There are a number of cognitive biases (dissonances in psychology) at play amongst us as a people. I have taken time to compile a few which are most concerning:
These are cognitive biases, ideas buried so deep in our brains and oft-repeated everywhere – on TV, in our music, in folklores, in books by influential authors – that we actually believe they are true even though they are not. I will explain the first three at a latter date in details, but suffice to say that the first two are largely responsible for the ‘japa’ syndrome whereby thousands – perhaps millions – of young Nigerians have either relocated from the country or are fixing to. The exchange rate of our naira does not also help, but emigrants are not considering the fact that indeed someone earning $5,000 per month in New York for example, may not enjoy the quality of life that someone earning N500,000 monthly here can afford. Yet, $5,000 is equivalent to N3,750,000. This phenomenon is called the Purchasing Power Parity. Also, we must note that anyone who gets a net of $5,000 probably earns $7,000 to $8,000. The tax systems in the snazzy countries our people like to run to are very well-established, unforgiven, and stern. Which brings me to the third cognitive bias; we like fine, clean things. But we are not interested in the process of putting things together. Not for us the long and arduous processes of exploration, experimentation, discovery, maintenance, innovation, improvisation, curious studies, or stretching the usefulness of things, and all that jazz.
We are wired to want the best, and want it now! We care little about how those things come to be. Young and old, we are infected by this disease. Young people I have met wonder why I use a Tecno Phone worth N120,000. I tell them so long as the thing works, I am fine. I am still in that space where I wonder and marvel at how these things are put together and will never take them for granted. Older Nigerians in government are known to use the latest, best and most expensive of technologies for their own comfort, purchased with taxpayers’ money, even when a vast population roils in abject want and poverty. Not only do older Nigerians purchase the best motor vehicles and phones for themselves, they have also been known to approach foreigners for single bullet solutions to our problems – especially those that affect their own wellbeing, like terrorism. It is on record that we purchased tons of bomb detectors, metal detectors and whatnot in the heydays of Boko Haram. We purchased $500 million worth of Tucano Helicopters whose utility is doubtful in our circumstance, and we have asked many a white man to give us the magic to solve our issues, even as the white man looked at us in awe. He keeps wondering how we cannot see, that even he struggles daily to solve his own many problems, that the daily grind of organizing society around solving one’s own problems, is the very essence of life itself.
But the crux of today’s writeup is about the fourth cognitive bias listed above – Nigeria’s ‘exceptionalism’. Just how important are we in the scheme of history? Did we avail ourselves of the benefit of historical knowledge in the first place? Do we believe that we invented anything new in politics and beyond? Why do we speak in absolute terms as if history began and ended in Nigeria? By God, we haven’t even been writing our own histories, and if civilization should end today, very little if any trace will be found about us as a people. Why do many believe that the solution to our problems is to destroy the entity called Nigeria? And as it pertains to politics, why do we think our democracy is the worst in the world? A sampling of the kind of things we say about ourselves displays such absolutism and a depressed view of life. We forget that we are only 62 years from independence as a country, with all the wiles and strictures that come with colonialism and its aftermath – as well as our many mistakes as well. We compare our democracy with the American experience but forget they’ve been at it much longer, and that their history is different from ours. And because of our lack of countenance with rudiments of history, we are busy frying ourselves, divesting from our country, discouraging others who may want to come here, and painting a sordid picture, when we should be able to situate our circumstances and react constructively to events that come up.
So, I intend today to show that EVERYTHING we are seeing about our politics today has happened elsewhere. Our case study is the United States of America, whose presidential system of government we copied in 1979, through a constitutional conference. Yes, even I had once romanced the idea of going back to the parliamentary system, but after reading from Mr Odia Ofeimun, who was Obafemi Awolowo’s secretary for a spell, and also reviewing our First Republic history, I changed my mind. Perhaps what we need is a hybrid, where the Presidency (Executive branch) is American-style, while the Legislative branch is British. The Constitutional Conference in 1978 consisted 230 Nigerians chosen from all over the country, and met for 9 months. The events of 1966 especially the gruesome killing of Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Chief Okotie-Eboh, among others, had led to a 13-years pause (1966 – 1979) in our democracy. The 1978 Constituent Assembly believed that Nigeria could not achieve cohesion under a Parliamentary system and would pull together better under a Presidential system where our leader can at least claim a majority of votes from all over the country. The Parliamentary system partly unraveled in Nigeria due to the incompatibility of our culture with the type of bitter, denigrating arguments which is common even today in the British House of Parliament. The PM is only primus inter pares (first among equals). He is just another Member of Parliament elected by his constituents. Other MPs can take liberty to insult him and undermine his/her authority in the normal course of governance. He/she can also be easily removed by a vote of no confidence, leading to a great turnover of leaders and instability in the economy and politics (see Italy, UK etc), which we could hardly afford as a growing nation.
