Benjamin Franklin was an American polymath and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. On the final day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when their Constitution was adopted, Americans gathered on the steps of Independence Hall to await the news of the government their founders had crafted. Elizabeth Willing Powel, a pivotal woman of the founding era, asked Benjamin Franklin, “What do we have, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The founding fathers of our modern democracy may have given us a republican Constitution, but it is our responsibility to keep it. President Obasanjo was addressing the press one day with his beautiful wife, Stella Obasanjo, and he said, democracy, like love, needs to be nourished. He concluded after his statement that, “I can see my wife smiling” and his wife actually smiled. A well nourished democracy brings smiles on the faces of its citizens but a malnourished democracy, superintended by unconscionable, corrupt politicians can still be a breeding ground for blood and tears.
There is no silver bullet that can defend democracy if the practitioners do not play by the rules. Republic means people oriented government, which essentially denotes democracy. Section 2(1) of our 1999 Constitution states,”Nigeria is one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign state to be known by the name of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” It went on to define the meaning of the name in Section 14(1), which states, “The Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be a State based on the principles of democracy and social justice.” Nigerians often remember the word democracy in this section but often neglects or forgets the words social justice. The section reveals that democracy without social justice is suffering from a terminal disease that will soon extirpate it.
Democracy has its pillars and foundations. You cannot talk about democracy dividends if a democracy is not profitable. No corporation pays dividends from losses. A democracy must stand on solid foundation before it can grow, mature, bear fruits which can be shared to the people as dividends. The pillars include periodic, free, fair, credible and violence free elections, rule of law, respect and protection of the fundamental human rights of citizens, independent and impartial judiciary. Amongst all these pillars, we make bold to say that free and fair election is the most important because that is what brings the government to existence. Free and fair election reflects the will of the people and it is the foundation of democracy as the government by the people.
Free and fair election is not served a la carte, it is achieved through conscious efforts by the major participants to the successful execution of elections. They include the government, the political class, the Independent National Electoral Commission and the general public. The three arms of government have great responsibilities for free and fair election. The foundation for free and fair election is the law governing it, in this instance the Electoral Act. The Legislature must urgently amend the Act to reflect modern technology and realities. Our present Act is ancient, antiquated and outdated. It is ridiculous that the Act prohibits electronic voting in this digital era and of pandemic where touching surfaces are restricted to avoid spread of the coronavirus. It must provide for stringent penalties for election riggers and offenders. The executive is in control of the security agencies and must give clear instructions to them to maintain law and order during elections. It must hold accountable any security agency that is saddled with this responsibility and fails. A situation where the police and security agencies shift responsibility of abnormalities during elections to fake army or police officers is untenable because it is their duty to prevent the fake officers from carrying out their nefarious activities, apprehend such fake officers and bring them to book. They must be non partisan and ruthless to armed thugs and bandits who disrupt elections. They must dutifully protect the collation offices and other INEC officers because these are where the inflation and manipulation of results take place. The judiciary must be willing to dispose of electoral petitions based on justice in order not to discourage good people from participating in future elections, since they abhor the use of violence in seeking redress from electoral malfeasance, and punish severely electoral offenders to deter future offenders.
The political class is symptomatic of perfidy in electoral issues. The fraudulent politicians rig elections to overturn the will of the people while the good politicians rig elections to avoid being out-rigged by the fraudulent politicians. This gives rise to a situation where, even if the election reflects the will of the people, it will still be rigged. The fraudulent politicians play do or die politics with very dangerous thugs trained to kill or maim anybody who stands in their way to be pronounced winners. They often have no other source of livelihood and are professional politicians. They head to tribunals when they lose in elections looking out for judges to compromise to give them skewed judgements and enthrone them to power. If you are expecting democracy dividends from these crop of politicians, you will wait forever. Their loots are not even enough to cater for their insatiable appetite for corruption in order to finance the thugs, their private army, that often metamorphose into terrorists after elections, compromise Inec officers and judges and so on. The only way to stop them is through free and fair elections and eternal vigilance by the people. The general public has a major role to play. They must reject the money given to them to buy their votes and must use every legitimate means to ensure that their votes count and are counted. Most times those who rig polling unit, ward, local government and state elections are members from the localities who function as agents to the parties.
INEC must be populated with public servants of integrity. Men who cannot be bought with money, who are courageous and cannot be intimidated with the threat of bodily harm. It’s obvious that no election rigging can take place without the active connivance of electoral officers. INEC has been known to defend most of the results it declared at the polls in the tribunals. This signifies that if there were irregularities in the elections, they were either complacent or complicit.
As noted earlier, democracy must be accompanied by social justice in order to thrive successfully. Social justice is the needed nourishment and manure that democracy needs to be consolidated. Social justice is the dividend of democracy. It is what the government gives in return for the votes from the people. Whereas elections reflect the will of the people, social justice reflects the wishes of the people. Will is the power of choosing one’s own actions. In this instance, the power of choosing any candidate for any elective post, while wish is the desire of a person in the choice he has made. Whereas the will of the people is often justiciable and can be redressed in a court of law if there is any infraction, the wishes of the people, most times, cannot be redressed in the courts in the case of infractions. The government enters into a social contract to fulfill the desires of the people in exchange of their votes. It is a relationship of trust. Election is from the people, while social justice is from the government. Election, therefore, is government by the people, which creates government made up of the people, while social justice is government for the people. The sum total of these interactions lead to a healthy democracy.
Any government which fails in fulfilling the will and wishes of the people will collapse and this failure often leads to the dethronement of democracy through revolution. This is because the people will become hopeless with the government. The only tool people have to change their leaders peacefully is through elections. If a government betrays the confidence the people reposed on it by failing to provide democracy dividends to the people and frustrates their efforts to change such government or party peacefully through unrigged elections, the people will have no other choice than to topple the government through illegitimate means because those that make peaceful change impossible, make violent change inevitable. This is why Nigeria must take the issue of free, fair, credible and violence free elections seriously for the survival of our republic.
If on the other hand, a government is able to fulfil one out of the will or wishes of the people, the government may still survive because there is the proverb which states “the hunger that has hope does not kill”. A government which came in through an imperfect process but turns out to be very benevolent to the people, fulfilling their desires and maintaining social justice might survive. A government which fails to fulfill the desires of the people but conducts free and fair elections in which the people have the opportunity to vote out the incompetent political office holders may also survive but a government who fails in both may collapse. Nigeria presents a peculiar situation which we may consider next week.
We thank profusely our numerous readers for their outpouring of love as Global Square clocked one year. We never imagined that in a short while we have elicited so much followershiip and emotions around the world. Our readers have even described our column better than ourselves. Hear Okwong Gwas, “I’m happy to note that Global Square is one year today. It is this column that makes me to have a supply of Sunday Sun newspaper every week. Barr. Kenneth Okonkwo, your write up is always a delight to read anytime, anyday, irrespective of topic. It’s well researched, balanced, factual, void of sentiments, not biased, very educative and enlightening. Keep it up and more grease to your elbow. Congratulations.”