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Let’s Fix Our Liberal Democratic System, Not Jinx or Nix It

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Former President Olusegun Obasanjo calls for political import substitution in Africa, to replace “unworkable” Western-style liberal democracy with “Afro Democracy”. He’s wrong.

By Chudi Okoye

It seems almost surreal that one should have to defend ‘liberal democracy’ as a system of government in Nigeria, given how fiercely we fought to phase out military rule. But here we are. In the aftermath of the contentious 25 February 2023 presidential election, there appears to be abroad a post-election stress disorder (PESD) which simply won’t abate.

There was a zestful outing against Western liberal democracy the other day in Abeokuta. The ever-engaged Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military ruler who gave Nigeria presidential democracy in 1979 and who returned 20 years later to lead us as a democratically-elected president, has now decided that democracy is not a functioning or fitting form of government for Africa. Earlier this week, on 20 November, the long retired but hard-wired and still-inspired general gathered a small crowd at the grand Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library in Abeokuta, Ogun State, to make this momentous declaration. The gathering was given the grand title of a “High-level Consultation on Rethinking Western Liberal Democracy in Africa.”

Delivering the keynote address, Obasanjo suggested that African countries discard the liberal democratic system “forced” on them by Western imperialist powers. He said Africans had no part in conceptualizing the liberal democratic form; nor were their peculiar needs or interests taken into account in the West’s democratic conception. He decried the fact that liberal democracy has become, in Africa, not majority rule but rule by the minority, with a fraction of a fraction of the population lording it over the vast majority, entirely in its own parochial interest. He argued that liberal democracy is not working for Africa, and that as it is also coming under stress even in the West where it had autochthonous origin, Africans had better look inwards to design a homegrown system that would suit their peculiar environment and serve their needs. He named such a homegrown system “Afro Democracy”.

Although Obasanjo’s suggestion seems, on the face of it, innocuous, it is not quite clear what he hoped to achieve with the two-day conference at his presidential digs. Were those assembled supposed to come up, in the two days of conference, with a blueprint for his “Afro Democracy”?

It might not be altogether uncharitable to question Obasanjo’s motive in flying this kite in a febrile post-election environment. Some may wonder if it’s a dog whistle, an attempt to foment trouble or at least put the present administration on edge. Certainly if that is his goal, there’ll be plenty in the opposition and maddened majority who might cheer. But even if there isn’t any sinister motive, even if it’s a well-intended patriotic endeavor, you have to wonder why a senior statesman would stoke anti-democratic sentiment in an explosive post-election atmosphere. Why could he not have waited for more sober reflection when the rawness of election contestation has receded and tempers have cooled? What was the rush?

Besides the issue of motive and moment, there may be a question as to whether Obasanjo has the moral authority to critique our practice of democracy, having himself introduced a lot of the anti-democratic practices that engendered the pathologies we see today. His brazen assaults on the constitution during his tenure are well-known – whether in seeking tenure elongation or foisting his choice of candidates, at national, state and even LG levels, often using anti-democratic tactics; in his vindictiveness against political opponents; in the lack of accountability and mismanagement of state resources; in imposing an imperial presidency, a carryover from his autocratic antecedents as military ruler, etc. And this is to say nothing of how Obasanjo and the military cabal midwived the 1970s constitution-making and transition processes, regimenting those processes to constrain populist tendencies, and for all that ending up with a deeply flawed 2nd Republic that was aborted barely four years after its inception.

Even so, the worst aspect of Obasanjo’s recent intervention is that he did not really point to the specific tenets of liberal democracy which he finds unfitting for Africa. What exactly in liberal democratic theory or praxis does he object to? In theory, liberal democracy more than most other forms of government tends to guarantee the protection of human rights, civil liberties, civil and political rights; it promotes the rule of law; aspires to the principles of popular sovereignty, majority rule, separation of powers and a system of checks and balances between branches of government; it promotes an independent judiciary; it upholds a multi-party system with at least two viable political parties, periodic elections, universal suffrage and civic engagement; it allows for an independent press and seeks to engage public opinion, etc.

Which of these tenets and features of Western liberal democracy is Obasanjo objecting to with regard to Africa?

