Elections only gain life and death importance when all other paths to accountability and participation are blocked. And given the way their rules have been fixed, electoral contests have become more about legitimizing elite ambitions rather than solving the people’s problems.
The blueprint that have been unveiled by most Nigerian political parties illustrate this, focused as they are on highfalutin visions rather than fixing mundane, everyday problems.
This sets us up for a horrible cycle. Because there is no accountability and minimal participation of the voting public in governance after the election, politicians will promise anything knowing they do not need to deliver it. Voters, also knowing this, will prioritize what they can get during campaigns since there is no way of guaranteeing that you will get anything after. Thus, voter bribery and improbable manifesto promises.
It also incentives corruption. For the candidates, there are incentives to spend huge amounts of money getting elected because it opens the gates to a world of looting and self-enrichment through corrupt contracting.
And the more one can steal, the more largess one has to bribe the public at the next election, and so on.
Further, regardless of the nature of the system, there is little recognition of the fact that not voting remains a legitimate choice. One may either not wish to legitimize the outcomes of an obviously flawed process or may prefer to participate in other ways.
Just as voting should not be construed as the end of democratic participation, not voting should not be seen as surrendering all rights to other forms of democratic participation, including complaining about the way leaders elected by others govern.
Instead of a ballot-box fetish, our focus should be on participation after the vote. We should examine the many ways our system makes it difficult for ordinary people to participate in lawmaking or express their opinions and easy for the government to ignore them when they do.
We should be concerned when peaceful protesters are beaten down, or online activism is disparaged and when our legislators, under the pretense of giving effect to the constitutional right of recall, pass a law that makes it well-nigh impossible for their constituents to recall them.
I can’t even remember if any legislators have been successfully recalled in the history of Nigerian democracy. Even when Governors are not paying salaries, despite receiving huge allocation from the federation account, the people are helpless in taking any legitimate actions against such Governors.
Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. A democratic system is not about replacing the people with rulers. But rather about enabling citizens to participate in their own governance and always keeping government accountable to them. If this were the case in Nigeria, then elections would not make us sick.
We must all look beyond the 2019 general elections and ensure we take active part in safeguarding our democracy.