead of earning it respect. The role of the media is a good example to cite. Even in industrialised countries, or especially there if you like, people rely heavily on the media to shape their opinions. But media houses worldwide are bereft of the objectivity they preach. They are set up for political purposes, following the agenda of their proprietors and the class they represent. But they have become so powerful that they determine the selection of candidates into primaries and the issues to be debated upon during national elections. The electorate is thus compelled to make a choice within the narrow spectrum that the media chose to present. The press therefore, with sheer power of business and ability of the pen to engage in dishonesty, is in a position to form a formidable opposition to any regime, almost more fundamental to that of opposition parties and the people. In industrial countries, it is in fact the most dreaded opposition to any contestant, once it chooses to be so.
It was not therefore surprising that two years before he became Prime Minister, Tony Blair, according to Newsweek publication last May, had been courting Rupert Murdock, the Chairman of News Corp., the publishers of The Sun. Blair maintained the relationship that is widely believed to be based on sheer expedience even during the last elections. Of course Murdock has helped Blair win election in 1997 and during the last elections, but the latter has also fulfilled his own part of the bargain by playing the Murdock’s game on issues of interest to his media empire. What a humiliation for the Prime Minister of Britain travelling to court the ‘cooperation’ of a citizen on election agenda! The American President is also first chosen by the press before chosen by the people. We remember the fall of Gary Rice and how Clinton made a narrow escape in L’affair de Lewinsky.
Back here at home, the media is equally exacting. It determines election agenda and in many times even hung political figures before they were convicted. The role of the media in determining our political agenda could easily be discerned by looking back at events that culminated in the demise of the First and Second Republics and their glorification of corrupt governments that are ready to grease their palms to recent issues like June 12, rotational presidency, power shift and now resource control. Every time we are faced with one agenda or another to preoccupy our minds and threaten our coexistence.
So apart from looking at the electorate and the possible intrigues of its opponents, a regime has also got to satisfy a third belly – the press – that is in no way less ingratiating as a partner or ruthless as an opponent, no thanks to democracy.
These are some of the problems to which democracy and democratic governments are vulnerable. Countries like ours need to face them by modifying the concept to suit their realities. The great hurdle of 2003 is as gargantuan as that of 1964 and 1983. The temptations are already there, luring the President and his party into the hole that swallowed others before, just as the inclinations are manifest. Would a u-turn save him and the party? No one could be sure.
Next week, God willing, we shall look at the options before us if we are at all like interested in securing for our republic a long span or if we are committed to solving our problem amicably through a democratic means. The present ‘good guy’ choice by incumbents to ensure that their tazarce agenda is not subverted by their bold actions will take us nowhere closer to salvation. If we fail to modify democracy to suit our circumstance such that its inherent contradictions are circumvented, our discourse today is simply saying that our present hopes and efforts to solve our problems in the fourth republic is not better than chasing our own shadow.

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17 July 2001

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