Nihil est incertius vulgo, nihil obscurius voluntate hominum. — Cicero
About four years ago, I had an epiphany. It was during the election in Anambra State. I was on ground on the day, and at a polling station on Nnewi. I watched a group of people talk with an agent, cast their votes following the conversation, and then collecting ₦3500 each, after the fact. I spoke with one of those men after the event, and tried to point out to him the innate foolishness in collecting money for his vote. He looked at me like I was mad, and then explained that the politicians will do what they want anyway when they get into office, so why should he not collect his money now? Besides, according to him, where else was he going to get such an amount in one sitting?
Back at home that evening, I contemplated what he said, and it haunted me for a fair bit. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I was indeed mad, and that he was right. I was guilty of looking at things only from my perspective. You see, as an “upper-middleclass” person, at least within the Nigerian context, ₦3500 is nothing. At the time it was worth about $23, a sum which one will blow away during a visit to the cinema. But to the man, that money was everything. I came to the conclusion that democracy, is not for everyone.
Not too long after that, I had an almost violent argument with the vivacious Mercy Abang, and Alkassim Abdulkadir. Even the normally taciturn Alkassim was unusually animated that day. What were we arguing about? My new thesis that in Nigeria, the political process should be open only to a select few. One of the questions both my friends asked me, to which I do not have an answer till this day, was, “How will you decide who can participate, and who cannot?”
The closest I’ve come to an answer, was supplied by one of my egbons, who happens to be a former House of Representatives member (1999–2007). This brilliant man, who voluntarily gave up his Reps seat in 2007, simply because according to him, his fellow lawmakers were reducing his IQ, said, “determine them according to how much tax they pay.”
We have argued it for a while, and have still not quite come to a conclusion. However, we both agree that popular democracy has some inherent flaws in that it is mainly a popularity contest. Even Mercy, following the 2015 general elections, has modified her stand a bit from the totally open, let-all-take-part position she adopted four years ago.
It is no coincidence, that the election of bad people to leadership positions across the Western world has corresponded with a rise in populism. Populism basically holds that the citizens have all the virtue, and that a small elite mistreat the citizens, so the people should rise together to overthrow the elite. The first stanza of this song whips up such emotions.
Stand up, damned of the Earth
Stand up, prisoners of starvation
Reason thunders in its volcano
This is the eruption of the end.
Of the past let us make a clean slate
Enslaved masses, stand up, stand up.
The world is about to change its foundation
We are nothing, let us be all.
But, let us ask ourselves an honest question. Where, in human history, has populism worked in the long term?
As far back as 2000 years ago, Cicero said, “Nothing is more unpredictable than the mob, nothing more obscure than public opinion.” It is what we are seeing with the public, even in supposedly enlightened Europe and America. In Europe, it was populism that led to the birth of Communism, which led to the monster of Stalin. In Europe, it was populism that led to the rise of fascism, which was followed by Nazism. We all know how both ended.
I am convinced that the new wave of populism in Europe and America will not end well. But, where does this leave my country, and our experiment with liberal democracy?
Bear with me, many of you won’t like what you’re about to hear, and I must give the caveat that my thoughts are still evolving…
Liberal democracy is no more than a popularity contest. It creates conditions where a race to the bottom becomes the order of the day. Sadly, the only true alternative is palatable only when you have an elite that in the very minimum, understands the concept of enlightened self-interest. An elite such as that which spearheaded the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688. An elite which understands that keeping the people happy depends on Juvenal’s concept of panem et circenses. “Let the people have their bread and their entertainment, and the jobs to keep those running, then let those who have sense, focus on governing.”
That is what keeps China running.
To be continued.