One challenge facing Nigeria is that of a weak democratic culture. Many Nigerians feel powerless in the face of powerful politicians and political patrons. They believe that only politicians and godparents have the power to determine who wins which election and who gets what favors after the election.

That’s why politicians do everything they can to win primaries for the presidency, governorship and legislative offices. They spend massively to buy the votes of the delegates who will elect the candidates. The belief is that once they get the party ticket, it is a fait accompli that they will be chosen by the electorate, especially if their party is the preferred one within their constituency.

If the February 2023 elections can change that attitude, much will have been achieved. Democracy in Nigeria does not have deep roots. People do not fully believe that the power is in their hands. They believe that only the rich and powerful can win elections in Nigeria. That keeps a lot of good people out of politics.

When our second son was in Basic 2, he came back from school one day and excitedly announced that he had been elected Basic 2 Class Captain. It was written on it that he was very happy. With glee and a sense of importance and accomplishment, he recounted the election proceedings. According to him, he was nominated with two others to compete for the position of class captain. Class members voted for all three. And at the end of the election he got 19 votes, while his other two fellow contestants got 9 and 3 votes respectively.

I guess he found the feat more satisfying because he wasn’t appointed by the masters. He was chosen by his classmates: a testimonial that his classmates found him worthy to be their leader. The classmates had known him and his other classmates. They had interacted since Basic 1 and pre-school classes. They had played together, argued, fought, made up, and competed on many fronts. They had answered questions and discovered each other’s level of intelligence. They had seen who told the most interesting stories, who related best to others, who had the most power to make others listen, or who was more trusted than others. Maybe if it had been by appointment, someone else would have been chosen as class captain.

That made me think. Could the entrenchment of democracy from the primary school level help change our attitude towards democracy? Why did I ask that question? Since colonial times, we have been showing a bad attitude towards democracy. We do not tolerate opposition. We treat opponents as enemies that need to be crushed. Even after we have ‘won’ the election, we try to victimize any person or community that did not vote for us. If any of our relatives or members of our ethnic group do not support our political ambition, they are branded a traitor and treated like a leper, perhaps for life. Nobody cares to know that the man has the right not to support his relative.

There is always a godfather who determines who should run for which political office. If the godfather endorses you, then you are almost certain to ‘win’ the election. But if he doesn’t back you up, your name changes to OYO – On Your Own!

This anti-democratic mentality seemed to have grown out of our traditional and historical background. We grew up under the powerful system of royalty. The king was a demigod. Many kings had power over life and death. His words were final. He did not admit opposition. Anyone who challenged him was arrested and given a lesson, which could include death. They all bowed and trembled at the majesty of him!

Even in communities where there were no kings, there was also a council of elders and priests whose words were final. Everyone was expected to conform to the rules, traditions, and decisions. Dissent was not tolerated. Once the community had made a decision, that was it. Either you conformed or they punished you. If you hated the decision so much that you couldn’t obey it, you had the option to leave the community and settle in another community.

With this kind of background, it is not surprising to see Nigerians being intolerant of contrary opinions or orientations. Anyone who expresses a different opinion on an issue is treated as an enemy of the state rather than a partner in progress who simply has a different idea about the path to development for the city, state or nation. Any genuine criticism or advice from anywhere is irritating. The purveyors of such opinions are called “disgruntled elements” or “those who work for their payers.” The only time everything seems fine is when everyone greets the leader. The election that makes the hearts of such leaders swell is one in which they or their party ‘win’ in all districts.

This cancer has so permeated our social and religious life that we do not tolerate those with minority ethnic or religious orientations. They are constantly attacked or victimized. Even when they are not physically harmed, they are barely allowed to raise their heads or hold any position in the communities. Forever, they are treated as strangers or second-class citizens. Even the most educated and well traveled unite to defend these injustices in the name of defending their religion or ethnic group. Unfortunately, our national laws do little to uphold the rights of minorities.

Therefore, to make sure that we start curbing this ugly attitude, we need to instill a true democratic culture in people at an early age. For example, starting in elementary school, in addition to teaching civics, positions such as prefects/monitors/class captains should be elective. Students should be made to understand the importance of running for election from the cradle. Although the teachers may know the student who would perform best as captain, it is best to allow the students to choose their leader themselves. Help the DigiDestined see that they came into being thanks to the goodwill they have among their peers. That will make them accountable to their classmates, rather than a sponsor (teacher or principal). That makes these child leaders do everything they can to work in the interest of those who elected them.

This will make the child realize that his peers chose him to ‘serve’ them, not rule them. He knows they are watching him to see if he lives up to the hype. He knows that even before the end of the session (permanence), his classmates can expel him if they are not happy with his performance. He also knows that he can’t bribe all of his classmates into voting for him if he doesn’t live up to his expectations. In addition, his other colleagues will also strive to be better in all indexes, to be considered above him in the next elections.

Beyond helping strengthen our democracy, it will also help improve our people. Those who dream of becoming leaders will start from childhood to be honest. For example, someone who has a lopsided streak knows that every time he goes out to run for any political office, that refusal will be used against him. You can’t trust a godfather to work his way through the electoral system to get you into office.

Because it is said that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, our adults are sort of lost on the issue of tolerance of contrary opinions and minorities, but we can catch our children now that they are still malleable. We can instill in them the correct democratic principles and tolerance of minorities. That will help us create great leaders of the future and also a great, harmonious and progressive nation.

Twitter: @MarcaAzuka