Democracy Beyond Politicians, By Kayode Idowu
POLITICS DIGEST – If you seek hard evidence that the character content of a country’s political culture derives in a large measure from its leadership elite at any given point in time, you only need look at the United States now. At the last count, the world’s epitome of democratic decency had slipped into riotous political behaviour that typifies backwater democracies.
On Wednesday, last week, some two dozens Republican lawmakers stormed a secure meeting room for US Congress committees in Washington to disrupt Democratic-led impeachment inquiry on President Donald Trump. The current American leader, as is well known by now, came under scrutiny for possible impeachment liability after a whistleblower alleged that he and top officials of his administration had pressured some foreign leaders, most notably Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, to dig up dirt on his political rivals as would facilitate his re-election bid in that country’s 2020 poll. Mr. Trump and his supporters have insisted, however, that he’s done nothing wrong.
Reports said the GOP lawmakers last week barged into an interrogation bunker known as Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), railing against the impeachment inquiry and holding up a scheduled testimony by a Pentagon chief for about five hours. Some of the intruding legislators took their mobile phones with them into the facility, prompting Congress leaders and others to accuse them of security breach. Reason: SCIFs are designed to prevent electronic eavesdropping and allow people to table classified information; hence electronic devices are not permitted.
US Congress rules stipulate that only committee members and authorised staff members are permitted to attend depositions like the one that held on Wednesday. But the conservative lawmakers forced their way in and demanded they be allowed to witness the closed-door proceedings where members of House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees conducting the impeachment probe were set to interview Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Laura Cooper. The intruders eventually sat in on the committee room and engaged in a shouting derby with their Democratic counterparts. At lunchtime, they ordered pizza to be brought into the meeting area. They ended their protest hours later only when they had to leave for attendance at House votes.
News analyses argued that the brawl option last Wednesday stemmed from mounting pressure on Trump’s camp following the deposition a day earlier by US acting ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, who testified that the American leader had made military assistance to Ukraine conditional on a pledge that Democratic frontrunner for the 2020 poll, Joe Biden, would be investigated for suspicion of damaging deals when he was vice president under ex-President Barack Obama. Taylor had said US relations with Ukraine were consequently “fundamentally undermined.” In response to that testimony, however, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that the proceedings were “a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution.” Mr. Trump himself had earlier described the impeachment inquiry as a lynching.
Reports further said the facility sit-in occurred two days after the American leader rallied Republicans to “get tougher and fight” for him. Ace news channel, the Cable News Network (CNN), reported that many of the lawmakers involved in the protest were at a White House meeting on Tuesday with the president. It added that someone familiar with the matter disclosed that Trump had advance knowledge of plans to enter the space. But the channel as well cited notable GOPs saying Wednesday’s protest was not raised at the meeting the previous day with Trump.
My interest in the apparent degeneration of political culture in Trump’s America is the inherent immunity, to a considerable degree, of that country’s institution of democracy against character failings of its power elite. This is due mainly to the fact that democratic norms and values are deeply enshrined and the governance structures firmly institutionalised, hence they ultimately outlive momentary shockwaves. In other words, the system has been so cultivated and calibrated over the years that it somehow gets to filter out rouge occurrences and hold its ground.
Nigeria’s democracy is emergent and highly vulnerable to culture shocks from the generally poor political conduct that characterises this clime. For our democracy to thrive, therefore, we need to painstakingly cultivate and institutionalise attendant values and governance structures beyond peculiar traits of the political elite. This admonition formed the thrust of a keynote paper by former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Attahiru Jega, at a conference on 20 years of democracy in Nigeria staged in Abuja on Wednesday, last week, by TELL Communication Limited.
Speaking on the subject, ‘The electoral process in Nigeria: Safeguarding the people’s will for democracy to thrive,’ Jega said the challenge of democratic development in a country like Nigeria is how to prevent reversals and ensure consolidation of positive strides made hitherto in the political process. But the political elite, according to him, constitutes the biggest sticking point of this challenge. He noted that while most ordinary Nigerians have struggled for democratic development and consolidation since the return to civil rule in 1999, the political class, “perhaps due to lack of enlightened self-interest, (has) tended to treat and engage with the process of democratisation with kid gloves.”
Jega explained: “In such a significant area as the electoral process, the integrity of which is crucial to democratic consolidation and good governance, the prevailing mode of participation and engagement by the elite is akin to kids playing with fire: at the least, they get burnt and at worst, they could set off a conflagration that consumes the entire edifice. As commonsense dictates that we must stop kids (from) playing with fire, so it is that we must stop the elite, especially the reckless segment of the ‘political class,’ from setting off an electoral conflagration that could consume our entire democratic edifice. The only way to successfully do this is to strive for, and imbue the Nigerian electoral process with requisite integrity that would guarantee the actualisation of the aspiration of Nigerians for both stable democratic development and consolidation.
The political scientist noted “remarkable trust deficit” on the part of voters in the electoral process, as indexed by progressively declining percentage voter turnout in periodic elections. To redress this, he urged that no effort be spared to “ensure that elections are conducted with integrity; i.e. (that) elections are free, fair and credible and are characterised by inclusiveness, transparency, accountability and competitiveness…substantially complying with international standards…”
But the surest route to thriving democracy, according to him, is to institutionalise electoral integrity as would safeguard the people’s will. To this end, all key stakeholders have roles to play. Among others, the political class must eschew desperation and be statesmanly in electoral contests. The electoral body, INEC, must deeply entrench its neutrality and constitutional independence, enhance the professionalism of its workforce and strengthen linkages and mutual trust with major players in the electoral process, including the security agencies. The executive and legislative arms of government need to ensure the best possible legal framework for INEC to conduct good elections and adequately provide for financial as well as administrative autonomy of the electoral body. And the media should engage with the electoral process professionally, eschew fake news and reporting of hate speech, partisanship and other unsalutary conducts.
An obvious deduction from foregoing recommendations is that we need to take Nigerian democracy beyond politicians for the practice to thrive.