Democratic recession: Strongman politics as undertaker

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Okey Anueyiagu

“Look around, strong man politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning” –Barack Obama

In the last year or two, I have written extensively on the erosion of our political institutions and norms by politicians and other actors, and the imminent danger these happenings portend to our lives and to the continuing existence of our country. My essays, titled; Democracy, Is This The End? and Is Our Democracy Dying? were published on the back page of Nigeria’s daily; Thisday, and were featured in many other journals, media and online platforms.

Essentially, these essays focused on the examination of the failure of our democratic institutions, the processes and the actors to address correctly, the many problems facing the country in attaining certain levels of a better life exemplified in the dispensation of freedom, justice, security and economic advancement and comfort. Painfully, these essays expressed fears that our democracy is tittering and on the verge of collapsing if urgent actions and steps were not effectively taken with speed to solve the continuing bastardization of our political institutions and processes. The essays, tearfully concluded that if measures were not urgently taken by our politicians to relieve economic inequality, curb corruption, secure and guarantee freedom and the rule of law; that citizens will ultimately lose faith in government and that these anomalies will constitute recipes for anarchy, disorder and disunity.

Nigeria evidently is not an exception to these maladies that one may conveniently describe as Democratic Recession. In so many democratic countries around the world, many institutions of liberty, freedom and justice are viciously under attack and experiencing severe threats to their continuing existence. From India’s ethnocratic repression, to South Africa’s xenophobic vengeance; Hungary’s despotism; to even Israel’s dysfunctional democratic challenges, the fear of the collapse of democracy is real. To think of the United States of America, one of the world’s oldest democracies, as being in crisis with the dark night of Trumpism, is in itself, an absurdity.

The analytical and prescriptive view of Nigeria today as a democracy requires an intensive study of the practices, bearing in mind a total cognitive evaluation of the happenings in the political scene lately. We must address these questions and worry about the conditions of our politics and its practices; examining if the ties that bind us as a people; and as a nation – state, are not fraying and bursting at the seams at such an alarming speed, that we may have become utterly contemptuous of each other in ways and methods so consequentially dire and possibly irreversible.

It is evident today that the body politic in Nigeria has become injuriously more fractious than at any time in recent history. Not even the apocalyptic civil war atrocities and the after effect of that evil war match the vicious trend of events we are witnessing in today’s Nigeria. Equally evident, is the waning and the decline of trust in the various political institutions. This distrust has become rather centrifugal, raising the already high stakes of hostility, disunity and crisis.

What may have caused such major upheavals in our polity? Ethnic rivalry. Growing economic inequality. Unemployment. Overpopulation. Terrorism. Religious tension. Hunger. The hyperbolization of the social media platform. Politics of attrition. Corruption. All these adverse factors and several other vices may have contributed to the growing stress our political systems are suffering in recent times.

These many factors have affected the political normalization of affairs in the country, and have created a negatively transitional change that any stable democracy has ever experienced in history. The changes in the system occasioned by these factors have created insensate feelings in the minds of most of the citizenry. The fear of the domination of one ethnic group over the others, and the vagaries of ethnic and tribal group discrimination will produce adverse political backlash, exacerbating the already fragile political equation and national equilibrium.

The hostilities amongst partisans ideologically and geographically, have created dangerous divisions with its overheating rhetorics on our political climate. Many had thought that the Buhari government would be a revival of sort; but lately his tenure is being viewed as an interregnum with a transition into an almost autocratic regime capable of completely destabilizing our democracy. My fear is that this government is crossing rigid boundaries, and in so doing, turning against valid and defined democratic processes many reckon insidiously, will subsume it.

The strongman political instincts of cunningly and sometimes brazenly reducing the very complex calculus of politics to very myopic and simplified arithmetical conversions and principles will lead any democracy to doom and anarchy. The prevalent talk in town , is that the executive arm of this government has castrated and rendered the legislature and the judiciary impotent and incapable of acting independently and providing the necessary checks and balances required in any virile democracy.

