While Nigeria is championing the concerted efforts at restoring democracy in the Niger Republic, democracy is dying off in Nigeria.
Ironically, it is not the military, being the conventional enemy of democracy, that is culpable, but the people whom democracy is meant to protect are killing democracy. Put succinctly, democracy is killing democracy in Nigeria.
And instructively as well, the weapon for this self-destruction is as potent as it is delicate. By its ideal value, this instrument is a shield for democracy. It is the principal offering of democracy which incidentally distinguishes democracy as the best form of governance.
It is a key principle both in constitutional and international human rights laws. In short, this tool is the bedrock of democracy. Yet, it has turned out to be the albatross and the existential threat to democracy in Nigeria.
When the founding fathers of constitutional democracy, notably John Milton, conceived the freedom of expression as a fundamental right of everyone, they had envisioned an enlightened society where law and order reign supreme, where individuals would not be prevented from speaking and acting according to their respective convictions; and also, where citizens are at liberty to condemn and even protest against bad leadership or governance including injustice of any kind.
For emphasis, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948, reads that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
However, in building this essential foundation for a liberal democratic society, those humanists and visionaries innocently left this freedom borderless. Understandably, in their broadmindedness, they did not envisage the likelihood of abuse or the eventual advent of the internet as well as the inherent dangers of social media.
The consequences of this harmless oversight would later become overwhelming. The freedom was rather being deployed to the detriment of national unity and development.
This prompted a review and subsequent caveat in 1952, which notes that “the exercise of this freedom since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties, as are prescribed by law and are necessary for a democratic society, (among others) for the protection of the reputation or rights of others”.
This necessitated the laws prohibiting defamation, sedition, obscenity, and incitement to violence or crimes as domesticated by countries including Nigeria. But despite this intervention aimed at limiting the scope of this civil right, the issues are still far from being effectively addressed.
Today in Nigeria, this hallmark of democracy is being mindlessly weaponized to stifle the very essence of democracy. The legislature is gasping for breath in the hands of the very people to whom it is meant to offer fresh air. And it is more perplexing to see that it is the same constitution that guards this cornerstone of democracy that still guides its misapplication, more sadly, through social media.
For instance, spurious allegations against individuals and institutions, including subjective criticisms and sundry demeaning public remarks respectively enjoy the implied protections of the freedom of expression in Nigeria.
Meanwhile, in prosecuting this onslaught against democracy under the cloak of exercising this right to freedom of expression, the people, particularly the elites, who are versed in the workings of democracy, feign ignorance of some fundamental facts about governance. They seemingly forget that while democracy is about the people, it is the legislature that delivers the dividends of democracy to the people.
Also, they pretend not to know that democracy and the legislature, like two sides of a coin, owe their existence to each other; meaning that one is dead without the other. And again, none remembers that an injury to the legislature is an injury to democracy, and by extension, an injury to Nigeria.
So, once again, democracy is killing democracy in Nigeria. And certainly, the death is imminent. It is no longer about if it will come but it is about when it will occur.
We brazenly ridicule our symbol of democracy and the conscience of the nation merely for political expediency. We allow our emotions to overwhelm us in our criticisms. We forget that the disparaging remarks are not just about the legislators. It is about their families and constituencies. It is about the offices they occupy. It is about the totality of these Nigerians who have sacrificed their privacies and liberties to serve us. It is about the legislature as an institution and bastion of democracy. It is about the sustainability of democracy. It is about our future and posterity.
What we say or write about the legislature is a reflection of what the world thinks about Nigeria as a country. Foreign investment opportunities are threatened. The zeal to serve and passion for patriotism in public office decline with attendant increases in poverty and corruption.
If only we could ponder the harm done to the image and reputation of Nigeria, how our flags and passports are viewed, and how our nationals studying abroad feel among their peers, in the face of what exists on the internet about our legislature!
Whenever there is a manifestation of governance deficit, irrespective of the cause and source, the legislature is singled out for petty attacks. Every perceived anti-people policy is blamed on the legislature for not defending the people, at least, by engaging in hostilities with the executive. Even when natural disasters strike, the legislature is roundly vilified and accused of earning much and doing little.
