Why is it not acceptable that President Buhari nominates his successor? One rough and ready answer to this question is to ask, “Why not?” After all, over the last 23 years of this current essay at institutionalising democratic rule in the country, it has been the practice for state governors, after 8 years in office, to try to choose who succeeds them. And this practice notwithstanding, we have not ceased to describe ourselves as a democracy. The better response to the choice of successor question, though, is that this practice is not consistent with democratic principles. Again, one could respond to this assertion with a further query, “Why should this matter?” If nothing else, the main governance lesson worldwide from the last 10 years is the many examples from “advanced democracies” of how universal adult suffrage may offer sub-optimal choices.
The illiberal options that extreme right and left parties in developed democracies have put before voters who either consider themselves “left behind by the last phase of globalisation”, or who now fear that previously Caucasian majorities in those polities may now be imperilled by a flood of dark-skinned immigrants are but the more recent examples of how democracies may falter. Long before these, however, we ought always to remember that because of the economic consequences of the peace imposed by the victors after World War I, outcomes which a prescient John Maynard Keynes had warned of, the Nazi Party actually came to office via the largest share of the popular vote in the two Reichstag general elections of 1932.
These blots on the democratic copybook, notwithstanding, the advantage that a democracy holds over other non-representative forms of government is the regularity of the voting process. An advantage that illiberal democrats promptly proceed to hobble once ensconced in office. Nonetheless, an advantage it remains ― allowing voters another opinion (at future polls) on their choice at previous polls. The consequent possibility of voting out an incumbent government is not available to a monarchy or any other authoritarian ruler. The point may be made at this point that president Buhari’s preference for who would succeed him in office is, by itself, neither monarchical nor totalitarian. In the end, as candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party’s government, whomsoever this is will have to campaign for a plurality of the popular votes as would presidential aspirants from other parties. The people still get to choose, as it were.
Except that the imposition of any candidate on the party runs foul of the rules pre-agreed by the APC for this process, if not of the Nigerian constitution. This is because the APC’s rules for candidates contesting elective offices assume that it is a democratic party operating in a democratic state. This leads to a further question, “Would it have been any different if the party were arranged around president Buhari’s preferred route to his succession?” In other words, could a party whose members are elected as if the party’s leader were a monarch (free, therefore, to anoint his successor) put candidates forward in a democratic election?
The answer to this question is at the root of the problem with the President’s preferred choice, and how governors at the state level have conducted affairs to date. In order to realise his goal, President Buhari, as have governors who were barred by term-limits, must play fast and loose with existing rules. This flouting of rule-based conduct is the bane of authoritarian rule. It explains the excesses of the Nazis in Germany, that of the Bolsheviks in the USSR, and of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, today. The danger from these examples is that the distance from a president or governor trampling over the rules of his party in order that his will be done is not far from a similar assault on the constitution of the commonwealth in pursuit of this same will.
As with so many of the new examples thrown up recently as we continue with this experiment in democratic rule, party apparatchiks have ring-fenced processes from popular influence in order to advance parochial interests. That cannot be good for our democracy. For in the end, as the illiberal examples earlier alluded demonstrate, democracies struggle even when parties are vehicles for popular expression. Interfere adversely with this transmission mechanism as President Buhari appears minded to, and democracies, especially one as young as ours, threaten to wither on the vine.
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