I believe Nigeria could have adopted what the have in Ghana, France and some other countries – the combination of both styles of government.
Back to our history of presidential democracy, the more I studied it, the more I realized just how expensive the system of government has always been, and indeed how corrupt. No system is perfect of course. And the choice we have is between a culturally-incompatible parliamentarian system, or an expensive and corrupt presidential system which at least comes with some illusion of unity and protects the president. I haven’t seen many folks who insist on constitution being our problem insisting on a hybrid of the two. It seems like we like to read and implement even sociopolitical systems out of textbooks here.
That is why folks insist on ‘true federalism’, when indeed there is nothing like that. This is another cognitive dissonance we have; we believe that there is perfection in other lands, that USA has it totally figured out and so our political system must copy theirs verbatim. We often forget the challenges that country is going through still, or that she has amended her constitution 27 times and counting. Of course, your federalism is what you make of it. The USA where the concept first took root, is still pursuing ‘a more perfect union’. India and Nigeria are listed as nations where there are ‘3 federating units’. How? It is because the ‘federating units’ in these two nations are colonial constructs. They were commanded to ‘federate’. Documents were prepared and given to ‘constituencies’ to sign, agreeing to the union. Many who signed such documents (where documents exist), did not understand what they were signing. Indeed, any post-colonial agreement signed by the people were akin to the ones signed by village chiefs as the British, French, Spanish, Belgian, and Portuguese took over large swathes of lands in Africa. Those agreements were called ‘treaties’; usually acceded to after the colonial power must have vanquished a people militarily. They signed off sovereignty to the colonial powers and agreed to be ‘protected’, by them. From who? From other marauding colonial entities looking to steal and plunder. The question is what can we do, realistically? Seek to upturn or rewrite history? Waste time agonizing while refusing to develop our society? Or get on with it and make the most of the lemons that life has served us? I propose the latter.
The rest of this article is presented as a short history of Presidential Democracy from the perspective of the world’s oldest mass democracy – United States of America. We have a lot to learn from that country but we should not expect them to force-feed us. We should try and debunk the myth that when you want to hide anything from a black person, you put it in a book.
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE FLAWED AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
17th Century – Earlier settlers on the American continent were permitted to govern themselves in Plymouth County, wherein they elected a ‘governor’ yearly..
1787 – The presidential system was developed in the US at the Constitutional Convention, drawing from the works of John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu, which proposed a unitary executive figure that would become the president. The ‘We the People’ that precedes the American Constitution did not sample the opinions of a vast majority of inhabitants. White women and men who owned no land were not permitted to vote, and black people were listed as being only three-fifth of human beings? Politicians explained later that the three-fifth clause was to prevent the south of the US with million of slaves from dominating politics.
1787 – American constitution leaves elections to be conducted by states, who could then make their own laws about who was fit. Excluded blacks, women and landless white men.
1789 – The US Constitution became effective and George Washington was elected.
1787 – Establishment of the idea of Electoral College meant systematic submerging of black vote. This is because the concentration of black people is highest in the South. Electoral College was put in place because some of the founding fathers believed that popular vote could lead to ‘too mucIIh democracy’. The electoral college idea emerged from the notation that negroes were to be considered as three-fifth humans in the first constitution. This boosted southern power while depriving blacks the vote.
1800 – Electoral College produced a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Slaveowner Jefferson won based on the power of the College.
1800 – 1860 – Trend of southern slaveholder won the White House that lasted until Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860.
1803 – The Twelfth Amendment modified the Electoral College to prevent another Jefferson-Burr–type debacle.
1840’s and 1850s – Isaiah Rynders was a notorious political boss and leader of the Empire Club in New York who led a heavily armed team of bruisers, smashing up opposition political meetings and patrolling the polling places to deter anyone who did not support their candidates. In 1853, a Democratic candidate for Congress, “Honest John” Kelly, took an army of dock workers and volunteer firemen into a polling station on election day, smashed up the tables and tore up opposition ballots
1856 – British Colony of Victoria adopted the “Australia System”, which meant a generic ballot paper will be produced by neutral election authorities. That replaced a chaotic electoral world in which the campaigns themselves produced their own ballots on colored paper, which voters then deposited in round glass ballot boxes. Voters lined up to cast their ballot with party operatives pressing, persuading or bribing them. Voting against the prevailing mood in one’s own precinct took courage, often physical courage. Violence was common, and, up to a point, an accepted part of the process. If a voter was not “manly” enough to stand up for his chosen candidate against a little bit of rowdiness from the other side, then was he really a fit republican citizen? The Australian system meant secret balloting.
