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Is this democracy?

This rumination first appeared in my column in Weekly Trust on April 21, 2007. By Farooq A. Kperogi I crave your indulgence to allow me...

This rumination first appeared in my column in Weekly Trust on April 21, 2007.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I crave your indulgence to allow me to tyrannize you this week with my desultory thoughts. Since my deterritorialization (as those of us who live by “big grammar” call geographic displacement) to the United States over the past couple of years, I have become more emotionally invested in Nigeria than I had ever thought possible. I read our newspapers online with an almost religious commitment and follow developments in the country in ways I never thought I was capable of.

This is not exclusive to me. People who have left the homeland for a strange cultural habitat often find that they have an unquenchable appetite for news from home and that they are often overcome by an inexplicable nostalgia or, if you like, by a kind of romantic nationalism that they'd probably never felt when they were at home.

I have been following the deeply soul-depressing charade that is passing for elections in Nigeria. I have become what mass communication scholars would call “news drunk” reading all the devious subterfuge and shenanigans before, during, and after the elections. And this has deepened my sense of despair about the future of our country. My disheartenment these past few days has been so nakedly transparent that anybody who merely fixes his gaze on me can almost see, even touch, my depression unaided!

In moments of emotional distress, writing is often cathartic for me; it provides an outlet to vent my pent-up angst.

So I decided to get down to writing my column for the week. And a whole host of ideas, as usual, came jostling for prominence in my mind. Should I write about a friend of mine who, against my well-intentioned caution, came to the United States since last month and found for himself, in a bitter way, that America is no paradise on earth? He will probably be back in Nigeria by the time you are reading this article.

Or should I write about university teaching in America in light of the current ASUU strike? I have had university-teaching experiences in both Nigeria and the United States and since Nigerians love to derive inspirational strength from a contrast of contexts with more "advanced" societies, I thought I would write about that. And I have a whole load of information to share. Are university teachers in America any better off qualitatively than Nigerian university teachers?

Then I thought there is something about our newspaper journalism culture that just isn’t right and that I should comment on. It’s not only that the grammar of our newspapers is often awful and the language annoyingly clichéd; the manner of attributing information to prominent people—and of casting headlines—is often at best unprofessional and at worst downright duplicitous.

Since I teach news writing and reporting here, I thought I would write about that issue and also draw from my experiences with American journalism. Of course, I don’t expect any journalist to read this—or if they read it to take me seriously. But I would at least be on record as one of the people that called attention to this disturbing practice.

All these ideas, however, were drowned out by the profound revulsion that has engulfed me since this dubious “do-or-die” election (apologies to Obasanjo) started.

But then, I said to my self: how could I write about the elections when I have defined the compass of this column to be only, or mostly, a record of my sojourn here? What’s more, so many reasoned and thoughtful commentaries have already been written about the disingenuous chicanery we are being subjected to in the name of elections. So what am I going to say that is refreshingly different?

Certainly not a lot. But, well, I said to myself that I can at least ramble and find emotional release in the process. And that’s precisely what I am doing now.

I think we need to start seriously questioning some of the taken-for-granted assumptions about democracy. Since the collapse of state socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, “democracy” has emerged as the unchallenged, unquestioned form of government that every nation is either forced to adopt or aspires to emulate voluntarily.

For us in Nigeria, our nightmarish experience with incredibly venal, reactionary, and enfeebling military absolutism has made “democracy” an even more appealing attraction. Predictably, democracy has now become what scholars of rhetorical studies would call a “charismatic term”— that is, an abstract, often meaningless and empty, concept that nonetheless carries the greatest blessing in a culture and demands sacrifice and obedience.

Today, to be labeled “anti-democratic” is worse than being called a murderer. Politicians now confer legitimacy on their actions—and inactions— by invoking the name of “democracy.”

But is this what we bargained for? No serious person in Nigeria contests the fact that the last eight years represent our country’s worst descent into the low-water mark of despair, hopelessness, and misery. We have witnessed the reversal of our time-honored national fortunes by at least 30 years.

