President Buhari said at his 77th birthday reception given him by his aides that “this system (democracy) which is supposed to be more accountable, is too slow for my liking.” I thought I saw the cat peeping out of the bag. One can understand the president’s apparent frustration with democracy. The president was once nicknamed Baba Go-Slow – not as a paean to democracy, I suppose. Democracy is necessarily slow and even frustrating. Everyone can see that.
But this form of government derives its legitimacy from the protection of rights and freedoms. For it to protect those rights and freedoms, it must be guided by processes aimed at ensuring that the rights and freedoms of the citizens are not wilfully abridged by the powerful and the influential in and out of government for reasons other than those for the greater good of the greatest number enshrined in the constitution and other extant laws.
This makes democracy the government of the people. The people do not vote in a government only to watch it deny them or erode their rights and freedoms for the rather cynical purposes of supposedly protecting their interests. This must be the reason why under any and all forms of democracy, when the people feel the presence or the approach of threats to their rights and freedoms, they raise the alarm. No, they do not call for revolution.
But, yes, democracy is a difficult form of government. I think it was the late British prime minister, Winston Churchill, the man who said some of the wisest things in his time, once said that “democracy is the worst form of government, but there is no other.” The irony is that democracy as a form of government does not give expansive freedoms to anyone, not even the oga at the very top. What democracy gives with the right hand it tends to take away with the left hand. Consider the irony of the powerlessness of the powerful president. No president in a democracy is allowed to do what he likes and as he likes because the law is eternally vigilant. How do you deal with a situation such as this: man wearing a wig and a gown and sits on the inappropriately named professional throne called the bench and tells a president he could not lock a man he suspects has in some way cheated the public by helping himself to the public fund under his care? It is the irony of the comparatively powerless man putting the powerful man in his place. Ah, democracy.
For a man like Buhari whose singular mission in government is to end the reign of blatant corruption in the land in a hurry by locking up all those who have drops of palm oil on their stubby fingers, it must be gulling that the law arrests his gallant speed by placing obstacles in his path. He has to contend with something called the rule of law which stipulates that no matter how desperate Buhari thinks the eradication of corruption might be, he must fight it strictly within the ambits of the law. He did not have to contend with this as military head of state from 1984 to 1985. He put it nicely when he said: “When I came in uniform, I collected those who were leading, took them to Kirikiri (prison) and told them they were guilty until they could prove themselves innocent.”
In uniform, Buhari could afford to stand the cardinal principle of our common law on its head. Dictatorship has its own rules. We could live with the anomaly of a man being presumed guilty until he could prove his innocence. Democracy frowns at that. What was right and legitimate for the man in uniform are not right and legitimate for the same man in agbada. In agbada, the man must respect, defend and protect the cardinal principle of our common law to ensure that every man is presumed innocent until his accuser can prove his guilt before a competent court of law recognised by the constitution.
Under-girding this principle is what the late Dr Chuba Okadigbo called the democratic temperament. A man with Buhari’s military background would have problems with the democratic temperament. For some 30 years or so, he and the men from his constituency ruled us “with immediate effect” – an important phrase that made a distinction between the arbitrariness of khaki and the slowness of agbada dictated by the niceties of democratic norms and practices. The phrase could be interpreted as a form of government defined by the Yoruba word, kia-kia. But no government is formed on the principles of kia-kia.
This must be difficult for the president to deal with. In uniform, he made the laws; interprets them and enforces them; in agbada, the legislature makes the laws and the courts have the sole and unquestionable responsibility of interpreting them. I imagine the president must have been wrestling with this rather complicated situation since he became president in 2015. What is more, with these legal obstacles standing in his way, I have a sneaking feeling Buhari might be entertaining the disturbing thought that if he does not put all those being tried by EFCC in prison before the constitution reminds him that his time is up in 2023, he would be left holding the short end of the stick of the anti-graft war and his legacy might be spotty. That must be a problem.
If it is any consolation for Buhari, I too have problems with democracy. I have problems with the leadership recruitment process in a democracy. It is comprehensively faulty because the ballot paper, the only legitimate instrument through which the people express their leadership preference, is actually an instrument for the dictatorship of the powerless. The powerless bring a democratic government into being. The ordinary people, otherwise called the holoi-poloi by the late Chief Bola Ige, are the trusted electors of presidents and governors. They act on sentiments, not on rational thoughts; and certainly not on any reasonable assessment of a man’s suitability for a high public office and his competence in discharging the heavy duties of that office. But once they act willingly or usually through inducement, their choice is binding on the elite, the rational men and women high up there who would rather not endure the sun, the wind and rain to cast their votes.
My second problem is that democracy tends to protect bad, corrupt and incompetent leaders at all levels. Again, this hacks back to the rule of law. Under the rule of law, the people who put leaders in office have no powers to remove them, even if, clearly, they are not serving the people’s interests. The right to remove them is taken away from the people and given to the law-makers.
I present these as some of the creases in our form of government that Buhari would give some thoughts to ironing tout as part of his legacy as president. He could amend the electoral act to improve the leadership recruitment process and legally create a level playing field in which the content of a man’s heart and brains are rated more important than the content of his pockets by the party moguls. He could amend the same act and give back to INEC the power as the primacy custodian of our electoral process – and with it, the power to qualify and disqualify public office seekers. He could amend the constitution and remove from it the so-called immunity which protects a thieving governor while in office. A governor who commits a crime must answer for his transgression while in office, not when he leaves office.
I would like to Buhari take on the mantle as the primary mover of any constitutional amendments being hinted at by the national assembly next year. The law-makers have always shied away from dealing with the fundamentals of the constitution. Tweaking the constitution, as the national assembly has done since 2003 only ensures that we dance on the same spot and watch the grass grow under our feet. Yes, we can do better. Let us do better with our democracy, slow, warts and all.
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