It is true of course that whatever liberal democracy is supposed to be in principle, its specific manifestation in our environment has been far from impressive. I will come to that in a minute. But that is not a reason to say it is strange or unsuitable in our environment. Without subscribing to the teleological arguments of neoliberal ideologues like Francis Fukuyama, one could argue that some (or even much) of the underlying philosophical tenets of liberal democracy are universal. Some of them were embedded in our traditional systems of government long before the Westerners arrived. The Igbos for instance practiced a rustic form of direct democracy not unlike the classical Athenian model. In other pre-colonial societies which were larger, stratified and more complex than the segmentary Igbo villages, they had more elaborate forms of political organization, with varying levels of role differentiation, separation of powers, checks and balances, and so on. What was objectionable in our traditional systems has found a superior expression in the theory of liberal democracy.

Arguing in favor of liberal democratic theory is not, of course, to defend it in all its comparative praxis. There is in fact in every type of democracy, even those considered ‘full’ or ‘consolidated’, much to be criticized: voter ignorance and malleability which can lead to poor electoral choices, political corruption, inefficient decision-making, political polarization, gridlock and dysfunction, excessive cost of political access, persistent inequality, and the potential for democracies to produce demagogues and wannabe tyrants.

Our nascent democracy in Nigeria, under both the parliamentary and presidential systems, has manifested many of these adverse traits, often in extreme form. It is for this reason that we have continued to receive negative rating in major democracy indices. For instance in the 2022 Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index, on an ordinal scale ranging from ‘authoritarian regimes’ to ‘hybrid regimes’ to ‘flawed democracies’ and then ‘full democracies’, we were categorized as ‘hybrid regime’.

It might be tempting to want to give up altogether on liberal democracy on account of such dismal record, as it appears Obasanjo is doing. But this would be to ignore the gains we have made. Let’s focus on a few. Consider that we have now, in this 4th Republic, had 24 years of uninterrupted civilian rule. This is over 2x the combined duration of the first three republics, and just five years away from equaling the cumulative intervals of military rule from January 1966 to May 1999. In these 24 years, we’ve had five presidential administrations, and we’re on our third peaceful transfer of power, one of them to an opposition by a defeated incumbent. In these transitions, no incumbent has tried to hang on to power, except for the initial sortie by Obasanjo which was stoutly rebuffed. This is certainly evidence of a deepening democratic culture, even if we can’t say we’re now firmly beyond the risk of re-autocratization.

Of course the democratic arena remains cluttered and chaotic. There is far too much evidence of electoral fraud and irregularities, suggesting a high level of political desperation and a system that induces such behavior. Our election management remains deeply irrational and unprofessional, magnifying the volume of electoral litigation. The judicial rulings are, for the most part, deeply dissatisfying. But this is not merely or even mainly because of judicial capture or rascality, as the retinue of captious commentators – including, sadly, some members of the bar – would have us believe. While there certainly have been some baffling bench decisions, most have been sound on grounds of strict legal reasoning, even if they ended up disappointing broader demosprudential expectations. What no one is acknowledging is that the sheer volume of election litigations might be forcing an overburdened bench to fall back on strict construction of the law, with little room for normative jurisprudence. This is something you might expect our legal analysts to explain to the public, but, alas, they are too often seduced by the frenzy of lay criticism. It has to be a good sign, though, that in spite of the massive volume of cases and the howls of protest over the outcomes, we do not see the losers typically seeking extrajudicial redress.

On the whole, then, whilst we can’t yet claim a confident stride towards democratic consolidation, we can say that we have come too far to have to overturn the system.

In my view, it will be quite disruptive to dismantle our existing democratic order, as the former president is suggesting. The system is already deepening, if slowly. We should preserve the gains we’ve made, but also continue to improve the system so it can deliver better outcomes. We should seriously consider ideas like a return to the parliamentary system, or at least to regional federalism; or introducing proportional representation; having a less costly unicameral legislature at the federal level as in the states; changing to a single six-year presidential term; mandating electronic voting and electronic transmission of results instead of merely prescribing these as options; and reforming the election litigation process.

These are some options we should consider to strengthen our democracy, and not simply throw out the baby with the bath water. Especially for something as vague as Olusegun Obasanjo’s “Afro Democracy”.

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