Is Democracy Really the Best Form of Government? (Part 1)

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By Mike Ozekhome, SAN

Introduction

In the midst of suffering, gnashing of teeth, hunger, squalor, despondency, corruption, insecurity, mass poverty and even hopelessness, many Nigerians have been asking me (both by SMS, phone calls, Watsapp messages, and emails), whether democracy is actually the best form of Government. They are wondering if successive civilian governments in Nigeria, especially the Muhammadu Buhari government, has demonstrated that democracy actually possesses the assumed talismanic abracadabra magical wand of being the best form of government.  They are wondering why democracy which has been in Nigeria (aside the era of military interregnum), has never yielded the desired profits, let alone dividends. They are convinced that the only difference they have seen between the military adventurers in power and their ally elitist and political buccaneers is in the military’s starched uniform and looting gun, as against the politician’s agbada and babaringa, with a looting pen.

It has therefore become pertinent to explore some forms of government, starting with this universally acclaimed type called democracy.

HOW THE SEEDS OF DEMOCRACY WERE SOWN

In the afternoon of Thursday, November 19, 1863, American president, Abraham Lincoln, delivered a famous speech at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 4 and half months after the Union Armies which he led, had defeated the Confederacy Armies at the “Battle of Gettysburg”. The speech was to honour the soldiers who had sacrificed their precious lives for the country.

In just 271 words, Lincoln delivered one of the greatest speeches ever made in history. He told his transfixed audience in a speech that has since become famously known as “The Gettysburg Declaration”, thus:

“That these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”.

The same Abraham Lincoln was also quoted to have said on August 1, 1858, as follows (the circumstances in which he did so are not quite clear):

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy”.

QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS AND QUESTIONS

The questions that beg for answers are: Is democracy really the best form of government? If so, why and how? How many forms, types, systems, forms or structures of government do we actually have? My research on these questions shocked me to no end, when I discovered that there are well over 65 forms and structures of government. But, why has democracy stood out with such luminousness, prevalence and endearing love by most advanced countries of the world? What is it really that makes democracy so tick? Why is it so unique, adored, embraced and adulated by all? Why has it become the yardstick or international best practice barometer with which a ruler or government is weighed and measured?

Today, I am taking my avid readers along with me on a new series concerning the different systems, types, forms and structures of government. The revelations in my writes-up will shock many readers. From thousands of continuous feedback by reading members of the public, I have come to discover that the readership of this newspaper is quite vast and is no longer restricted to only Nigerians. It has since expanded to a global readership of all persons who thirst for democracy, knowledge, information, history, literature, scriptures, good governance, national affairs, international matters, human rights, Rule of law and constitutionalism. A litany of daily telephone calls, letters, whatsapp, facebook, SMS, linkedin, twitter and other online social media handles and platforms interactions with me readily testify to this wide readership. I am greatly encouraged by these divinely driven positive reactions to this my self-imposed sacrificial, but tasking, mission, of educating members of the public, sharing my little God-given knowledge and research capabilities, to illuminate the dark crevices of our ignorance, sheer hypnotism, brainwashing, and enhance national discourse.

Today, we shall commence this lengthy discourse which will take quite some time. Let us start, arguably, with the mother of all forms and structures of government – democracy. I shall break up from time to time, from this stream of national conversation, to attend to more urgent emergent national issues. When I so do, please, permit and pardon me. So, let us now start with the most cherished concept of government- DEMOCRACY.

DEMOCRACY AND ITS ORIGIN

The word “democracy” has its original roots in the ancient Greek political and philosophical thought in the city state of Athens. It means ‘demokratia,’ meaning ‘rule by the people’ (“demos” means ‘people’ and “kratos” means ‘rule’.) It is a political system in which people not monarchs (King or Queens) or Aristocracies (like Lords) rule.

Democracy also has roots in the Magna Carta, England’s “Great Charter” of 1215 that was the first document to challenge the authority of the king, subjecting him to the rule of the law and protecting his people from feudal abuse.

Democracy as we know it today was not truly defined until the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, during which time the U.S. Declaration of Independence was penned, followed by the U.S. Constitution (which borrowed heavily from the Magna Carta). The term evolved to mean a government structured with a separation of powers, provided basic civil rights, religious freedom and separation of church and state.

Theodore Parker defines it as “government of all the people, by all the people and for all the people”. Seymour Lipset (1960) gives a working definition of democracy as “a political system supplying regular constitutional opportunities for changing the government by allowing the population to choose between alternative sets of policy makers”.

