Superstitions of Democracy

Posted: Apr 25, 2007 9:48 AM
Superstitions of Democracy

The rapture in 1960 over the independence of Nigeria seems incredible, and was always that, but three words -- anti-colonialism, independence and democracy -- were all that was thought to be needed to justify the jubilation. Nigeria had thrust away its colonial ties and would lead the way to the democratization of Africa. The optimism was bolstered by Nigeria's oil wealth, its robust size (twice California's), and its vigorous population (140 million). The reign of Nnamdi Azikiwe lasted until 1966, but since then there have been military despots until the elections of last week, which promise only continuing chaos.

The disasters in Africa have fed on the hobgoblins of the 20th century, which were that colonialism was inherently oppressive and that democracy was the key to progress and to national and indeed spiritual redemption. An aspect of this terrible superstition is that governments tend to be judged on democratic paradigms.

The African Studies Program at the School of Advanced and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University is a co-sponsor of Afrobarometer, which studies African public opinion. An ambitious survey conducted by Afrobarometer last year informs us that satisfaction with democracy had dropped from 58 percent in 2001 to 45 percent in 2006, but at the same time six out of 10 Africans opine that democracy is preferable to any other form of government.

In last week's elections, Nigerian officials gave themselves credit for their handling of the polling places. But their satisfaction was sharply contrasted to the views of international observers -- for instance, former secretary of state Madeline Albright, who said, "In a number of places and in a number of ways, the election process failed the Nigerian people," and the International Republican Institute, whose spokesman said the election fell "below acceptable standards."

Still we confront, year after year, decade after decade, the surrealistic proposition that progress is measured by the extent of democratic practices. In a brilliant dispatch from Kano, a formerly prosperous city in the north of Nigeria, Lydia Polgreen of The New York Times gave us the true measure of the problem.

Nigeria is the second-wealthiest country in Africa and exports 2 million barrels of oil per day, but the money disappears into the hands of politicians and random profiteers. Observers calculate that, since independence, $380 billion has been wasted or plundered. The straits of the country are best recorded by describing daily life.

"In Kano's Government Residential Area, where the wealthy live," Ms. Polgreen writes, "each household is its own power and water company. Plastic water tanks on spidery legs tower over the tiled roofs, each fed by an electric pump sucking water from a private well. The electric company provides light just a few hours a day, so the air is thick with the belching diesel smoke of a thousand generators, clattering away in miserable, endless unison."

The reporter cites specific cases. "Idriss Abdoulaye sells water from a pushcart for 20 naira a jerry can, about 15 cents, to people like himself, too poor to have wells. He makes about $2 a day, and cannot afford to send his sons to school."

Consider the enterprise of Saidu Dattijo Adhama. He was in the textile business, and in days gone by he produced 3,000 garments a day. Six years ago he was forced to shut down because paying for private generator power to run his knitters and spinners and pump water for his bleaching and dyeing machines left him unable to compete with cheap imports flooding the country in the wake of trade liberalization. 'The reason I went out of business is simple,' he said. 'It is the Nigerian factor. No light. No water. No reliable suppliers. How can I compete with someone in China who opens the tap and sees water? Who taps a switch and sees light?'

There is sentiment for returning to power Muhammadu Buhari, who ruled with a big stick for two years but in a regime in which there was less crime and corruption than at present.

The indispensable requirement for progress is the same in Nigeria as everywhere else in the world. One needs order. China, as the Nigerian textile manufacturer points out, supplies that. After order has been established, one needs liberty, to galvanize individual resources.

What will not do anything to restore life for the semi-dead in Nigeria is cant on the subject of democracy. Do they need a strongman? Manifestly, they do. Forget the superstitions of democracy.

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