by Chidi Amuta
In the relationship between government and people in Nigeria’s curious democracy, there is an assurance of reciprocal bad blood. The broad masses of Nigerians hold the government and those who drive it in irredeemable disdain. Government in our midst is like the village witch. The easiest way to hang a witch is to accuse him of responsibility for multiple calamities. So, in our polity, government is responsible for every negativity ranging from flood disasters to harmattan haze and rising instances of testicular cancer in middle-aged men. Or miscarriages among destitute women!
The other side is no better. Our governments, at nearly all levels, are at best embarrassingly indifferent and condescending to the people. In the parlance recently made popular by President Goodluck Jonathan himself, government people ‘don’t give a damn’ about the people. In their view, the people complain too much. You cannot satisfy them. They want government to do everything for them ranging from giving them subsidy for multiple wives to scholarships for limitless offspring. Among the people, government people think, there are too many pocket book critics and professional grumblers. The bulk of those who speak out on radio phone-in programmes and ask silly questions that border on accountability and good governance are just plain troublemakers.
But in their quiet moments, politicians in power admit that they may not be meeting the expectations of the masses. Once that admission is made, it is time to find a scapegoat. State governors blame the federals for holding back too much oil money, which they waste on fuel subsidy to their friends and private jets for their girlfriends. The federals blame the global economic meltdown or the states for being too ambitious in their projects. Everybody blames everybody and in the process our collective commonwealth dwindles as public accountability is replaced by creative accounting. While the blames crisscross, the turnover in the corruption industry has left the millions to billions and is hovering at the trillion mark.
As matters stand, I think that the fractured relationship between government and people as the keystone of democracy may lie at the root of our troubles as a nation. In a democracy, the reciprocal obligation between government and people defines a social contract. We vote for you and cede our rights. In return, we expect that you will protect us one from the other. We expect that you will replace our collective urge for self-destruction with an overriding force for collective protection and good. That is politics 101.
But in contemporary Nigeria, something terrible has happened. The social contract has been replaced by a transactional ethos. Pay us and we vote for you. When you get there, recoup your ‘investment’ and behave badly if you like. When you come back to renew your mandate in four years’ time, we will increase the price tag for the mandate, adjusting it for inflation, exchange rate fluctuation. As it were, it is, in crass banal parlance, ‘pay as you enter’ and ‘carry go’. Period.
Under this transactional regime, a new market place language has replaced our patrimonial relationship to the fatherland. You hear it at these all too frequent fancy seminars and read it in the papers. There is now something constantly called the ‘Nigerian project’, not the Nigerian nation. Those empowered by elective democracy to run the affairs of the nation are now its ‘drivers’. Its main subscribers, the rest of us, are called ‘stake holders’. The contributions of those who are paid to work for the public good are now ‘value addition’. Through this linguistic vandalism and utter mayhem, the elite has perhaps unwittingly advanced the progressive death of the nation and lent credence to those who have predicted that in a few years’ time, ‘this house will not be standing.’
It is time to loudly and vehemently protest this invasion of public discourse by the language of the market place. A nation is not a project for God’s sake. When a project, like a joint stock company, fails, its drivers and subscribers disperse to lick their wounds or count their losses. Not so a nation. A nation is a perpetual patrimony, something we find at birth and are obligated to improve upon before handing it over to our children in infinity. In today’s interconnected world, no nation fails alone. Each nation that fails or falls takes a few others, even in unexpected places, along with it. Gadhafi’s Libya fell and unleashed those huge guns. The repercussion nearly took down Mali and threatened Nigeria and Algeria with apocalyptic violence. Not even the West was spared. That is why French soldiers are killing terrorists in the African desert.
The people of a nation are not stakeholders whose interest is defined and limited by the extent of their stake. They are citizens. Citizens have inalienable rights as well as obligations. The perennial existence of the nation is their most abiding interest and stake. If a nation fails, citizens have no place to hide or call home. If it works, we all thrive even if differentially according to class and circumstance. The collapse of national discourse, which has come with the invasion of this bad language, has its origins in the tragic iterations of our Alibaba politics.
