The elite in Africa have been burdened with false expectations of being what they can never be. Ordinary people in their confusion identify with them, nursing the illusion that they could be the instruments of their deliverance. For as long as I can remember, the international community has cajoled and bribed them to grant human rights. And now, the same pressures are being applied on them to democratize. But the power elite in Africa will not transform the state progressively and they will not transform the society to empower the people because they have no interest in doing so.
Their antipathy to democracy was already evident when they inherited the colonial state instead of democratizing it, and when, disingenuously insisting that development requires unity, they disallowed all opposition and dissent. Now, in the face of the global resurgence of democracy, they are bending democracy into a strategy of power, using elections to disempower the people. And they are succeeding.
Visibly shaken to the point of incoherence, the incumbent military regime annulled the election to the delight and enthusiastic support of the Nation Republican Convention (NRC), the defeated party. The NRC, decided to abandon democracy for a chance of getting into power in another election, apparently determined to ensure that this time, democracy is taught a lesson. More significant still, most leaders of the winning Social Democratic Party (SDP) heartily supported the annulment of their own victory.
A few, the most powerful among them, did so on the calculation that annulment would allow them to resume their Presidential bid. Many more supported it in order to corner some of the fortunes on offer. Others did do fearing a trend which would destroy the parochial base of their political power.
The ascendency of the military is one of the great tragedies of Africa, for the military is nothing other than a highly specialized apparatus of violence whose salience begins when sociability has become impossible and civilized values no longer apply, when we must take to the “killing fields.” That is why military rule is inherently and inevitably de-civilising.
Like the military, we ourselves are a problem for democratization too. The greater problem for that matter. We are as submissive to those who have power over us as we are oppressive to those who are weaker than we are. We corrupt those who are stronger by allowing them every indulgency, including the liberty to abuse us. We have no will to resist power; our inclination is to worship it. We think nothing of submitting to all manner of indignity to get those in power to notice us or to throw us some crumbs. Even without the crumbs we still ache with the desire to please them.
Unhappily, we have seen too much of this in Nigeria lately. Our National Assembly, the institutional expression of our popular sovereignty was intimidated into serving under a military dictator as comic relief. Senators, governors, and party leaders happily abandoned the people, and accepted every conceivable humiliation “in the national interest.” SDP leaders supported, for substantial incentives, the annulment of their own victory in order to “avoid blood shed.” Politicians who deplore military rule vehemently only yesterday are today hailing our new rulers and urging a long tenure “to save the country.” Democracy cannot thrive amidst such docility and crass opportunism. Those who do not take human dignity seriously cannot benefit from democracy. Nor can they take the democratic claims of others seriously, for these claims are ultimately about human dignity.
Just as we corrupt those who have power over us by being unreservedly submissive, so we debate those who are weaker than ourselves or anyone who happens to be in our power, by oppressing them and violating them. For instance, elected governors exercised power in contempt of democracy and the people and generally ruled their states like a conquered province, while grumbling all the time about oppressive federal power. We discern this behaviour at every level of society; the attendant who locks the public washroom to prevent its use in order to save himself the trouble of keeping it clean: the army Sergeant improvising on the law and dispensing barbaric punishment at the traffic circle, the gratuitous cruelty in our prisons and police cells.
The principle of economic self-reliance will be more difficult still in a country in which justice is the interest of the stronger. But this is precisely the principle we need most not only to resolve the national question, but also to address the bane of Africa generally, and Nigeria in particular; namely, our insistence on consuming without producing. To consume without producing one has to be either a beggar, a parasite or a bandit – beggar and parasite, when one is too weak to appropriate by force. Banditry when strong enough to do so. However, harsh this judgment may seem, the sad reality is that we have effectively chosen this shameful existence, although we are forever busily inventing all kinds of disguises to conceal it.
When we can, we make laws which confiscate other people’s property; we wax eloquent about development cooperation which is a code for our beggar role in the international system; business people buy our foreign exchange cheaply and profitably “for the economic well-being of the nation” instead of meeting their foreign exchange needs by themselves; we demand more local governments and more states in the name of even development but this is just a subterfuge for extortion; in the name of national development, we appropriate the wealth of the mineral producing areas with brute force, utterly insensitive to the environmental hazards they face, turning them into disposable victims of their own property; we pretend that we are playing politics when, like Mafia families, we are actually waging a violent struggle for a lucrative turf.
A society of beggars, parasites and bandits cannot develop, it cannot know peace or stability, and it cannot be democratic. It can only gravitate endlessly, as we are doing, in material poverty and moral regression. That is the bad news. The good news is that the few hard-working and honest people among us and there are many of them, are in revolt and most importantly, the mineral producing areas are finally bracing for a monumental struggle to control their own resources. They will, I hope eventually force us to be free and make us into a serious country.
Another important pre-supposition of the national question is a democratic resolution. It cannot be resolved by top-down political arrangements which take for granted and reinforce the existing structuration of power. It can only be resolved by processes and structures which are democratic in regard to the equality of individuals as well as the equality of nationalities. The proposed constitutional conference in Nigeria poses a special challenge in this respect.
To be useful, it has to be seized and converted into a full-blown sovereign national conference which will empower itself as it progresses, democratize its composition, redefine its mandate, challenge and fracture the existing structure of power and pave the way for a new democratic order. Of course, confronted with this agenda the military may call off the conference and retreat into rigorous military rule. So be it. That will only clarify the struggle and possibly intensify it.
Prof. Ake, a Nigerian National Merit Award Winner, founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Advanced Social Science, Port Harcourt, was one of Nigerian’s most influential political science scholars. He died in November 1996 in a plane crash in a flight to Lagos from Port Harcourt.