How democracies die

How democracies die

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It takes years to build an architectural masterpiece but only hours to destroy it. The same can be said of democracy. Democracy has been described by the British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott as a part of “the great conversation of mankind”. A rather awkward and sometimes chaotic conversation. War-time British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described it as “the worst system of government – except for the others”.

Two scholars from Harvard’s revered Department of Government, Steven Levistky and Daniel Ziblatt, have tried to show us how to kill a democracy be degrees: How Democracies Die (Penguin 2019). The key message is that twenty-first century democracies are in mortal danger. The rise of populism in Europe and the emergence of Donald Trump in the United States spell trouble for democracy as we’ve known it in the liberal West. The authors draw insightful lessons from Pinochet in Chile to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Erdogan in Turkey to paint a grim tapestry of how democracies are killed by authoritarian leaders.

In the twentieth century fascist demagogues like Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy used the democratic process to climb up the greasy pole of power, after which they kicked away the ladder. In the case of Germany, the pre-war Weimar Constitution, according to historian Golo Mann, was one of the best constitutional documents in the annals of civil government. But constitutional writs in themselves do not protect against tyranny. In January 1933 Hitler and the National Socialists won elections through a democratic process and then proceeded to dismantle all democratic institutions, muzzling the process and bullying opponents into submission.

One of the first people who saw through the entire evil scheme was a young theologian barely in his twenties by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In a radio broadcast in Berlin the young Bonhoeffer denounced the Nazi Fuhrerprinzip as a godless ideology that could only end in idolatry. Before he could finish his broadcast his voice was cut off. In April 1945 Bonhoeffer was among those executed by the Nazis for plotting to remove Adolf Hitler.

Democracies die from bad leaders who come into power through democratic means while working up the people to a crescendo of frenzy through charisma and populist rhetoric. Populist leaders always claim to be fighting corruption; a subterfuge for power-grabbing and enforcement of a culture of silence over state and society.

Hugo Chavez, for example, was a young officer from the lower middle classes of oil-rich Venezuela. He had staged a failed coup in February 1992. He was on trial awaiting execution when his populist tongue-lashing against the ruling oligarchs drew the mobs to his side: “It is difficult to ask the people to sacrifice themselves for freedom and democracy when they think that freedom and democracy are incapable of giving them food to eat, of preventing the astronomical rise in the cost of subsistence, or of placing a definitive end to the terrible scourge of corruption, that in the eyes of the entire world, is eating away at the institutions of Venezuela each passing day”.

The greatest danger faced by democracy in our time is not only the rise of political Islam and Salafi fascism; it is also the rise of leaders who camouflage their wickedness in the pernicious grammar of assent: fear, the cult of personality, populism, appeasement and pandering to the demons of Global Jihad.

Levitsy and Ziblatt point to the erosion of what they term “the guardrails of democracy”, such as the Electoral College in the United States which was put in place by America’s Founding Fathers to guide against the emergence of demagogues. They show how these “guardrails” are failing; as exemplified by the emergence of Donald Trump, a xenophobe who has taken America away from the path of multilateralism that made the United States the leader of the free world since Woodrow Wilson, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Barack Obama. Under Trump, the enduring civic virtues of American democracy have been weakened while the rules of the game and the civility of adversarial politics are being turned into a form of warfare. Trump has implicitly encouraged racism and personal attacks on opponents as fair game. The liberal media is also being muzzled.

The roots of democratic collapse lie in poor leadership, institutional-structural factors, and, of course, the original sin of corruption. During Nigeria’s First Republic, the factors that contributed to the collapse of Nigeria’s first republic during 1960-1966 were: the unwieldy federal structure in which the Northern Region dominated the “tripod”; undermining the first rule of federalism, i.e., that no one region should be as powerful as to overwhelm the others. Secondly, the violence and insecurity in the West that was partly encouraged by the central government. Intrigues and nepotism within the military and civil service and corruption, were another factor. The imprisonment of Chief Obafemi Awolowo under trumped up charges was another determinant, in addition to widespread rumours – whether real or imaginary — about a coming genocide against the Middle Belt and the South to pave the way for the declaration of a Sharia state.

In 1983, very much the same process virtually repeated itself. Shehu Shagari was a weak leader who handed over the reins of power to the likes of Umaru Dikko, his powerful minister of transport. Federal buildings were going up in flames to cover up grand larceny by politically connected persons. There was great suspicion that the presidential elections were massively rigged. The police under Inspector-General Sunday Adewusi killed thousands of innocent citizens. Nigerians were groaning for a Moses to come and rescue them from captivity. Obafemi Awolowo himself retreated to his Ikenne hometown, taking refuge in mysticism; bleakly prophesying that the ship of state was “heading towards a rock”.

In the year of our Lord 2019, Nigeria’s fledgling democracy is in greater danger than it was in 1966 and 1983. A young Hausa-Fulani Muslim woman recently laments that democracy under the present dispensation is nothing less than a “curse”. We have become like disembodied ghosts that wander aimlessly in the primeval savannah. There is an epidemic of suicide by patriots who have given up hope entirely. The youth are all plotting how to relocate to Canada.

We have become a dangerously divided nation. Few believe that we have any future together as a corporate political community. This frightful state of affairs has been exacerbated by poor leadership, maladministration, intellectual laziness and the iniquitous politics of nepotism and exclusion. The greatest tragedy that can befall a great people is to be led by mediocre rulers who believe only in tribe and religion and who offer their people neither hope nor the prospects of a better future.

The glory has departed, to echo Prophet Isaiah. We have become the world capital for kidnapping, robbery and random, nihilistic violence. Some 13 million children are out of school while 90 million of our people live in absolute poverty. A staggering 46 million of our youths are either unemployed or underemployed — a heartbreaking tragedy. The key public institutions are in an advanced stage of decay, and despite all the brouhaha, corruption remains a dark phantom that refuses to go away. We face an incipient genocide in Zamfara, Birnin Gwari and the Middle Belt by bloodthirsty hounds imported largely from our neighbouring countries. They are not only tacitly protected by the state; they are being appeased with N100 billion from public funds and are also due to have their own radio station to broadcast strictly in their own language. All of it paid for from the blood and sweat and treasure of the Nigerian people.

We have become slaves in our own motherland. Rumours are all the rage that a genocidal bloodbath is about to be unleashed throughout our country by murderous herdsmen militias from all over West Africa in a bid to take over our ancestral homelands by force. Ominously, Yoruba youths have given a quit order to all the militia herdsmen lurking in their forests. They have triggered an age-old traditional system of military self-help that protected Yoruba civilisation for centuries. Voices of dissent are being treated as enemy combatants in the sense understood by the German jurist Carl Schmitt.

This is real and present danger that our young democracy faces today. The erosion of civility and moral restraint can only lead to tragedy. To paraphrase the German sociologist Max Weber: ahead of us is not the bliss of summer but a bleak and icy winter.


Obadiah Mailafia



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