Social Contract In Jean Jacques Rousseau – Implications For Nigerian Democracy

Project and Seminar Material for Philosophy

Social Contract In Jean Jacques Rousseau – Implications For Nigerian Democracy


The democratisation process in Nigeria since independence has remained nascent in every republic; its practices and processes have remained new, strange and fresh, and in most cases have always ended up in confusion, frustration, and chaos. In this work, the researcher hopes to make some deductions from the social contract theory of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and apply them to the Nigerian Democratic process. The aim is to effect a re-direction of our deceptive democratic principles and engender proper implementation of democracy in all its facets.

Chapter One

1.1 General Introduction

It is in the nature of man as a social being to live together in a community. But, to achieve his utmost fulfilment, man desires to live in peace and harmony with his environment, persons and things alike. Hence, every nation continues to search for a workable system that would permit her citizens to live together in peace as much as possible. It is this quest by man for harmonious living that Rousseau addressed in his Social Contract, which he also refers to as: ‘the Principles of political right;’ a living reality which must be found present wherever there is a legitimate government. This living reality according to S.E. Stumpf, is the fundamental principle underlying a political association; this principle helps to overcome the lawlessness of absolute licence and assures liberty, because people willingly adjust their conduct to harmonise with the legitimate freedom of others.1

By this Rousseau seems set to present a prototype for all legitimate governments, which when conformed to, the sky would be the limit of the political freedom, liberty, equality and rule of law to be witnessed therein. And even Rousseau emphasised that no demarcation should exist between morality and politics. On this statement is hinged the belief that Rousseau inspired the French revolution of 1789.

However, the theory of social contract is so important in social and political philosophy that it did not start from Rousseau. Political philosophers like Plato, Hobbes and Locke had used it to situate the origin of the civil society. Plato holds that the origin of the state is a reflection of people’s economic needs; “a state comes into existence because no individual is self-sufficing; we all have many needs,” there must, therefore be a division of labour.2 Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan says of people giving up their rights of governing themselves, to this man or to this assembly of men, who undertakes the function of protecting man from the strife and war of the state of nature, which he says leaves “the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”3 On the other hand, John Locke talks of man uniting into a commonwealth and placing themselves under government, for the preservation of their property. ‘Property,’ here in Locke’s thought refers to ‘lives, liberty and estates.’ 4

Rousseau prefers to take a middle position on the thoughts of his predecessors. He presents the problem of social contract as not simply to find a form of association, which will protect the persons, and goods of each member. But also to find an association in which each member will still obey himself and remain as free as before.5 This point brings out the reason why the peoples’ consent becomes important in major decisions affecting them. Thus, Rousseau summarises the essence of the social contract in these words:

Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.6

The general will he referred to is the will of the “Sovereign”, where the sovereign stands for the total number of citizens of a given society. Such being the case, the general will of the sovereign is the single will, which reflects the sum of the wills of all the individual citizens.

Now, the thoughts espoused by Rousseau in his social contract have some affinity with the principles of democracy, especially the use he made of the general will. These principles of democracy are distinctly shown in the definition of democracy, given by the Chambers Twenty-first Century Dictionary as ‘a form of government in which the people govern themselves or elect representatives to govern them.’7 Obviously democracy means rule by the people, the common people. A state of society where freedom for the people, justice and equality of rights and privileges; both political, social or legal equality are recognised.

Similarly, these principles of democracy are clearly enshrined in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Hence section 14(1) of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria declares it thus; “The Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be a state based on the principles of democracy and social justice.”8 Further, same section 14(2a) of the 1999 constitution declares, “Sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government through this constitution derives all its powers and authority.”9 And section 14(2b) has it that “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.”10

However, the factual experience of the Nigerian democratic practice for three good republics now, betrays the fact and makes the constitutionalised principle a huge hoax. The principles of democracy have been completely distorted and misrepresented. It was as if Franklin Roosevelt had Nigeria in mind when he talked about people being fed up with a democracy that breeds unemployment, insecurity, hunger and hopelessness. Nigerians have continued to wait to no avail for the dividends of democracy. The present dispensation leaves no light at the end of the tunnel.

