New Telegraph

Democracy and autocracy –The missing link (5)





In the last four weeks, we discussed democracy and dictatorship as a form of government. So far, democracy appears to be the most popular across the world. We shall, today, commence our discussion on other forms of government.


The English word autocratic comes from the combination of two Greek words. The literal definition of the word means “self-rule.” This is a form of government in which a monarch or a group of individuals headed by a supreme ruler possesses absolute power.


Autocracy became a specific phenomenon in Russia. Its roots can be traced back to the Grand Principality of Muscovy and the prince’s struggle against the boyar oligarchy; it was further developed theoretically under the Russian Empire. Autocracy is also associated with the theory of Moscow as the Third Rome.


Ivan IV ‘The Terrible’ (1546–84) was the first ruler of Muscovy to elevate autocracy to a political craft based on divine right.


The main promoters of theocratic absolutism were the archpriests Joseph of the Volokolamsk Monastery and Philotheus of Pskov and the secular writer I. Peresvetov. With the decline of the boyar duma, the idea of autocracy was left unchallenged. Subsequently Peter I adopted autocracy as the official doctrine of his empire.


The tsar was proclaimed ‘the absolute monarch,’ who did not have to account for his actions to anyone. TeofanProkopovych, former professor of the KyivanMohyla Academy, in his Pravda volimonarshei (The Justice of the Monarch’s Will) summed up the arguments in favor of autocracy.


Self-coronation, which was practiced by the Russian monarchs from 1742 instead of consecration by the highest church hierarchy, enhanced the status of the autocrat, especially in relation to the church.


In theory and practice the tsar became the head of the Orthodox church, and, after abolishing the patriarchate in 1721, Peter administered the church through the Holy Synod. Under Nicholas I autocracy was proclaimed in the official motto of the Russian Empire— ‘Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality’ (in the sense of Russian nationalism).


The concept of ‘official nationality’ was elaborated by Count Sergei Uvarov, minister of education and president of the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences.


Among other promoters of autocracy were Prince Viktor Kochubei, a Ukrainian by origin, who served as a Russian diplomat and president of the council of ministers, and the jurist Konstantin Pobedonostsev.


Autocracy is characterized by the concentration of power in a single centre, be it an individual dictator or a group of power holders such as a committee or a party leadership. This centre relies on force to suppress opposition and to limit social developments that might eventuate in opposition.


The power of the centre is not subject to effective controls or limited by genuine sanctions: it is absolute power.


In contrast, non-autocratic government is characterized by the existence of several centres, each of which shares in the exercise of power. Non-autocratic rule allows the development of social forces that generate a variety of interests and opinions. It also subjects the power holders to reciprocal controls and to effective sanctions of law.


In appearance, autocracy may sometimes be difficult to distinguish from non-autocratic rule. Often, autocracies attempt to borrow legitimacy by adopting the language of the constitutions of non-autocratic regimes or by establishing similar institutions.


It is a common practice, for example, in many modern totalitarian states to establish institutions— parliaments or assemblies, elections and parties, courts and legal codes—that differ little in appearance from the institutional structures of constitutional democracies. Similarly, the language of totalitarian constitutions is often couched in terms of the doctrines of popular rule or democracy.


The difference is that in totalitarian regimes neither the institutions nor the constitutional provisions act as effective checks on the power of the single centre: they are essentially facades for the exercise of power through hierarchical procedures that subject all the officials of the state to the commands of the ruling individual or group.


The underlying realities of autocratic rule are always the concentration of power in a single centre and the mobilization of force to prevent the emergence of opposition. Totalitarianism as already noted, has been a chief form of autocratic rule; it is distinguished from previous forms in its use of state power to impose an official ideology on its citizens.


Nonconformity of opinion is treated as the equivalent of resistance or opposition to the government, and a formidable apparatus of compulsion, including various kinds of state police or secret police, is kept in being to enforce the orthodoxy of the proclaimed doctrines of the state.


A single party, centrally directed and composed exclusively of loyal supporters of the regime, is the other typical feature of totalitarianism. The party is at once an instrument of social control, a vehicle for ideological indoctrination, and the body from which the ruling group recruits its members. In the modern world, constitutional democracy is the chief type of non-autocratic government.


