Commentary

OPINION: Onnoghen: Is Buhari a tyrant?

Democracies give way to tyrannies when mob passion overwhelms political wisdom and a populist autocrat seizes the masses. But the tyrant is not quite a tyrant at first.

On the contrary, in a democracy the would-be tyrant offers himself as the people’s champion. He’s the ultimate simplifier, the one man who can make everything whole again.

Sound familiar?

Welcome to the knowledge of Muhammadu Buhari!

Plato thought political regimes followed a predictable evolutionary course, from oligarchy to democracy to tyranny.

Oligarchies give way to democracies when the elites fail, when they become spoiled, lazy, profligate, and when they develop interests apart from those they rule.

In 2015 we had a glimpse of what this sort of evolution looks like: A vulgar right-wing populism emerges out of a whirlwind of anti-establishment hysteria; a strongman fascist promises to stick it to the people and says only he can make the country great again; he gives the people a familiar boogeyman, some alien other, on whom they can dump their resentment.

For a fractured and embittered citizenry, this is a rhetorical balm, and, according to Plato, just the sort of thing that sends the city over a cliff.

Buhari was the firebrand we feared but then three years down the line, like the cock, we now know that what is on its head isn’t a coal of fire but pure meat.

People no longer believe in the authority of public institutions, which amounts to a loss of faith in constitutional democracy. That Buhari made it this far proves that the country can be whipped into a frenzy and that fascism is only an election away.

Perhaps we’ll survive this time, but we walked right up to the edge of the abyss. Next time we may tumble into it.

Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.” — Plato

Whether Buhari wins or loses, he did the country at least one service: He revealed the rot at the core of our politics. His “success” shows just how vulnerable we are to demagogic shocks.

The very possibility of a Buhari continued presidency constitutes a crisis for our democracy.

Pluto wrote that, The Republic is a series of dialogues about damn near everything: justice, human nature, education, virtue.

Among the most important is a conversation between Socrates and friends about the nature of regimes and why one is superior to another.

Socrates says: “Let us place the most just regime side by side the most unjust, and when we see them we shall be able to compare…”

Though it’s not the aim, what we get at the end of the dialogue is a theory of regime decline, with Socrates explaining why governments sink from higher to lower forms.

Oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny, in that order, are said to be the worst forms of government, and they are defined more or less in modern terms.

Democracy, for all its charms, is said to be a poor substitute for oligarchy. It’s an “agreeable form of anarchy,” Socrates tells us. Like every other regime, a democracy collapses of its own contradictions. It’s full of freedom and spangled with every kind of liberty imaginable.

Over time, though, this boundless freedom degenerates into herd hysteria. Belief in authority atrophies. A spirit of excess takes hold and, eventually, “the state falls sick, and is at war with herself.”

Tyranny springs from democracy in the same manner democracy springs from oligarchy. Just as the blind pursuit of wealth occasions a thirst for equality, so “the insatiable desire for freedom occasions a demand for tyranny.”

There’s a logic to this dynamic, a kind of political physics. Each regime succeeds the previous one as its opposite and as a reaction to it.

So the shift from democracy to tyranny is simple enough: A surplus of freedom produces an excess of factions and a multiplicity of perspectives, most of which are blinkered by narrow interests.

To get elected, those factions have to be flattered, their passions indulged. This is fertile soil for the demagogue, who manipulates the masses to “overmaster democracy,” as Plato put it.

In this way, it’s the very freedom of democracy that opens the way to tyranny. The love of tolerance devolves into a kind of unraveling licentiousness. Communal bonds wither.

When things get bad, as they always do, the people grow restless and yield to a swindling demagogue who cultivates their fears and positions himself as the protector.

This is how democracy passes into despotism.

In Buhari a tyrant is born again.

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