Most people in the relatively stable democratic nations of the world would find it rather difficult to understand why democracy should be causing so much pain in the so-called third world nations. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 and the consequent turmoil of Pakistan followed by the killings of hundreds of citizens in Kenya and Nigeria in the aftermath of allegedly rigged presidential elections, further reminded peoples of the peaceful democratic nations that what they now take for granted in their own nations never comes on a platter of gold.
The United States of America gained its independence from Britain in 1776. However, the Americans had to fight a system, which made them pay tax without being represented in parliament. “No taxation without representation” was the memorable slogan of their war and their declaration, which must guide democracy anywhere in the world, is the assertion that “all men and women are created equal”. The determination to give effect to that important declaration would later lead to constitutionalists to prohibit the American citizen from bearing a title of nobility. The now problematic gun culture – the right of the American citizen to have a gun – was also intended to achieve that end.
However, America is still democratising because the assertion of equality of all men and women excluded Blacks for the great part of the nation’s history. The history of de jure acceptance of Blacks as equal to Whites is only a few decades old, coming into effect with the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, while de facto acceptance of equality is still evolving. The vestiges of the racial-supremacist Ku Klux Klan, their own earlier version of our Boko Haram, are yet to fully disappear. However, things are looking good because substantial progress has been made. The election and re-election of Barack Obama as first African-American President is a huge step in the right direction.
Neither can Great Britain claim to have perfected its democracy. The nature and extent of privileges enjoyed by the monarchy is an on-going debate. The history of democracy in Britain has been a history of the ordinary citizen challenging the Crown and the so-called royal prerogative. It is also a history of organised challenge to the assumptions of the aristocracy. The British monarch is now a mere constitutional one – courtesy of the revolt led by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century – while many other European countries including France, Germany and Russia, got rid of theirs in violent revolutions. The emergence of a controversial King or Queen could spell the end of the monarchy in Britain.
Be that as it may, democracy and its institutions crept in gradually. The right to vote did not come to many on a platter of gold. Requirements of property and education meant many were excluded from the democratic process. Voting rights did not come to women until quite recently. We may now refer to some societies as civilised not least because their citizens readily comply with rules and regulations but such civility did not come about easily. In Britain, for instance, there was once a time when a relatively minor offence attracted severe punishment. Convicts were ex-communicated and distant Australia became more or less Britain’s prison for such convicts .
The universal definition of democracy is that provided by the great Abraham Lincoln as “the government of the people, for the people, and by the people”. Democracy is not just an approach to political governance but a culture, which touches on every facet of human life. The major problem of democracy in some societies is that it is a new value system in competition with already established structure, which are at best contradictory. The authoritarian feudal structures of some societies derive their authenticity from tradition and religion. Until the contradictions of state and society have been resolved, our democracy will be a mere imitation of what obtains somewhere else.
In Nigeria, for instance, the traditional system co-exists with the modern democratic system. There is nothing like the King or Queen of Nigeria but traditional rulers exist as heads of cities, towns and villages. The British approached political governance in Nigeria through a system of indirect rule, making use of the chiefs. The politician seeking political power wants to be in the good books of the traditional ruler and some might want to parade a chieftaincy title of some sort. Traditional rulers are among the most affluent in Nigerian society; those in big cities receive multiple salaries from local government councils in their areas of jurisdiction. It is hard to envisage a revolution that would end Nigeria’s traditional institutions.
The electoral democracy into which we were introduced has been characterised by failure. The rigging culture has become our electoral culture. The recent events in Cote d’Ivoire are also an indication that election rigging is an African disease. The typical African leader does not believe in leaving office voluntarily or in being defeated in the process of re-election. If the Constitution stipulates two terms, the typical African leader interprets it to mean a minimum of two terms in office. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has been one long-term mis-leader in that respect. The United States of America has been governed by one constitution since 1787, while Britain is not even guided by a written one; the typical African leader believes the Constitution could be changed at every conceivable opportunity, to suit his whims and caprices.
Is there a future for democracy in Africa? One likes to be optimistic and, therefore, say there is. One’s optimism derives from the belief that education can play a big part in the future of democracy in our continent. Most of the current crop of African leaders (or rulers) belongs to the first generation of educated men and women in their respective families, while the percentage of the educated in society itself is generally low. True democracy belongs to the future when a more assertive, refined and rational citizenry dominates the political space. With successive generations of educated men and women, the outlook on life will be a lot different from what it currently is. A country like Britain can boast of more than a thousand years of education; its oldest university is more than 900 years old while Nigeria’s oldest university, the University of Ibadan, is 64 this year. The point one is trying to make here is that ours is still a very young nation and it takes time for rough edges to be chiselled out.
Future economic outlook will also bolster democracy. The current generation knows no other route to wealth and fame than politics but that should change when economic opportunities widen. There are still quite a number of thieves and clowns dictating policies here and there. When corrupt politicians retire to nowhere other than prison, those who seek wealth and not service will know where to go. The Press and Judiciary in Nigeria may be doing relatively well but the people themselves must feel democratic for democracy to be the culture they so much crave. They are the ones who must insist, by their votes and actions, on how they want to be governed.
• Dr Akinola lives in Oxford, England.