The prevalence of this administration’s authoritarianism is gaining momentum reminiscent of the President’s past actions when he was a military dictator, between 1983 and 1985. When Buhari overthrew the democratically – elected government of Shehu Shagari, he promulgated lawless decrees that indiscriminately jailed journalists and other citizens. Some unlucky citizens were killed by firing squad. His military junta committed several violations including the movie-like failed abduction, kidnap and crating of Umaru Dikko in a foreign land with the intention of forcefully bringing the politician back to Nigeria to face “justice”

Since assumption of power as a democratically elected president in 2015, Buhari has come under intense scrutiny and criticism for acting as if he were still a military ruler. He has blatantly violated several rules of law and democratic norms. A few of these violations include rampant disregard of court orders, thereby undermining the authority of the Judiciary and, wantonly trampling the constitutional and human rights of citizens.

The strongman style of politics in an autocratic manner, has caused the detention of the former NSA Sambo Dasuki, Ibrahim el-Zakzakky the Islamic cleric and his wife, Omoyele Sowore a journalist, amongst many others, despite court orders granting them bail. Also the raids on judges homes and courts, and the National Assembly by the DSS, the secret police that reports directly to the president. That these pugnacious acts were done in the interest of national security, is a blatant abuse of power and is highly contemptuous.

The political and economic atmosphere in Nigeria today is deepened in despair and constantly fueling disenchantment that is threatening the very fabrics of our existence as a democracy. I believe that the exacerbation of non – democratic styles of governance are the greatest threat facing our democracy and are forcing our already battered down precedents, leveling norms, and demolishing properly constituted institutions. From all indications, it is regrettably evident that our politicians and indeed those in leadership, have seized these moments to inevitably eclipse power and that the resultant destruction of all we hold dear, will soon follow.

This essay seeks to offer a cautionary tale about how quickly a robust democracy can be weakened and destroyed when actions not taken, can inimically bode ill for the smooth functioning of a democracy. The weaknesses inherent in our already less than robust democratic institutions and structures, are decisive and divisive driving forces and factors that when confronted by, or with authoritarian impulses, spell catastrophic disasters and collapse for the system.

Someone once asked me to explain to him how a President Buhari who rode into power in 2015 as a populist, has suddenly become remarkably unpopular. I found the answer in so many spheres. But what came to my mind as a political scientist, is first, the coercive and “strongman” positions he has taken and exhibited in almost all his actions and proclamations. Instead of persuasion, he has consistently deployed what many perceive as “aggressiveness” in combating issues. This is to the peril of a clearly recognized and more embracing political dialogue – induced dealings and tools required in a pluralistic democracy, that should be encased on common heritage. The idea of doing things based only on instincts, body language, personal values or ideals, has backfired spectacularly against Buhari, as public opinion on most of his agenda is turning sour.

Can we survive this onslaught on our democracy? My take is that our country’s history is rife with powerful and strongman leaders and groups that, after professing their love and commitment to democratic principles and the rule of law in their bid to win elections , turn around and deploy anti – democratic ways. These people always lose this fight, and in all the cases, democracy prevailed.

Going by the economic prosperity and seemingly stable political climate existing in the world’s powerful authoritarian countries; China and Russia, the question of the terrible democratic recession the majority of the world’s democracies are witnessing is very troubling. Is it that economic boom that China and Russia are experiencing despite their political system is a sign or signal that democracy is no longer a preferred system of government? The fact that the cumulative GDP of autocracies may be exceeding that of Western liberal democracies is making good argument for dictatorship. Is this what is about to be manifested in Nigeria? Are we not experiencing populist dictatorship in Nigeria, where our rulers come to power by all means necessary, and thereafter, deploy these so called victories to arrogate absolute powers to themselves by diminishing and weakening the independence of other key and parallel institutions.

It is certainly evident that these erosions of democratic institutions are on – going as we see that the judiciary; the legislature are all almost, but rubber stamp lame arms of the executive in whose stead is the apparent curtailing of the ability of the opposition parties to effectively organize to contest or even realistically win elections. The critical element of a free and fair press is under threat and gravely undermined. Under these highly undesirable conditions, as the strongman rulers consolidate their strangle-hold on the system, the outlook for our democracy is so miserably bleak and in jeopardy.

