By Godfrey Igwebuike Onah
Many people have now come to accept democracy, with all its limitations and ambiguities, as the best form of government for nations. (I have my reservations, but I leave them for another occasion.) Those, especially, who have experienced different forms of dictatorship or tyranny are very excited whenever they talk of democracy. In Nigeria, for instance, after many decades of military dictatorship, majority of the population heaved a sigh of relief when, at last, democracy was ushered in through general elections in 1999. In our excitement, we seemed to have forgotten that the so-called democracy in itself does not entail the end of misrule. Thus, we did not seem to have cared when we recycled the very dictators and tyrants that held us hostage for decades into our new democratic dispensation.
Furthermore, Nigerians seem oblivious of the fact that democracy has to do with an attitude, a process and a complex interplay of well-established institutions. For many Nigerians, democracy simply means elections. That explains why so much attention is paid to them, but hardly to anything else. After the jubilations for electoral victories and protests for the losses (some of them fought out in the law courts and some degenerating into violent clashes), there is generally a lull until the next elections approach. In the meantime, the “elected” persons and their friends carry on with their business of serving personal and group interests, while the rest of the population continues its usual life of hardship and drudgery. Whenever crumbs fall from the masters’ table, like when they provide just a few social amenities and services, the poor people dance themselves to lameness as they celebrate the “dividends of democracy.”
It ought, however, to be borne in mind that the ballot box has sometimes produced the worst types of autocratic rule. Adolf Hitler of Germany is usually the most horrendous example. But other examples of dictators and tyrants dully elected at the polls abound in other countries of the world, including Nigeria. That being the case, all responsible citizens of this country should see elections not as an end in themselves but as a means to good governance. No doubt, free, fair and peaceful elections are an indispensable part of the democratic process. Nevertheless, Nigerians should look beyond elections and work rather for good governance, a governance that seeks to achieve the collective good of all the members of the society. Conscious of the dignity of the persons they govern, elected public office holders ought to pursue the common good, that is, “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily” (Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 58).
It therefore behoves the electorate to ensure that those who hold public offices in this country are made to be accountable to the people, all the people of Nigeria; not just a particular group or section. Unless the citizens demand accountability from their elected leaders, we shall continue to witness the “do-or-die” politics that has characterized the country’s return to civilian rule. If people in public office know that they can do anything and get away with it, they will stop at nothing in their attempt to get into office and to remain there indefinitely. The civic education of Nigerian citizens must therefore include creating in them the consciousness not only of their duty to vote, but also of their right to good governance.
We need to learn how to make politics less attractive to those whose objective is not the common good. That would be one way of making it less lucrative. If people spend huge sums of money in an effort to get “elected” into office, could it be because they know that they can amass as much wealth as they care to without any fear of prosecution, provided they are in the ruling party?
Indeed, what we call political parties in this country seem to have become simply platforms for embezzling public funds and avoiding prosecution. How else can one explain the ease with which our politicians hop from one party to another and back within very short spaces of time? It might well be after all that all the tension created around religion and ethnicity in our country are only a ploy used by those who plunder our common patrimony to divert our attention from their institutionalized banditry. While the common folks in the different religions and ethnic groups are busy fighting and destroying one another, these men and women with seared consciences (and who may not have any religion at all) are busy emptying our state and national treasuries. What is worse is that these same persons make the abused and dispossessed Nigerians worship them as people of unassailable integrity, champions of national cohesion and anticorruption crusaders. Time has come for the ordinary Nigerian citizens to put a halt to all this. We have got to move beyond elections and work collectively for good governance, a governance that aims at the common good. Only then can we separate true democrats from the self-serving bigots.
*Dr. Onah is the Catholic Bishop of Nsukka