Thus, in this work the researcher hopes to make some deductions from the social contract theory of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and apply them to the Nigerian Democratic process. The aim is to effect a re-direction of our deceptive democratic principles and engender proper implementation of democracy in all its facets.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

The democratisation process in Nigeria since independence has remained nascent in every republic; its practices and processes have remained new, strange and fresh, and in most cases have always ended up in confusion, frustration and chaos. What has continued to go wrong? Ray Ekpu succinctly captures the situation in his article the “End Justifies the Means,” when he said: “…the ingredient standing between Nigeria and greatness is leadership… As far as politics and leadership are concerned Nigeria is still a psychiatric case due in part to the haemorrhage inflicted on it by most of its leaders.”11 True to fact, Nigeria’s forty-five years of independence have seen various administrations, military and civilian, all of which can be described as having struggled to make Nigerians strangers in their own land.

Worse still, despite the huge financial resources claimed to have been expended on the overall administration of the country and the provision of amenities, the socio-economic and political situation in the country have deteriorated almost irredeemably. While political office holders only scramble for public resources, infrastructures are completely neglected, inflation is galloping, civil servants and pensioners are owed their entitlements for several months, unemployment has almost reached unmanageable levels, and poverty remains a menace people must face.

It is on this backdrop that intelligent observers would agree that the first forty-five years of our independence have been, even as S.G Ikoku has put it “a monumental failure.”12 What we experience now is the rule of minority instead of the rule of majority, which is the true principle of democracy. Evidently, Nigeria is not practising any “true” democracy. At best what we have is “deceptive” democracy. This essay proposes to tackle, some of these problems.

1.3 Purpose of Study

The researcher was spurred by the words of the Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka; when he said that: ‘the man dies in all who keeps silent in the face of tyranny.’13 Thus, this work seeks to diagnose the political arthritis and democratic rheumatism that have bedevilled Nigeria since independence, and attempt a treatment with the deductions or implications drawn from the Social Contract of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

1.4 Scope of Study

There is no doubt that Jean Jacques Rousseau has several works to his credit, but the concern of this work is the social contract (of 1762). The context of study would be limited to the Nigerian democratic experience.

1.5 Methodology

The method of approach employed in this work is philosophical, expository, and evaluative. More so, narrative technique is adopted by the researcher to bring to limelight, the condition of Nigerian democratic experience since independence.

1.6 Division of Work

The Work is divided into five chapters. Chapter one gives a general introduction of the essay, the statement of the problem, method used, scope of study and purpose of study. Chapter two exposes the social contract theory of Rousseau, while chapter three takes care of the Nigerian democratic practice. Then, chapter four brings chapters two and three together in a general analysis. At last we shall conclude with critical evaluation and conclusion in chapter five.

Chapter Five

5.0 Critical Evaluation and Conclusion

Thus far, we have succeeded in exposing the erudition of the great enlightenment and romantic thinker-Jean Jacques Rousseau in his Social Contract and some implications it bears for Nigerian democracy. Obviously, Rousseau set out in the social contract to rediscover ways of reforming the society, which has been battered and turned evil through the ownership of property. By this means he confronted the arbitrary and tyrannical governments of his time. It is very important to note that the social contract theory was influenced by the modern age of reason and enlightenment. However, the Social Contract theory of Rousseau was particularly spurred by the dictatorial monarchy in France of his time. Therefore, Rousseau required a technical means of establishing a political framework or structure that would contend the evils of governments of his age. He had to be technical because both the French monarchy and Genevese aristocracy of the enlightenment era never loved outspoken criticisms. To play it safe, one had to generalise than particularise. This accounted for some abstractness obviously seen in Rousseau’s ideas, which never failed to attract criticisms from most thinkers. However, Rousseau’s thought influenced Kant’s moral philosophy and Hegel’s philosophy of right. In fact, he is the great forerunner of Romanticism, German and English Idealism.

