Crackdown, Shutdown. by Ope Owotumi

The government shutdown in the United States is fresh and ongoing. To many it is intriguing, to others it is confusing and to some others, it is impossibly annoying (I imagine Putin frowns hisses and goes into a minor fit every time the shutdown makes the news afresh)

The shutdown is a pain to some, a political win for some more, a gimmick for others and utter devastation for a lot others. Even for us halfway across the world without a direct connection to the events on The Hill, it surely gives us enough to play pretend analyst

Out of confusion, indecisiveness or a sheer penchant for controversy, I have argued both sides of the shutdown divide that I now feel like a fraud. This is because when you strip the arguments on both sides of consequence and effect, one can see a lot of merit. Indeed, there’s a lot of merit in demanding that capitalism accommodate environmental protection and that the rich who can afford to, be made to pay extra premiums to fund the health care of the not-so-rich. There’s also merit in kicking against the state being converted into a charity post for the job-shy (a la Margaret Thatcher) and the stifling of an entire economy for fear of a hard-to-quantify, grossly exaggerated environmental disaster

It is vibrant, meritorious arguments like these across the divide that reinforce the arguments in many quarters that democracy is by many miles the best system of government. And if not the best, the fairest. Even more important to democracy is the allowance it gives for people to be wrong and yet insist on their choice. It is why while many Egyptians agree that President Morsi was a great mistake they would rather have him in power with the option to try again at the next polls than have a General make that choice for them

UN Envoy to the Middle East and former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair recently said that democracy is not just a way of voting, it is a way of life. This is the most apt description of the purport of democracy that I have seen. For me, it remains merely a description as our polity doesn’t yet extend the political narrative beyond the polls up to budgets, national appointments and even non-issues that do nothing but emphasise party ideologies (on this last point, I guess we first have to have parties with an ideology other than power-thirst)

In a true democracy, power is not absolute. The President doesn’t impose his wishes on the populace and he certainly doesn’t portray himself as a larger-than-life being who must not be disagreed with. In March when asked why he couldn’t insist that congressional leaders reach a deficit-reducing resolution, President Obama replied “…I am not a dictator, I’m the President …Ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say we need to go to catch a plane, I can’t have Secret Service block the doorway.”

That statement shows a deep understanding of democracy to wit – I may be your leader and disagree with you but you will always have your say and if your numbers are right, your way

The shutdown is an even more recent example of this. Imagine a select few in the lower house of parliament bringing the nation to a screeching halt simply because they won’t let the President get away with his biggest domestic accomplishment yet. By current events in Nigeria, if the shutdown took place here, the legislators will wake up to a Nigeria where their security detail will be withdrawn, their air planes grounded routinely and mistakenly, their ADCs declared deserters and the First Lady will jump at the opportunity to snatch the mic from them at any gathering they dare speak in her presence- the cost of dissent in a country where democracy is merely a way of voting

In a country where democracy is a way of life, one party will not dominate the entire political space like the PDP has for fourteen years. One party will not be responsible for making as well as implementing laws. The parliament churns out recommendations from sittings fuelled by taxpayer funds and the bulk of these recommendations are not given effect by the Executive. Of course, the Executive can afford to be flippant – it’s not like they have an ACN-controlled Senate waiting to tear them apart. At worst, all grievances will be settled internally as family affairs that they indeed are.

The option of democracy is a foreign option – we didn’t invent it and had it not been for Lugard and his people, we perhaps may never have toyed with it. It however has come to stay. And just as the argument that “English is not my mother tongue” is no longer good enough to excuse bad grammar, the excuse that “democracy was forced on us” is no longer tenable. After all we’ve gone to the polls 4 times in the past 14 years to keep alive this foreign invention without once even glossing over the idea of abandoning it

If we then must practice democracy at its finest, we must be able to tolerate dissent. Even further, we must be open to the possibility that dissenters may be right and eventually even have their way (the horror!). Our President should stop his subtle and brazen crackdown on real and perceived opponents

Democracy allowed the shutdown elsewhere, here an attempt is being made to redefine democracy to accommodate crackdowns. And these crackdowns are very real- from the abortion of the Occupy Nigeria protests to the never-ending saga in Rivers and the ostensible cabinet reshuffle, the smell of crackdowns is very pungent on the toga of this administration. In the spirit of that crackdown, the President has advocated the promulgation of tougher labour laws (not the fulfilment of previous government promises or even the softening of ASUU’s stance) as the solution to the face-off between his government and the union

But still the beauty of democracy shows. We can pour venom on our system all we like but our crackdowns here are certainly cakewalk when compared to General Al Sisi’s Egypt . The difference is simple – here, we have a government of the people by the people for the people that have future potentially free and fair elections to worry about