The minimal definition in institutional terms of a constitutional democracy  is that it should provide for a regularized system of periodic elections with a free choice of candidates, the opportunity to organize competing political parties, adult suffrage, decisions by majority vote with protection of minority rights, an independent judiciary, constitutional safeguards for basic civil liberties, and the opportunity to change any aspect of the governmental system through agreed procedures.


Two features of constitutional democracy require emphasis in contrasting it with modern totalitarian government: the constitution, or basic law, and the political party.


A constitution, as the example of British constitutional democracy suggests, need not be a single written instrument; indeed, the essence of a constitution is that it formalizes a set of fundamental norms governing the political community and determining the relations between the rulers and the people and the interaction among the centres of power.


In most modern constitutional democracies, however, there is a constitutional document providing for fixed limitations on the exercise of power.


These provisions usually include three major elements: an assignment of certain specified state functions to different state organs or offices, the delimitation of the powers of each organ or office, and the establishment of arrangements for their cooperative interaction; a list of individual rights or liberties that are protected against the exercise of state power; and a statement of the methods by which the constitution may be amended.


With these provisions a concentration of power in the hands of a single ruler is prevented, certain areas of political and social life are made immune to governmental intervention, and peaceable change in the political order is made possible.


The political party is the other chief instrument of constitutional democracy, for it is the agency through which the electorate is involved in both the exercise and transfer of power.


In contrast with the centralized, autocratic direction of the totalitarian single-party organization, with its emphasis on ideological conformity and restricted membership, the political parties of constitutional democracy are decentralized, concerned with the integration of many interests and beliefs, and open to public participation.

In constitutional democracies there is usually some measure of competition among two or more parties, each of which, if it cannot hope to form a future government, has some ability to influence the course of state action.


The party in a constitutional democracy is at once a means of representing a mass electorate in the exercise of power and also a device for allowing the peaceful replacement of one set of power holders with another.



Dictatorships have dominated global politics for hundreds of years, from the pharaohs    of Egypt to the absolute monarchs of Europe. Though democracy has since spread to much of the world, about a third of today’s countries are still ruled by dictatorship.


And yet, compared to democracies, we know very little about how dictatorships work, who the key political actors are, and where decisionmaking powers lie. Political processes are opaque, and information is often intentionally distorted. Political survival depends not on maintaining the favor of voters, as in democracies, but on securing the backing of a considerably smaller coalition of supporters.


The absence of a reliable third party to enforce compromises among key players means that power-sharing deals lack credibility and the threat of forced ouster is omnipresent. Uncertainty pervades authoritarian politics. Modern autocrats respond to this uncertain environment in a variety of ways.


They use political parties, legislatures, elections, and other institutions typically associated with democracies to lessen their risk of overthrow.


Despite the façade of democracy, these institutions are key components of most autocrats’ survival strategies; those that incorporate them last longer in power than those that do not.


The specific ways in which autocratic institutions are used and the extent to which they can constrain leadership choices to prevent consolidation of power into the hands of a single individual, however, vary enormously from one dictatorship to the next.


Better understanding the conditions that push autocracies down a path of collegial versus strongman rule remains a critical task, particularly given that the latter is associated with more war, economic mismanagement, and resistance to democratization.






Mainly, autocratic governments have been hereditary monarchies. It seems likely that the existing dictatorships if they do not become democracies, will shift to hereditary monarchies in time.


At the moment the rulers of North Korea, the area which used to be the Belgian Congo, and Syria are relatives of the previous autocrat. Libya, Iraq and Cuba show signs of moving in the same direction. Since most of the existing autocracies are not hereditary, I will start by discussing them and then turn to hereditary monarchies later. The first thing to be said about non-hereditary dictators is that they have obtained their position by climbing the slippery pole.


They are normally highly intelligent, personally brave, because the contest for dictatorships is dangerous, and rather unscrupulous. They have proven their mastery of intrigue and battle, albeit the battle is mainly within the bureaucracy. Still a number of them have engaged in the kind of battle in the bureaucracy which sometimes is fatal. Almost all of them have been efficient in disposing of their rivals by deadly or less than deadly means.


(To be Continued).




“In nation after nation, democracy has taken the place of autocracy”. (John Polanyi).




Fellow Nigerians, synergise with me every week, to put our heads together on how to retool Nigeria. Right here on “The Nigerian Project”, by Chief Mike A. A. Ozekhome, SAN, OFR, FCIArb, LL.M, Ph.D, LL.D.



• Follow me on twitter @ MikeozekhomeSAN

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