Se demokrasi lele yii abi krasidemo -Is this democracy or crazy-demo
Mo de pariwo titi fun yin pe ke ma dibo -I warned you all to not vote
The sentiments expressed in the song above by the late Dagrin sum up the expectations I had about democracy. I wish I could do a better job in translation but some expressions just never sound as ‘sweet’ in English no matter how much you try. As a child; the most exuberant I ever got to see my neighborhood -excluding those rare wins by the super eagles- was when the last military head of state of Nigeria died. That was in 1998; I was five. I could not understand why so many people were happy about his death, but I figured I should be happy if so many people, including my mom, were happy. I was told an evil dictator had just died and democracy was to be reinstated. Things were going to get better; Nigeria would soon become the economic giant it once was; I would no longer be sent home from school for not paying my fees. You know the list of the goodies democracy is portrayed to bring and you can add the list.
My experiences since 1998 have however not resonated with the ‘dividends of democracy’ promised. Can we still justify the hype surrounding democracy? I attempt to answer this question in this article. I use three states as examples: Nigeria, America and the Egyptian case. The Nigerian case because I am personally affected by what goes on in Nigerian politics; the American state because it has been around for so long, and is used as a reference point; the Egyptian case because of it is fresh out of the pot. Just as Dagrin had to ask himself if this is democracy, I dare to say that if Nigeria, the US, and Egypt are democracies to at least some degree, then democracy as a system of government gets a fail grade from me.
Democracy versus Republic
“Democracy is a government of the pipu, by the pipu, and for the pipu”, we all chanted. My elementary school teacher had just asked for the definition of democracy and we were more than excited to recite what he had just written on the chalkboard. Today, I still find this definition useful if not all-encompassing for a quick definition of democracy. Academics would argue that democracy is actually a system of government in which the whole body of citizens have the ultimate say and decisions are made by everyone through a system of voting. Ancient Greece is a typical example of such a state. A republic would then be a system in which all the citizens elect a few representatives to make decisions/laws on their behalf. Most modern states who claim to practice democracy are actually republics. It is often said that a democracy is a government by the people while a republic is a government by the law. In this article, I assume democracy and republic to be the same, when most people refer to democracy, they actually mean republic and there is so much overlap between the two that I think is is safe to lump them together under the expression we are used to-democracy.
The case for Democracy
Advocates of democracy claim that democracy leads to non-violent changes in government, gives people a sense of participation in their governments, prevents monopoly and instills a sense of responsibility on the government since they are accountable to the people. These claims should be enough to convince me about the efficacy of democracy except the theory has failed to catch up with the little -admittedly myopic- experience I have. Nonviolence? Ask the Nigerian or the Egyptian how peaceful elections are. Monopoly? Baba Obasanjo is having a good laugh from his Ota farm. The PDP chairman in Nigeria once lectured the nation on why the PDP will be in power for another 60 years. That monopoly is not so obvious in American democracy does not erase its reality, to be a republican nominee, you have to appeal to wall street. The reality of blue/red non-swing states in the US also testifies to how predictable elections could be. Even before Mubarak was ousted, we knew the muslim brotherhood was going to take over if Mubarak was to be deposed. The reality just does not match the hype.
Democracies are quick to applaud or even coerce other transitions to democracy partly because of the mythic democratic peace theory which is a the essence of liberalism. The theory states that democracies never fight fellow democracies but do fight non-democracies. This theory is unfounded and at best an empirical observation. Defendants of the theory are as elusive as academics get and have to redefine what constitutes a democracy over and over to avoid counterexamples to their proposition. The ‘normative and structural constraints’ argument enshrined in the theory have proven inept on their own cannot explain why democracies would fight non-democracies. A concise critique of the democratic peace theory by Sebastian Rosato can be found here. Democracy is not a requirement for international trade and cooperation and does not deserve the applause it gets each time a transition to democracy is to take place.
Getting things done
Perhaps, the most evident inadequacy of democracy is in getting things done. The internet meme that “If con is the opposite of pro, is congress the opposite of progress” comes to mind here. Democracies encourage bureaucracies.
The ongoing controversy trailing the negotiations about going over the fiscal cliff are testaments to the inefficiency of democracy in getting things done. Most of the congressmen acknowledge that going over the cliff would have disastrous consequences, not only in the US, but all around the world. Even if the US does not eventually go over the cliff, the already dipped confidence in the economy cannot be easily undone. The Polarizing effect democrazy leaves has simply made it nearly impossible for a compromise to be worked out in time.
In Nigeria, the legislature has been as dysfunctional as institutions get. It is either they are picking up a fight with the president or engaging in a free for all fight. It took a whopping 12 years for the freedom of information bill to be passed . Egypt’s democratically elected makeshift legislature could not even garner enough legitimacy to avoid a referendum.
Where do minorities stand
Last semester, my physics class held a vote to decide when to hold a review session for the final examination. One of the times available was in conflict with another exam I had, which I definitely would not be skipping to come for a review session. The other option had no conflicts with anyone’s exam schedule but was more convenient for ‘majority’ of the class. We put it to a vote and I lost, I was bitter, but I could do nothing-It was a democracy.
By definition, it is implicit that minorities have no place in democracy. As legitimate as their aspirations may be, they might just have to magically become part of the majority to realize them. In the United States, some ‘holier than thou’ folks think it is their duty to decide who can marry who. For at least the foreseeable future, being Ibo dictates that you cannot be elected president of Nigeria.Democracy has been described as the rationalization of intolerance. When asked why he was out protesting in support of holding a referendum to pass a constitution which did not have a provision for minorities, an angry protester in Cairo responded with the following words:
“They wanted a democracy, and we have a democracy and we must let the referendum go through to determine the wish of the people”
Cost of democracy
The cost of democracy in comparison to other systems of government cannot be justified. Most African nations cannot really afford the cost of democracy in terms of the monetary cost and the loss of lives and properties associated with each election cycle. In Nigeria, there is a Federal government,36 states and 774 local government. Each tier of government has its own legislature, its cabinet and a bunch of cabinet members and well, special advisers. The provisions of democracy entail that there be elections to fill these positions. Aside campaign costs incurred by the candidates, the elections cost Nigeria about 1.9% of her GDP. Nigerian government officials are the highest paid in the country and this is not likely going to change since in democracy, they also get to make the law.
America is not much different. The last election cycle in the US cost a whopping $6 billion (The economist in me says this might have been good). This is supposedly enough to pay for half of the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA’s budget.
Democracy favors short term projects as against long term projects because everyone wants to win re-election or at least have his party remain in power. In my home state of Ekiti in Nigeria, we once had a Governor who embarked on a few road projects and garnered a lot of praise for that. He had a very strong case for re-election until he was impeached. Unknown to us, most of his projects were substandard and the last time I was home, the same projects were being re-awarded. Short-term projects only serve the present and do not solve the infrastructural challenge facing most African nations. Surprisingly, the best roads and schools -including my alma mater- in Nigeria were built by the military.
Thirteen years after democracy was reinstated in Nigeria, most adults I ask tell me the Nigerian situation has actually gotten worse and not better as promised. I am beginning to have doubts about the efficacy of democracy. I am not advocating military rule -that would be a mockery of those who were old enough to be victims of the repression under the military -; I just think democracy has been tried for too long and just has not worked. America has had more than two centuries to test drive and the results aren’t all that encouraging. It is high time we discarded a system that just does not work and go back to the drawing board to develop a new system that actually works.