When do we get to democracy?


With the state of things, it is sometimes inescapable to ask when the necessary conditions for democracy would ever arrive

Lewis Obi

Most Nigerians were simply speechless when it transpired that the fee to run for president is N45.5 million in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) auctioned its own forms for N12 million, kind of bargain basement price which should lure more ambitious souls. The gasps over the charge are expected in a democracy where a level playing field is expected for all competitors. The system, once again, has demonstrated that although democracy may have been the intention, plutocracy, the government of the rich by the rich for the rich, has subsisted. The hope from 1999 was that at some time, plutocracy would wither away and be replaced by democracy. But the trajectory has gone the other way round. In 2014, it cost N20 million to run for president in the APC. Then, APC candidate, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, who is now the President, agonized so much how a ‘poor’ person would raise such a humongous amount. He won so much sympathy for protesting the high cost of nomination form four years ago, before his teeming supporters picked up the bills. Now the cost has doubled, but not a murmur.

READ ALSO: High cost of nomination forms

It is futile fighting to keep money away from politics. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should not be blamed. All it should do is to bring some clarity on how much individuals and corporate organizations should give and to whom. It should spell out how the receivers should account for what they receive. If you can’t stop the flow, you can at least attempt to know what flows and to whom. The limitation of contributions to N1 million per person sounds excessive but given our tendencies a million Naira contribution in a country as poor can hardly be devoid of transactional intents. But let us for the sake of argument leave a benefit of the doubt that those public spirited individuals who wish to advance the course of democracy should be able to donate such monies to their favoured candidates without expecting something in return.

The presidential system is fundamentally a spoils system, whichever way you cut it. The Americans openly say so and it is impossible to see it otherwise. But they are often careful to make a difference between love and hanky-panky. Inflated contracts are a crime. Fundraising dinners buy you a face-to-face contact with the candidate. It is allowed. But bribery is a crime. Lobbying is legal, it is persuasion. Huge gifts are not acceptable and may be a crime if tied to specific performance. Tickets to shows, flight tickets, holidays abroad and at home are bribes and are against the law. It is laughable when lawyers give millions to judges for their (mothers’ funeral) and pretend not to think it is bribery or send a car as gift to the judge to give to his daughter on her marriage.

The effort to limit the influence of money in politics has always been a titanic struggle. The liberal-inclined, the progressives, some rightist elements in the Republican Party, some independents, though they are few, also try to recite chapter and verse the danger of the influence of money in politics. And if the Democratic Party of Illinois had insisted that Mr. Barack Obama pay the equivalent of N45.5 million as nomination fee, President Obama would never have become President of the United States. Likewise if the Arkansas Democratic Party had imposed such fees on Bill Clinton and, perhaps, for that matter, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, though he was a peanut farmer, both men would never have been presidents of the United States. These three men, all Democrats, ran and won the Presidency with very little personal money but a great deal of good, and, sometimes, great ideas. The Bill Clintons of Nigeria, the Barack Obamas would probably shelve their ambitions for now, and keep nursing their good or great ideas because for now they would require such a quantum of cash to proceed. Now, the hurdles in front of a Nigerian with little money do not end with the lack of cash, but that’s a discussion for another day. Suffice it to say that the presidential system cannot thrive in Nigeria without corruption unless deliberate efforts are made for the public funding of politics, a proposition which has not worked very well even in the United States.

READ ALSO: Presidential system too costly, complicated for Nigeria – Akande

And all bets were off when the US Supreme Court on 21st January 2010 delivered its landmark judgment in what is cited as Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission. The Court held that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment; and that the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. Americans were dumbfounded by the judgment, which, as usual, came as a 5-4 decision. It made two ‘unnatural’ determinations, one of which was that money was the same as speech under the First Amendment. Secondly, it extended the definition of corporation as persons.

It is one of the most criticized of US Supreme Court decisions beside its Second Amendment judgment, a tragic decision which granted limitless rights for the possession of guns, including automatic weapons, which has been blamed for most of the gun violence in the United States. Since then, the argument about money in politics was literally ended since corporations can now spend unlimited sums in the pursuance of their causes with the caveat that such spending must be done as long as it was independent of a party or candidate. In other words, such spending must not be done in concert with the candidate, even if it advanced the interests of the candidate.

With the Citizens United judgment came what Americans call the super Political Action Committees (PACs) which technically, may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations, and individuals. They are able to spend unlimited sums and overtly advocate for or against political candidates. One condition is that the SuperPACs must disclose their donors and submit meticulously how they spend their cash. Now, there would hardly be a serious candidate for national office without a SuperPAC.

READ ALSO: Buhari’s corruption fight needs to impact Nigerians – Umahi

With the state of things, therefore, it is sometimes inescapable to ask when the necessary conditions for democracy would ever arrive, so that Nigerians with good and great ideas would be in a position to advance their ambitions without needing so much money. More pertinently, there is no doubt that with all the financial investments running into billions now being thrown into the political process, the struggle against corruption is bound to be long and herculean, especially for a country that has few structural checks.

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