For Us By Us: Leadership, power & Nigeria’s government of the people

In Nigerian democracy, power is just that—power.

What is Democracy? Ask many of us in Nigeria and you’re likely to get a uniform answer: Democracy is a government of the people by the people. I remember this particular definition because it was taught to me and my classmates in Primary 4. My memory isn’t photographic but I do remember Mrs. Obasi, the longstanding teacher in that grade and assistant head teacher at my primary school, ensuring we knew that definition by heart. Also, for the purpose of this story, I asked my 11-year old nephew to define democracy, and he gave me the same answer.

By the second year of junior secondary school, a significant part of the social studies syllabus is dedicated to democracy and its system of operation. I can’t remember everything but I do remember the emphasis on citizen participation in electing leaders to various offices and holding them accountable. Also, I remember that Nigeria practices Representative Democracy, where citizens elect officials to legislative house, officials whose jobs are to propagate laws and policies for public good. I also remember separation of powers as a characteristic of Democracy, and being taught the general functions of the three arms of government: Legislative, executive and judiciary.

Along with the democracy proselytisation in JSS 2, I think, we were taught about the autocracy and monarchy systems of government, albeit without any real depth beyond the idea that they aren’t as great as democracy—which makes all the sense in the world on paper. It was agreed upon in the syllabus that Democracy is best and, since that was the system of governance in Nigeria, it was the only one that really mattered. By the time I was in JSS 2, Nigeria was inching towards an uninterrupted decade of democracy, its longest streak after the first four decades of independence were largely lorded over by military dictatorships.

On May 29 this year, Nigeria will mark 24 years of democratic governance system. It will also do so by swearing in a new president, and welcome in newly elected and returned officials into various public offices. For almost a year, the country has been in election mode, which has culminated in citizens taking to the polls to elect choice candidates, starting this past Saturday with elections for president and federal legislators into Senatorial seats and the House of Assemblies.

In these times, and stretching all the way back to the heart-breaking aftermath of the EndSARS protests against police brutality, the overwhelming sentiment has been that Nigerians—the youth especially—should go out and exercise their supreme civic duty: Voting. The reason I bring up the EndSARS protests is because it’s come to define the relationship of many Nigerians to leadership. Like I mentioned earlier, democracy is meant to foster citizen participation in government proceeding—basically, Nigerians have a voice and the government is meant to listen.

As the Lekki tollgate massacre and other killings in the protests’ aftermath showed, the Nigerian government wasn’t only unwilling to listen, it was ready to act tyrannically and with brazen impunity. It was the latest example of power show. In a truly democratic society, none of those things should have happened. And even after they did, people should have been held accountable, but that hasn’t happened till date. It frames how government really works in Nigeria, where the people are meant to be subservient regardless of conditions and elected officials don’t want to work in service of the people.

In the ideal of democracy, there’s an emphasis on government as leadership to the people through service. In Nigeria’s democracy, it’s been repeatedly shown by the powers that be that government is about wielding power. This is why it’s very common to hear Nigerians refer to the presidency as a seat of power, not a seat of leadership. During this election period, I’ve seen way too many tweets referring to candidates and their capacity to “rule,” when the discussion should be better tuned to who’s best fit to serve the country and its citizens.

It’s unsurprising, though, considering that 16 years of our almost 24 years of democracy has been led by two former military dictators from the ‘70s and ‘80s. As much as it is in the past, it feels fitting to say that our democracy is still defined by the country’s relationship with autocracy. That our vocabulary when we discuss public office hasn’t evolved beyond power and ruling, into leadership and service, is easy proof of where we are as a country.

To be realistic, being in public office comes with its set of powers but as is often said, with great power comes great responsibility. In Nigerian democracy, though, power is just that—power. Responsibility be damned. This is why many politicians and their affiliates approach elections as a do-or-die affair, because getting into office means assuming great power where responsibility is arbitrary. It’s why elections in Nigeria are widely considered to be rigged in favour of those willing to attain that power by any means necessary, whether it’s through bribery or violence. It’s also why an entire generation–this writer–included has grown up disillusioned by the power play at hand, choosing instead to find pockets of joy where we can.

If elections are seen as contests to bring in leaders meant to serve and point the country in a better direction, there would be less emphasis on bringing people into power from all sides of the electorate. This current election cycle might just be more proof of how Nigerian democracy works, especially in relation to how officials work to get into office. Since Saturday’s presidential and federal legislative houses elections, there’s been widespread allegations of irregularities, from voter suppression and disenfranchisement to blatant rigging and general lack of transparency. Regardless, winners have been announced.

Nigeria practices democracy but time and again, but it’s more about who’s at the top lording over the rest of us at the bottom, and these elections have yet to really topple that status quo. Maybe that will change one day, but right now, our democracy doesn’t look like it’s acting as a government of the people by the people.