The National Dialogue may have started but it is not too late to register an objection to the exercise. There is really no need to convene such a conference when there is a National Assembly in place. The common response to this assertion is that the National Assembly does not truly represent us and that its members’ priorities are not ours. This view reflects the pervasive disillusionment with our formal democratic institutions. Our young democracy is afflicted by a crisis of representation wherein Nigerians doubt that elected authorities are looking out for their interests. Advocates of a dialogue say that given the dereliction of those in authority, a national conference is necessary to address our problems.
To start with, the notion that millions of Nigerians troop out every four years to elect people who will not represent them warrants closer scrutiny. True, the quality of those in our legislature could be better. But if, for example, the good people of Plateau Central senatorial district elected Joshua Dariye, who admitted to theft as state governor, to the senate, it is hardly worth complaining about the quality of his representation.
Electoral malpractices do play a role in leadership selection but they are not the main determinant of leadership quality. Democracy presupposes a constant engagement between the governed and the governors by which the latter are held accountable. But our transactional political culture favours election year bargains in which voters trade their votes for short term pecuniary gains or for the ephemeral psychological benefit of being able to claim kinship with the winning party. Once electoral transactions are done, the electorates leave their representatives to their own devices. An ill-informed electorate, too easily swayed by cheap populism and provincial sentiments, is not likely to make intelligent electoral choices.
Secondly, the crisis of representation stems from a continued disdain for politics. Many honest and competent people in our society consider politics to be beneath them and have left it for knaves. Thus, it is no wonder that the critical mass of progressives necessary for a transformative shift in our nation is yet to emerge. In the electoral decision matrix of many Nigerians, honesty and competence are not the main considerations. What matters is primarily which person can, as a result of his heritage and identity, symbolically “represent” them in high places and ensure that prebendal channels of patronage to the kinfolk stay open.
Thirdly, one of the legacies of military dictatorship is our veneration of presidential power and our millennial expectations of a political messiah’s emergence in Aso Rock. We are largely indifferent to federal and state legislature elections and focus on presidential and gubernatorial polls. This partly accounts for the unimpressive quality of legislative representation. Even in our authoritarian presidential order, the national assembly retains considerable heft. Were it occupied by more progressive types, it would positively impact public policy-making and also curb executive recklessness.
A federal legislature with the likes of Femi Falana, Olisa Agbakoba and Pat Utomi among others would surely bring more intellectual rigour and sincerity of purpose to bear upon debating our future. But instead, people like Agbakoba, Utomi and lately, Sam Nda-Isaiah, engage in futile presidential bids that are dead on arrival. Due to either hubris or political miscalculation, many smart public figures aim for the presidency, when they should focus strategically on the real engine room of democracy – the legislature. Until we start to take politics more seriously, there will continue to be a schizophrenic gulf between our expectations and the sort of people we choose to fulfill them.
Our crisis of representation is also rooted in structural flaws in our federal architecture. The dialogues we need to be having should not be taking place only in Abuja but mostly in our communities and municipalities. The subversion of local governance by federal and state politicians is one of the most unremarked stressors of our system. Nigeria is simply too vast to be run from Abuja or from 36 state capitals. Municipal governance that unshackles local communities and empowers them to design their own solutions to their problems is absolutely vital. We can debate the efficacy of the uniform local government system but a first step has to be the restoration of municipal authorities to health, granting them autonomy and devolving more power to them.
Our indigenous democratic traditions were defined by a mass participatory ethic dramatized by the village square and the town hall. They were about consultation, dialogue and consensus-building with everyone having a voice in deliberations.
Participatory democracies are by definition micro-democracies; they function best at the grassroots because they ensure that policy and consensus are generated from the ground up rather than imposed from above in contrast to our presently over-centralized order that seeks to micromanage 170 million lives from Abuja. The diminished capacity for dialogue and consensus-building at the grassroots is one reason for the increase in communal conflicts. Without participatory democratic platforms where disagreements can be anticipated, deconstructed and defused, they are liable to escalate into violent conflict. Thus, we need to rebuild our town halls, village squares, market unions and residents’ associations and graft them into the matrix of municipal governance.
The cure for our crisis of representation is deepening our engagement with our formal democratic institutions, not creating a parallel legislature which is what the confab effectively is. The charge of non-representation or non-performance hurled at the national assembly can just as easily be thrown at the presidency. Yet no one is suggesting an alternative presidency or a parallel executive branch to run things. As it is, the confab delegates who were nominated rather than elected, do not even meet the test of democratic legitimacy. Demographically, the confab can scarcely be said to be representative of a nation whose young constitute 70 percent of the population. We cannot place much stock in a lot of geriatrics debating a future that they will not be part of. The fact that the confab’s “findings” will still be vetted by the National Assembly indicates that its conveners are aware of its doubtful legal standing and legitimacy. This begs the question – why not simply use the National Assembly as the institution of first resort? Why reinvent the wheel?
There is no magic bullet for nation-building. In our plural society with its multiple competing interests and its prebendal governance, democracy is often paralyzed by various rent-seeking demands, and is consequently slow and ponderous. This will continue to be the case until genuine ideological polarities emerge in our politics. If we want better people in our government, then we must put them there. Politics cannot leap ahead of a society’s insecurities, aspirations and prejudices. It is no surprise then that the confab is already mired in controversy over the use of prayers and the supposed numerical advantage of Christians. These are the inanities that Nigerian elites typically bicker and bloviate about.
Nation-building is hard and patient work. Deepening our democracy requires us to test our institutions to their limits and exhaust their potential instead of hastily declaring them useless and unfit for purpose. This confab is an inglorious distraction from the work at hand.
(All images sourced online)