1865–77 – Reconstruction era. African Americans in the states of the former Confederacy were briefly able to exercise their rights to vote; to run for offices; and to serve on juries. The Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth (1870) amendments guaranteed U.S. citizenship and equal civil and legal rights to African Americans, prohibited restricting or denying the right to vote on the basis of race; criminalizing the terrorist activities of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan; and authorizing the use of federal troops to protect polling stations. With federal protection, African American voters elected hundreds of Black state representatives and 16 Black U.S. representatives and senators (at federal level).(History Extra, 2020)
December 3, 1867 – Democratic President Andrew Johnson said in his annual message to Congress: “Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.” Johnson was Lincoln’s deputy.
September 28, 1868 – Opelousas Massacre begins. Over the course of about two weeks, White men in Opelousas, a city in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, killed around 250 people, mostly Black Americans.
February 3, 1870 – 15th Amendment ratified. States prohibited from taking away anyone’s right to vote “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” But states could still impose voter qualifications. Many former Confederate states did exactly that.
April 13, 1873 – Colfax Massacre. A mob of about 150 armed White men in Colfax, the seat of Grant Parish, Louisiana, killed between 60 and 150 Black Americans who had taken over the local courthouse and been defending it from possible Democratic seizure following the state’s controversial 1872 gubernatorial election.
1875 – Republican Sen. Timothy Howe of Wisconsin said of Democrats: “They could cheat Republicans in three ways: First, by receiving Democratic votes from illegal voters; second, by refusing Republican votes from legal voters; third, by allowing turbulence and tumult to deter Republicans from offering their votes. That they did cheat by each of those methods has been testified not only by scores but by thousands of voters.”
1876 – Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but some electoral votes were in dispute. An ad hoc commission of lawmakers and Supreme Court justices was empaneled to resolve the matter. Ultimately in 1877, they awarded the contested electoral votes to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who had lost the popular vote.
January 29, 1877 – Republican President Ulysses S. Grant signs the Electoral Commission Act as he departed. President Grant went down as one of the protectors of blacks in the south. But his successor, Hayes, was the exact opposite.
1877 – The Compromise of 1877 meant that the federal government removed the troops that were stationed in the South after the Civil War to maintain order and protect black voters. This marked the end of the brief Reconstruction era, the redemption of the old South, and the birth of the Jim Crow regime. Hayes threw blacks under the bus. Lincoln had protected blacks till he was assassinated in 1865.
1877 – 1965 – Jim Crow Era. African Americans prevented from voting (or from registering to vote) through intimidation, violence, poll taxes, literacy or comprehension tests (which were not applied to whites), “good character” tests, grandfather clauses (which in their original form restricted voting rights to the [male] descendants of persons who were eligible to vote prior to 1866 or 1867), whites-only primary elections, and outright fraud committed by white election officials.
1892 – Mississippi had cut the percentage of eligible Black men who were registered to vote from more than 90 percent to less than 6 percent.
November 10, 1898 – Wilmington Massacre. White mob in North Carolina ejected a legitimately elected biracial government and installed White supremacists. Democrat Alfred Waddell, the mob’s leader, said, “We will no longer be ruled, and will never again be ruled by men of African origin.” As many as 60 people were killed.
1915 – US Supreme Court strikes down grandfather clauses.
1920 – Women could vote after the 19th Amendment in 1920. Unmarried white women who owned land, could however vote in New Jersey between 1776 and 1807.
1922 – Members of the Ku Klux Klan reportedly flew over Oklahoma City, dropping cards into black neighborhoods, warning people to be cautious before heading to the polls. The year prior (1921), white mobs burned down a flourishing black community in Tulsa, killing an estimated 300 people.
1944 – US Supreme Court strikes down whites-only primaries.
1964 – US Constitution abolishes Poll Taxes in federal elections in the 24th Amendment.
1964 – The practice of applying literacy tests to all Black voters was banned by the Civil Rights Act, and literacy tests in general were suspended for certain jurisdictions under the Voting Rights Act (VRA)
March 7, 1965 – Bloody Sunday. Up to 600 activists set out in Alabama to march from Selma to Montgomery to protest for Black voting rights. But when the marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they encountered White state troopers, who attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas.
August 6, 1965 – Johnson signs the VRA into law. Designed to undergird the protections enshrined in the 14th and 15th Amendments, this watershed piece of federal legislation prohibits racial discrimination in voting.
1965 – Racialized democracy continued until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, himself a southerner who often used the N-word but who I consider a great man for turning against racists and continuing the enlightened work of his former boss, John F. Kennedy, not only in empowering blacks but in also trying to reduce multidimensional poverty among Americans (establishment of free medicals and food aid for example).