Rousseau’s social contract stands out among those of his predecessors (Hobbes and Locke), in that he was able to fuse the premises and the temper of Hobbes with the conclusions of Locke. He seems to have espoused better terms of the contractual theory. It would be recalled that the trio holds that the state is a product of an agreement and contract entered into by men who formerly lived independently in a state of nature. But they differed on who were the parties to the contract and the terms of the compact. Rousseau on his own part emphasised complete surrender of rights after Hobbes, nevertheless not to the government as Hobbes would admit, but to the sovereign people (community) in line with Lockean theory. With this, the sovereign becomes absolute not the government. Rousseau however, disagreed with the partial handover of rights that Locke holds. For him, there is a total surrender of rights on the part of the natural man to the sovereign to which he is a member.

Among other things, Rousseau’s social contract is very important to political philosophy on the parlance that wherever there is a form of government apart from tyrannical regimes, the footing of the state cannot but be established on consent (tacit or expressed, past or present) of its members. Thus, he reveals an important aspect of political legitimacy and the necessity to respect the consent of the governed. It behoves governments, that of Nigeria inclusive, to work diligently to ensure that their constitution reflects this. If this is assured in governments, the individual will gain a lot of freedom and participate actively in government and thus realise himself the more.

Much as Rousseau’s political thought is admirable on a number of counts, its shortcomings cannot be overlooked. Indeed his social contract theory is laden with some obvious imperfections. In the first place, though we laud the use Rousseau made of the general will (common interest) as against the will of all (sum of particular wills), the unrestricted power he gave the general will can result to absolutism. And there is no guarantee that this disinterested will of the sovereign (general will), objectively works for the common good and will always turnout to be good. Similarly, Rousseau’s argument that the general will allows for individual diversity is faulty, in that the mode of the general will makes it to encourage the well-being of the whole (the sovereign body) and it can conflict with the particular interests of the individual. Equally, if the notion of the general will stands to carter for the welfare of the whole and not the will of the individual, how can it protect the individual freedom which is the initial problem Rousseau’s social contract seeks to resolve? Rousseau has not solved the problem.

Furthermore, the way Rousseau presupposed political consciousness in a people who were merely living in the pristine stage, the state of nature, as could only be possible in individuals who are already within the state of society is illogical. These men must have had knowledge of one political society, and if so they did not live in any pristine state. Or the whole idea of Rousseau turns out to be a mere metaphysical abstraction that cannot be located anywhere in the world. The social contract theory is far from any empirical investigation, and one cannot locate it anywhere in history. It is a mere product of imagination influenced by the eighteenth century enlightenment, brought about by modern philosophy, which was chaired by Descartes. The contract theory cannot be accepted as a necessary means through which any state of the world came to be. Hence, from the historical point of view the social contract theory as the origin of political authority is practically untenable. And even if we accept any historical foundation of this contract, it cannot necessarily bind the descendants of those who originally entered into the contract.

On the other hand, the equality that was attributed to man in the primitive state and thus transferred to the civil state is incompatible with popular trend. How can one accept Rousseau’s argument when common reasoning reveals to us that inequality rather than equality is natural, hence we say ‘all fingers are not equal’. Appadorai quoting the German Jurist, Von Haller (1768-1854) supports this submission: “it is possible to argue that inequality, rather than equality is natural.”1 And if equality should hold sway in the contracted state of society, the prince which Rousseau placed in-charge of the state can make the whole idea self-defeatist. The prince cannot but be above the common people, at least in status.

5.2 Conclusion

Despite the criticisms the social contract of Rousseau has incurred so far, it is hard to dispute the serious impact it makes on political thought and philosophy. No doubt it made distinctive contributions to foundation of democracy as a form of government. And the nature of the social contract theory of Rousseau brings out the idea that civil society rests not on the consent of the ruler but on the ruled. At least if we adopt this point to Nigerian democracy, a change from the present rule of minority to that of majority (the main tenet of viable democracy) is not far from us. We can accomplish this via the modern idea of public opinion and referendum and thus, checkmate this retinue of opportunists called leaders, who govern only for selfish interest instead of common interest. In all, Rousseau’s social contract reminds all governments of those human purposes, which the state can serve, and which alone can justify its existence.

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