Nigerian Democracy and Challenge of Interests’ Negotiation, By Salihu Moh. Lukman

Nigerian Democracy and Challenge of Interests' Negotiation, By Salihu Moh. Lukman

The renowned leadership scholars Warren Bennis, Steven B. Sample and Rob Asghar, in the book, The Art and Adventure of Leadership, made the point that ‘Democracy works well when it is understood as inherently being a grand compromise – and acknowledged that democratic governance struggles when compromise is despised.’ How any democracy is oriented to produce compromises, or not, would seem to be the challenge. Given that compromise is largely about making concessions by different interests, part of what makes democratic governance appealing is that interest negotiation is expected to be a permanent feature of political contests. This means that democracy is all about producing compromises by contending interests, which requires combinations of capacity to make sacrifices as well as ability to recognise and respect the interests of others.

Leadership therefore becomes a factor that should guide the process of negotiations to produce compromises by contending interests in a democracy. A major blockage that prevents leaders from being able to discharge the function of facilitating negotiation emerges when leaders perceive expression of disagreements to their positions or initiatives by citizens as rebellion. This may perhaps be the alarm bell echoed by the American journalist Anne Applebaum, in her recent publication Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism when she made the point about how disagreement ‘irritate people who prefer to live in a society tied together by a single narrative.’

Consequently, disagreements in politics equate to rebellion and ultimately produce conspiracy theories against political leaders and political establishments. With such realities, politics becomes trapped and having to contend with narrow interests, which seeks to interpret all democratic challenges based on some consciousness about repression, domination or oppression by others, which may not be wholly true. As a result, all debates and advocacy to negotiate challenges are reduced to issues of narrow interests with the dangers of having to contend with bullish demands promoted by radical groups. Political leaders and establishments who cherished broader interests become very suspicious of virtually all political debates and reluctant to be predispose to political negotiations – despise compromise.

Unfortunately, this may end up creating a dynamic whereby it is either the wrong things are negotiated, or no negotiation takes place at all. For instance, when the issue of representation in leadership become the main problem of democracy and reduced to ethnic, religious, or other demographic factors of being young, gender identity, etc. without the underlying consideration of ideology, class, professional, business, and even educational interests, negotiation may only lead to some wild goose chase of endless political problems, which mutates and resurfaces in bigger or worst forms. This is largely because ethnic, religious and all the other democratic factors do not represent any conscious choice made by any candidate for any leadership position and therefore wouldn’t highlight the possible choices of such a political leader. We can as individuals be associated with any of these groups (ethnic, religious or demographic) mobilise and make demands. However, it is important to recognise that compromises based on simplistic representation in leadership on account of ethnic, religious or demographic factors alone will hardly resolve most of our democratic challenges.

It would appear that for us in Nigeria, problems associated with negotiating wrong issues of representation in leadership has trapped our democracy and for over 20 years now, we have limited political contests to only electoral contests. Whether political leaders are taking any initiative to facilitate interest negotiations is at best assumed. Even when they initiate interest negotiations, so long as such negotiation does not rhyme with the popular narrative of promoting dominant narrow interests, which seeks to produce some expected compromises, unwillingness and disdain sets in and sadly any potential political negotiation risked being blocked.

This is our sad reality in Nigeria. Since 1999, many opportunities for bigger political negotiations presented themselves and almost all got wasted, mostly after expending enormous public resources. We had the Oputa Panel, 2005 National Political Reform Conference, 2014 National Conference and most recently the 2017 APC Committee on True Federalism. This is apart from the constitutional amendment process of the National Assembly every four years. Without going into details, it is important to ask the question, what is really the problem that is making it impossible for our political leaders to facilitate well measured political negotiations that could produce some qualitative compromises? Is it right to lay the blame of inability to facilitate political negotiations and produce compromises on only our political leaders?

There is no dispute that Nigeria is an emerging democracy. The reality is that as emerging democracy, our focus seems to be limited to electoral contests for leadership. The hard truth is that it is possible to have electoral contest that prejudiced interest negotiations. In addition, there is also the wrong perception about the value of democracy being limited to access to elective and appointive leadership positions in government. Integral to such perception is the notion that access to elective or appointive positions require huge amounts of financial resources, which is only possible in politics.