Everyone seems to forget that the salaries and allowances of the public officials in the three arms of government are all determined centrally, and above all, that the legislature does not fix its remuneration. Again, it is immaterial whether or not the vehicles being procured by the presidency, state governors, ministers, and heads of agencies as well as council chairmen are expensive and aides unreasonably excessive.
The clamour for a reduction in the cost of governance is only targeted at the legislators just to blackmail them into forfeiting their statutory entitlements in solidarity with the suffering masses. The executive and judiciary are deliberately exempted from the lopsided scrutiny because nothing much is known about their expenditures.
By the orchestration of the elites, all the valid narratives to the effect that the annual allocation of the national assembly revolves around the 3 per cent of the entire federal budget are not enough to even minimize the sustained campaign of calumny against the legislature. Furthermore, it does not make any difference if the other public officials have corruption allegations against them or if they justify their ‘humongous’ earnings. But the legislators must be taken to the cleaners for every reason.
Also because it is only the legislature that has its proceedings and other official activities done in the open, legislators have become sitting targets for open attacks always. They are taken up on virtually everything that transpires on the floor, whether informal or otherwise. Specifically, it is not the business of anyone if the other arms make jokes during their sessions or if announcements about their statutory allowances for annual vacations are made whenever necessary.
And pathetically in all these, calculated infringements, the legislator is helpless. It is at the mercy of the judiciary and the executive for constitutional respite that either takes too long or in most cases, does not come at all.
Hence, how would the legislature be alive to its responsibilities in the absence of a fair balance of powers among the arms towards institutional stability and relative independence? Or, are we not persuaded that anarchy is inevitable, given the prevalent executive domination of the legislature supported by the weak constitution?
Except one is living in denial, democracy is killing democracy in Nigeria.
However, it must be acknowledged that those public attitudes towards the legislature are not completely misplaced. Frustrations arising from certain past misdeeds account for most of the scepticism and hostile criticisms. Arguably, some legislators cut the image of poor ambassadors of the legislature.
But then, there are more meaningful ways to engage them, still with the instrumentality of the freedom of expression. Once recognized as a recipe for good governance and deployed accordingly, the set objectives are achieved.
Admittedly, again, the legislature suffers from self-inflicted challenges. Though all its duties are discharged in the open, the legislature, in a sheer display of limited understanding of the media landscape, often leaves its information management largely at the discretion of the elites who are mostly of subjective dispositions. The result ultimately, is that the majority of the legislative accomplishments are diminished by public demonstrations of hostility and apathy. For the umpteenth time, democracy is killing democracy in Nigeria.
Nonetheless, it is in our best interest that this unfortunate trend is reversed.
Whereas the popular rejection of attempts at regulating social media subsists, the occasion now calls for deliberate attitudinal change across the board. Both the government and the people should be circumspect in their conduct and also conscious that the worst of democracies is by far, better than the best of dictatorships the world over. If the Nigerian project fails, we all shall go down, irrespective of partisanship, tribe, and religion.
Thankfully on his part, the president of the senate, Godswill Akpabio, has been consistent in pursuing the legislative commitment of the 10th National Assembly to raising the bar of empathy, openness, and transparency towards public trust and confidence. He has been explicit in his resolve to make the necessary sacrifices for the overall benefit of the people and country. Beyond rhetoric, he has a pragmatic blueprint. And verifiably, so far, he has steadfastly walked the talk.
Therefore, rather than using the freedom of expression enablement to undermine the legislature, nay democracy, there should be agenda-setting and evaluation mechanisms driven by dispassionate advocacies.
And again, for effectiveness in legislative business, there has to be a smooth and steady information flow between representatives and their constituents. Similar cooperation is equally necessary from the other arms and tiers of government if governance must be optimal. Politics should end with the elections to avoid a dysfunctional system. No legislature can deliver good governance in a hostile environment.
So in conclusion, if Nigerian democracy is to survive, the legislature is to be rescued first, and then importantly, the right to freedom of expression should be exercised in due consideration of “the reputation or rights of others”.
*Egbo is a parliamentary affairs analyst