What might a conversation on democracy in an illiberal society such as Nigeria look like? Or, better still, how do democracy activists see it in Nigeria, 21 years after formal military rule ended and a relative kind of Eldorado should have descended?
These were what Maroon Square’s August 22nd, 2020 webinar on Conversation On Democracy in Nigeria was to achieve by enabling democracy activists give a verdict. According to Barrister Chiemeke Onyeisi, the Policy Director of the public sphere platform which organised it, the original idea was to bring together individuals straddling the diverse shifts in the struggle for democracy to speak to the democracy in action in Nigeria today. The grand agenda is to raise the quality of the conversation in Nigeria especially on democracy to a more critical level. Somehow, he never got all such individuals. All those who turned up were, with the exception of Mallama Hauwa Mustapha, of the generation under whose leadership the struggle itself began to scatter, most especially the National Association of Nigerian Students, (NANS). So, what were those ones saying and where does that leave us on the theme?
Prof Omolade Adunbi who moderated the conversation from his University of Michigan base in the US was already up on the dot of 4 pm, (Nigerian time). Adunbi asked each panelist to offer a short comment on Comrade Josiah Emerole, a life-long actor in radical democratic politics who just departed to the great beyond. That done and, after breaking the conversation down to key sub-themes, he asked Mr. Adagbo Onoja from the Dept of Political Science at Veritas University, Abuja to open on the first sub-theme: an assessment of democracy in Nigeria.
Onoja responded with the analogy that democracy in Nigeria could not be assesses in a vacuum but must be situated in a set of countries he believes Nigeria ought to belong to by now. Naming such countries as India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia and China, he identifies what he argues to be peculiar to each. That is a narrative of democracy that drives the process. Hanging this position on the flatness of a concept such as democracy when not specifically defined, he stretches the point to saying that even in liberal modernity, democracy is not the same to all the actors. Thus each of Freedom House and Bertelsmann Foundation have different angle of emphasis.
Apart from the crisis of plastic sense of democracy is his idea of Nigeria as a luckless country when it comes to leadership that could have raised the bar. Citing Gandhi in India and Mandela in South Africa, he stresses the point about democracy being what it is made to be. His last argument is a middle class that has not risen as one force as to be the force behind democratic transitions involving dominant parties losing election and power as have happened in India in the 1980s when Congress Party was swept off or in Brazil when the labour party took power or even recently in Mexico.
Nosaze Lanre Osaze, a former Executive Director of Civil Liberties Organisation, (CLO) and a rising consultant was invited to take over. He did, entering the arena with the leading question: can this ruling class offer a democratic vision? It turned out to be no more than a rhetorical intervention. He answers in the negative on the ground of what he calls limited imagination. It is to this limited imagination he traces the level of mediocrity he can observe in the society. “The fate of democracy cannot be divorced from the crisis of mission of the ruling class”, he says. Exempting Chief Awolowo and his group, Osaze denies the rest of the ruling class any elements of democratic consciousness, a claim he insists has been the story since the First Republic.
The baton passed to Mallama Hauwa Mustapha, a Development Economist and Researcher with the Nigeria Labour Congress, (NLC). For her, the democracy that exists in Nigeria is bereaved if the concept is understood as a participatory process, as being about infrastructure, development. In other words, democracy in Nigeria is, for her, against development, against infrastructure and disempowering, especially of women. Agreeing with Osaze, Hauwa says the character of the ruling class is not only problematic , that of the followership is no less so. Being so exclusionary is where we are, she says of democracy in Nigeria, adding aloud before clicking off: what is the Left doing?
Without Professor Sylvester Odion-Akhaine still connected, the second round began with Osaze. The moderator wanted him to speak to the question of what went wrong or what happened. Osaze’s argument is that democracy assessors have not paid adequate attention to the past decades as the decades of global capital. “We have not looked at that in political analysis in Nigeria”, he says, reinstating his argument exempting the Awo group and how the rest had but an ideology of just grabbing power by all means but not in tandem with the notion of democracy as something in which the people are at the centre.
