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Democracy without democrats (2)

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Nigerian politicians have been conducting an experiment since 1999 to find out whether and for how long you can build a democratic political system without ideas, principles and democrats; and how successful and sustainable that society will be!

The phrase “democracy without democrats” is associated with the late eminent political scientist, Professor Claude Ake, who famously remarked that “you cannot build a democracy without democrats”; and a book Democracy without Democrats: The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World edited by Ghassam Salame. This is not the first time this column is adopting that title for an article – on December 13, 2006, I wrote a column with the title and I may indeed announce that a collection of essays on Nigeria’s democratic evolution between 1999 and 2011 that I propose to publish next year will carry that book title.

I have, however, been reminded of this phenomenon by the events of the last one year (as politicians cross from one party to the other…and back!) and in particular happenings at the House of Representatives on Thursday, November 20, 2014. The context for the circus is well known and dates back to 2011 when Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, then a PDP House of Representatives member from Sokoto State; Emeka Ihedioha, another member from Imo State, and many of their colleagues in the PDP caucus conspired with then ACN members and their political leadership to defy an agreement within the PDP to “zone” the office of speaker to the South West. Tambuwal succeeded in the endeavour to challenge his party’s authority and was elected speaker and for the next four years was only a nominal member of the PDP. Indeed, political historians will date the formation of the APC back to that point or sometime just before when the ACN leader, Bola Tinubu, reached an apparent agreement with some northern political leaders to support fractionalisation of the PDP in the House of Representatives.

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To the extent that Tambuwal remained nominally a PDP member and kept a working majority in the House, he was entitled to remain speaker of the House. Then Tambuwal tried and failed to engineer an APC majority in the House; and there would be no debate about his political entitlement to retain the office of speaker if his efforts to forge an APC majority had succeeded. However, after the PDP fought back to retain its majority and the speaker announced his defection to the APC, there can be no democratic justification for a member of a minority caucus insisting on retaining the office of speaker over a majority party. Beyond political and democratic expectations, there is the constitutional provision which in fact questions Tambuwal’s entitlement to remain a member of the House given that the courts have ruled that PDP is not factionalised.

However, the PDP is as morally-deficient in this matter as the opposition. Since 1999, it has made a habit of luring legislators and governors elected on the platform of other parties – AD, A(N)PP, APGA, PPA, Labour etc – to defect to their side and often fomenting crisis and factionalisation in those parties in order to secure the constitutional cover to enable those defectors retain their seats. Most recently in Ekiti State, the PDP has just engineered a process that has seen a speaker elected from a legislative faction of seven or 10 members while the majority is exiled to Lagos! That exiled faction in turn appears guilty of seeking impeachment of a governor elected by an overwhelming majority of voters in a free expression of their democratic will! My point: concerning our political class, all of them have sinned and fallen short of democratic standards and glory!

The unfortunate culmination of all these unprincipled actions was the shameful episode in which about seven members of the House of Representatives, including one who aspires to be governor of his home state of Kano and another who is a “learned gentleman” from Lagos and minority caucus leader, climbed over the gates of the House in order, as they now claim, to “defend democracy” or, as one “distinguished senator” argued on their behalf, to “defend independence of the legislature”! I now sufficiently understand the mindset of our political class to dismiss their lofty justifications as a load of bull! The foundations of democracy and its institutions, including the legislature, are constitutionalism, rule of law and the will of the majority! No one can defend either democracy or the legislature when he or she is acting against the constitution and the law!

In any event, in the particular events of the day, one can raise the posers – how did Tambuwal enter the house? Did he have to scale the gates? Why didn’t he jump over the fence? We’ve seen video footage that shows Tambuwal demand the gates be opened and the police complied (eventually)? Why were these other over-excited representatives willing to disparage their offices, families and constituencies by scaling fences in the glare of TV cameras and the entire world? How come hundreds of other legislators accessed the house premises without fighting anyone or scaling the gates?

I would be tolerant even of such aberrant behaviour as displayed by all sides in the political space and recently in the lower house if I thought it was about some higher values or principles or in true defence of some noble objectives. Unfortunately, in this case, it all appears to be politics without principles!

Opeyemi Agbaje