Social Contract In Jean Jacques Rousseau – Implications For Nigerian Democracy

Social Contract In Jean Jacques Rousseau – Implications For Nigerian Democracy



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




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After payment, text the name of the project, email address and your names to 08064502337 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.


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.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 



The notion of social contract in Jean Jacques Rousseau is a reactionary principle. It was developed as an antidote to the evils of inequality generated by the formation of civil state from the primitive state, the state of nature. Evil found its way into the organised society through the liberty granted for the private ownership of property. For as J. Omoregbe notes, “the first man who enclosed a piece of land as his private property was the real founder of civil society with its concomitant evils.”1 This scenario elicited quarrels and man was compelled to give up his natural freedom. Rousseau seems to be at cross roads. Thus, he asks; “what, then is to be done? Must societies be totally abolished? Must ‘Meum’ and ‘tuum’ be annihilated, and must we return again to the forests to live among bears?”[2]

Rousseau carefully avoids any of these options because the society is a sacred right, which is the basis of all other rights. This is akin to the assertion of Aristotle in the opening page of his metaphysics that man is a ‘social animal.’ Therefore, Rousseau is now obliged to ensure that the society is justified and made legitimate. To do this, Rousseau adopts the Social Contract Theory, which has been treated differently in the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The aim of Rousseau is to justify the transition from man’s primitive state to that of organised society.


The proponents of the Social Contract Theory (Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) agree that men once lived individually in a (an utopic) pristine state (the state of nature), before they agreed to live together in a society with an organised body of laws. In this state, man was only subject to the laws of nature. But there was no human authority to formulate these laws precisely or to enforce them. Therefore, these theorists said that a time came when men parted with their natural liberty in the state of nature and agreed to obey the laws prescribed by the Government.

However, before they embarked on the agreement to set up a government, their existential conditions and feelings were harsh and unbearable. Each of these social contract theorists explained how man felt in the state of nature. Thomas Hobbes developing his thought in the Leviathan admits that men in the state of nature, lived in the state of war, a perpetual struggle of all against all, men living without justice and law lived in state of competition, diffidence and love of glory, man is only concerned with his self interest and self preservation. Hence, Hobbes concludes that in this state, “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”[3] John Locke, in a clear departure from Hobbes’ postulations, says that in the state of nature men were free and equal; and each lived according to his wish. However, Locke adds that this freedom was not licence. There was a natural law or the law of reason, which commanded that no one should impair the life, the health, the freedom or the possessions of another.[4] It is, therefore, very significant that the law of nature, as thought by Locke, stressed the freedom and preservation of all men, unlike that of Hobbes, which emphasised self-preservation. But because there was no common superior to enforce the law of nature, this Lockean state of nature became fearful and dangerous. However, it is not to be likened to the anarchy in Hobbesian state of nature.

Just like Locke, Rousseau accepts that man in the state of nature was free and equal. They lived happily and peacefully in innocence. However, Rousseau remarks that, “even if man cannot be called good in a strictly moral sense, morality is simply a development of his natural feelings and impulses.”6 He highlights this fact in his observation that the fundamental ethical principle is that man is naturally good and that there is no original perversity or sin in human nature.7 Therefore, Rousseau disagrees with Thomas Hobbes who says that in the state of nature man was at war with his fellow man. Instead, war and strife are the products of the society, for man is good by nature, it is the society that corrupts him.  He cited an example;

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying “this is mine,” and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.8

Immediately this civil society was created through the ownership of property, Rousseau observed that “equality disappeared, forests became smiling fields, slavery and misery arose with the crops.”9  Further, Rousseau says that human race would have been spared this calamity, had somebody reminded this impostor that the earth belongs to nobody. Unfortunately nobody tried to stop him; and he had the piece of land as his private property. As a result, there appeared an accumulation of wealth and moral distinctions between justice and injustice. The new-born state of society thus gave rise to a horrible state of war. But not like the Hobbesian state of anarchy where man is wolf to his fellow man (Homo Homini lupus), there existed in Rousseau’s state of society moral distinctions, which preceded the formation of political society.

