Two Days Rethinking Democracy In West Africa In The Face Of Discontent And Coups

Claude Ake (Wikipedia)


It was a pleasant two-day house (hotel) arrest for the purpose of a collective peer review of a potentially explosive book project on electoral accountability in Nigeria on the one hand and the election-democratisation nexus in Nigeria on the other. It was a performance of electoral accountability because the texts can ignite a tectonic shift in the direction of free, fair and credible elections in Nigeria. Why not?

The exercise provided an opportunity for Intervention to swim in the same intellectual ocean with a selection of the most advanced set of Nigerian social scientists in the world today. Imagine that selection reconstituted as the Politburo deciding the fate of Nigeria. Notwithstanding the residual ‘Stalinism’ in the air in the room, none of them would fall into actual Stalinism. Their grooming and grasp of the contextual issues about the ‘Nigerian condition’ would not permit that. The tragedy today is that, unlike the military which was more aware of its lack of intellectual preparation to rule and fell back on elaborate use of philosophers – king, the politicians think they are entitled to rule. Without implying a preference for military rule whatsoever, the country’s situation has worsened so rapidly because of the pervasive presence of speculators and traders in governments nowadays. Luckily, Nigerians are speaking up against this as exemplified by Dr. Mike Omeri, an ex-DG of National Orientation Agency, (NOA) asking President Tinubu to let go of mediocrities from government.

With democracy in the hands of that coterie, a theme such as electoral accountability is bound to be an issue. It is a work that’s almost done with. Only the democratic impulse in the intellectual and political orientation of the masterminds behind it made the peer review necessary at this stage.

Peer review is an irritating but necessary evil because it serves as a check against theoretical, methodological, editorial slippages and temptations, leaving “intellectual enemies” jobless and green with envy, having no cheap grounds to rubbish a book in the name of a reviews. This is not to suggest that there can be knowledge and its production of a perfect text. The exercise went fine and only the areas of contention in the conversation will this reportage highlight.

Does a book of many chapters written by different authors need to declare a theoretical standpoint? Can it do so without imposing an unfair burden on some of the authors who may not be conversant with such a centralism or may simply not subscribe to a particular theory? Some of the participants felt this was necessary. Others didn’t think so. What were the different entry points on each side?

The protagonists felt that whether a theoretical standpoint is declared or not, any such text is already standing on one because there is no text that is not a discursive exercise. Two, the theoretical standpoint is the only thing left to speak for the book once it is published. Once published, the authors would have permanently lost control of the meaning of the book or its essence as each community of readers will come into the text from different interpretive angles. And there is no temporal remit for this. A new interpretation of a text can come immediately. It can also come a hundred years later. Prof Mohammad Kuna particularly stressed the role of theory as the guiding light for every effort at knowledge production, with particular reference to what every move in the process rests upon or otherwise. He was the established name among those who were on this side.

The opposition side did not agree. Unfortunately, the opposition was led by a formidable elder in the room who went for the kill. Prof Adele Jinadu recalls a book years back that spoke to what is today called Grounded Theory at the theoretical level or Retroduction at the level of methodology. In Grounded Theory approach, reference to any theory is what comes at the end of the work. It makes for theoretical creativity because, at that point, the data is determining theory, not otherwise. And theoretical creativity was the point Prof Adele Jinadu was driving at. He thinks obsession with theory is why the university system in Nigeria, for example, has made a theoretical framework part of the checklist for graduate and even undergraduate theses in the country.

The interesting or revealing thing in the conversation, at least for this reporter, is that Grounded Theory had come around even at the time that 80-year old Prof Jinadu was a student. For Intervention, that’s very interesting.

The assumption is that everyone picked something from the conversation. Generally, the post-positivist temperament favour clear theoretical commitment in handling any intellectual project because theory itself partakes in knowledge production. Second, following Prof Robert Cox’s powerful essay in 1981, it has become the fad for researchers to declare a theoretical standpoint that puts him or her clearly outside the bracket of problem-solving theory. Cox’s image of a researcher who, knowingly or not, subscribes to problem-solving theory is basically that of a quack or a mechanic. Intervention hereby declares the debate inconclusive, expecting someone to organise another house arrest on it.

Does inclusivity in itself guarantee electoral accountability in an atmosphere of gargantuan transgressions in several other realms of the society? This was a leading question which goes beyond the chapter writer to whom it was addressed by Dr. Chermaine Pereira. In other words, it is beyond the book project in question, going right to practitioners or advocates of inclusiveness without a situated reading of the exclusionary imagination. Should the chapter writer find a coherent enough response to this, then this book could be achieving more than the stated essence.

Closely related to this is the insistence by Prof Istifanus Zabadi on tying electoral accountability to the global historical context of the transition to democracy in much of Africa and the multi-party core it assumed. In the days gone by, Prof Zabadi could have been charged with ‘undue radicalism’.

