Sunday, February 6, 2011

Are Tunisia and Egypt Headed for Nigeria?

Besides regular change of political leaders, one other commonly held properties of development is that it is accompanied by neoliberal policies--free market. With a long leap of faith, pundits and academics sugggest that a free market policy will attract foreign investors and thereby, promote economic development. Democracy is therefore believed to come with development. These assumptions have been challenged by the growth of Japan and China which are so-called non-democratic countries. But that has been no reason to doubt the desirablity of democracy.

As I listened to the rhetoric of anti- (and pro-)government protesters in Egypt and Tunisia, I heard echoes of our own protests against the military in the decade before 1999. Expressions such as "rented crowd" "pro-democracy groups" "pro-government protests" "militant media" etc remind one of the struggles for democracy in Nigeria. In a sense, we can say Egypt (in spite of itself) and Tunisia are where Nigeria was about two decades ago. And that is true as far as periodic elections are concerned.

Tunisia was ruled by Ben Ali for 23 years and Egypt by Mubarak for 30 years. Nigeria has been a democracy with regular change of leadership for 12 years now. But do Tunisia and Egypt really desire to be where Nigeria is? Acccording to MDG Monitor (An Initiative of the UN), both Tunisia and Egypt are far ahead of Nigeria in terms of development. In terms of Human Development Index, Nigeria ranks 159th of 177 countries but Tunisia ranks 87 and Egypt 111st. Life expectancy at birth in Nigeria is 46.6 years; in Egypt it is 69.8 while in Tunisia it is 73 years. In spite of their lack of democracy, Tunisians still live far longer than Nigerians! Over 70% of Nigerians live below poverty line, that is they live on less than $1.5 daily. In Egypt, such people form only 3.1%; in Tunisia it is 2.0%. About 97% of Egyptian and Tunis children are enrolled in primary schools but in Nigeria only 65% of children are enrolled in schools. In all respects, these non-democratic countries are far better in development terms than Nigeria.

Is democracy anti-development, therefore? Maybe not. However, democracy, in Nigeria at least, has been an extremely expensive venture. One batch of corrupt and selfish leaders is replaced by another just different only in its greater commitment to self-enrichment. Each leader is surrounded by a swarm of assistants, personal assistants, special assistants and a private army. The outcry by the Governor of Central Bank, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi was that 25% of the nation's budget is consumed by the National Assembly. About 500 people share 25% of what is meant for 150million people. Yet this is a democracy where the people are supposed to be on the driver's seat.

Tunisians and Egyptians must have a rethink: if chasing Ben Ali and Mubarak off will turn them into the kind of democratic Paradise for Maggots* that Nigeria has become, is all the fight and bloodshed worth it? And that is the belated question Nigerians are asking: was this the democracy for which we fought and were exiled, jailed and /or shot and killed?
* Title of a recent book by Wale Adebanwi on the indefatigable anti-corruption czar in Nigeria, Nuhu Ribadu