Respect for freedom and equality recommends liberal democracy as a system of government. Freedom here means the absence of constraint. However, this notion of freedom in the context of multiple individuals has its constraints, requiring a mode of reconciling multiple freedoms. Majoritarian rule presents a viable option. If policies and practices are not imposed by the fiat of a dictator, if everyone has a direct or indirect input, and if there is an objective process for deciding which policy passes for law, then even if an individual’s freedom is constrained, it can be tolerated because the process is impartial.
But there is more to the challenge of freedom even in a democratic setting than can be resolved by majoritarianism. It sounds harmless to suggest that the preference of the majority ought to be the standard for legislation when unanimity is not achieved. But what if it leads to a perpetual relegation of the interests of the minority to the back burner? Does democracy have an answer to such a clearly unfair and inequitable outcome?
Specifically, how does the coexistence of multiple cultures, nationalities, tribes and clans, compound the standard of majoritarian democracy? Consider here the Nigerian context with its nationalities, tribes and clans.
The 1999 constitution makes a unique provision for equitable representation. Section 14 (3 & 4) provide that the composition of the Government of the Federation, or the Government of a State or local government council shall reflect the federal character of Nigeria or the diversity of the people within the area of authority of a state. This is presumably in furtherance of the constitutional declaration of Nigeria as “a State based on the principle of democracy and social justice”.
What the constitution does not provide for, but which is no less desirable is the equitable selection of candidates for major elective positions–president, vice president, governor, deputy governor, council chairman, etc. with respect for national or state diversity. What is the principle of equity? And how would it apply to the selection of candidates for such major positions in the center and across the states? Simply put, equity is a principle of distributive justice, which means fairness. To be fair is to be even-handed and to be impartial.
Now, the principle of equity or fairness will apply differently in different sociological and demographic contexts. Consider a nation of homogenous population with a pronounced practice of individualism. In such a context, individuals see themselves and are seen by others as the bearers of interests and the objects of moral and legal recognition. To be fair and equitable is to treat every citizen as an embodiment of rights and as subject of dignity. Therefore, whatever roles and positions are available must be open to every able-bodied adult. The lowliest person is as qualified as the highest, provided each satisfies the specified conditions. And candidates for positions can come from any part of the country in case of national contests or any part of a state in case of state contests.
Not all nations have an individualistic orientation. Indeed, only a few Western democracies have shed the collectivist identities that many African and other non-Western nations still hang on to. And despite the misgivings of modernists about collective identities, there is nothing particularly unusual about them. If properly harnessed, they could be a stabilizing force for liberal democracies. The idea of a liberal-nationalism is, after all, not an oxymoron.
Africans relish their collectivist identities, the most cherished of which are ethnicity and religion. Others include social, professional, and business affiliations. Notice that while the last three are not unique to Africans and do not play a formal role in many contexts, the first two are. Ethnic and religious identities cannot be wished away in Africa in general and Nigeria in particular. It is part of our DNA. What we should rather urge is on the one hand, the productive and positive channeling of these identities, and on the other hand a respectful approach to their peculiarities by treating them fairly and equitably.
The 1999 constitution, as mentioned above, made some useful provisions towards the end of equitable and fair treatment of ethnicity and religion. One such is the principle of federal character, which while abusable, could be a positive force for unity and common understanding.
What the constitution does not provide for is the practice of rotating national political offices among ethnic nationalities, and state political offices among the tribes or sectional groups in a state. Perhaps the constitution does not make provision for this because ours is a republican constitution which recognizes only individuals as bearers of interest and dignity. But such a republicanism that recognizes only individual rights is a clear contradiction of the constitutional subscription to the principle of federal character and diversity.
The point worth noting is that while the constitution does not seem to require that elective positions be filled on rotational basis either at the center on in the states and local governments, equity and fairness imposes this requirement on political parties. Not only does the moral principle of equity and fairness impose this requirement, political expediency also requires it. So even if a political party or its leaders are not moved by equity and fairness, if all they care for is expediency, they are also obligated to adopt the rotational principle.
That equity requires the choice of and adherence to rotation is a no-brainier. Fairness requires that we put ourselves in the condition of our compatriots. If you were in the situation of the one that you have chosen to sideline and marginalize, how would you feel? More importantly, the principle of justice as fairness suggests an approach to determining the fairness of a policy or practice.
Assume that none of us knows what ethnic group or which part of a state he or she would be born into. No one knows whether he or she would belong to a majority or a minority group within a state or in the country. No one knows what religious tenet he or she would espouse. In such a situation of total ignorance about what would be one’s place or lot in life, if afforded a pre-natal opportunity to choose, it makes sense to choose a principle that guarantees that one’s interests would be taken care of no matter one’s situation in life, and one would not be unrelentingly marginalized. For political participation, it would make sense for everyone, given that opportunity, to choose the policy of rotating political offices among contending parties, be it ethnic groups within the country or sections within a state.
Without the benefit of a Rawlsian theory of justice, our people also understand and appreciate the importance of the policy and practice of rotation. In their native intelligence, they teach us the value of sharing: Enikan kii je ki ile fe. Recall also the invaluable lesson that Aare Kurunmi taught the American Baptist clergyman during the intervention of the latter to stop the Ijaiye War. Kurunmi called it the moral philosophy of the toad. Simply put, it is the give and take philosophy.
It is time our modern ego learns a lesson from the ancient exponents of oppression and victims of marginalization. Individuals and cities that providence has smiled upon with munificence must not play god or impose their will on the less fortunate. It is an unassailable moral principle. But it is also a principle of political expediency.
The marginalized of the world may not have individual voices. But they have their God-given wisdom. A situation of perpetual marginalization would naturally lead to frustration with the system. In the fullness of time, the marginalized will learn to take control of their destiny. If they cannot be victors, having nothing to lose, they can choose to be spoilers. With a solidarity of the marginalized choosing the path of the spoiler, it would be the nail on the coffin of the overconfident master who purposes a lifetime of servanthood for entire populations on the assumption that they do not have the numbers. It is a parable for the wise.