By Dr. Ahmed Adamu
This month, Nigeria will celebrate Democracy Day on the 29th of May, but I have concerns about whether the democracy we practice is the best option for us. First, democracy allows everybody above the age of 18 to vote, irrespective of their education, knowledge or political awareness. This is one of the flaws of our democracy, not everyone is informed of the requirement or competence for leadership, not everyone has the skills to interpret information presented by candidates, not everyone has the correct mindset or upright ideology in making the right decision, and if everyone including the uninformed are handed over the ballot, we risk the chances of ignorant choices.
Therefore, casting a vote is a skill that everyone must acquire, and if you do not have the skills, you will not be qualified to have a ballot. It is just like handing over guns to everyone, you will risk giving the gun to an uninformed person, and he may end up shooting himself or shooting the good guys. Just like not everyone should lead, not everyone should vote too. If a child is denied the ballot because it was believed that a child may not be well informed or acquire the necessary knowledge to participate in the voting, likewise even among adults, there are those who are not informed or have the knowledge to guide their decisions. Some children may have the knowledge, but they will also be denied the chance to vote. So, there has to be clear requirements to qualify to vote in a democracy, especially in developing countries where there is mass illiteracy or unawareness, which reflects in the ballot and can cause the poor selection of leaders, resulting in bad governance.
Uninformed citizens can easily be manipulated and used through bribery, bogus promises, or intimidation to make the wrong choices. The votes of uninformed citizens may not necessary reflect their own opinions, which is against the principles of democracy. So, some sections of society need to be stripped of the voting chance. However, highly informed and educated citizens will have fewer tendencies of being used or manipulated. In some elections, a leader can emerge even with a 1% margin, and it does not matter if that margin was as a result of a vote from an uninformed voter. That one percent will also make the other major 49% voiceless. Uninformed voters can decide the course of the ship of our democracy. Giving uninformed citizens the ballot is like giving unprofessional the wheel of a ship at the middle of a sea during a storm, how would they steer the ship? But, if you hand over the ship to a qualified person, they will handle the situation and direct the ship to a safer route. Even in courts, we don’t allow every citizen to give verdicts, a select few competent judges are the ones we trust to give verdicts, because we believe they have the skills in making a sound and fair decision, and we accept their judgments.
This also applies to candidates contesting in our elections, once you have a lower educational qualification, irrespective of the quality of that education or the depth of your knowledge (especially political and economic affairs), you are free to contest. It is just like an aeroplane, not everyone deserves to fly the plane, if someone who is not an expert stepped up to fly the plane, no one will agree to that. So, why should we allow those who are not expert to steer a country’s direction, candidates must have certain strict criteria to contest. We cannot risk allowing people with shallow knowledge of politics and economics or education to stand for elections, if we do that we put ourselves at risk of voting in incompetent leaders. If a private company wants to appoint a new MD/CEO, they will shortlist those with the best qualification in terms of knowledge and ability to meet the company’s targets. So, why can’t we shortlist the best candidates for leading our respective countries, why do we accommodate incompetence in our shortlists? That is why we have to raise the requirements for who we allow to contest in our elections.
To achieve this, we have to change the system of nominations for elective positions; first, candidates must be allowed to stand for election independently without standing under a political party. Political parties must allow every member of their party to cast their votes in the selection of their party’s candidates, instead of few people, i.e. delegates. These delegates are targets of manipulation, bribery, and deception because there is no strict requirement for their selection, and once they are manipulated, the entire country is manipulated too. So, for immediate remedy, parties must open the selection of their candidates to every member of the party. Any party that does that will for sure have more appeal to the people. Political parties must be forced to reduce the cost of nominations for political positions, to give room for competent candidates who may not afford high nomination fees.
Restricting candidacy to parties is what produces leaders without ideas. Shehu Musa Ya’adua once said, “Our major problem as a country is that we elect people that we know are not competent, and leave out those that we know are competent”. One of our African orators, Harmon Okinyo once said, “the problem with Africa is that those that have ideas, have no power, and those with power, have no ideas. Once Africans are presented with the option to vote between those with ideas and those without, they will vote for those without the ideas”. So those who are the ‘good ones’ don’t get the chance. The good ones do not have the money to outcompete the bad ones, and the bad ones use illiteracy and an uninformed electorate to find their way, and that is why it is dangerous to give the ballot to the uninformed citizens.
So, let us have an intellectual democracy and not democracy by birth right. Another issue with democracy is the frequent change of leaders, and giving them absolute powers to change the course of governance. This creates inconsistency and the desire to accumulate wealth within the limited span of their tenure, unlike a constitutional monarch, which prevents continued rent seeking from rotating powerful leaders. Frequent change of governments and elections attracts huge costs, which short-change the citizens. Monarchs tend to take responsibility for success or failure of their countries, because their faces or images are at stakes, and they want to command loyalty and love from their people.
To ensure informed choices and better selection of leaders, Islamic, traditional or new systems of democracy can be looked into. We can consider electing voting representatives in each district or ward, who are knowledgeable, respected, experienced and reputable. These voting representatives will cast their votes on behalf of their people, and will undertake by oath to be fair and just in their selections. They will be like judges, who will use facts and evidence to give a verdict without sentiment, fear or favour. All candidates must then present themselves and their visions to earn the votes of the voting representatives. This will give a chance to credible candidates from unpopular parties, marginalised ethnicities or sections of society, because it is about who is more competent. The voting representatives will vote according to their conscience and conviction, and they have to report back to their respective communities and explain the justification for their choices. So, they will be the judges, who make verdicts on our behalf. This kind of system is found in Islamic election processes, where few selected respected members of society are chosen to select a leader. It is also found in the traditional system of democracy, where few selected king makers choose the king on behalf of the people.
Finally, the above system can be merged with direct democracy, where a proportion of the votes can be allocated to the citizens and the bigger proportion to the voting representatives. We can say, voting representatives have a 60% weighted proportion of the votes, and 40% goes to the citizens. If a candidate wins, the entire votes of the voting representatives can emerge. A candidate can still win if he has the majority of the overall votes, combining proportions from both voting representatives and the citizens.
Dr. Ahmed Adamu
Petroleum Economist and Development Expert,
First-Ever Global President of Commonwealth Youth Council,
University Lecturer (Economics), Umaru Musa Yar’adua University, Katsina.