Representative democracy is a form of government whereby qualified citizens elect their representatives or their candidates to represent them in the parliament or in the executive, at local, state and federal levels through popular and periodic elections and for a fixed period of time.

The word democracy is derived from two Greek words: “demos”, which means major people and “kratos,” which means “rule or power.” Democracy literally means “the rule by the people.” Hence, Abraham Lincoln’s description of democracy as “the government of the people by the people and for the people.” Democracy is therefore a system of government organized in accordance with the principle of equity, sovereignty, regular political participation, majority rules. It is therefore the best form of government that all nations of the world are trying to aspire to achieve.


Characteristics of Democracy

The basic features or characteristics of representative democracy are those things that make democracy as a form of government distinct and different from other forms of government like military rule, monarchical rule etc. These features are:

  1. Popular Sovereignty: This means that the powers of the state and people’s representatives reside with the people. The people decide who they elect in an election to represent them and also possess the power to withdraw their votes; particularly when the elected official is not acting in accordance with their interest. Hence, power resides with the people or citizens and not a particular person or ruling class. For example, if any government is not performing up to expectation, citizens have the right to vote such government out of office through democratic process or means like referendum.
  2. Political Equality: This stresses that all citizens must be given opportunity to participate in the country’s political and decision making processes. It emphasizes “one man, one vote,” and that all qualified citizens must have the “right to vote and be voted for.”
  3. Supremacy of the Constitution: The constitution of the land is the supreme law and code of conduct that every citizen must abide by. No individual should be above the law and any offender must be treated according to the laid down rules and regulations. Public officers therefore like the president, the governors, local government chairmen, the judicial officers, and the law makers must be responsive and accountable to the people or citizens of a state.
  4. Respect for Fundamental Human Rights: Rights of the citizens are written in the constitution of the state and it is often said that, “where an individual’s rights ends is where another citizen’s rights starts.” Rights of citizen must be respected and an individual has right to seek redress in the law court if his or her right is violated. But it must be noted that there is no right without limitation. For example, citizens must not be caught attempting to commit suicide.
  5. Periodic Elections: In a democratic setting, elections must not only be held periodically but also elected officials must be in office for a fixed period of time. For example, the executives at the three tiers of government in Nigeria are elected for four years in office. If such elected officer performs well, he/she can be re-elected for another four years. In some countries, the constitution allows executive officers to run for a third term. However, the Nigerian constitution forbids an executive to be elected for a third term. The legislative arm however, can continue to retain a senator or a honorable as long as he/she continues to represent the people effectively.
  6. Majority Rule: This means that no government decision must be made against the wishes and desires of popular opinion. For instance, the decision to shift 2011 elections to mid-April received the blessing of the majority of Nigerians. Issues of public importance must be based on majority decision before government could take action. In the past, majority of Nigerians condemn the IMF (International Monetary Fund) loan, the joining of organization of Islam Conference by Nigeria etc. It must be noted that though the majority will have their way, but the minority must have their say. Democracy therefore welcomes the minority’s opinions.


Types of Democracy

Types of democracy include:

  • Direct Democracy
  • Indirect or Representative Democracy.


  1. Direct Democracy: This is the original form of democracy. It is government as practiced in the ancient Greek city state called “The Polis.” This kind of democracy requires all qualified citizens i.e. the property owners, the nobles; the land owners etc. to gather in a popular place like the town or community hall to directly rule and implement decisions and policies as a government. In such city states, women, slaves and other disadvantaged groups in the community are not allowed to participate in the affairs of the State.
  2. Indirect or Representative Democracy: The population explosion and the extension of voting right to all citizens made the case for direct democracy not attainable again in the modern states of the world. Indirect democracy therefore is a process by which qualified citizens elect their representatives into parliament and executive arms of government through a regular and periodic election for a fixed period of time. In Nigeria, it is usually every four years. Indirect or representative democracy is a system of government that all democratic governments of the world are practicing today.


Merits of Representative Democracy

  1. Representative democracy encourages free choice of political leaders.
  2. Representative democracy gives equal opportunity to all citizens to vote and be voted for.
  3. Representative democracy promotes peace and stable government in a country.
  4. Representative democracy allows the minority to be represented in decision making process in the country; this encourages regular participation.
  5. Representative Democracy encourages the change of government through peaceful means i.e. voting exercise.
  6. Representative democracy gives room for tolerance of the opposition group. It thus allows the oppositions to have their say in the affairs of the nation.


Demerits of Representative Democracy

The following are some of the weaknesses of representative democracy:

  1. Representative democracy is too expensive to operate. This is because of duplication of positions. For example; at all the tiers of government in Nigeria, we have duplication of political office holders, e.g. Federal Minister of Education, State Commissioners of Education Supervisory Counselor of Education, and the fund that the government is expending on these officials is outrageous.
  2. Decision making process is often too slow in representative democracies. This is because proper consultation must be made. It is the reason why decision making often drags for too long a time with little or irrelevant laws or decision made; especially in as evident in Nigerian representative democracy (Fourth Republic).
  3. Politicization of issues of national importance: For example, the October 1, 2010 bomb blast in Abuja that killed many innocent souls during the 50th independent anniversary was politicized instead of putting all hands on deck to bring to book all perpetrators of the act.
  4. Miscreants or unfit candidates may be elected into political office by various means, ranging from bribery, influencing and buying of votes by giving out money, food and clothing materials, rigging and manipulation of votes etc. Hence, citizens are advised not to sell their votes and be wary of dubious politicians who entice electorate with money and food items. Votes should be casted for visionary and credible candidates.


Requirements for Successful Representative Democracy

For a successful representative government in Nigeria, the following conditions and requirements must be met:

  1. There must be free and fair elections.
  2. There must be an independent and unbias electoral body. For instance, the Independent National Electoral Commission in Nigeria must be totally independent to be unbiased.
  3. There must be freedom of expression. For example, the Freedom of Information Act which came into being in May 2011 was a welcome development. The FOI law gives the press, as well Nigerians the power to pursue, unearth and reveal facts or information pertaining to that which will enlighten the people positively and prevent corruption etc. The FOI Act also gives Nigerians the privilege to certain information about how they are being governed, thus allowing them to react to unfavourable government policies.
  4. There must be high level of literacy. Access to quality education as a social right of the citizens must be improved. Budget allocation to education must be increased at all levels of government in Nigeria. This will increase literacy level among Nigerians. It is often said that, “It is easy to govern literate people than illiterate people.”
  5. There must be an independent judiciary: Judiciary as the last hope of the people must be independent and devoid of undue intervention from the government. The judges should dispense judgement without fear or favour irrespective of the person in question. Nobody should be above the law of the land.
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