by Ikemesit Effiong
A fool and his money are soon elected. – Will Rogers
Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have. – Winston Churchill
In the classical democratic tradition as instituted by the ancient Greeks, inherited by the Romans, re-discovered by medieval Europeans and achieving its highest form of expression in the political practice of the United States of America, the doctrine of checks and balances was birthed, carefully nurtured and through trial and error, ascended to become the cornerstone of any serious attempt at participatory governance.
In its simplest terms,the doctrine of checks and balances is the principle of government under which separate branches are empowered to prevent overreaches by other branches and are induced to share power.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica in emphasizing its paramount position as the raison d’être of every democracy, states that checks and balances “are of fundamental importance in tripartite governments, which separate powers among legislative, executive, and judicial branches.” Nigeria as I love to say is no exception.
Hidden as always in all the political texts, commentary, analyses and mantra about the doctrines of checks and balances is a fundamental assumption – that the citizenry will be active participants in the determination of important questions concerning their lives. Prominent Polish activist and founder of the Solidarity movement, Lech Walesa once famously said “Open the cans of power, let the people enter in.”
Having said all that, the Nigerian experience has been characterized by what I call an ‘active passiveness’ by the electorate towards issues of governance. It may stem from our not being in the ‘habit of democracy’ or from the erroneous belief that what happens in Aso Rock and the National Assembly complex “is their business, for me, I have my own life to live.” I stated in the first piece in this series however, that this attitude has its source in the monumental disappointment of ordinary Nigerians with the fruits of our democratic experiment. I will allow Walesa speak again.
“It is hardly possible to build anything if frustration, bitterness and a mood of helplessness prevail.”
It is indisputable that we need to build a new Nigeria with its anchors in the open and mature practice of politics, sound policy implementation and governance, world class infrastructure, secure external borders and an even safer living environment internall, a highly motivated workforce, a technologically advanced economy powered by a booming middle class, excellent educational opportunities and acceptable living standards for all.
We must also recognize that just sitting by and hoping that all of that will happen is akin to Alice just saying at home, as against being at her chores when she found Wonderland.
How do we ensure that we are at our duty post, watering, nurturing and carefully tending to our democracy ensuring that it grows to be strong, virile and even more importantly, sustainable. I would make a few suggestions as to what YOU, yes YOU can do.
Your first stop in this regard will be to become acquainted with some of the key documents that define the political relationships as they presently exist.
Every Nigerian should have a copy and read the 1999 Constitution. I first read a Constitution (the 1987 version) when I was nine years old. Naturally, I didn’t understand a lot of it but I sha read it. A prominent blogivist (It’s a word – a weird combo of blogger and activist) was stunned when I confidently told him that you can’t sue the government because it didn’t build a road. You wanna know why? Buy and read Chapter 2 and section 6(6) (c) of the Constitution. You thought I’d spoon feed you? Not a chance! Not when a typical Constitution costs between N250 to N500.
I will make a queer addition to your ‘To-Read’ list. Please read the PDP Constitution. Why? Because that party has ruled you for 13years and may keep doing so for some time to come. It will provide you context when you read about their internal wrangling on the pages of the morning papers.
I found it a bit odd hearing people speak from uniformed positions during the pendency of the Third Term and the rotation principle debacles. You now get what I mean right? A lot of the PDP’s practice is undocumented anyway – case in point, why has Babaginda Aliyu, the Niger State Governor not produced the written agreement purportedly signed between the President and the ‘Northern governors’ – but it is a good starting point.
Secondly, provide yourself with access to other sources of political education. Watch legislative proceedings as broadcast on television if PHCN will permit you, listen to political discourses, read political commentary in the papers and on news sites including but not restricted to yours truly, The Scoop.
Read primary sources as your wallet permits you. If there’s a shouting match over Chinua Achebe, buy a copy of ‘There was a Country’, if it’s about Nasir el-Rufai, get your own ‘The Accidental Public Servant’ and read for yourself.
Learn how to engage in rational political discussions offline and online, not the insult-laden, context-bereft and historically ignorant shouting acts that now define political engagements on Twitter.
You also can check out BudgIT’s groundbreaking work. Their info graphics will provide an understanding of our nation’s cashbook and financial activities in ways that just looking at the numbers will never reveal.
Thirdly, in embarking on all these, have a critical mindset. Don’t just swallow words and opinions like balls of eba. There’s something a friend of mine always does: figuring out what the writer did not say – whether deliberately or inadvertently. Have a questioning attitude to everything. Ask yourself, why does he/she/them want me to accept this? The answers may surprise you. Do not accept the mindset of cooperation by way of non-inquiry. That will be amount to reducing you to the level of a mute. Instead, be mulish.
Finally, I will say something that a lot of you may not have considered. Write to the Senator representing your senatorial district and the Representative representing your constituency. Yes! You heard right. I can confidently declare that 9 out of 10 Nigerians do not know the name of their representatives in the National Assembly.
You can rant on Twitter and vacillate on your WordPress blog account but the vast majority of your legislators are not that ‘exposed’. Less that 10% of Nigerian lawmakers have a social media account. I could not laugh enough when a notable senator (names withheld) couldn’t pronounce Twitter during a legislative hearing on the activities of Nigerians on social media.
And if you didn’t know that the guys in the Three Arms Zone are concerned about what you’re doing online, your paradise is more comfortable than Alice’s.
If you are that ignorant, you’re a worthy participant in the sham that is Nigerian democracy. Google his or her name up (some of you will have to make offline enquiries because your Rep. is so silent and anonymous that no newspaper website or news site has ever cited him and hence, he has no online trail) and write to them.
The importance of going through the pain of politically educating yourself is because when the war is lost in the mind, it is only a matter of time before the physical reality catches up. And for the vast majority of our fellow Nigerians, that battle has been won in their minds by the forces of myopia, nepotism, bigotry and the omnipotence of fate. We have to reverse that trend.
In the concluding part of the series, I will enunciate the stark choices that face us if we continue to wallow in our present political naiveté.
I leave you with the words of famed Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri.
“The magician and the politician have much in common: they both have to draw our attention away from what they are really doing.”