The Limits of Democracy


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October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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The Limits of Democracy



'Lai Olurode

culled from Guardian, June 1, 2004

D EMOCRACY is now a catch-phrase, in fact since the mid-80s the wave of democratisation as a derivative of structural adjustment had become a conditionality of a sort set by the advanced countries for doing business with dictatorial regimes in Africa, Asia and the Latin American countries. In this context, democracy is paraded as being synonymous with civilisation, modernity and development. Among the assumptions associated with democracy are the enhancement of citizenship rights, political participation and accountability in government.

The very notion of democracy is problematic in a general sense but it is with regards to its particular inadequacies that we are concerned. What are often paraded as the virtues of democracy are not claims which can be excluded from political formations that are undemocratic. Even in a democracy, all of the characteristics patently associated with the term may not be simultaneously present in the right combination, nor can a positive corelationship be taken for granted. There are indeed varieties of democracy. It does exist on a continuum.

More specifically however, the so-called Western liberal democracies are failing to promote popular participation in the affairs of the state. Over the past couple of decades for example, the U.S. had witnessed consistent decline in the number of voters at general elections. The referendum as a strategy for dealing with low voters turn-out had or as an adhoc strategy not recorded much success. There are promising prospects that this trend would continue. The U.S. and other Western Societies have social structures that negate the imperative of popular participation. These societies are highly individualistic and people are, ironically though, becoming more fatalistic about the role and ineluctable power of the state.

In the U.S. for example, the low and the middle classes exhibit a general behavioural pattern that tends to say "Does it really matter whether it is the Democrats or the Conservatives. Either of them hurt more or less

bullet" and also because of the rising level of impoverishment and the widespread belief that government can do little, there is a feeling of despondency, which then results, in political inaction and helplessness. The opportunities for partaking in the decision -making process had either narrowed or disappeared completely.

The scope for community action has progressively been weakened by the inexorable power of the state and bureaucracy. Associational life in those countries is yet to assume the vibrancy with which it is associated in most of Africa and other third world countries. For example how many Americans and Britons really took part in the decision to go to war in Iraq

bulletThe weapons of mass destruction have still not been found. Just imagine the cost in human and material sense
bulletWhat has happened to public debate, to political participation and to accountability
bulletWhere then lies democracy
bulletWhat of the claim that only democracy can generate citizenship rights
bulletIn both America and Britain, the population of the homeless, and the jobless is increasing. Access to schooling opportunities is closing on some groups, particularly the blacks and the minority groups. Social discrimination along ethnic and gender line is becoming entrenched. Social segregation is waxing stronger and the melting pot idea has evaporated. Though, for political considerations, issues of social prejudice directed at the minority groups get frequently mentioned by state actors but there has been no halt in the rate at which the blacks and other coloured people are sinking into poverty.

Though outwardly, the West and the American societies present the image of social welfarism and hold out what others should aim at but a deepened thought would reveal that these may not be so in fundamental respects. In spite of cries of reforms and recovery, capitalism is experiencing serious problems as a main mode of organising social existence. Bourgeoisic democracy is therefore failing in fulfillment of its avowed superior claims. Profit rather than humanity remains the major impetus for social action. There is just little concern for spiritual and human happiness.

Unfortunately, Africa cannot think of anything other than the assumption, naively though that democracy is infallible and unstoppable. It is in fact zealous about the concept and subjecting it to tests that may be foreign to it in a desperate attempt to impress the pundits in the West. And herein lies the danger that democracy may become a shield for nurturing and fostering dictatorship. For over 40 years, Nigeria has failed to reflect its history of diversity in its constitutional development. This amounts to a denial of culture. And an elementary definition of culture regards it as the people's way of life.

Our practice of democracy has jettisoned the centrality of culture. Yet, in the advanced countries, democracy is often going through permutations both in practical and theoretical senses. Democracy in its raw form is simply not working in Africa. Or else how can we make sense of the direct relationship between democratisation and consistently low human development indicators or between democratisation and the rising profile of ethnic militia

bulletAfrica has tried to ape the West and North America for too long but it has failed to learn to be itself.

In the case of Nigeria, its political practices are simply irrelevant. The country itself is a contraption and sustainable only under conditions of continued application of force. Nigeria's failure to move from being a monoculture economy is at the root of its political failure and the increasing militarisation of the Niger Delta. Nigeria is not what it claims to be. Each time, it makes a narrow escape from crisis, it has to rely on a greater resort to force to maintain its unequal relations of dominion, oppression and tyranny. Its structure is simply inherently unstable. And its leaders essentially helpless and unpatriotic to re-discover its rich political heritage and marry this with useful ideas and values that are imported from the West. Africa cannot continue to deny its reality except at its own peril in this age of globalisation.

 Olurode is Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, at the University of Lagos.



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