In Nigeria May 29 is the day we celebrate our democracy, National Democracy Day. May 29 2015 marked 16 years of this annual celebration and coincided with the official inauguration ceremony of a new government for Nigeria, making it especially significant.
Nigeria is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-lingual and of course, multi-party polity with over 165 million people. To put that into perspective, the country has about 250 ethnic groups with as many different languages and something close to 30 political parties to boast of, and is the most populous country in Africa.
Nigeria’s advances towards democracy and independence has been characterized by told and untold stories of inter-ethnic wars, religious, cultural and political discriminations and most recently, terrorism epitomized by the Boko Haram insurgency, all taking their toll on our peace and national development.
I am always very optimistic when I talk about this nation because Nigerians are a very resilient lot and I can imagine the miracle it has taken for our country to still be standing over these tumultuous years. Indeed, the predictions of disintegration by some world powers have failed to materialise.
With regards to National Democracy Day celebrations on May 29 and the just concluded elections in Nigeria, having keenly followed these events these past few months, it would be fair to say that identity politics that was the order of the day.
Nigeria was divided over who should become the next president. The progressives wanted the sitting president, Goodluck Jonathan for the People’s Democratic Party to go for a second term while the opposition wanted Muhammadu Buhari for the All Nigeria People’s Party, who promised to bring about change.
The interesting prospect is that these two major candidates come from different sides of the geographical pole – north and south – and from two opposing political parties and religions as well. One represents the southerner’s and easterner’s interests and the other the northerner’s and the westerners.
One represents Christians, the other Muslims and all others. These factors have a subtle and powerful way of affecting everything else – the Governorship, the Senatorial and other elections.
Needless to say, it was a battle of ethnicities, of parties, of cultures and of religions, fought on all fronts. A lot of propaganda and name-calling politics played out across social media.
At first I didn’t have a firm opinion on what I would want to see as a solution for all of Nigeria’s challenges until I was at an International Conference in Dubai in the penultimate week.
Meeting someone who I have come to regard as one of the most passionate and engaging academics I’ve ever met from the UK (Dr Deborah Gabriel), thoughts about Nigeria, its multiple diversities and the need for a holistic unity began to be reshaped around a conceptual framework called cultural democracy.
Having reflected on this, I believe that cultural democracy embodies all the aspirations of a society’s need for unity in diversity. It calls for a renewed way of thinking about discriminations around race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion and sexuality as being centred on finding a common ground to accommodate all of these differences and see others as having equal opportunity and rights to you.
If we claim to believe in democracy, then we must also believe in cultural democracy and as an enlightened society, accommodate others and have respect for our differences no matter what they are. Doing so will engender a truly egalitarian society full of tolerance, cooperation, development and unity in the midst of diversity.
I can then imagine all the creativities that will go into making things work for diverse societies when people of all distinctions come together on an equal footing to contribute their quota.
As Nigeria marked yet another Democracy Day, I thought about all that has been lost in the years that Nigerians have been consumed by difference and identity politics. Cultural democracy is what Nigeria needs.
When this is in place, it won’t matter who is president and from which tribe or religion or geographical pole he/she is from. What will matter is that the person embodies everyone’s aspirations and represents everyone credibly.
Interestingly what inspired me to write this piece is what has come to be the most resounding sentence the new Nigerian president made in his Inauguration Speech over the weekend. He said: “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody”.
For me, that was it. This is cultural democracy in part. But then I mustn’t fail to congratulate the outgoing president who admirably conceded defeat to the newly sworn-in president.
According to news reports, the outgoing president had the power as the incumbent to challenge the election results that didn’t go in his favour. Yet in the interest of peace, he looked the way of cultural democracy and gave Nigerians a chance to remain whole.
It was as though these two presidents harbour the same ideals about this important and interesting conceptual framework through which to view the world and all of its diverse inhabitants.
It is my earnest hope that this becomes the beginning of what I would like to think of as a journey towards cultural democracy for Nigeria.