It’s anybody’s guess if we can ever recover from this. For instance, when Obasanjo came to power in 1999, Nigeria generated over 3000 megawatts of electricity. His government actually spent billions of Naira to reverse this to about a thousand megawatts today! Our roads are in a worse state than they have ever been since independence. Security is at its lowest ebb. And poverty now prowls proudly and menacingly in most homes to the delight of Obasanjo and his slew of sinister crooks who call themselves “reformers.”

For eight years, a thieving, hypocritical, and incompetent cabal has held our country hostage, viciously raped our resources, traumatized our people, pillaged our patrimony, and murdered our dreams with reckless abandon in the name of democracy.

And this same baleful, felonious cabal is entrenching institutional structures to guarantee the intergenerational perpetuation of their criminality and the exclusion of other segments of the society through systematic, state-sponsored vote rigging.

Ordinary Nigerians are cruelly denied even the most basic guarantee of liberal democracy: periodic leadership change through the ballot. Last Saturday, Obasanjo and his gang of criminals in government once again manipulated the governorship and state houses of assembly elections and denied us even the luxury to dream sweet dreams about the future of our country.

The Independent National Electoral Commission, which is anything but independent, announced predetermined election results. Now there is outrage and violence everywhere—and justifiably so. We all know that this Saturday’s presidential and National Assembly elections have already been preset even before they have taken place. Why should anybody go out to vote? For good reason, Nigerians are progressively losing faith in the electoral process and, in fact, in democracy itself.

What is worse, perhaps, is that billions of naira that should have been used to fix our decaying infrastructure and institute basic economic liberties for the masses of our people are being expended on these fraudulent elections. And the last thing on the minds of the beneficiaries of this fraud is the common good of the country. Democracy, for many of them, is merely a gateway for easy personal enrichment.

When I think about this, I can’t help wondering sometimes whether we really need this democracy at this stage of our development. It’s a wasteful, inept system that throws up all kinds of mediocre characters and wily murderers in power. It has become a system that only expands the stealing and killing fields.

Think of the president and his numberless coterie of redundant and unproductive assistants, advisers and hangers-on. Ditto the vice president and the ministers. This thriftlessness is replicated at the state and local government levels. Then you have the absolutely otiose legislators at all levels of government with their strings of even more otiose aides, assistants, advisers and so on, all sustained by scarce national resources that should be invested in education, infrastructural development, agriculture, welfare programs, etc.

And then think of the needless deaths and destruction that accompany all elections. Even our president defined elections as a “do or die” affair. In reality, however, it’s a do AND die affair!

The truth is that democracy, all over the world, has never been the cause of prosperity; it’s always the consequence of prosperity. The United States, Britain, and all other Western countries did not become prosperous because they were democratic; they became democratic after they were prosperous.

Recent examples can be found in the so-called Asian Tigers. The current wave of democratization in the region was preceded by what has been called “developmental dictatorship.”

I know my critique of democracy exposes me to charges of advocating the return of the military. But that’s not my point. I will be the last person to advocate that, even though I believe in my heart that what we currently have is not in any way superior to military absolutism.

If the present system had the capacity to invest Nigerians with the power to change leadership through the ballot box, I would be willing to concede that the system at least has a redeeming feature. But that’s not the case. Like in the military era, we are stuck with the same visionless, unpatriotic and larcenous cabal, however much we may hate their rotten guts.

Some people think what we need is a patriotic, transaction-oriented, incorruptible, and developmental vanguard of leaders in the mold of a Muhammadu Buhari of old, or a Murtala Muhammed, or even a Ghadaffi.

But this suggestion is fraught with many problems and contradictions. Who will that person be in the Nigeria of today? And, worst still, how will he or she emerge? Through the electoral process that has already been hijacked by Obasanjo and his cronies? Just how?

I honestly don’t know. These are just the rambling discursive gymnastics of a tormented and frustrated deterritorialized mind. But I feel an emotionally purging sensation after writing this.

I wrote this column last Sunday, a day before the Supreme Court ruling that put Obasanjo and his cronies to shame. The Nigerian judiciary is one institution that is giving a lot of us cause to reaffirm our faith in the destiny of our country.

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