Problematic Democracy: Nigeria and Russia in a Comparative Context.

AuthorOjo, Emmanuel Oladipo

Introduction and Conceptual Discourse

Structurally, this article is in three parts: an introduction and conceptual discourse, which attempts a brief discourse of democracy followed by the comparison of the brands of democracy practised by both countries, followed by a conclusion.

Russia and Nigeria had striking different experiences with regard to status, power, influence and size in the early stages of their histories, and while the former was an extensive empire and imperial power (1721-1917) that built the third largest empire in history with a population of 125.6 million in 1897; (1) the latter was a colony subjected to a '99 year lease' to Britain (2) and was never an empire in the sense of Russia, though the Oyo and Benin Empires flourished luxuriantly within (and beyond) its borders.

Democracy is relatively young in Nigeria and Russia--just about two and a half decades while both are not strangers to autocratic and repressive governments. Under its tsars, Russia was an absolute and autocratic state wherein democracy was foreign. (3) Also, when the Romanov dynasty was thrown off the throne following the 1917 Revolution, Russia transmuted from tsarist autocracy to communist totalitarianism particularly under Josef Stalin, described Kaul as "a man who respected no rules or ethics". (4) As a United States' classified document (released to the public in February 1994) pointed out, throughout Soviet history, political activities were illegal and impermissible and anyone who engaged in them took "a significant risk" as it almost always resulted in very "harsh treatment... including immediate arrest... loss of pay or jobs, longer prison term, forced labor or confinement in mental institutions". (5) Ironically, the two Russian leaders who attempted some forms of liberalisation and freedom got consumed in the process: Tsar Alexander II was killed in the streets of St. Petersburg on 13 March 1881 by a bomb thrown by a member of the radical People's Will (6) on the very day he signed a proclamation (the so-called Loris-Melikov constitution) that would have created two legislative commissions made up of indirectly elected representatives while Gorbachev's 'glasnost' and 'perestroika' consumed his presidency and the Soviet Union. The tragic fate of these two reformers is the thesis of Lipman's study. (7) Ulyanov Aleksandr, Vladimir Lenin's elder brother, was one of the six executed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander. Although, he was not one of those designated to throw the bomb at the Tsar, he manufactured the nitroglycerine used in making it. Ulyanov who carried out his own defence and refused to ask for imperial clemency said tsarist autocracy was responsible for their action. In his final address to the court, he said

Among the Russian people there will always be found many people who are so devoted to their ideas and who feel so bitterly the unhappiness of their country that it will not be a sacrifice for them to offer their lives... my purpose was to aid in the liberation of the unhappy Russian people. Under a system which permits no freedom of expression and crushes every attempt to work for their welfare and enlightenment by legal means, the only instrument that remains is terror. We cannot fight this regime in open battle, because it is too firmly entrenched and commands enormous powers of repression. Therefore, any individual sensitive to injustice must resort to terror. Terror is our answer to the violence of the state. It is the only way to force a despotic regime to grant political freedom to the people... there is no death more honourable than death for the common good (8) The Russia Federation attained its current democratic status only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. On the other hand, of its approximately six decades of statehood, Nigeria has had democratically elected governments for about two and a half decades while military dictatorship account for the remainder, climaxing with General Sanni Abacha's reign of terror, which, to a limited extent, qualifies as Nigeria's equivalent of Stalin's reign of terror. However, following Abacha's death in 1998, and the General Abdulsalam Abubakar's stint, the democratic process was restored in May 1999. (9)