While delivering a speech on the importance of democracy to the people of Annapolis in 1809, Thomas Jefferson said, “Where the law of the majority ceases to be acknowledged, there government ends; the law of the strongest takes its place, and life and property is his who can take them”.

According to Larry Diamond, a Political Scientist, democracy consists of four key elements:

A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections.

The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life. Protection of the human rights of all citizens.

A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

Democracy is a type of social system in which everyone has an equal share of power. In large complex societies, however, it is impossible for every citizen to be involved in the political process. Thus, when we refer to ‘democratic’ power structure, we mean those structures in which people are allowed to vote for elected representatives.

MY OWN DEFINITION OF DEMOCRACY

To me, my understanding is that democracy is a system of government borne of the hopes and aspirations of a people and in the shaping of which the people have a real say and commitment to a political structure to which people, in consequence, have intellectual, ideological, and emotional attachments. This means a system of government that is considered by the people as their own and which they are prepared to protect and defend to the hilt. This is a government of the people, one that has its roots in the people, in their goals, values, ideals, experiences, and aspirations. It is not a type of governmental system, the nuances of which can be imposed on the people from outside, though some aspects of those nuances can be influenced or even borrowed externally. But, it is a system of rule that is nurtured, refined, and modified by the people to reflect their wishes, desires, and experiences. The lack of all these desiderata makes a people’s appreciation of, and attitude toward, a particular form of democratic practice merely tentative and tinkering.

NOW THIS

HOW DEMOCRACY HAS EVOLVED

Most societies that describe themselves as political democracies are actually representative democracies in which citizens elect politicians who actually hold and exercise political authority. Pure democracy is quite rare. This is because the definition of ‘everyone’ always excludes some portion of population.

The origins of democracy as an idea and a practice go back to the city-states of Greece in the 5th century BCE. But, contemporary democracies are very different from the above ancient Greek model. It is a paradox that though modem democracy first emerged in the Greece, yet the Greeks were always suspicious of democracy.

They felt that people often made bad decisions that went against their interests. People could be manipulated by demagogues and vested interests. The pattern that emerged in England in the 17th century and slowly became the model for the entire world was one of “representative democracy” or “parliamentary democracy”.

Here, citizens elected their leaders by ballot, who promised to represent the interests of those citizens in debates and decisions, which typically took place in some central national forum such as parliament or Congress. Thus, ideally, the parliament becomes a miniature demos.

In India, this type of democratic political system developed after independence. It is said that in ancient India, the people led a democratic way of living (Ram Rajya), but the political democracy of the modem form did not exist.

In practice, politicians in a democracy usually belong to parties which propose general policies or programmes, rather than responding to citizens on issue-by-issue basis. Parties thus became independent centres of power.

The experience of the 20th century seems to show that citizens’ interests are best represented by either two, or at the most, three parties—as in Britain or the United States; although there are many one-party systems in the world which claim to be democratic on the basis that they represent the collective will of the people. Political processes (elections, political socialization) are the lifeblood of all types of democracies. Political organization, political competitiveness, and the big political gesture-all these are integral to democracy. Without these, democracy is hollow.

AND THIS

INGREDIENTS OF DEMOCRACY

It is widely now accepted that for real democracy, the following necessary conditions must be present: free and fair elections; a genuine choice between candidates and policies; real parliamentary power; the separation of powers between the executive, legislature, judiciary and the politicians; civil rights for all citizens; rule of law and equality before law; inter-party competition; real representation of different interests, free, strong and responsible media; personal freedom; freedom of speech and the press, freedom of religion and public worship and freedom of association and of assembly; freedom from arbitrary arrest; and political choice, etc.

Although democracy is based on majority rule, the protection of minority rights has always been regarded as an essential aspect of the democratic system. Thus, although the majority may always have its way, the minority must always be allowed to have its say. Democracy does not however tolerate tyranny of a vociferous and oppressive tiny minority. (To be continued).

THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK

“The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy”. (Woodrow Wilson).

LAST LINE

Fellow Nigerians, synergise with me every week, to put our heads together on how to retool Nigeria. Right here on “The Nigerian Project”, by Chief Mike A. A. Ozekhome, SAN, OFR, FCIArb, LL.M, Ph.D, LL.D.

– Oct. 12, 2020 @ 12:29 GMT |

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