1965 – Many democrats felt betrayed by Lyndon B. Johnson and switched to Republican, hence the representation of conservative ideas in the GOP today.
July 27, 2006 – Most recent extension of the VRA. Republican President George W. Bush signed legislation extending the VRA for an additional 25 years, saying that “the right of ordinary men and women to determine their own political future lies at the heart of the American experiment.”
2013 – US Supreme Court passed Shelby County v . This led to a raft of modern voter suppression tactics especially in the south, like “voter ID laws of varying strictness—some requiring the presentation of an acceptable photo ID, such as a driver’s license or passport, at polling stations as a condition of voting (some of those measures were passed along with other provisions that closed, or reduced the hours of, state offices where acceptable IDs could be obtained); onerous restrictions on voter registration; the closure or relocation of polling stations that had served predominantly African American or minority voters, forcing them to travel long distances or to wait in long lines to cast their ballots; the elimination or reduction of early voting periods; burdensome requirements for obtaining or submitting mail-in (including absentee) ballots; restrictions or outright bans on voter registration drives; the elimination of same-day voter registration; and the permanent disenfranchisement of convicted felons. Other voter suppression efforts that became more common after Shelby County were large-scale purges of voter rolls (ostensibly to remove voters whose addresses could not be verified) and voter caging, a related tactic in which a political party sends nonforwardable mass mailings to registered voters who are unlikely to support the party’s candidate or agenda and then uses any returned mailings as a basis for challenging the voters’ registration or right to vote”. (Duignan, n.d.)
2022 – Speaker McCarthy could only get his speakership after 15 votes when he made significant concessions to far right members. Systematic limiting of minority votes continue till this day.
The object of voter suppression and election rigging in the United States has usually been the Blacks, Jews, Mexicans, or other minorities, with blacks bearing the most brunt. Other significant ways of manipulating votes include:
And in the Gilded Age – a term coined as a book title by no less than Mark Twain to represent the period of 1876-1900 – the general corruption of post-Civil War society and politics was satirized. “Politicians of the time largely catered to business interests in exchange for political support and wealth. Many participated in graft and bribery, often justifying their actions with the excuse that corruption was too widespread for a successful politician to resist. The machine politics of the cities, specifically Tammany Hall in New York, illustrate the kind of corrupt, but effective, local and national politics that dominated the era” (Codrington, 2020). Mark Twain’s book contained illustrations of the cost of doing business in Washington in this new age of materialism and corruption, with the cost of obtaining a female lobbyist’s support set at $10,000, while that of a male lobbyist or a “high moral” senator can be had for $3,000. A legislator is labeled “Chairman of Committee $10,000”; a man in a suit, smoking a cigar, is labeled “Male Lobbyist $3,000”; a well-dressed woman is labeled “Female Lobbyist $10,000”; and a grim-looking man in modest dress is labeled “High Moral Senator $3000.” (City University of New York Library).
Perkins (2020) provides more information of that era – and perhaps today … “there’s a lot of corruption associated with political machines, particularly though not exclusively in urban areas. The political machines provide jobs for supporters, who use their positions to generate illicit income for themselves and the party bosses, and mobilize voters to support the candidates backed by the machine. The machines also provide tangible benefits to voters to ensure their support… while the political machines tended to dominate local governments, the practice of buying and selling public offices, or using government appointments to purchase political support, was widespread at the national level as well… wealthy business interests corrupted politicians to receive favorable treatment by the government, for example by offering legislators bribes, sometimes in the form of company shares or special privileges, to provide special benefits to companies, or to look the other way when private interests were siphoning off taxpayer funds. These sorts of corruption often involved government-supported infrastructure projects, especially railroads, and natural resource extraction”
Look guys, there’s nothing new going on in Nigeria. This gives me the confidence that if we are intelligent, patriotic and steadfast, we shall overcome. The difference between our democracy and the United States’ is that corrupt politicians and contractors, kept their loots in their country. Ours take theirs abroad. We should be more sensible to find out how exactly the US constructively tapered down their own corruption and kept it out of view. The totally clean society that we hypocritically seek, cannot happen. And we should stop grovelling in front of anyone who comes here, believing that we don’t read history and cannot tell that just a few years ago, their countries were worse in every respect. There is nothing wrong with Nigerians. Only that our intellectuals are cowardly. We need more researches into this area. And the research works must be publicized. With the American style which we copy, we can see that it is expensive, therefore highly corruptible. Political interests also will always find ways of minimizing their opponent’s votes. Even up till this moment in 2022, those who are bent on suppressing minority votes because they believe they own America, or are more intelligent, are busy at work using every modern tool – and some ancient ones too. Please note that this article is NOT a justification for corruption, or electoral fraud. It is however open to intellectual discourse.
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