Are we really cut out for democracy?

Have you ever won an election within your small group like your class or social group or religious society? I mean an election in which you did not campaign or share gifts. How did you feel after the victory? Great? Fulfilled? Appreciated? Challenged to serve? It sure is a good feeling.

At the beginning of the last school session, my little boy came back from school one day and announced excitedly that he had been ELECTED the Class Captain of Basic 2. It was written all over him that he was very happy. And with glee and a sense of importance and accomplishment, he narrated the proceedings of the election. According to him, he was nominated with two others to contest the post of the class captain. The class members voted for the three of them. And at the end of the election, he got 19 votes, while his other two fellow contestants got nine and three votes respectively.

I guess that the feat felt more gratifying to him because he was not appointed by the teachers. He was elected by his classmates: a testimony that his classmates found him worthy to be their leader. The classmates had known him and his other classmates. They had interacted from Basic 1 and pre-primary classes. They had played together, quarrelled, fought, made up, and competed on many fronts. They had answered questions and found out one another’s level of intelligence. They had seen who told the more interesting stories, who related with others better, who had more power to get the others to listen, or who was more confident than the others. Maybe, if it was by appointment, someone else would have been chosen as the class captain.

That got me thinking. Could the entrenchment of democracy from the primary school level help to change our attitude to democracy? If you wonder why I asked, here is the reason. Right from the colonial days, we have been displaying a poor attitude to democracy. We brook no opposition. We treat opponents as enemies that must be crushed. Even after we have “won” elections, we try to victimise anyone or community that did not vote for us. If any of our kinsmen or fellow members of our ethnic group does not support our political ambition, he is branded a traitor and treated like a leper, perhaps for life. Nobody cares to know that the man has a right not to support his kinsman.

There is a kind of godfather that anyone who wants to run for a political office must first kowtow to and get his endorsement before he is considered fit to be allowed to contest. If the godfather endorses you, then you are almost certain of “winning” the election. But if he does not endorse you, your name changes to OYO – On Your Own!

This anti-democratic mindset seemed to have sprung from our traditional and historical background. We grew up under the powerful kingship system. The king was a demi-god. Many a king had the power over life and death. His words were final. He brooked no opposition. Anyone who challenged him was arrested and taught a lesson he would not forget in a hurry. And that was, if the person was not killed. Everybody bowed and trembled before his majesty!

Even in the communities where there were no kings, there were also a council of elders and priests whose words were final. Everyone was expected to conform to the norms, traditions and decisions. Dissension was not tolerated. Once the community had taken a decision, that was it. You either conformed or got punished. If you hated the decision so much that you could not obey it, you had the option of leaving the community and settling in another community.

With this type of background, it is not surprising to see that Nigerians are intolerant of contrary views or orientations. One who expresses a different view on an issue is treated like an enemy of the state rather than a partner in progress who just has a different idea about the route to the development of the town, state or nation. Any criticism or genuine piece of advice from any quarter is an irritation. The purveyors of such opinions are termed “disgruntled elements” or “those working for their paymasters.” The only time all seems to be well is when everyone is hailing the leader. The election that makes the heart of the leader swell is that in which he or his party “wins” in all the districts.

This cancer has even so much permeated our social and religious lives that those with minority religious or ethnic orientations are not tolerated. They are constantly attacked or victimised. Even when they are not physically harmed, they are hardly allowed to raise their heads or hold any positions in the communities. Forever, they are treated like outsiders or second-class citizens. Even the most educated and most travelled join in upholding these injustices in the name of defending their religion or ethnic group. Disappointingly, our national laws do little to defend minority rights.

Therefore, to ensure that we start curbing this ugly attitude, we need to inculcate a true democratic culture in people at an early age. For example, right from primary school, in addition to teaching civics, positions like class prefects/monitors/captains should be made elective. The pupils should be made to understand the importance of contesting elections right from the cradle. Although the teachers may know the pupil that would perform better as the captain, it is better to allow the pupils to elect their leader themselves. It helps to make the elected child see that he emerged because of the goodwill he has among his classmates. He therefore knows that he is accountable to them, rather than a godfather (teacher or principal). That makes the child to do his best to work in the interest of those who elected him.

This will make the child to realise that his mates have elected him to “serve” them, not to rule over them. He knows that they are watching to see if he is living up to expectations. He knows that even before the end of the session (tenure), his classmates can vote him out, if they are not happy with his performance. He also knows that he cannot bribe the entire classmates to vote for him, if he is not living up to their expectations. In addition, his other mates will also strive to be better in all the indices, so as to be considered above him during the next election.

Beyond helping to make our democracy stronger, it will also help to make our people better. Those who have dreams of becoming leaders will start from childhood to be above board. For example, someone who has a crooked streak knows that anytime he comes out to contest any political post, such a negative will be used against him. He cannot bank on a godfather bulldozing his way through the electoral system to get him into office.

Because it is said that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, our adults are as good as lost on the issue of tolerance of contrary opinions and minorities, but we can catch our children now that they are still malleable. We can inculcate the right democratic principles and tolerance of minorities in them. That will help us to create great leaders of the future and also a great, harmonious and progressive nation.

Like a proverb says, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is now.