This create the paradox whereby citizens believe they need to be in politics to make money and aspire for elective or appointive positions. Yet, they needed to be elected or appointed in political leadership positions to be able to have the money to access elective or appointive positions. Inadvertently, we have created the unhealthy perceptive situation whereby either by acts of omission or commission, political leaders emerge, appointive or elective, to mobilise needed financial resources to continue to access elective and appointive positions. Any political negotiation that does not nourish the capacity of many political leaders to mobilise needed financial resources to continue to access political leadership positions risked being met with a kneejerk response.

Any attempt to present an objective assessment of our democracy or even propose new orientation for political leadership is regarded as opposition against some political leaders or establishments. What then happens is that any possible negotiation is blocked and therefore compromise despised. In addition, an ugly leadership vicious circle emerges, which is just about accessing elective or appointive leadership positions – mobilise financial resource to negotiate new rounds of leadership access – again access elective or appointive leadership positions.

This is about the only political negotiation taking place in our democracy today. Other initiatives by political leaders emerging in our democracy, are hardly products of any negotiation. Political development initiatives without corresponding negotiation or engagement involving political leaders and citizens, create problems of ownership. The painful aspect of this is that even when political leaders come up with excellent responses to problems faced by citizens, factors of alienation on account of lack of negotiation can make citizens to be recalcitrant and completely opposed to such political leaders. This is the basis of the current low public awareness of excellent federal government initiatives such as the National Social Investment Programme and the ambitious infrastructural development initiatives of President Muhammadu Buhari. Absence of interest negotiations or engagements to produce the needed compromises that could permit ownership of government projects and initiatives by interest groups have created spurious claims of indecisiveness and insensitivity by government to the flight of Nigerians, which is not true.

It is important that we understand and appreciate all these dynamics, if we are to pull our democracy out of the current leadership vicious circle, which despises compromises. As a nation, we need to help strengthen our political leaders to overcome their inertia towards interest negotiations, aimed at producing the needed compromises around major challenges facing our democracy. Inability of our democracy to facilitate broader interest negotiations has produced so much widespread anger and animosity in the land. The terrifying situation now is that our young people have joined the crowd of angry population largely because of the perception that any demand they make become disagreeable to our political leaders and therefore classified as rebellion, which must be crushed.

On the other hand, there is also the weakness on the part of citizens, which affect their capacity to take responsibility through sacrifices and demonstrate respect for others, including political leaders. Citizens want leaders to initiate responses to our political challenges and we present such demands by abusing and criminalising our political leaders. How can there be any political negotiation when the language is abusive? Combinations of inability to take responsibility and hostile political environment, which doesn’t support negotiation create the perilous situation whereby the last protest of young Nigerians against police brutality in the country was organised with undercover or virtual leadership.

The disadvantage of protest with undercover or virtual leadership especially by young people in an emerging democracy like Nigeria is that potentials for leadership recruitment is blocked. The second disadvantage is that the prospect for negotiation especially with the genuine leaders of the protest is remote. And thirdly, capacity of the organisers to control the protest and ensure that desired outcomes are achieved is also weakened. All these contributed to making the protest vulnerable, which resulted in the sad hijack by criminal elements and the widespread destructions and looting that followed in all parts of the country.

If our politics is unable to negotiate the demands of citizens, how can our democracy develop? Once citizens’ demand come with the perception that it represents disagreement with political leaders, hostile and kneejerk treatment may be the response since disagreement mean rebellion or conspiracy against political leaders. Developing our democracy to become ‘inherently being a grand compromise’ will not be an easy task. As Bennis et al have argued ‘Democracy is the best way to thrive and adapt over the haul, provided the constituents are fundamentally on the same page. If they are intractably at odds internally, then democracy will fail. But failure lies less with the concept of democracy and more with the values of the people operating it and participating in it… A willingness to fail can be liberating, and a fear of failing calamitous.’

For a nation as diverse as Nigeria, what does failure even means? Without negotiating any of the demands of citizens, how successful can we claim to be? Or, by trapping our democracy to be negotiating only electoral contests, are we in anyway able to avoid the fear of failure? Difficult decisions are required to develop our democracy. It requires huge sacrifices by our political leaders. The amount of sacrifices required may not be a function of any potential loss. For instance, what will any leader or section of the country lose if provisions of the APC Committee on True Federalism are to be subjected to debates for constitutional and legal amendments in the National Assembly? Why is it easy to mobilise support for electoral contests but impossible to consider any mobilisation for contests on matters that affect the wellbeing of our democracy and our nation?