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In the milieu of the insecurity and evils that pervaded Rousseau’s new society, the rich among the people, suggested that men come together to form a civil society with a government and a body of laws to protect them and their properties. The civil society thus formed, became a safe device with which the rich protected themselves from the attack of the aggrieved poor people. Hence, Rousseau submits that instead of the new society to curb its evils, it bound new fetters on the poor and gave new powers to the rich. It destroyed natural liberty, fixed eternally the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into alterable right and, for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labour, slavery and wretchedness.10


The Social Contract theory was prescribed by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau as a panacea to the perceived evils of the state of nature. One would recall that Rousseau in particular observed that man in the state of nature was free, good and equal. He now wonders why this freedom bestowed on man by nature should be turned to slavery. Hence he identified the problem this way:

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? This question I think I can answer.11

Rousseau like his predecessors (Locke and Hobbes) adopted the Social Contract theory to reform the existing society and make it legitimate. He used the Contract theory to checkmate the problems encountered in the first attempt to form a society with a body of laws. More so, it has to be founded on contract or convention because no man has natural authority over another. The only legitimate way in which the authority of the state and law can be founded is to assume a first convention. This is to make people come to an agreement whether to be together or not. Giving credence to this, R.N. Berki writes, “Without such convention, there would be no obligation on the part of an individual to obey the state or of a minority to a majority.”12

Therefore, having reached the point at which the obstacles to their preservation in the state of nature are greater than their resources for maintaining themselves in the state, men have to unite together and form an association. This association must come from a contract, which would bind all the people. But as the force and liberty of each man is the chief instrument of his self-preservation, how can this come about without endangering the freedom of man? Rousseau answers this by saying that the association to be formed will not only protect the individual and his property alone as Locke earlier opined. It will also incorporate a situation which each member will still obey himself alone and remain as free as before.13 This is the fundamental problem the Social Contract provides the solution. The clauses of this contract are so determined by the nature of the act that any slightest modification would make them vain and ineffective. Although they have perhaps never been formally set forth, they are everywhere the same and everywhere tacitly admitted and recognised. It is only at the violation of the social compact that each regains his original rights and resumes his natural liberty, while losing the conventional liberty in favour of which he renounced it. Thus Rousseau aptly emphasises that each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody, and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has. Hence, the essence of the social compact can be reduced to the following terms;

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.14

At once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains votes, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life and its will. This public person, so formed by the union of all other persons that formerly took the name city, now takes that of Republic or body politic; which is called by its members State when passive. It is called the Sovereign when considered as active, and Power when compared with others like itself. Those who are associated in it take collectively the name of people, and severally are called citizens, as sharing in the sovereign power, and subjects, as being under the laws of the State.

In sum, J. Omoregbe observes that the social contract is “an association whereby every member voluntarily agrees to place himself and his possession under the direction of the sovereign.”15 This sovereign is the collective body of the people; the total number of the citizens of a given society. This sovereign is opposed to that of Hobbes, which he calls government. For Hobbes, the people agree to hand over their right to a sovereign, who stands outside the pact, not being a party to it. However, in Locke, the sovereign stands for the community which people agreed to handover their natural right. Having gone thus far, Rousseau says he has resolved the problem of individual freedom and social stability. Hence he observes, “that what a man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and unlimited right to every thing that he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses.”16


General will is the will of the sovereign; the single will which reflects the sum of the wills of all the individual citizens. Thus, Rousseau emphasises that sovereignty is the exercise of the general will. The general will, according to Rousseau, is always right and always for the common good of the individual members of the association. He, thus, enjoins all the individual members of the contract to bring their will to conform to the general will. For Rousseau, the individual becomes free or gains his freedom when he does this. In any case, anyone who refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the body politic. The person will be forced to be free.