One query raised in the room but which goes beyond the room to all knowledge producers is conceptual clarity. Prof Remi Aiyede, the immediate past Head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Ibadan was most insistent on this. Although he is not an interpretivist, he obviously shares the point that meaning is a political project. And the sense which a particular usage has for a particular writer must be so clearly specified as to leave no reader in doubt about what is at stake. Or jabberwocky could be at work, with implications for the kind of actions that may result from a research.

The Executive arm of the government plays fundamental roles in the politics of elections. Yet, every Executive arm is controlled by a party. Can such a party be above partisanship in how it handles appointment of top officials of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC)?; funding of INEC and policing of elections? How does the paradox help or hinder electoral accountability in Nigeria? But Prof Victor Adetula, the amiable academic from the University of Jos still has another question about this reality: is this paradox exclusive to the Executive arm?

Political parties in Nigeria verge on despotism in terms of internal democracy, especially the way serving chairmen are eased out. But are there variations in how this play out at the different levels or it is despotism all the way down? This is the question Dr Saeed Husseini raised. It was for the attention of the chapter writer but it also goes beyond that level to the larger Nigeria.

As stated earlier on, these are just some of the issue-areas that caught the attention of this reporter. A reporter is entitled to discriminate what counts and what doesn’t in particular contexts. Anyone who doesn’t accept that minor ‘Stalinism’ may wish to go to court.

The real point about this book project is for every effort to be made for it to come out as quickly as possible. The world is waiting for it. Africa is waiting for it. Political parties, INEC, security agencies, the civil society and politicians are waiting for it. Two other key constituencies are particularly waiting for it. One is academia, given the theory debate and how it is responded to and given the fact that there are universities running degree and graduate programmes in Election Studies. Students in such programmes would be reading a home produced text that has passed through the hands of a set of social scientists whose engagement with elections is beyond the theoretical. There are several ex-INEC National Commissioners involved with the project. It is perhaps for the consideration of the academic constituency that the introductory chapter may require expansion. The second of the constituencies is the media, given the conceptual question about where the media is coming from vis-à-vis its plausible role in electoral accountability.

The second book followed nearly the same set of questions, the main difference being the framing of the posers to reflect the subject matter which slightly differs from the one on electoral accountability. This one is on Elections and Democratisations. It will be no less interesting in terms of the co-authors of the book and the issue areas involved. As Prof Kuna presented the issues when summarising the proceedings, they border on whether elections constitute a necessary and sufficient condition for democratisation; the tension between elections and democratisation which challenge a linear connection between the two, particularly in the light of the testimony of decline in democratisation in 16 consecutive reports by Freedom House. All these raise the question of whether voters are voting or merely passing through the motions.

The one issue that might be isolated out of the mass of questions to chapter writers is that of whether a theory can be declared suitable or unsuitable in handling a particular topic? Technically, yes. Otherwise, Uhmm. On the face of it, a theory and its premises could be the anti-thesis of a particular problematique.

Rethinking Liberal Democracy in the Face of Discontent and Coups in West Africa

Day – 2 of the hotel arrest shifted from dealing with books to trying to answer the question of what is to be done in the face of discontent and coups against democratic governments in West Africa. It was an exercise in rethinking, kicking off from Prof Jinadu’s take about a phenomenon of democratic decline in which every succession produced a worse set of leadership. How do we reconcile forms of rule with popular aspirations under democracy which is no more than a game of musical chairs?

Although at home with the contingent nature of the social and the inevitability of reversals, Prof Jinadu is concerned about the evaporation of the coalition of intellectuals and the policy mill that brought about clear alternative frameworks of democratisation between the 1980s and 2000. One outcome of this is the reality of Chapter Two type provision in the Nigerian Constitution in nearly all other constitutions across Africa. still the developmental state remains elusive.

If the leading question yesterday was on theory, today’s stalled on the democracy – development nexus. Is this a false or imagined marriage or are the two an inseparable pair? Yesterday on the debate on theory, Jinadu, Attahiru Jega and Okey Ibeanu were on one side. Today, it is Ibeanu versus Jinadu. Jega had left.

Prof Okey Ibeanu asks whether the developmental state ever operated anywhere in Africa. he thinks both the developmental state and the market ideology failed the continent. The democracy and development that are taking place at the level of the big picture have no room for what goes on at the level of the people or what Prof Bayo Olukoshi, the Chairman of the session, framed as everyday democracy. Instead of the developmental initiatives of the people being wired into the development process, the people only encounter uncountable forms of taxation imposed by municipal governments, party agents, Police, Road Safety and what have you.

Someone in the audience asked why democracy and development are always linked even when there are many countries which have achieved development without (liberal) democracy and vice versa. Can’t an argument be made for development without democracy, he asked?

Surprisingly, Jinadu and Ibeanu are together in rejecting divorcing the two. Echoing Amartya Sen, Jinadu asserts that there is theoretical justification for the linking between the two. Ibeanu says there is no historical justification to separate the two. For him, development is not even a contentious issue. Lexically, it means the wellbeing of the people. But, in his view, development has not even been on the agenda of the power elite, military and civil. So, development cannot be said to have failed when it has never been raised as an issue. His verdict is that liberal democracy has compounded it. @Liberal democracy is a denudation of democracy, he said.

