The Illusion of Equality: Democracy vs dictatorship

On Quora the question: “Is American democracy really so much better than Chinese dictatorship?” was asked. In my opinion, the following answer by Emmanuel-Francis Nwaolisa Ogomegbunam on 27 Oct 2015, was one of the best.

I’m Nigerian, but I’m weirdly qualified to answer this because in 1979 the leaders of my country copied the American system in its entirety, after 8 years of the British system ended in utter chaos!

The American system here already seems on its last legs, what with the North-East burning, the South-East in pseudo revolt and the South-South controlled by pirates. From my viewpoint, its not the system that matters, its the leaders! We’ve tried democracies and dictatorships and all have been generally terrible leaders, with that said, the dictators have been by far effective and its not even close. Lets go back to the Nigerian past.

In the beginning of the 19th century, there were no African countries save Egypt(which was much larger) and Ethiopia, the area presently known as Nigeria could be roughly divided into three power spheres. Most of present day Northern Nigeria+Parts of Chad+Parts of Niger and Parts of Cameroon was the Sokoto Caliphate, the South West of the country+ Togo were dominated by the Yoruba States of Ibadan and Abeokuta, the South-East+ the South South were trading states who understood the problems war brought to trade, however the Aro state were the trading hegemon in the area(think of them as the Nigerian version of Goldie’s Royal Niger Company or the Dutch VOC). This was Nigeria at its most powerful, the closest thing to a democracy in my list, the Aro would be called a “flawed democracy” these days.

The British who eventually controlled the entirety of Nigeria by 1914 were obviously not a democracy and yet most of the systems they introduced; e.g the laws(in parts of Nigeria, things like the Sales of Goods Act and the Criminal Code are still those the British pronounced), the policing system, the lingua-franca, the rail network and old roads are still in use today.

Finally in 1960, we got our taste of democracy and it was a disaster, elections were widely rigged, riots were the order of the day, there wasn’t an agreeable census(still isn’t, we’re probably the only country in the world that estimates our population), corruption became institutionalised and it all culminated in 30 month civil war.

We returned back to the dictatorships and they despite being massively corrupt managed to; centralise power at the Federal centre which on one hand reduced the ability of the constituent units to start another civil war but is also the excuse some use for our underdevelopment, one bloody coup+ civil war later, General Gowon settled down to rule and introduced the driving system we currently use, the currency we currently use, introduced the NYSC. General Obasanjo, hosted the FESTAC, started Operation feed the nation and handed power over to the civilians.

This was the point where we adopted the American system, which gave us the government widely agreed to be either the most or the second most corrupt government in my nation’s history, which considering they have all been corrupt is no mean feat. Fun-Fact, the democracies are all ranked as the top four. I’ll get to why later.

We returned back to the dictatorships, and they managed to change the colour of our currency to the one currently in use, introduce the queuing culture into the country(this was the famous queue or be whipped stance of our current President in his dictator days), completed our Federal Capital, electrified the majority of the country, built the third-mainland bridge in Lagos, built the majority of our airports and express-ways. Also in my country under the dictators, I’m told electricity was better and the government provided water.

We’ve been a democracy now for 16 years and you’re forced to deal with stuff like this:

Those are obviously extremes, but in 16 years of democracy, American style democracy to be specific; our leaders can not point to one single infrastructural or societal achievement. They either take credit for things like “introducing mobile phone-networks into the country” or “renovating existing roads” as great achievements.

In my view, American style democracy has its flaws, and my country’s leaders have exposed it:

  • American style democracy is highly divisive, frankly America itself is a wonder to watch, divided across many issues and yet all loyal to the country. However here, its different, you see in Nigeria there is no such thing as a government safety net, in your times of trouble it is inevitably your family who rally around you and what is the tribe but an extension of family. It is why campaigns here are simply not voting for the “other”, it gets worse the further North you head with the horrific literacy levels. This of-course works when “your Brother” has the development of the country at heart and not wanting to loot state funds for a house at Hyde park, but so far all leaders have all preferred to loot the country blind.
  • American style democracy simply cannot work in a country with the illiteracy levels mine has, the illiteracy turns voting into “client-talism”, where you have people voting not for the ideals espoused by the candidate, but for things ranging from Bags of Rice, N10,000 in cash to Smart-phones. I always find it hilarious when Americans complain about money in their politics; first-world problems. In between the cash for vote and the tribal politics, its simply impossible to vote in the right leader.
  • American style democracy is expensive!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! so expensive in fact that my country currently spends 70% of its budget on recurrent expenditures i.e allowing our useless politicians to leave in style and paying our frankly useless civil service, with debts still having to be paid, this leaves very little for capital expenditures, which is why here we’re grateful for 10 hours of power, lecturers skip classes to handle private businesses, public hospitals are literally hell!!!, basically everything is messed up.
  • Finally, full democracy itself has so far had a poor record in transforming a country, the countries having the fastest rises from poverty have so far been either dictatorships or “flawed” democracies; flawed democracies are a term which I’ve never understood.

To conclude, many of the respondents to your question don’t know what its like to live in a poor country, the last time the world was poor(the great depression), democracy was nearly wiped out, to them democracy being the obvious best seems a no-brainer. Personally, I’m concerned that we’ve all seemed to settle on this one system and condemned the rest, throughout humanity’s history, it has been a constant experimentation with what forms of leadership is best for that particular area, Athens didn’t impose democracy on Sparta, the European monarchies didn’t impose monarchy on America; somewhere along the line that changed and the world has suffered for it. In my opinion to each their system.

The Chinese dictatorship has been good for China, one only need compare the reception Xi Jinping got from your country to the one my President got where he sneaked into 10 Downing, was kept waiting and went to beg(it was humiliating, personally). American democracy has obviously been good for America, though one could argue it has crossed the line into “flawed” democracy and dictatorships many times in its history.

Igbo democracy was good for the Igbo republics; Constitutional/Absolute monarchy was good for the Oyo; Military republicanism was good for Ibadan, a Theocracy was good for the Sokoto Caliphate.

American and British democracy has however been bad for Nigeria.

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3 thoughts on “The Illusion of Equality: Democracy vs dictatorship

  1. Yes. I think that was what Emmanuel found most discouraging about the attempt to implement US type democracy in his country. Loyalty went to specifics not to the general population. We have the same in Norway. I totally get the desire to be reelected by your home base, and therefore the tendency to favor your home territory. However, when that gets in the way of service the population as a whole, I become worried.
    Our political parties also receive funding from various interests, and this must get in the their way. However, much of that support follows the lines of rhetoric. So, our Labour party gets support from the Labour unions and Our Corporation party (my name) gets support from the corporations’ union. That isn’t ideal, but at least these organizations serve a huge variety of interests. Unfortunately, we have seen a tendency of single corporations (or heads of corporations) donating large sums to various parties. Still legal, but corrupting.
    Exactly how bought our media is, is difficult to say.

  2. More specifically, at base I think the problem is money in politics. I read a book by Mark Halperin called “The way to win” where he said that Republicans are more bold because if they lose their legislative jobs right-wing think tanks hold a job for them. All they must do is be loyal to the desires of the plutocracy. That’s what we have right now, Plutocracy, not democracy.

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