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Bimbo Manuel

Chapters: Democracy? Take It, Damn It! (II)


It does not take the same mental effort needed to calculate the distance between Agenebode and the moon to work out why the Republicans of America are so vehemently supporting Donald J Trump in his present impeachment imbroglio. It is not a lot more than the consideration for the 2020 elections, the people power Trump wields in their individual constituencies and their own desires to return to Congress. They are aware of the dominant mood on the streets in their individual states. That is the full description of the power of the people.

Otherwise, I do not believe that Americans are not so dishonourable as to so openly support such misdemeanour in their president. Donald Trump has America by the proverbial balls. He has usurped the power of the people by sheer magical salesmanship. He has assumed the tyranny of the people, inherent in a democracy and appropriated it to himself. So he is the King of America and all he has to do is scream on the lawn of the White House, ‘The scum want to get rid of me because I am fighting for you!’. Democracy in today’s America in the Trump era is far worse than Nigeria’s worst democracy.

The Republicans in the Congress and the Party stand in fear of what Trump can say or do or not that will potentially change their electoral fortunes. That situation over in the United States is not the vision of the founding fathers of the Land of the Free.

It is in the same way that no word has been uttered in dissent against President Buhari’s failings in governance. The Party, APC, stands impotent as the president plods along trying to solve the problems that in his own estimation are the most troubling for Nigeria even as he by his actions, drags the nation closer by the day to the edge of a complete breakdown. Even when we are willing to make excuses for them and him, the actions whittle at our democracy slowly with the dripping regularity of water from a faulty tap. The reason may not be far-fetched, the combined fear of EFCC, ICPC and the aspirations of those who are lining up to take over from President Buhari. And so all is deafeningly silent.

If we insist on the strictest definitions of democracy, power of the people, predictable operation of the system, true checks and balance of power, considerate policies that derive from the aspirations and demands of the people, then we should ask questions but we cannot since we are have been conditioned now to be afraid of EFCC and DSS.

So we whisper, grumble and curse at beer parlours and small gatherings and when we are exhausted, drink a little more. It is the only way we can remain safe and free.

Let us be clear, no one, no government, especially in Africa will condone any of its citizens preaching a revolution. If that is what Sowore has done, then the government is right and responsible to have taken him to court. However, anyone will be hard put explaining the continued detention of Sowore and Bakare as democratic. It flouts the authority of the law and court, the Judiciary, the third and independent leg of the democratic system we operate. It assaults one of the most basic description of that principle, the right to freedom of expression and the right to dissent within the ambit of the law. To deny that right and to resist the opinion of the court is tantamount to the declaration of a dictatorship. It violates and invades the sanctum of the third and co-equal member of the democratic triumvirate, the Judiciary, to violently arrest the same Sowore and Bakare in a law court, so violently that the judge needed to be smuggled out to protect her from hard from any careless discharge of an out-of-control gun of the men of the Department of State Service. The versions of the incident are as diverse as there are witnesses but if the president has not spoken or taken clear action to condemn the act, he is himself complicit and leaves us little choice than to assume that they were doing his bidding.

It cannot be democratic to demand by any official act or utterance that the same people who voted you into office be afraid of you. It is authoritarian, autocratic, oppressive and of regressive consequences to the country we all gave commitment to build after the reign of Kings Abacha, Babangida, Idiagbon and Buhari.

It is disdainful for any elected officer to refuse to address the people when they are clearly concerned about an issue and this Buhari government has been anything but open with public conversation, information and creating real town hall environments to connect with the people. It is a major failing of the Ministry of Information. It is another indicator of the indifference that accompanies oppressive and dictatorial governments. Clearly, this cannot be a democracy.

When government policies are designed to solicit votes in future elections and not to make the people’s lives better, it is not a democracy, it seeks only to perpetuate itself in office to further oppress the people and fulfil the selfish agenda of the people who operate it.

It reminds us so poignantly of the openly stated commitment of Senators Graham and McConnel to defend Trump in the Senate and ensure that any impeachment motion fails. Power given by the people used in disregard oof the people to oppress the people.

A government is more respected, trusted and supported when its actions and its officials are predictable in their reactions to the law, the constitution and good morals. The Buhari government cannot in good conscience lay any claim to applying the same standard in dealing with friend and political foe. Actions that breed distrust and resistance litter the political space and official impunity pervades the entire terrain. The crime-fighting offices have rapidly built a Gestapo-type reputation for themselves and the people are scared. If that was the intention, this government has succeeded.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo said, ‘Those who desire to reach and keep their places at the top in any calling must be prepared to do so the hard way’.

An elected member of our National Assembly even tabled a bill that asked for a death penalty for hate speech! Yet, our Vice President, an erudite scholar of law has been loudly silent on not just this, but almost all questions of law and infraction. Clearly, political considerations have assumed greater import than what is constitutional, legal and moral. He is a practising pastor.