Without the capacity to negotiate interests and broker compromises, our democracy and our nation is imperiled. Both citizens and political leaders must take the urgent necessary steps to be on the same page and transform all our political structures into active platforms for interest negotiations. Why should we have political parties that are only platforms for electoral contests? Why is it difficult for our elective and appointive political leaders to engage demands of citizens? Why should we have trade unions, civil society, youth and women organisations, etc. whose activities are now more noticeable if only they are able to organise protests and strikes? Beyond serving as affirmative action for freedom of association and right to freely protests and organise strikes, what is the value of those protests and strikes? In fact, what is the value of our democracy?

Democratic development should be about the significant compromises brokered and the extent to which citizens, on account of the compromises, are able to feel a sense of belonging. Any democracy can be adjudged to be working well if through the different compromises it produces, citizens are able to feel a sense of belonging. A major requirement needed may have to do with the task of aligning the vision of political leaders with the hopes and aspirations of citizens. Interestingly, it is always much easier for citizens to align themselves with the views of political leaders. Those views may or may not necessarily equate to visions, nonetheless however, citizens can simply hope that their interests are represented in the views of leaders.

As a party, APC is far ahead of its political peers in terms of being a liberal party with strong internal contestation. But such liberalism is yet to produce the corresponding requirement for interest representation and negotiation within the party, which is responsible for why our elected and appointed political leaders in the party estimate citizens’ demands as disagreement and subversive when it doesn’t correspond to their positions. It is also why fellow party leaders would appear intolerant to positions of other party leaders regarding both citizens’ demands and internal disagreements. We need to appeal to our leaders at all levels, especially in APC to liberate themselves and shed off any fear of citizens’ engagement, internal disagreements, political negotiations and the possible compromises that may emerge both within the party and in the country. Fear of citizens’ engagement and political negotiations is largely what is emboldening political opponents whose credentials on this score are anything but attractive.

Emerging from a big existential leadership crisis, all our political leaders in APC should be ideally be encouraged to consider testing political proposals that should strengthen and deepen our democracy. There should be no room for complacency. In fact, as a party, we need to take every necessary step to open up our party structures and invite patriotic Nigerians, members and leaders of organised groups to join the party. With party’s National Caretaker Committee about to commence processes of membership registration and verification, we should aggressively mobilise Nigerians across all parts and sections of the country to join the party. This should be a necessary precondition to accelerate the process of ensuring that political negotiations in the country go beyond electoral contests.

Part of the incentive required to encourage members and leaders of interest groups to be convinced about the APC being the go-to party for the realisation of political aspirations of diverse interests including professional and organised groups has to do with conducts of elected and appointed officials in governments controlled by the party. Are our elected and appointed officials dispose to public debates, engagements and negotiations with organised groups? Or, do they also consider demands by interest groups as expression of disagreement and therefore evidence of conspiracy against the party, governments it control and all our political leaders? For our democracy to develop to the level of producing compromises on a permanent basis, and with all Nigerians across all sectors based on corresponding respect for every interest in the country, the structures of our parties must be opened and broadened to accommodate everyone. Otherwise, our democracy will remain stagnant and limited to electoral contests with the risk of the current ugly leadership vicious circle.

In APC, nothing is impossible. Our leaders have broken the country’s political ice twice. They have led us to negotiate the first successful merger of political parties in the history of the country. They have also led us to successfully negotiate a major leadership crisis of existential magnitude, which is arguably the first of its kind that has not led to breakaway and split in the party. As party members, we need to support our leaders and appeal to them to introduce all the required initiatives to enhance the democratic orientation of both the party and the country. At this critical point of our development, both as an emerging democracy and as a party, the catchphrase should be producing political comprises through debate and negotiations. This should be our new standards for political contests in the country, based on which we are able to command electoral advantages and assert our political superiority.

Salihu Moh. Lukman, Progressive Governors Forum, Abuja

This position does not represent the view of any APC Governor or the Progressive Governors Forum

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