In Defense of Democracy, By Aminu Ali

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President Muhammadu Buhari was reported to have said that “democratic process is too slow for his liking.” He apparently made this statement to demonstrate that his performance is constrained by the slowness of democracy. It is obvious to every discerning mind that President Buhari does not always want to take responsibility for his abysmal performance. Instead, he always has a good-to-go alibi for his failure: he blames someone or something for his poor/non-performance. For example, he has blamed his predecessor, opposition politicians, his old age and the Nigerian youth, among others, for his woeful performance and inability to address the enormous challenges (insecurity, corruption, unemployment, poverty, etc.) facing our country. The latest victim of his endless buck-passing is democracy itself. I cannot speak for, or defend, his predecessor and opposition politicians. But I have chosen to do this for democracy.

It seems to me that President Buhari does not take the idea of personal responsibility seriously. This idea is predicated on the assumption that human beings consciously choose their actions and, therefore, must be ready to take responsibility for the results (no matter how violent they may be) of their own decisions. But our president has an attitude of being unwilling to take personal responsibility for his failure and, therefore, has a tendency to always shift the blame for his failure to someone or something else. This, to a reasonable degree, explains his slow response to numerous problems confronting our country and, by extension, his horrible performance.

The fact is that when one is always willing and ready to take personal responsibility for their failure, they feel compelled to act rather than look for an alibi to justify or rationalize their failure to act/perform. In his famous work, The Culture of Excuses, Professor Oka Martin Obono succinctly argues that “the need for achievement is simply not strong in people with ready alibis for non-performance.” One of the instructive and enduring lessons I have learned under Obono’s intellectual tutelage is that performance and excuse are not substitutes. President Buhari simply needs to understand this in order to perform optimally.

In an interview with the Nigerian Television Authority’s (NTA) correspondent, during an event to mark his 77th birthday, President Buhari implicated democracy in his underperformance. In the statement credited to him (which was partly quoted in the first paragraph of this piece) he implied that democracy is inherently slow and, therefore, constraining his performance— especially in the war against graft. This argument is, in my own humble opinion, lame and untenable for a number of reasons:

1. President Buhari chooses when to be slow and when not to in prosecuting his war against corruption. For instance, it took his government less than seven working days to investigate, prepare charges against, and arraign, former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen! He was, subsequently, convicted within three months after the commencement of his trial. But it took President Buhari several months to constitute a panel to investigate corruption allegations against a member of his cabinet, Babachir David Lawan. It also took him months of pressure from some conscientious Nigerians to act on the panel’s report and order the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to investigate and prosecute (at least symbolically) Mr Lawan. Both incidents happened under “democracy.” The only difference is that Onnoghen was a perceived threat to Buhari’s re-election bid while Mr Lawan was his favoured man!

While I quite agree that our criminal justice system is unnecessarily slow in dispensing justice, I strongly disagree that the slowness is inherently rooted in the democracy that the system is supposedly built upon. There are countries that do considerably well in effectively tackling financial crimes through democratic process. Put slightly differently, democracy and quick dispensation of justice are not mutually exclusive.

In my opinion, Buhari’s anti-graft war is undermined by lack of sincere commitment, clear cut strategies to tackle the menace, and selective justice—which have thrown it into crisis of legitimacy. I quite agree with Reverend Mathew Hassan Kukah that Buhari is “not fighting corruption,” rather he is fighting [selected]“corrupt people.” That is why very little achievement is so far recorded in the fight and corruption has no sign of abating in Nigeria.

2. Inertia is one of Buhari’s most known attributes to Nigerians. That earned him the nickname: “Baba go slow.” He is always slow, but often not meticulous, when taking decisions. For example, it took him six months to appoint his ministers and about two years to constitute boards for many agencies, which, undoubtedly, had negative impact on governance.

The point I was trying to make in the preceding paragraph is that President Buhari’s performance is not constrained by the slowness of democratic process, but rather by his inertia and ineptitude. In fact he slows democratic process, rather than being slowed by it.

3. Buhari has, on several occasions, prided himself on being slow. For example, in July 2018 when a document of the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA) was presented to him at the State House, he had this to say: “I was presented with the document, I am a very slow reader maybe because I was an ex-soldier. I didn’t read it fast enough before my officials saw that it was all right for signature. I kept it on my table.” Also, when Nigerians complained about his slothfulness and its effects on governance, President Buhari responded that he prefers “to go slow and steady.” He made this statement about four years or so ago while addressing Nigerians in diaspora in Washington. It is, therefore, astonishing that while President Buhari prefers being slow and does not see that as a defect, he dislikes a system that helps to reinforce or entrench the attribute he proudly cherishes! That is, assuming for the sake of argument that democratic process is “too slow” as he believes.
Considering the points made in 2 and 3, one may be tempted to argue that President Buhari has no ground to say he detests slowness.

4. When Buhari presented himself for election in 2015, he gave us the impression that he is a staunch believer of democratic norms, a “converted democrat”—to use his phraseology. For example, in that year, he was invited to the Chatham House, the United Kingdom, to deliver a lecture on the “Prospects of Democratic Consolidation in Africa: Nigeria’s Transition.” After justifying his military intervention in 1983 that truncated the Second Republic, he went ahead to say that “the global triumph of democracy has shown that another and a preferable path to change is possible. It is an important lesson I have carried with me since.” He further said that “so before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms and is subjecting himself to the rigours of democratic elections for the fourth time.” For President Buhari to now say he dislikes democratic process, it says a lot about his character.

The central argument of this piece is that President Buhari’s unwillingness to take responsibility for his own failings or his tendency to shift blame for his failure to others, and lack of competence and sophistication required to rule a complex country like Nigeria—rather than the inherent character of democracy—explain his abysmal performance. In particular, the recent statement he made has confounded my fear that under his watch, the rule of law is under threat and Nigeria risks plunging into dictatorship.

Aminu Ali wrote from the Department of Sociology, Bayero University, Kano. He can be reached via his email


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