In the book, How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future, co-authored by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, can be found these worrisome words: “The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy—gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.”
The pains of the past few weeks compel us to ask: is Nigeria in the hands of friends or assassins of democracy?
The embarrassment of fuel and currency scarcity, the accusations and counter-accusations it has generated within a ruling party undergoing a civil war, a hitherto patent but now latent intra-party war, the absence of governance that has resulted from this war, the hunger, frustration and anger that absence of governance has provoked on the streets of some Nigerian cities – these are indices of discomfort in the land.
This is being written one week to February 25, 2023, the day Nigerians are supposed to go to the polls to elect a President and federal legislators. In the privacy of the polling booth, at that sacred moment of casting my vote, I must, for the sake of generations yet unborn, pause and interrogate my conscience: am I about to elect a friend or a foe of democracy? It is a question Nigerians must answer individually and collectively.
As the countdown to the elections intensifies, the fragility of Nigeria’s political system is becoming increasingly glaring. And this fragility is very easily and cynically manipulated by persons who are not acting in the interest of the people, persons who know that they are not so working, but who would swear by the name of Almighty God, on the Bible or on the Quran, that they are working for the people. Clear illustrations of a vulnerable political process can be found in the motive, modality, reactions and consequences of the much-debated currency swap.
There are statutory organs whose independence is of vital importance in a democratic polity. Two of such organs are the Supreme Court and the Central Bank. But events of the past few days and weeks raise doubts in the minds of many, doubts as to whether these bodies can be truthfully said to be independent. It would seem that in an intra-party fracas, one faction of the ruling party is using the Central Bank to fight its war, while the opposing faction is using the Supreme Court in the same war?
Be it noted, by way of long digression, that all this is happening in a country where we love to display our religiosity with hypocritical extravagance. But if we subject our religious and political behavior to scrutiny—something we rarely do—what do we find?
We go to Church to dance and decree, not to pray. We mount the pulpit to lie, and we call it prophesy. We focus attention on the pastor or priest, not on God. We play politics of selfishness camouflaged as ethnic entitlement. We disregard morality in preference for rascality. The consequences of our spiritual and moral bankruptcy have been late in coming. But now, the chickens have come home to roost. One week to a make or mar election, we are in chaos.
We seek refuge in false messianism, branding as Messiah one presidential candidate or the other. We deceive and console ourselves at the same time, with each person saying: the Messiah of Nigeria is a politician, and he is from my tribe. We urgently need to be extricated from the pot of deadly mixture of corrupt religion and corrupt politics in which we are stewing. But only the truth shall set us free.
Honesty compels me to confess that my constituency is anything but innocent. We who are preachers must answer some questions: what kind of sermons have we been preaching? True prophets speak the word of God. But why have many of us preachers become spokespersons of political parties, seeing “visions” and “prophesying” for their candidates? One “prophet” says God has revealed Candidate A as his anointed President. Another says God has revealed Candidate B as his anointed President. Why give the false impression that God has sent me as SMS the name of the candidate he has anointed? Why manipulate religion to attain selfish political objectives? Why tell lies in the name of God? Why call the name of God in vain? Why blaspheme to deceive?
The pulpit is sacred. The one who uses it to blaspheme commits a sacrilege. Why are pseudo-prophets pretending that God shows himself on the screen of their handsets? Why are we not telling the people the people in the pews that a saintly life is the real antidote to corruption in this country? Instead, our sermons despicably mislead the economically impoverished, people who, because they are impoverished, have a desperate and insatiable appetite for material prosperity. Our “prophecies” lull to sleep a people traumatized by deprivation, an economic deprivation visited on them by the same politicians we claim to see visions for. Why is the worship we lead all about emotion without reason, without faith? End of digression.
In this unfortunate drama, the President and some Governors are acting like imperial monarchs, as if they did not swear allegiance to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Section 287 (1) of the 1999 Constitution stipulates: “The decisions of the Supreme Court shall be enforced in any part of the Federation by all authorities and persons, and by courts with subordinate jurisdiction to that of the Supreme Court.” But a decision of the Supreme Court has been disobeyed by the President. No sophistry can hide that.
The same Constitution lists “banks, banking bills of exchange and promissory notes” as Item 6 on the Exclusive Legislative List, while “currency, coinage and legal tender” are on Item 15 on the same List. But some state governors speak as if they had authority over such items. Again, no sophistry can conceal that.
There is danger when the President disobeys the Supreme Court, and when State Governors, in contravention of the Constitution, venture unto the terrain of monetary policy.
But it’s all about the election, the quadrennial tussle of the elite for control over Nigeria’s oil wealth. In pursuit of “electoral triumph”, morality is banished and decorum forgotten, in a Nigeria where there are no political parties but political vehicles racing to Aso Rock, driven recklessly, each conveying a presidential candidate. We don’t know which of them will get there first and claim victory.
This matter ought not to be so complicated. Public servants must not perform their statutory duties in ways that place the citizen in jeopardy. Any policy that makes it impossible for Nigerians to have access to their hard-earned income is morally reprehensible.
Finally, to borrow once again the words of Levitsky and Ziblatt in How Democracies Die: “Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders—presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.”
To Nigeria’s political gladiators, let this be said: whatever you do or say, if it is not for the common good, it is not politics. Call it by any other name.
© Rev. Fr. Professor Anthony A. Akinwale, O.P. is a Professor of Systematic Theology and Thomistic Studies and Pioneer Vice-Chancellor, Dominican University, Ibadan, NIGERIA