Someone charged the debaters with the epistemological crime of essentialism, arguing that, otherwise, neither democracy nor development or any other such concepts have fixed, universal meanings by which they could be assessed to have failed or been successful. The speaker pushed the case for a decolonisation of democracy and development as the conditions for the sense of them that a postcolonial entity such as West Africa can measure.

West Africa which is the region under discussion in relation to democracy received a lot of attention. There was the speaker who alerted the audience to the possibility of the situation in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso being more explosive than imagined. He located this fear in the context he fingered which was a brilliant synthesis of things we have seen in and about these countries since the late 1970s. But the way the dynamics are playing out and with the degree of food insecurity in the axis, West Africa in general and (northern) Nigeria might await the shocker of their life. The Nigerian government is not helping matters in his analysis. The government is not noticing a dangerous dimension in certain actions it is taking and certain messengers it is using, noted the speaker.

Prof Jibrin Ibrahim provided the second briefing. He identified what may be called the decline of democracy factor in ECOWAS, the Nigerian factor, the ECOWAS image problem, the geopolitics of the recent coups in terms of their narrativisation as anti-imperialist moves, the uncritical consumption of such stuff, especially fake videos of French complicity in the crisis and the way all these combine to provide the condition of possibility for armed populism. Armed populism is when soldiers go populist which could be a cover for rent seeking patriotism.

Armed populism which is a term borrowed from a critique of the early months of the IBB regime in Nigeria takes us to Prof Kuna’s presentation regarding whether we should look for the soldiers in the face of mass discontent. Have the soldiers helped the situation when they took over power previously, he asked. In asking the question, Kuna is not oblivious of massive decline in the quality of life of individuals at the same time that obscene display of wealth, mostly stolen is on; the deepening intolerance and incivility in the society; the delegitimation of the state by actions such as suspect telling policemen who arrested him to be careful because he (the suspect) won’t spend up to a year in prison; (some other people told the story of a judge who was accosted at an airport by a drug baron the judge sent to jail earlier, obviously to tell the judge that he was wasting his time or the stories of convicts paying someone else to serve their jail term for them); rising internal security challenges to the point where troops have had to be deployed in almost all the states of the federation; the phenomenon of utter privatisation of power by individuals in West Africa such as Paul Biya, Omar Bongo Snr and Jnr, Eyadema Snr and Jnr and so on and external plunder.

Prof Kuna’s presentation evoked the interesting debate on military vanguardism in Nigeria in the 1980s. Military vanguardism is the notion of military officers acting as a vanguard for socialism through what was then conceptualised as a radical coup. It was a major debate then but which today’s generation do not seem to know about.

What can youth and technology do regarding rethinking democracy in West Africa? Can the two combine to be the new saviours? Dr. Lassane Quedraogo who first spoke on the topic thinks the youth have been overtaken by the soldiers. Not only are the coups occurring, 60% of the territory of nearly all the three West African states where coups have taken place have been lost to insurrectionary groups. In those countries and elsewhere, there is already the normalisation of uncertainty. He doesn’t think democracy is teaching the youth their history or “letting us know ourselves”. His argument is that “if we know our history, we wouldn’t have problems in our relations with the other countries”. The meaning of this last sentence is lost on the reporter.

Dr. Saeed Husseini, the second resource person on the subject matter argues that there is a generational gap to be bridged for the youth to harness technology and accomplish any radical democratic agenda. He doesn’t see the social and organisational capacity required for such agenda in the current generation, citing how the youth have been successful in generating a lot of tension, global solidarity but often creating situations that do not show deep understanding of what is unfolding and the politics of organisation. So, it is more or less a case of democracy without democrats or revolution without revolutionaries. His contention must interest the Nigerian Left and the masterminds of the EndSARS revolutionaries.

Dr. Nana Afadzinu of the West Africa Civil Society Institute spoke twice. But there is nowhere in my notes where I jotted her what she was saying. I have searched all my sheets of paper and I do not think any page got lost between the hotel and house. Was her argument so straightforward that I thought I didn’t need to write them down before remembering when writing? Similarly, Cde John Odah of OTUWA asked a question. I thought I had it all upstairs but not adequately anymore.

It was not all hard thinking throughout. Sessions were interspersed with jokes. For example, Dr. Kole Shettima, the first chairman of the first day was declared a late comer. But he hit back. Once he was made chairman. He was set on the dot but had to wait for over an hour before the arrival of the rest. To avoid that experience this time, he decided to take 9 am for 1O. 30 am. The hall roared in approval. Dr. Otive Igbuzor, who was unilaterally announced as the successor chair nursed an animus against professors, pastors and preachers. But he turned out a good chair, even if only for making us to exercise our body at a point. It helped. Prof Bayo Olukoshi who chaired the second day has no element of ‘Stalinism’ in him and he framed every contribution competently.