- From the tiny little chiefdoms and fiefdoms that characterized primitive societies to the slave-dealing feudalist empires such as the Kanem Bornu, Oyo, etc that were supplanted by Western Colonial conquerors in the late 19th Century, followed by brief experiments in democracy that followed the nationalistic (and decolonization) movements of the mid-twentieth century, which were soon supplanted by military dictatorship, to what we see today as another attempt at the democratization, Nigeria has indeed come a long way in political evolution.
- Our recorded history has been dominated by centuries of brutal slave-trade, decades of colonial exploitation, and several years of one form of dictatorship or the other. Our sad history of economic exploitation and political domination and social exclusion as a result of both external and internal forces, has not helped our journey towards democracy, and good governance.
- Nigeria to a large extent has been held hostage to the retrogressive forces of arbitrary rule and military dictatorship with the attendant abuse of power, corruption in public office and mismanagement of resources, and consequently economic stagnation. Our nation has all along been characterized by arbitrary rule, the preponderance of feudal lords, the big man syndrome, a command and control culture, all manner of culture of impunity,corruption, oppression of the weak including women and young people, and of course ethnic bigotry, religious intolerance and civil strife, while the rest of the world has been making phenomenal progress in meeting the socio-economic and political aspirations of their people – advancing the cause of democracy, progressing in science and technology and developing the arts and the humanities.
- One does not have to be a political scientist to a recognize that the absence of a genuine democratic environment in the nation has to some extent robbed the people of this country of much of the gains of modern scientific and technological civilization. Indeed, Nigeria is not alone here. The absence of a truly democratic environment in most African countries has held us back on all fronts, and that is why we appear to lag behind the rest of the world in what the United Nations classifies as indices of development – GDP and per capita income, infant and maternal mortality rate, quality of nutrition, adequate shelter, portable water supply, access to modern health care and good functional education, employment (and unemployment rate), and general life expectancy rate. In today’s world, the continent of Africa is synonymous to poverty, disease (especially HIV / AIDS) and civil strife. Those who minister the Gospel to Africans must therefore look critically at the African situation and address critically the many causes of poverty, disease and civil strife, including absence of democracy and a good governance in many countries.
- At the beginning of his public ministry St. Luke presents an account of the visit of Jesus to “the town where he had been brought up” (Lk 4:16-30). As a practicing Jew, Jesus had gone to the Synagogue on a Sabbath. It was his turn to read the Scriptures for the congregation. The texts where taken from Isaiah (Is. 61: 1-2 & 58:6) as follows:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me;
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to
proclaim release for prisoners and sight for the blind,
to set the downtrodden free, and to proclaim
the Lord’s year of favour
At the end of the 1994 African Synod, at which occasion the woes of the African continent were reflected upon by the leaders of the African Church, Pope John Paul 11 said:
The Church must continue to exercise her prophetic
role and be the voice of the voiceless, so that everywhere
the human dignity of every individual will be acknowledged
and that people will always be at the center of all government
programmes. (Post Synodal Document, no 70).
Thus, agents of the Gospel in Nigeria nay Africa must now be engaged in promoting democratic values and good governance if they are truly to be the voice of the voiceless; if they are to be truly agents of wholesome development of their people. Involvement in the work of justice and advocacy for democracy can no longer be seen as a optional extra. But like the 1971 Synod of Bishops say, it should now be seen as a constitutive dimension of the work of evangelization. That is why we must now discuss what democracy is in detail, and how the promotion of this form of governance will enhance the quality of life of our people.
The Meaning of Democracy
- The classical definition of democracy is that of Abraham Lincoln in his Gettisburg address of 1863. He said inter alia that democracy is the “government of the people by the people and for the people”. Modern societies see self determination on the individual and social level as a fundamental human right. Democracy could be described as the aggregate of rights, freedoms, duties and responsibilities that a particular society associates with self-determination. Many of the (democratic) rights and freedoms have been codified in the 1948 United Nations Bill of rights and accepted by all modern states (including Nigeria) as fundamental. These rights and freedoms are also contained in the African Charter on Human and People’s Right, also endorsed by all the states that make up the African Union. And finally these rights and freedoms, as well as the duties and responsibilities that go with them are enshrined in the Constitutition of most nations including ours.