Democracy is an omnibus concept that has been subjected to all shades of meanings, cataloguing, interpretations and application. Today, there is probably no concept that is subjected to antagonistic interpretations and contradictory practises as the concept of democracy. One reason for this pervasive contradiction is that democracy is the least objectionable form of government. Consequently, from the extreme left to the extreme right, states always lay bogus and questionable claim to democracy. Indeed, even military regimes, with records of pervasive violations of human rights and other anti democratic tendencies, sometimes lay claim to democracy. (10) This is what Ekeh refers to as democratism, which, according to him, is the brand of rule that makes use of 'false principles of the institutions of democracy' while at the same time creating anti-democratic conditions. (11) This obviously informed Crick's description of democracy as the most promiscuous word in the world of public affairs (12) or what Tocqueville calls 'democratic despotism'. (13) Indeed, democracy is in the catalogue of Gallie's 'essentially contested concepts'. (14)

Any meaningful attempt at understanding democracy must proceed from its ancient definition as peoples' rule. The Greek words demos and kratia mean 'people' and 'rule' or 'authority' respectively. Thus, democracy refers to 'rule by the people'. This began in the first half of the 5th century B.C. among the Greeks, thus beginning with what Dahl calls the transformation from rule by few to rule by many. (15) During the French Revolution (1789-1799), the French lawyer and political leader, Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794), defined democracy as a "state in which the people, as sovereign, guided by laws of its own making, does for itself all that it can do well". (16) Abraham Lincoln authored what has since become the most famous definition of democracy. In an Address delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery on 19 November 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lincoln asserted that 'all men are created equal' and defined people-centred as 'government of the people, by the people, for the people'. (17) The most important attraction of this definition is that it stresses the principle of equality (since all men are supposedly equal) and makes the people the subject and object of governance or what a scholar terms 'the raison d'etre of governance'. (18) Thus, going by Laski's definition of equality as the absence of special privilege; (19) a democratic state is often said to be one wherein the citizens have equal access to justice, job, power, privilege, etc. Indeed, Gamble describes a democratic state as a 'republic of equals'. (20) This is because democracy implies that there should be a substantial degree of equality among people both in the sense that all the adult members of a society ought to have, so far as is possible, equal influence on those decisions which affect their lives.

According to Robert Darl, in every democratic state, the citizens are 'political equals'. (21) This is because, as Bottomore has pointed out, all human beings are remarkably alike in some fundamental respects--they have similar physical, emotional and intellectual needs. (22) In 1646, in an article entitled 'An Arrow Against All Tyrants', Richard Overton (a puritan) wrote "For by nature, all men are equal... even so we are to live everyone equally". (23) Indeed, in virtually all his major works, Alexis de Tocqueville insisted that history (the story of humankind) is synonymous with equality. (24)

However, as fascinating as the concept of equality is, there exists a wide gulf between its theory and practice, and indeed between the theory and practise of democracy itself. There is hardly anywhere in the world where democracy is a republic of equals, apparently because "through occupation or wealth, some citizens are more able than others to influence political decisions" (25) From the Greek City States to the emergence of modern state, the concept of egalitarianism had been consistently negated. In the often eulogised Greek City States, which Palma referred to as the 'birthplace of democracy', (26) every inhabitant supposedly had a direct say on issues which directly affected the state. It must be pointed out however that in practice, Greek democracy was an exclusive one because a large part of the adult population was denied full citizenship i.e. the right to participate in politics whether by attending the meetings of the Sovereign Assembly (27) or by serving in public offices--for instance, women were denied the right of full citizenship so were longterm resident aliens (metics) and the enslaved. Indeed, the enslaved were no more than the property of their owners totally bereft of legal rights. (28) Thus, only the non-enslaved were allowed to vote yet by 430 BC, nearly half of the total population of Athens were enslaved. (29) Furthermore, Jean Jacque Rousseau (1712-1778), the Enlightenment French social and political theorist and one of the first thinkers to question absolutism in Europe, limited his notion of democracy to property owners while John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the British philosopher-economist, opined that only the propertied class should be enfranchised. (30) Moreover, the emergence of modern state meant some loss of rights by individuals since the state possesses the coercive machinery to compel its members to carry out certain tasks. Thus, the reality is that in most modern states, while the citizens may be free to express their views, they are made to live under the conditions prescribed by their states (leaders). Although, while democracy is not synonymous with...

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