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In addition, Rousseau differentiates “will of all” (volonte` de tous) from the ‘general will’ (volonte` generale). The general will considers only the common interest, while the will of all takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills. For as Rousseau admits, this particular will tends, by its very nature, to partiality while the general will tends to equality.17 The will of all can be faulted, but not the general will.  The will of all is not infallible; it is only the ‘general will that is infallible because it is always directed to the common good.


In the civil state, the social contract that gave rise to it produces a remarkable change in man. Remarkable, because it offers man the opportunity to substitute justice for instinct and give his actions the morality it formerly lacked. In this condition, man is forced to act on different principles and to consult his reason than his inclinations. Thus, Rousseau acknowledged that man existing in the civil state achieves a superior type of freedom, though limited by the general will. This general will give man a moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself. And man is free when he makes use of his reason properly. Because to obey our appetite is slavery, but to obey a law, which we prescribe to ourselves, is liberty.18

More so, M.I. Nwoko observes, that as the social contract gives rise to the existence and life of the body politic, the law gives it motion and direction.19  This suggests that the law controls the affairs of men in the civil state. Most importantly, Rousseau aptly discloses that as the law is the rule established by the whole people for the whole people, the object of the law is always general. It considers subjects “en masse” and actions in the abstract.20

However, because laws come as terms of association, the people who are subject to the laws ought to be their author. Thus, Rousseau explains, that the conditions of managing the society ought to be regulated solely by those who came together to form them.21 On the other hand, Rousseau emphasises, that though the general will is always right, it needs a legislator to enlighten and guide it. This legislator should not capitalise on this function, and make laws that infringe on the right of the people. To guide against this, Rousseau says that all laws must be passed by the consent of the people. Therefore, Rousseau reduces the goal of every law to two main objects: “liberty and equality.”22 Put differently, the law is made to check against bondage and inequality, thus promote freedom and equality. Rousseau, then, classifies laws into political law, civil law, criminal law and moral, custom, public opinion.


According to Rousseau, the body politic functions with the concurrence of two powers; ‘force’ and ‘will’. The ‘will’ is attributive to the legislative power, which belongs to the people and to them alone. And ‘force’ is placed under the executive power; a power that cannot belong to a collective body, because it performs particular actions. However, Rousseau says that an agent is needed to bind the public force and set it to work under the direction of the general will of the sovereign. Rousseau immediately finds in ‘government’ the qualities of the agent needed. Thus, he appropriates government as the agent and goes ahead to delineate its functions in these lines:

An intermediate body set up between the subject and the sovereign, to secure their mutual correspondence, charged with the execution of the laws and the maintenance of liberty, both civil and political.23

One should not be surprised that Rousseau called government an agent, because he had earlier concentrated supreme power on the sovereign; the collective body. Therefore, government becomes a mere means through which the sovereign achieves its goals. Hence, Rousseau submits that in relation to the people the government is only under commission or employment and never on contract. Nevertheless, Rousseau calls the members of this government magistrates or kings. They are only agents of the sovereign and have to perform its function according to the dictates of the sovereign or have their powers revoked

On the other hand, Rousseau distinguishes three major forms of government according to the number of the members constituted in them. These three forms are democracy, Aristocracy and Monarchy. It is democracy when the sovereign places the government in the hands of the whole people or majority of them. Aristocracy, when the government is restricted to a small number of men. And monarchy, if the government is left in the hands of a single magistrate, from whom all others hold their power. Rousseau, however, warns that all forms of government do not suit all countries.24 It all depends on the nature of the country in question. Furthermore, Rousseau aptly presents some parameters for recognising a good government. A government is good if it meets the ends of political association, which is the preservation and prosperity of its members.  Hence in a question form he submits:

What is the end of political association? The preservation and prosperity of its members …. The rest being equal the government under which without external aids, without naturalisation or colonies, the citizens increase and multiply most is beyond question the best. The government, which a people wanes and diminishes, is the worst.25

It is now left to us, Rousseau emphasises to count, to measure and to compare with our own government. This objective is the paramount task we shall tackle in the chapter ahead.  


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