Constitutive Elements of Democracy
- Democracy is about the freedom to choose, and so free and fair periodic elections at which leaders are chosen, are integral to the democratic process and good governance. Yet, democracy goes beyond the mere holding of elections.
It is about:
- The recognition of the dignity of all human beings, with rights and freedoms that are fundamental and inalienable – they are neither bestowed by the state / the ruler, nor can they be taken away by anyone.
- The priority of the Common Good over individual good in society.
- The existence of a social contract between the people and the leaders whom they freely choose, and who can be recalled if such leaders are not doing well. This social contract has rights and responsibilities on the side of the leader and the led that are clearly spelt out in the constitution.
- Sovereignty residing in the people and not in the leader
- The supremacy of the constitution of the land, formulated by the people, and to which both the leaders and the led have sworn strict adherence.
- The Rule of Law. Society is not run at the whims and caprices of the leader at any particular time.
- The equality of all citizens under the law. No one is above the law.
- The sanctity of the institutions that superintend the social contract between the leaders and rest of society – especially the judiciary and the police and other law enforcement agencies.
- Keeping faith with the requirements of the nation’s constitution
- Submission of everyone to the independent arbitration of the courts in case of disputes.
- Checks and balances; provided by the separation between the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary, as well as Multi – Party system and the existence of a critical or formidation opposition to the ruling party, that will serve as watchdog, since power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
- Strict accountability and transparency in the conduct of public officials, guaranteed through the process of feedback and recall.
- Free flow of information about the activities of government Policies are formulated, and laws are made only after due consultation with the various segments of the society.
- Majority Rule. However, democracy gives room for the minority voices to be heard.
- Respect for the rights and opinions of others, and the power of the opinion of people.
- Freedom of association, and the fostering of Trade Unions, including the market women unions, house wives unions, road transporters unions, and Student Unions.
- The existence of an enlightened, socially conscious and politically active civil society.
- Ensuring high ethnical standards for occupants of, and aspirants to public office.
Democracy and good governance are averse to:
- - Autocracy, totalitarianism, authoritarianism, dictatorship or arbitrary rule in
any form, culture of impunity etc.
- Leaders that transform themselves into philosopher kings.
- A situation where leaders habitually foist their “wisdom” on their people
- Self – perpetuation in power against the self-expression of the people
- The suppression of opposition voices or the muzzling of the press
- Social discrimination or political exclusion on the basis of religion, class, gender, etc.
- Oppression or marginalization of any segment of the society
- Corruption and the lack of transparency in public office.
Church, Fostering Democratic Values
- Dictatorship, whether military or civilian, benevolent or tyrannical, has made Nigerians poor and powerless. Many Nigerians now do not seem to know their fundamental human rights. Those, who know, and they are few, beg for these rights instead of demanding for their rights. It is within this scenario that the talk about the social class called the poor becomes very challenging.
- The Church is called to serve the poor in the nation – those who have no social and economic or political rights, those who have lost their human dignity due to the material circumstances they find themselves in. The common good, the good of society as a whole requires that the powerless be specially protected and defended. That is why the degree of development or civilization of a society is measured and evaluated not by how much material wealth that society has, but by how that society treats the weak and the powerless in its midst.
- In the villages, towns and cities “the weak and powerless,” the poor are with us but their conditions of being and well being have remained for the most part at the level of theory. We are often unable to give positive answer to the question of the condition of the hungry. The army of energetic but unemployed youths, the widows, the disabled, those with HIV / AIDS, the beggars and the mentally ill persons in our midst. We cannot give a positive response because we realize the scandal of our lack of compassion to our brothers and sisters in need. In this regard the attitude of our leaders and the populace to those in need does not help matters. Immoderate love of riches and their selfish use characterize our general attitude which spells doom to the needy, the weak and powerless.