The pathological rascality of Nigerian politicians lies at the root of it all. The elections that emplace our leaders have little to do with the will of the people. Leaders just emerge. This tragic irony somehow marks out Nigeria’s strange democracy from most other democratic traditions. The essential difference is this: in the best traditions, the people vote for politicians. In Nigeria, most politicians literally ‘vote’ for themselves and arrange the outcome they desire or have paid for. In a familiar tragic and ironic twist, the successful election rigger turns around to thank the people for their massive support and mandate! Our system therefore literally awards positions to political animals irrespective of their origins.
The informal assurance that cliques of rascals and gangsters can just come to power irrespective of what the people feel has created a governance culture of impunity and reckless insensitivity on the part of a great majority of elected political leaders. The result is a curious notion of the relationship between government and people as inhabiting two separate realms.
Even the colonial overlords cared about the feelings of the colonised because their taxes, produce and tributes sustained the colonial enterprise. The difference is that the colonialists did not claim to be mandated by anybody other than their home governments. So, colonial subjects were neither ‘people’ nor citizens in the way electoral democracy defines us. There was, so to say, no social contract between subject and overlord. But there was an appropriate transactional relationship: I pay your taxes, you protect me from yourself.
Right now, computations about 2015 are the rave. It is perhaps a healthy indicator about the future of democracy in this place that most people eat and breathe politics. But politicians hardly care about the people except as statistics for vote winning and rigging.
In all the computations that I have seen yet, the dynamics of our demographics do not count: the predominantly young population and their needs for jobs, opportunity, prospects, promise and hope do not matter. The percentage of our people that are seniors does not matter. The pension liability to our retirees does not matter. The health care costs of a youthful population that will one day get old does not interest our politicians. No one is doing the projections on internal migrations. Where are people going to, never to return? Which cities are growing in population and why? Which areas are being deserted and why? Why are people fleeing certain places and flocking to others? These are the kinds of informed questions that ought to define the politicians’ engagement with the people.
Soon after the elections have taken place, everyone runs off in the direction of the winner. No one waits to analyse the results against the background of real factors. The outcomes of our elections end up as embarrassing travesties of electoral democracy. In some cases, states have been known to record more votes than their total population. In some places, total votes cast have exceeded the populations of those dead, alive and unborn. In other places, Mike Tyson, Idi Amin, Emperor Bokassa, Bill Clinton and other impossible ‘Nigerians’ have shown up in voter registers and have actually ‘voted’ for the candidate that saw to it that they showed up in the register in the first place. No one is prosecuted for electoral fraud. The fruit of victory and the bile of defeat consume actors, spectators and referees alike.
There is therefore a fictional essence to the Nigerian politician’s concept of the people. ‘We the people’ do not exist the way real people exist. The constitution begins with ‘We, the people’ alright. But most of us do not know we are involved in the whole alien festival called government. But we do exist perhaps the way phantoms do, objects in the imagination, which people quietly acknowledge and disbelieve to their peril. Ghosts and ancestors ‘exist’ but you can go against their wishes without the prospect of immediate sanctions. So do the people in Nigeria. But in other real democracies, the people do exist as an objective reality. Do their wish and watch your poll ratings soar. Go against their wishes and kiss the state house and free rides good bye. That ought to be the fundamental relationship between the rulers and the ruled in a proper democracy.
But something is changing without our willing it. So much atrocity is committed daily in the name of the people. It is the sheer weight of these atrocities that has helped in creating a fast changing people helped along by the force of new technologies. The masses are gradually finding a voice. But it is a rough voice. Only recently, President Jonathan’s nattering mob of court defenders had cause to revolt against the roughness of the people’s voice in the social media. Here was a president that was hyped and hailed as the first product of a new generation that communicates their patriotism via Facebook and the Internet. Now, less than 10% of reactions in the social media to our governance see anything good in the man and his running of Nigeria. The rest is an unprintable cocktail of abuses, curses and plain insult.
Our politicians may not like the new voice of the people. As a solution, maybe we should try abolishing the people for a change!
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Chidi Amuta