OPINION: Democracy As Despair | By Abiodun Awolaja


If you have been following the news, the lead story in the land right now is the alleged plot by certain individuals to install an interim government when President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure winds up on May 29. The Department of State Services, which supposedly penetrated this plot and should have gone after the plotters right away, did not name the felons, their modus operandi or their location (s), so critics saw its alarm as a subtle message to those challenging the outcome of the February 25 presidential and National Assembly elections in court to beware of the Ides of Dissent.

But away from governments Outgoing and Incoming, this Democracy has become for many mere vexation of spirit. These days, with the government being a mere superstructure erected on the people’s pain, Democracy has become a tactic of totalitarianism, underlined by what the French philosopher Louis Althusser dubs ideological/repressive state apparatuses, which for the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci is simply hegemony. That is why talk of democracy often sounds like a criminal provocation. Indeed, the assumption that Democracy is the best form of government should not go unchallenged. We should ask why Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are doing well even while being run as non-democracies.

It seems that Nigerians are getting tired of this Democracy that Fela Anikulapo-Kuti dubbed “demonstration of craze.” This year, the voter turnout was the lowest since Nigeria’s independence.  Of the 93.4 million registered voters, only 87.2 million people collected their Permanent Voter Cards (PVC) and of this number, the actual voters were just 24.9 million. Lagos, Kano and Rivers are the three largest states based on voter registration, but the voter turnout was less than 30 percent in the first two, and a miserly 15.6 per cent in the last. Were Democracy a festival of joy, the people would have trooped out in willing numbers.

Why have the people abandoned the ballot? Because the ballot hasn’t significantly bettered their lot. Per a 2022 report by the World Bank, approximately 70 million Nigerians had no access to basic drinking water services and 114 million were without basic sanitation facilities in 2021. According to the report titled ‘Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership’, access to pipe-borne water declined from 36 per cent in 1990 to 11 per cent in 2021.

Hear this: “An estimated 19 per cent of Nigerians practised open defecation in 2020, and faecal sludge is commonly released untreated into the environment.” There you have it: democracy as despair. Shakespeare was quite poignant on despair:  “Oft expectation fails, and most oft where most it promises; and oft it hits where hope is coldest, and where despair most sits.”

Knowing that it is treason to raise their hopes every four years, then dash it, the people typically stay home enjoying themselves while election goes on.  Obafemi Awolowo and his team did not force them to vote: they trooped out in terrific numbers because the ballot then meant better life. This inversion is of course not a peculiarly Nigerian problem; there’s hardly any African country that can be taken as a model. Uganda is supposed to be a democracy yet security agencies take the brutalization of critics as a vocation. South Africa has been on a rapid fall since Mandela’s exit. Rwanda is supposed to be a model, except that the beloved president is promoting the same suppression that led to war. Anyway, before democracy came, Nigerians knew their limits because their rulers did not pretend to be servants.

The Provisional Ruling Council was a selection by those who imposed themselves on the people with bullets and whips. Today, instead of the PRC, a Criminal Cabal (CC) calls the shots and imposes itself on the people based on the unstated principle that every election cycle, it shall be a cardinal duty to suppress the populace. Our Democracy is actually a felony, raising the people’s hopes and then dashing them with demonic relish.

The CC conducts fraudulent primaries and engages in the allocation of electoral figures, while its street soldiers snatch ballot boxes, set ballots alight, beat up prospective voters  and launch assaults on non-Establishment voters. After rigging election at all levels, the CC mouths the rhetoric of legality against the aggrieved, suddenly remembering that there are laws. The alibi: “No democracy is perfect.” In the language of the poet Tanure Ojaide, it “throws questioners to hyenas.”

Nigeria’s most astounding poet, Christopher Okigbo, saw the suppression long ago: “If I don’t learn to shut my mouth, I’ll soon go to hell/I, Okigbo, town crier, together with my iron bell.”Just how do you vote nearly N355bn for an election, only to turn traitor by failing to upload result in real time, thereby casting a moral burden on the declared winners? The kind of impunity that underlines the go-to-court charge of the victors didn’t even happen under the military.

With the CC in full swing—naysayers like Agba Jalingo go in and out of prison, jolted by a jaundiced judiciary–partisan buffoons living in Euro-America and sustained by contracts, kickbacks and political patronage justify ruling the people by purchasing votes. A critical part of their job is to lull the masses to sleep by glamourising the four-year rituals of elections that make life meaningless. In this job, though, they rank below the intelligence agencies using scaremongering as a tactic to keep the aggrieved in check, the same agencies under whose nose armed herders came into global reckoning through wanton shedding of innocent blood.

The CC, a band of sword-wielding executors who do not want a sword waived in their presence, wants no challenge. As the Yoruba say, “Death stalks the butcher and he screams; what about the animals he killed?” (Ikú fẹ́ pa alápatà ó ńkígbe; ọmọ ẹranko tó ti dá lóró ńkọ́?)
Democracy came with a bagful of promises in 1999, but the 110km Lagos-Ibadan road has not been completed in 24 years.  There have been some outstanding performers–Olusegun Mimiko, Godswill Akpabio, Babatunde Fashola– but I am not persuaded that this democracy has served us well. I am not more hopeful about this country as I was in 1998 when a middle aged man in Ondo town comforted himself with this lamentation: “At least Abacha will grow old and leave the post one day.”

This Democracy seems to benefit only the CC and its enforcers, whether in the academia or in the media. The rest of us, like the Odogbolu General who just departed this Market, have been left in the lurch by our supposed friends, chained to a solitary spot.


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