Power in a piece of paper – an essay on the quirks of democracy, By Dan Agbese
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Our national constitution summons us quadrennially to the polling booths to perform our civic duties as citizens. That duty, as important and as sacred as they come, is the process by which we institute governments, arguably, of our choice. That duty obliges us to either change or retain our political leaders in the executive and the legislative branches of government at the stipulated period of four years. If we fail to perform this duty, we fail to institute a government. And what you would then see in the horizon would not be a rainbow but anarchy and our regress into the jungle from whence we came.
To perform this duty, the constitution arms us with printed pieces of paper called ballot papers. That so much power and the exercise thereof reside in a piece of paper is the wonder of the beloved form of government called democracy. With the ballot paper, now being replaced with electronic gadgets, we exercise enormous powers to visit political fortunes or misfortunes on men and women who offer themselves to serve the people because of the people, as in rescuing the poor from poverty and the deprived from deprivation. In politics, all such people self-anoint themselves as heroes and the champions of the talakawa. Never mind: it is a marketing strategy.
This quadrennial ritual of the exercise of power by the ordinary men and women, sets democracy apart from all other forms of government. There is no substitute for the slogan, ‘power to the people on election day.’ The late British prime minister, Winston Churchill once famously complained that democracy was the most difficult of government. But he admitted: ‘except there is no other.’
Political scientists are not likely to find a new form of government that has as much fun and greater quirks than democracy. If only for that, we must fight to preserve and deepen our democracy. Democracy endures because it is the only form of government that at regular election intervals, gives the poor and the powerless the constitutional right to decide the political fate of the rich, the powerful and the influential – millionaires, multi-millionaires, billionaires, multi-billionaires and trillionaires. These wealthy men and women feed on caviar, but they beg the poor man who smokes gari and who is not even fit to dust their doorsteps for his endorsement. They recognise the power he exercises on election day. It can’t be funnier than that a poor man holds the political destiny of the rich man in his calloused hands.
Our frontline presidential candidates in the forthcoming general elections are all out there, marketing themselves to the poor and the powerless. Ahmed Bola Tinubu (APC), Atiku Abubakar (PDP) and Peter Obi (LP), are constitutionally obliged to put their political fate individually in the hands of the gari smoking man. It is the decision of this man that matters on election day – all things being equal, of course. All things are never equal but never mind.
These illustrious men are spending mind-boggling amounts of money to persuade or purchase the poor man to favourably look upon him on election day. At times like these, our politicians are generous men and women. They let the crumbs fall from their tables and give the poor the freedom to scramble for them. It is called political investments.
You invest in the consent of the people with the crumbs from your table. I am yet to meet a crumbs eater who does not bless the man who lets the crumbs drop from his state-of-the-art dining table. With his ballot paper, the poor and powerless man creates the powerful and the influential man who becomes his master of the poor. The poor then craves the crumbs from his table. It is the logical way the cookies crumble in a democracy.
There is a lot of fun in politics – if you learn to find it among the politicians in what they say and in what they do. I am sure you have heard of mud and brickbats. Politics is war by another name. A politician-warrior employs the mud and the brickbat to de-market his political opponent. As part of the fun the politicians invite us to watch them dance naked in the marketplaces. If you go by what our politicians say about one another, none of them is fit to be our leader. Each is tarred with corruption, money laundering and drug peddling. They say that politics is a dirty game. In the normal cause of human development, it suggests that only the dirty are really qualified to play the dirty game But if it attracts decent men and women, then the game could not be all that dirty. In any case, the late Barry Goldwater, I think, advised those who think politics is dirty to go into it with their own detergent.
Democracy is the most competitive form of government. Such competitiveness is, ironically, the soul of democracy. It is also part of its weakness and its consistent inability to deliver on its promises to the people. Too often the competition degenerates into a war, not only of words but a war in which heads and limbs are broken and one man’s right to exercise his freedom is effectively impaired by another’s right to deny him that freedom.
The poor man puts his life on the line to defend the right of the rich man to rule him. It is a self-sacrifice that has no meaning, really. Killing oneself for another’s ambition for political power is silly in the extreme.
Democracy is open to egregious abuse by reason of its confused locus of power: is it with the common man or the uncommon man? People fear, and it is no small fear, that the government of the people for the people by the people has been hijacked by the rich and the powerful and has degenerated into the government of the rich by the rich for the rich against the poor.
Money is to blame. Political competitions are 99 per cent of the time settled with money. Victory goes to the man with deep pockets even if he is empty of brain. Now you know why we elect men wanting in integrity and competence as our rulers and lawmakers. With money, people tend not to think straight or act rationally before and on election day. The arc of democracy tends to bend towards the power and the influence of money. As we say in Agila, if you eat the juju food, you must dance the juju dance.
In truth what democracy gives with the right hand money takes away with the left hand. This takes something away from the power of the poor man on election day. If money makes him dance to the tune dictated by the money bag, where then is the power of the people to institute a government of their choice on election day? My answer is that democracy packs myths and contradictions. Together, they create the myth that a government that emerges from an election is one instituted by the people for the people.
Such a government is quite often minted from the money mint. The poor is made to live and cherish the myth of being the decider of the fate of candidates in elective offices at the executive and the legislative branches of government. It is important for democracy to sustain this myth because without it, democracy becomes a hollow system of government.
Democracy is a beautiful system of government. But it is a corrupt system of government. It ought to be a clean system of government celebrated by its hall marks of free and fair elections. But it is not. It is hostage to egregious corrupt practices, manipulations, and abuses that impugn the right of the people to rationally institute a government of their choice. Election rigging, vote buying and the disenfranchisement of the electorate through various acts of electoral sabotage and shenanigans are some of the visible faces of corruption in a democracy.
Still, despite its quirks and contradictions, democracy is the best form of government we can have, warts and all. Its failures and imperfections are human failures and imperfections fuelled by greed and ambition. As you go to the polls later this month to elect a new president, remember the power of the ballot paper or of the finger that presses the button on the voting machine. It is your call.