It is relatively and precariously safe to imagine that once an authoritarian ruler takes some level of obscene control over other democratic institutions; in Nigeria’s case; the judiciary, the legislature, the electoral body (INEC), then the doom is cast over our democracy, our freedom, liberty and justice. But, like many well – meaning citizens of our country, I rely on the antecedents of world history, that almost always ascertain that all kinds of dictatorships have been remarkably vulnerable to democratic forces and challenges.

Authoritarian regimes or governments anywhere in the world pose grave dangers to its citizen’s value for liberty, freedom, collective self – determination and self – worth. Without the existence of those values, the society no matter how prosperous will eventually have legitimacy problems that will invariably affect political and economic growth leading to staggering levels of upheavals, corruption and instability.

I perceive that the crisis and shock our political systems are suffering from today, may be as a result of the disruption caused by Buhari’s waning popularity. The lack of genuine victories in the elections purportedly won by the ruling party, paints a desperate picture of the dubiousity of the party’s popularity. What then follows in the game of acquiring, storing and dispensing political power, is that the ruler will step up all gimmicks in the game to retain power by increasing the levels of oppression. We are inevitably witnessing drastic electoral malpractices, election violence, jailing of opposition politicians and journalists, sacking of judges and civil servants and replacing them with political lackeys, etc. The more the anti democratic characters are rejected by the citizens, the more they become more dictatorial and authoritarian. Hypothetically, the fall of these regimes are imminent, as the citizens are wont to recognize these types of governments as unsuitable for what they were brought in for, creating an extensive legitimacy problems for the dictators and their regimes.

So many years after independence, Nigerians have tasted freedom and liberty, and have enjoyed relative self-determination. Citizens of this country will always long for freedom when they remember the military dictatorships of the past and the unpleasant effects of those oppressive and unwanted regimes.

Is Buhari a strongman politician? Is he using his almost diminishing and illusive populist powers to subvert democracy? The prevailing new orthodoxy in my view, thinks and believes that his high level of extensive levers of powers over our democratic institutions, and the other arms of government, are intensely overbearing. This is desperately horrible for our democracy. My fear, is that the continuing pursuit of these treacherous paths by this government, or any other government, will lead us down a devastating slippery slope of erratic policies and actions that will jeopardize and subvert the political environment causing massive economic and social crisis.

Critics of Buhari’s government have excoriated his administration as probably one of the worst civilian governments ever witnessed in the lifespan of the country’s democratic experiment. These critics strongly questioning its threshold of imminent intolerance of dissenting views or opinions on issues of national interests and on its conducts and interference in the electoral process and practices that are antithetical to the tenets of democracy.

The devastating consequences of strongman politics are just too many. The country as a direct result, is mired in intractable political crisis, ethnic rivalry and conflict, economic degradation and decline. All this malaise threaten the continuing existence of the country as one indivisible unit, and places it on a precariously dangerous trajectory constantly lurching from one crisis to another.

The tendency for a strongman politician to engage in extreme cronyism, as is the case where the President, is appointing and elevating mostly people from his enclave and religion to high offices and making it a norm, is flourishing. Our barren anti – nepotism law and the concept of federal character as enshrined in our impotent constitution, should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. The adverse effects of these anachronistic behaviours of the strongman ruler are so strong, perilous, and infectious, that one wonders whether our already weak and fragile political system can withstand and even endure, without a catastrophic collapse, the suffocating onslaught.

In my mind and in those of many scholars of Political Philosophy and Thought, the words of Niccolo Machiavelli in the “Prince” is quite instructive to our dictators when Machiavelli admonished that the ruler “who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom” would never find peace or sleep easy. “When it rebels, the people will always be able to appeal to the spirit of freedom, which is never forgotten, despite the passage of time and any benefits bestowed by the new ruler….. if he does not foment internal divisions or scatter the inhabitants, they will never forget their lost liberties and their ancient institutions, and will immediately attempt to recover them whenever they have an opportunity.”

OUR RULERS and the oppressed, ARE YOU LISTENING?

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