By Edwin Madunagu
So powerful and attractive, and yet so elastic and abused is the concept of democracy that it can be used, and has been used or invoked, as an organizing principle for any critique or defence or articulation of any sociopolitical movement, political party or social order.
Every intellectual production on democracy proceeds from, or assumes, the general definition of democracy – “government of the people, by the people and for the people” – proposed by Abraham Lincoln about 150 years ago. “Democratic”, the adjective formed from democracy, has been used to qualify all sorts of social monstrosities just as it has been used to mark off genuine qualitative differentiations.
Concerning this “magic” concept, two particular events in modern history stick to my mind. As Lincoln was defining democracy in America – a new nation that was built on slavery – those inspired by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Europe were establishing communist groups, cells and, later, parties of the working people based on concepts of democracy which they argued were superior – in terms of human freedom and liberation – to all previously existing concepts.
Later, there emerged in Germany, in the fourth quarter of the 19th century, a party called the German Social Democratic Labour Party. Less than half a century later, in the same country, there emerged, Adolf Hitler’s National Social Democratic Labour Party, which was committed to physically liquidating the Communists and the Jews whom they regarded as the same thing or two faces of the same thing.
This article is however not about the historical trajectory or trajectories of democracy – theory and practice. The above ironies of history just sprang up before me as I began the present appreciation. There are three particular simple lessons I learnt and re-learnt in the business of reviewing or appreciating political texts. One is that no political text is ideologically “neutral”.
Another, the second, is that no serious political critic or reviewer is, or can be, ideologically “neutral”. The third lesson is that what a critic or reviewer – having made his or her ideological choice, implicitly or explicitly – may call the “other side” in an ideological spectrum is usually not monolithic. A critic or reviewer should therefore be careful about blanket categorization.
The first and third lessons are illustrated in a new book, Democracy in Nigeria: Thoughts and Commentaries authored by Dr. Anthony Akinola, a Nigerian compatriot living in Oxford, United Kingdom. I am an illustration of the second lesson. The question on this second lesson is not how well you can pretend, as a reviewer or a critic, to be ideologically “neutral”, but whether you will allow yourself to be so blinded by ideological prejudice as not to see flashes of beauty and deep thought when they appear on the “other side”. I shall come to these three illustrations in the course of this appreciation of Akinola’s important book.
Democracy in Nigeria is a collection of 55 essays written by Akinola over a period of 12 years (2000 – 2012), most of them in the last few years. Almost all the essays were published in Nigerian newspapers, the vast majority in The Guardian. The 219 – page book is divided into 10 parts: Part 1: Ethnic rivalry over leadership (7 essays); Part 2: Obasanjo and the third term stigma (4 essays); Part 3: Yar’Adua and exaggerated reforms (4 essays); Part 4: Jonathan and the zoning controversy (7 essays); Part 5: Elections, parties and qualifications (9 essays); Part 6: The monster of corruption (6 essays); Part 7: The fallacy of welfarism (2 essays); Part 8: Religion and religiousity (4 essays): Part 9: Federalism and the Constitution (3 essays); and Part 10: Between optimism and pessimism (9 essays).
The author’s well crafted and carefully balanced 6 – page Introduction, together with his preface, ought to be taken as a separate essay, the 56th. It embodies the political trajectory of Nigeria from independence, passing through the (1966 – 1970) turbulence – hence, I believe, the care and the balance employed by the author.
Beyond this literary style (carefulness and balance), however, the Introduction signals the author as a convinced liberal democrat. The well-known researcher and writer on Nigerian politics, A.H.M. Kirk-Greene, who appears to have followed the intellectual career of the author, especially his public commentaries, for quite some time, wrote the Foreword to the book. He scores both the author and his new book very high. Kirk-Greene appears honest in this judgment.
Democracy in Nigeria is “reader-friendly” and “student-friendly”. By this I mean that Akinola’s new book will attract and encourage a literate person who otherwise suffers “book-weariness” or “book-laziness”; and will be a delight to students of Nigerian politics.
In the first place, the book is a collection of essays, not a single historical narrative and analysis; secondly, the titles of the parts, as well those of individual essays, show that the issues treated are not only current but also important and urgent – with some of them, such as Ethnicity as a permanent phenomenon (the 6th essay of Part 1), promising to be controversial.
The two essays on Welfarism that make up Part 7 (The fallacy of welfarism): Welfarism in a shrinking economy and The Pandora box of Welfarism, are bound, at first, to shock, and then invite, readers who had confirmed Akinola as a thoughtful liberal democrat.
In the third place, each part is preceded by what the author calls Synopsis, set in italic, which provides the historical background and context to that particular group of essays. Some of the “synopses” are long and substantive enough to be opinion write-ups by themselves.
Finally, Akinola’s language is beautiful, accessible and lucid. But speaking for students, in particular, I would have loved to see Index at the end of the book. This may be considered for the second edition. And in doing this the author may also consider moving the date of publication of each essay from the end to the beginning of the essay.
This is to help locate the time of the author’s intervention as the reader begins to read. Also to be considered in a new edition is the need to correct some minor typographical errors like those on pages 34, 36 and 114 and other errors like taking CPC as Congress for Political Change instead of Congress for Progressive Change.
One of the strengths of this book is the sheer boldness – intellectual as well as moral and political boldness – of the writer in taking and arguing positions that are not “popular”, that are “against the current”, so to say. One of such opinions is on the long-standing demand and campaign for the setting up a Sovereign National Conference (SNC). His opinion here comes in the last of the seven essays that make up Part 1: Ethnic rivalry over leadership.
I think I should quickly dispense with this point. Akinola had argued strongly for the rotational presidency and the recognition of “ethnicity as a permanent phenomenon”. In the end he declared: “The major feuds in the Nigerian polity since independence in 1960 have been mainly over leadership. Be it the Civil War of 1967 – 1970 or the Gideon Orkar-led attempted coup of April 1990, or the crisis we now simply refer to as June 12, it has been demonstrated in the course of our existence as an independent nation that the leadership question is indeed the national question” (emphasis mine) (page 30).
It is in this context of the author’s almost categorical belief – held over the past three decades – that he declares: “honestly, agitation for another constitutional conference – be it of ethnic nationalities or that of the intelligentsia – no longer excites” (page 46).
He continues: “We have had too many conferences in the short history of our nation and maybe it is time we accepted that improving in what we already had is the way forward” (pages 46 – 47). Of course, on both counts – leadership question being the national question and constitutional conference being no long “exciting” – I strongly disagree with Akinola.
But I admire his boldness: he is taking the positions in spite of his knowing that they are “unpopular”, in spite of his being known as a liberal democrat and a progressive over a fairly long time. I do not agree with him but his position and his argument enrich my own contrary position. That is one of the strengths of the book.
For a second instance of boldness and “swimming against the current”, some historical background is necessary. The government of President Olusegun Obasanjo had, in 2005, set up a National Political Reform Conference to kick off, I believe, a new process of constitution-making. When deliberations got to the issue of derivation principle in the Revenue Allocation debate, delegates from the South-south geopolitical zone insisted “on being paid 25 per cent of revenue from oil, a percentage they would like to graduate to 50 per cent over a five-year period”. (page 50). Akinola fully endorses this position.
• To be continued