Onoja used his second opportunity to speak to bring in Prof Mohammed Ayoob’s argument that the most fundamental thing that has happened was the eventual collapse of the consensus that brought about Independence. The collapse accounts for the return to unproductive sense of identity everywhere in the parts of the world that were once colonised. His second point is the military intervention in politics and the question that most scholars of civil-military relations in Nigeria have posed. It is the question of whether Nigeria can successfully dismantle from riding the tiger. 21 years of democracy and 14 of it were under retired Generals.
For Hauwa Mustapha, what happened is neoliberalism in the aftermath of the collapse of USSR and the fears that escorted neoliberalism into the arena. She was referring to the fear of tomorrow in terms of basics of life – water, food, housing and how the fear translated in her opinion to opportunism, “even among Leftists”. She doesn’t see how anyone could have infused propriety into the political parties, for instance, in the era of liberalisation of everything. Positions, political parties and just about any other thing became vehicle for individual survival rather than service of public interest, she insists.
Prof Odion-Akhaine had joined the conversation at this point but he was inaudible. In the end, it was the moderator’s summary of his intervention that could be picked and which is the case for taking political organising seriously or is it taking organising politically seriously?
It was the turn of Hauwa Mustapha to be the first speaker on the third sub-theme which is the role of the Left but more precisely the question of what happened to the Leftists. She is a bit concerned, she says, about implying a changed Left. “What was there before that is no longer there again?”, she asks. She went on to say something about how the “vibrancy” of civil society has meant the lack of that among the Leftists but the notes taken is a bit clumsy. She appeared making a case for alternative narrative that considers climate change, gender, environment and the likes.
This resume doesn’t exhaust all that were said but it captures the main points, at least up to when the floor was opened for others to contribute. Baba Aye does not agree that Nigeria doesn’t have democracy. It does but it is a capitalist democracy, he says, stressing the need for self-re-invention Someone with a name that reads like Tuyi put the problem at ossification but his voice was not clear enough. Comrade Ademola Azeez, aka Alhaji wants self-examination to be considered a priority because “we had what it takes to run Nigeria”.
Prof Alozie disagreed that there is democracy by any name called. Hauwa intervened at some point to chastise activists of radical politics for speaking in a language peculiar to themselves and always talking to the same audience of themselves.
The moderator, Prof Adunbi weighed in. It was his summary of the encounter. He spoke of the imperative of recognising that capitalism is changing, a point that can find no better illustration than the platform being used for the conversation. He was referring to the Zoom platform and the likes on the one hand and the powerful digital monopolies that control those new media technologies – Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc. The character of the working class is also changing, he add, pointing out how you could become a billionaire today by developing an App. Many people now turn their cars to uber, he mentioned too, all to illustrate the changing character of global capitalism. His question is how to then define engagement with a system that is changing a lot from what the old wisdom about it in the books.
Barrister Chiemeke spoke last. He came to stress the crisis of stemming what he regards as losing tract. And how problematic he in particular considers that as to put heads together to set up the Maroon Square and carry it on without funding. In other words, he thinks of the days of radical student activism when nobody funded NANS, for instance. He is also pained that the Left has no culture of telling its own story, thereby “always remaining on the margin”. He is challenging all these by putting the Square in the service of raising the quality of the conversation, meaning that another conversation with new casts might not be far off!
It all brought to mind how framed as mob rule since earliest time, democracy continues to face roadblocks as far as the more popular conception of it as the government of the people by the people for the people. The roadblocks have been such that, at some point in the recent past, we were told democracy has suffered defeat. But, before ‘the defeat of democracy’ slogan got an epitaph, we were told again that history had ended and democracy has won the battle of how governance may be arranged. Although ‘the errors of endism’ that was thrown at the promoters of the ‘End of History’ argument shut them up so quickly and completely, democracy is still not a settled concept and/or practice.
Although he is a defender of Empire, Niall Ferguson, the author of the monumental The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, appears to get it right in saying it elsewhere that unless there is a force counter-balancing governments, there can never be democracy. He was probably posing a universally applicable statement in saying so. For, according to the late Reuben Ziri, the Historian of Bida aristocracy, it is illusory to expect democracy in the morning of a long night of dictatorship. By that, he meant that it is a waste of time to expect much in the context of where Nigeria has been coming from.
The question would be how the conversation matches with these key contentions about democracy in general in terms of where we might be heading in Nigeria in particular!