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Socrates, democracy, and the ‘ta-ta-ta elections’ in Kogi state

One of the fondest claims of Western liberal education is that “democracy” as we know it originated from the Greeks. Seekers after History are often drawn to the ruins of the Parthenon in the ancient citadel known as the Acropolis, on the outskirts of Athens. Beyond the sheer beauty of its harmonic proportions, it is regarded as a monument to democracy, which itself was said to have been founded in Athens during the period of the temple’s construction, in the years 492-449 “Before the birth of Christ.”

Another innovation bequeathed to the world by the ancient Greeks is Philosophy, which seeks to explore and explain the rational basis of human existence.

No figure in the field of Philosophy is more venerated than Socrates. He was one of the earliest the use of philosophical logic in public discourse.

Among the fundamental assumptions of democracy are that “all men are born equal”, and every man is entitled to vote to elect his leaders. It is only then that the higher goal of having a “government of the people, by the people” is achieved.

In the past century when colonised territories in Asia, South America and Africa have fought anti-colonial struggles to shake off the shackles of colonial rule, the Grecian innovation of “democracy” was a persistent rallying call for the struggle. To listen to the Mahatma Gandhis and Kenneth Kaundas during their struggles for independence, it seemed reasonable to expect that once “democracy” was achieved, their countries were going to become virtual “heaven on earth”. The bogey of “Democratic Values” was even used by Western powers to attack and subvert countries behind the Iron Curtain where authoritarian rule had taken grip, limiting or eliminating personal freedoms.

Over time, “democracy” has become the prized asset of a Liberal Democratic drive seeking to spread itself globally. It is championed by such exemplars as Tony Blair and Angela Merkel.

Only recently have people begun to question whether democracy, as currently practised, truly guarantees “government of the people by the people”, and truly embodies the best form of governance known to man.

Socrates in his public discourses uttered words that indicated he was deeply sceptical about some of the assumptions inherent in the concept and practice of democracy. His premises, as recorded in a dialogue attributed to him in Plato’s Republic, are concise and cogent. democracy assumes that every citizen is entitled to, and competent to, use the vote effectively in the onerous assignment of electing the right leader to public office. Those assumptions, says Socrates, are not necessarily true. Using the ballot requires a certain amount of civic education in order to ensure that each citizen makes the appropriate choice. He offers the example of a trader who sells confectionery that tastes sweet but causes diabetes and obesity when eaten in excess, and a doctor who heals the sick, competing for the people’s vote. The sweets merchant would say I can give you unlimited sweets which you will enjoy”.

The doctor, on the other hand, may find himself making a pitch such as “Your health is already precarious from unhealthy eating. I need to save your lives by applying painful injections and bitter medicines”.

In an untutored system where the voter has not been rigorously trained to the responsibilities of his “office”, the sweets merchant would win, hands down.

Socrates’ notion is easy to misconstrue and misapply. Racists in the deep South of the USA for several decades used a perversion of it to prevent large numbers of black people from voting, claiming they were not sufficiently ‘educated’. But the education demanded by Socrates is a civic, not a formal one.

Socrates in his public discourses uttered words that indicated he was deeply sceptical about some of the assumptions inherent in the concept and practice of democracy. His premises, as recorded in a dialogue attributed to him in Plato’s Republic, are concise and cogent

There is a compelling logic to Socrates’ worry that needs to be acknowledged. Almost a century after African nations became ‘independent ‘Democracies’, with many observing the periodic ritual of ‘one man one vote’, their ‘Democracy’ is not working. All too often, as in the case of Nigeria, the blame has been on thieving, incompetent ethnically biased leaders who contrived to be the beneficiaries of ‘democratic’ elections time and time again. That explanation, sadly, does not give the complete picture. It appears to absolve ‘the people’ who ‘own’ the vote from all responsibility for the sad situation.

What is the responsibility of the ordinary people who collect five thousand naira to sell their votes? What about the ‘average citizen’ who would vote again and again for the convicted thief because he is ‘generous’ and ’from my village’? And what about the young Kogi women singing to celebrate the recent, infamous ‘Ta-Ta-Ta’ elections in Kogi State, Nigeria, flaunting the fact that their man ‘won’ by ‘shooting’ or ‘threatening to shoot’ the opposition? They may be party hacks, and the man may be ‘from their village’. He may even “share the money”. In Socratic logic, their culpability for the failure of ‘Democracy’ is every bit as much as, or perhaps more, than the ‘winner’ of the Kogi ‘election’, a man who comes across in the public space as totally bereft of merit or empathy.

It is an important leverage to hand to the next generation, who may be in despair and on the point of giving up on the possibility of ever creating a true ‘Nigerian democracy’. They may be told – Work to make the voter take responsibility for the power of his vote. Start from the children. When you build a critical mass, then, perhaps, you may have democracy.

The story of faulty ‘Democracy’ did not end well for Socrates. He was arraigned on trumped up charges of morally contaminating the youth of Greece. In an exercise of democratic justice, a jury of fifty ordinary Athenians was convened to try him. They found him guilty and sentenced him to death.

No greater demonstration of the responsibility of the citizen to rigorously interrogate his voting responsibilities is possible than the spectre of Socrates slumping to his death after drinking poisonous hemlock juice.


Femi Olugbile

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