My random thoughts on the tyranny of the majority, by Dan Agbese


In one of his more lucid moments, President Goodluck Jonathan said that democracy is work in progress. It may sound like a cliché but it is indeed so. No nation has fully perfected its democracy. It is still work in progress. Blame the human mind. It is an unchained rogue such that where two or more minds are gathered, there must arise disputes about goals and objectives. Democracy sways in the calm or inclement weather of shenanigans.

            Watchers of developing nations, such as ours, assess their democratic progress through their elections. It is not a perfect means but it is the most practical means by which such an assessment can reasonably be made. An election is the highest form of competition for power. It has the capacity to ruin or disappoint democracy by narrowing the frontiers of its inherent rights and freedoms of choices. An election provides the basis for a rough assessment of how far the work of democracy has progressed in a given country from one election season to another. The latest election is assessed against the background of the last election. Is it freer and fairer and credible enough for you to write home to your mother about it?

Democracy is a much beloved form of government but it is also perhaps the funniest form of government devised by man. It is such a flexible form of government that a dictator reserves the audacity to claim the right to call himself a democrat. He provides excellent evidence to show that at regular election intervals stipulated by his law, he is the sole presidential candidate and he allows the people to exercise their democratic right to re-elect him, ad infinitum – to drag in a bit of Latin and sound lawyerly.

Democracy was invented primarily to prevent the tyranny of the minority by recognising the people as the repository of power who exercise it through the ballot paper. A government in a democracy comes into being through the will of the will, hence the apt description of democracy by Abraham Lincoln as the government of the people by the people and for the people. 

But here is the huge irony. In trying to prevent the tyranny of the minority, democracy takes us smack into the laps of the tyranny of the majority. An election does not reflect the rational decision of the people; it actually represents a lethal combination of primordial and emotional choices of individuals who are often the products of a skilful marketing strategy expressly designed to sway the people towards a given personal or a group cause dressed up as encompassing the interests and the future of the masses. 

Democracy is put through the stress and the stress of being constantly forged in the furnace of the will of the people because democracy is in search of itself and it is in search of democrats. Democracy sets high standards for its attainment, or at least, its capacity to flourish in a given polity. The core values of democracy are political pluralism, free, fair and credible elections. If presidents were given the freedom to choose between democracy and autocracy, I bet my grey hair that none would choose democracy with all its wahala. 

The full exercise of democratic rights is a clear and present danger to all those perched atop the totem pole of political power. They force the people to institute their governments through flawed and blatantly rigged elections to serve a determined cause. What is usually lacking in non-democratic democrats is what the late Dr Chuba Okadigbo called the democratic temperament. It is an irritant to those who to exercise power and do not wish to be bothered by the nuances of democracy.

Democracy has thrown up great leaders and it has thrown up lousy, oppressive, incompetent, and indifferent leaders. Some have led their countries up the mountain and others have forced their countries down into the valley. Some came into office with clean hands and honest hearts but left with both hands dripping with Agila palm oil and a conscience imprisoned by the wrong done to the many in the service of the few. 

For all its beauty, for all its beguiling promises of a better tomorrow or today refurbished for tomorrow, democracy, being a human invention, is still afflicted with human failures. As a system of government, it is subject to easy manipulations by men and women who value power more than service. After all, all elections are about personal ambitions and interests. I contend that the will of the majority in electoral decisions are individual idiosyncrasies forged in the furnace of probabilities. 

I suppose it is now safe to look at our recent general elections and assess what progress we have made in advancing democracy as a work in progress since we renewed President Buhari’s mandate in 2019. The elections are over. What remains are the legal pyrotechnics at the tribunals and the courts. Political fortunes may change and political fortunes may remain the same on the say-so of their lordships. But that, as they say in Warri, na different tory

In assessing our progress, please bear in mind that in every election the politicians exhibit a tendency to disappoint democracy by refusing to play by the rules or bend them to suit their purposes. The contest to win or capture political power is unlike a beauty contest. It lacks grace and creates room for the rules of elementary human decency to be broken. Still, we can proceed along the line that the people have made their free and fair choices of our next set of political leaders and representatives at all levels of government. Have they chosen the good from the bad or the bad from the worse or the worse from the worst? It is morning yet on decision day.

Democracy offers the people no guidelines for the choices they make. They base their choices largely on probabilities. We just hope that the choices made by the people on February 25 and March are choices we can live with, choices that meet or approximate our individual and collective dreams and raise our hopes in a country where the hopes of the people oscillate between despair and hopelessness.

Given the howls of protests that have greeted the results of the elections, particularly the presidential election, it should be tempting to conclude that we have regressed rather than progressed in the delicate work of democracy as a work in progress in our country. But if we judge our progress on the basis of those protests and the unedited views in the social media. we may get it all wrong. The condemnation of INEC and its chairman has become compulsory for the simple reason that when things do not go our way, we must be appeased with a scapegoat. 

The declaration of Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the president-elect, is being contested at the tribunal by his political opponents, Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi. Each claims victory at the polls. But in the end only one of them will be given the presidential sash on the departure of Buhari on May 29 who will don his own sash as ex. Barring the accidents of politics, the decision of the majority imposes on us the tyranny of the majority. Both the law and our political tradition have decreed that the tyranny of the majority is the way of democracy. 

While we await the final words from the courts it should still be possible for us to appreciate the silver lining that streamed across the sky of our national politics in 2023 – a fair indication, whatever may be our individual disappointments, that democracy as work in progress has made an appreciable progress in our country. To be sure, every election throws up shocks and pleasant surprises. The presidential/national assembly elections of February 25 alerted the old guards to the threat to their comfort zone. They quickly rallied the troops and tried to stop the clock from tik-toking.

All elections are contests between the old guards who are the keepers of the flickering flames of a well-guarded system and the idealistic young men and women who want to replace them and change the system. For democracy to succeed as work in progress, the tyranny of the majority is the way to go. This is known cynically as democracy in action. The choices we made on February 25 and March 15 may serve the ends of democracy as work in progress but they may yet expose the fact that majority decisions are not informed and rational decisions and that decisions based on probabilities are deceptive.