Why researchers must play role in the redesign of democracy

Ongoing conversations among citizens in Nigeria are spotlighting the need for researchers to get involved in shaping the country’s nascent democracy.

Those making the calls maintain that researchers have long left the country’s democracy to be toyed with by the political elite who, more often than not, only join the democratic process to seek what they can gain rather than what to offer the system.

Accordingly, researchers agree that, yes, they need to be more involved in the democratic process, identifying that they play an important part in shaping democracy and driving societal progress.

This matter was brought to the fore when researchers at the African Studies Centre of the University of Oxford converged with professionals from other fields, including politicians, to discuss the topic: ‘Redesigning Democracy: Alternative politics, popular culture and next-generation politics in Nigeria’.

The two-day online and in-person event, in October, explored the concept of alternative politics, an idea that focuses on interests outside the prism of Big Politics amid growing youth discontent with the government.

Clamour for inclusiveness

Dr Doris Okenwa, a Fellow in African Anthropology and lecturer in African studies at the University of Oxford, stated that the EndSARS protests of 2020, which saw youths from across Nigerian cities and towns marching against anti-police brutality and bad governance, metamorphosed into alternative politics.

Okenwa, who convened the Redesigning Democracy event, said it aims to set up convivial interactions whereby scholars, aspiring young politicians, activists and creatives can explore the ways of shaping the democratic process.

Speaking at the event, Professor Okechukwu Ibeanu, an expert in political science and visiting lecturer at King’s College London, suggested that one of the ways researchers could make a change is to use their voices to clamour for more inclusiveness in the political process. However, he expressed some scepticism when it comes to creating changes in the democratic process.

“We can change the state of politics by including more women and youths, but I don’t think we are close to the point of changing politics itself. And this is what actually worries me,” he said.

“I think what [young] people are fighting for is only possible by changing politics and that means fundamental changes to the state of political economy and the nature of governance and I don’t see that we are getting there.”

Ibeanu said, despite his concern, he had always made the point that democracy is about making the best out of an alternative. “So how do we make the best out of this imperfect democracy?” he asked.

The researcher said that democracy redesign is a long-haul project and that it will not happen in one election cycle. He emphasised that democracy redesigning should be a properly organised project and pursued in the long term.

“I think, in a way, we are on the right path as young people are mobilising and challenging certain political practices and getting more people to be inclusive,” he said. “If we continue on this trajectory and improve on the politics of the Big Politics, I think, to a great extent, there will be a redesign of democracy.”

Researchers ‘needed’

Professor Sylvanus Ebohon, an expert in political science at the University of Benin, Edo State, in south-south Nigeria, told University World News he agrees with the fact that researchers are needed now, more than ever before, in democracy redesign in Nigeria.

“My position has always been that scholarship is necessary and is needed for the acquisition of political values and essence,” he said.

“Otherwise, people will see the system as a no man’s land that is meant only for the aristocrats. And, because of that, you would find that any opportunity that comes their way they want to capitalise on it.”

Ebohon, who cited the recently concluded eight-month strike by the university lecturers’ unions, said it is a classic example of what happens when scholars leave the system in the hands of politicians and refuse to participate in the democratic process.

“The system is likely to crumble, like what we are seeing, when researchers are not involved in the democratic process. We [researchers] have to do things that will help shape the national vision,” he said.

Ebohon said, although some scholars are now entering the political system, they would not create any change without a proper vision and strategy.

“When I was in the United Kingdom, I was offered employment at the Home Office, but I didn’t take up the offer because I had the passion of returning to Nigeria. I had just finished my PhD at the Victoria University of Manchester then [around 1985] and was making plans to return home. The system was loaded with scholars then, but now it’s becoming empty – and this is saddening,” he noted.

Meanwhile, at the University of Oxford-convened Redesign Democracy event, Professor Wale Adebanwi, the Presidential Penn Compact Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, United States, said there was a need for every sphere of society to contribute to the shaping of democracy.

Himself a contributor to the discourse on democracy in Nigeria and Africa as a whole, Adebanwi, who is a Rhodes Professor of Race Relations and formerly the Director of the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, in a recent interview with OMNIA expressed some worries about democratic practice in Africa.

“Some scholars have described what we have now as hybrid democracies, because there’s a large number of authoritarian institutions and leaders dominating many polities, and they constitute the core of the ruling elite,” he said.

“One of the implications is there is no guarantee that these states will continue to widen and deepen democratic rule and practices. There are serious structural problems that need to be resolved for democratic practice to become fully entrenched.”