The principles of human destiny and dignity
- Created in the image and likeness of the one God, and equally endowed with rational souls, all men and women have the same origin and destiny. Redeemed by Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude; all therefore enjoy an equal dignity, Jesus extended his love to everyone, to the children, to the woman caught in adultery, to the tax collector, to the sick and suffering. In most part of the nation, we have witnessed widespread discrimination based on ethnic and tribal affiliations, for instance, the indigene / non-indigene / settler question. We have witnessed oppressive rule imposed by successive military governments in many countries. All these are a violation of the principle of human dignity and equality. To pursue the principle of human dignity, the Church must fight for democracy, justice and equality.
The principle of the common good
- Looking at the socio-political and economic situation in Nigeria’s recent history, one can discern a near total neglect of the common good in the personal lifestyle, and in the value orientations, policies and projects, pursued by our leaders and the privileged few in our societies. The idea of the common good is a fundamental plank of the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church. It is anchored on the Christian notion of the dignity of the human person, the human person who is created in the image and likeness of God. This dignity of every man and woman is understood by the Church to be as a result of the human person’s divine origin, his or her supernatural end, and his or her transcendence. Also the human person’s happiness and ultimate fulfillment are only realizable in community. Thus against the crass individualism upon which liberal or unbridled capitalism is sustained, and in the face of human greed that is sometimes expressed in the wholesale appropriation of all the land and mineral resources by a tiny few, the Church maintains that the goods of the earth are meant for the sustenance of all in the human society.
- For a society to be truly human, individuals must consider the welfare of their neighbour as part of their responsibility. Thus Pope Paul VI in the encyclical letter populorum progressio, describes development as “the advancement of the person, the whole person, and all the people”. The right to life which the Church promotes assiduously also implies the right of all to minimum resources required for sustaining life. And in seeking the basic requirements for the sustenance of life, “we are each responsible for all”. The common good therefore does not permit a situation where abject poverty will exist side-by-side with conspicuous consumption. A society where floating islands of wealth are to be found amidst a sea of degrading poverty cannot be said to be truly human.
- Government exists in society to promote the common good and therefore the Government in Nigeria must strive to ensure the best possible good for everyone, or at least for the highest possible number of people. Our leaders must ensure that we put in place such laws, or such juridical structures that will guarantee the right of individuals to private property, but also checkmate the acquisitive instinct of individuals. In this way our government will ensure just and equitable distribution of the resources of the land. It is indeed the responsibility of government to protect the vulnerable poor from the excesses of the powerful who are often tempted to sell the poor for a pair of sandals. The role of government should hold particular attraction for Christians who appreciate the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ made a preferential option for the poor. That is to say that when there is a conflict between the rich and the poor, the Lord Jesus chooses to pitch his tent with poor who are more vulnerable.
- The criminal neglect of the common good by a succession of self-serving leaders in our nation is responsible in large measure for the widespread violence and social insecurity. Today we have millions of unemployed and unemployable youths, ill-trained and ill-motivated. In every urban centre these youths now constitute themselves into a dangerous mob that is ready to visit violence on their people at the slightest provocation.
Perhaps if our political leaders were less selfish and self-seeking, the situation would have been different. Perhaps if they gave some thought to the common good in the management of our abundant national resources, the situation would have been different. For any nation to make true progress, the leaders must develop a new sensitivity to the common good, and members of the Christian Church as major stakeholders in the society must continue to champion this new commitment to the common good. Unless and until the healthy conditions inherit in the common good are present in the nation, and very easily perceived, conflicts, destabilization, human environmental disasters and other characteristics of failed states, may continue to hold the nation hostage and frustrate the quest for social and economic justice.