But I say nothing new, nothing that great students and opinion leaders of our society have not said, scholars, politicians, journalists, market-women and students. If so many people are saying the same thing, then in a normal society, a normal government would pause to take stock, adjust its own strategies and seek to work itself back into the hearts of the people. This government, however, seems committed to its own cause, as if it dares anyone to do their worst, after all, this is their final term.

It is the reason that my sights are fixed on the failure not of government but of the people. A people that does not understand that power resides on the streets is a failed society. A people resigned to waiting for the next election is in jeopardy of suffering the same fate over and over again. When we look too far into the distance, we tend to lose sight of the objects that are right in front of our noses.

It cannot be right that a Ward Councillor in Surulere lives in Lekki or one responsible for a ward in Gwagwalada lives in Wuse 2. He cannot know when the drains are blocked or the street has become unsafe. The Federal Representative and State House of Assembly member for Surulere cannot maintain nominal offices in the local government while their homes are in Lekki or Banana Island. Their ideas of the needs of the people will always be warped and their constituency projects ill-advised, white elephants designed to be showy rather than effective and tailored to address real needs.

You cannot blame them, the people have abdicated their own political responsibility to protect themselves and their votes. Vote protection does not start and end at the polling station as is usually chorused during elections, it extends to insisting that the representatives listen and act in our interest, not give undeserved money to touts and political jobbers to make noise of them as if they speak for us.

Indeed, anyone may seek to impose a candidate on a people. It is their rightful aspiration in my opinion. It is also the prerogative of the people to resist, not necessarily by wielding cutlasses and cudgels but by refusing to vote for anyone they are not convinced about, no matter who their patrons are. But the people are hungry, what more can they do than collect the ‘agege bread’ and five hundred naira ‘thanks for coming’ tip?

The people must be able to organize themselves into neighbourhood pressure groups, able to call errant Councilors to order in ways that they do not themselves have to travel to the Local Government Office to make their grievance known – the Councillor should be able to deliver the message with clarity and power. That is why he was elected. If it is a state matter, no one should be travelling to the capital to protest to the governor, the local government chairman and the councillor, working with the local state assembly member should be able to articulate it to the governor in a manner that its urgency and importance to the people is clearly conveyed. The governor, under appropriate pressure from the assembly member, the local government chairman and the local councillor should be able to articulate the needs and displeasure of the people of his state to the president with the support of the state representatives and senators so that they return with favourable results that benefit the people. It is the only way the Party can continue to win. We all do not have to gather at Freedom Square for the president to be reminded that many of us are not happy.

In a country like Nigeria, the needs of the people are very basic – potable water, power long enough to do profitable things and live a decent life, education that lifts us out of crass ignorance, affordable transportation to enable us and our farm products move around in reasonable expectation of making a decent living, in fact just the basics that other societies take for granted. We just want to live. Any government that has the people at heart must first attend to those issues before any other high ideas and policies.

We the people do not really care when one politician arrests another politician for stealing. We know he too will steal at the first opportunity. We do not care how much is in our accounts abroad because we do not understand what it does to water supply, how it affects police, kidnappers and robbers or the price of the yam grown in Makurdi. We just want to eat, sleep soundly, make love, send children to schools that help them to become a pride to us. That is all. Other things can be added when we have these and it will make sense.

In a city like Lagos, we must begin to understand that traffic is not caused by bad roads and insane drivers alone. A lack of an organized, respectable, predictable and penetrative mass transit system that people in Ikoyi and Ajegunle will not mind riding on along with the inexplicable and immoral mentality that owning and always riding in a car represents success have a great impact on a city with such limited space at its disposal. It cannot be so complex to understand that Lekki, Ajah, Sangotedo, Victoria Island and Ikoyi are in dire need of an organized mass transit system that will be comfortable and attractive enough, predictable enough for the Ikoyi/VI/Lekki crowd not to turn their stuffy noses at. I know it will cut traffic in that axis by half, especially in the crazy high periods. Even Abuja, our brand new city, the pride of Nigeria, does not have one! How do we even think sef? Why do we seem so stuck in the 16th century?

No Nigerian political party will help the people to organize themselves in such ways that they can effectively influence government decisions and actions. The people have to consciously act in defence of themselves, in full understanding of their inalienable rights permitted in that sacred document that opens with, ‘We the People…’, aware that the phrase refers to them and not the rulers.

In the final consideration of all, democracy is the full description of the will, aspirations and freedom of the people. In our case as Nigerians, we must exercise care so that we do not trade yesterday’s slavery and oppression by foreigners for today’s domination by self-imposed local powers.

We must think again and understand that the effect of power wielded by the disinterested, the greedy, the mean, the kleptomaniac, the immoral, the idle, the religious bigot, the ethnic chauvinist, the selfish and the clueless, is not selective of tribe, religion or affiliation of any other description.

They care only for themselves and we the people must act to take back our democracy or we regress into a base, barbaric mob, reacting only to the basest of animal stimuli.

We should extend the interrogation of elected persons to the neighbourhood and concern ourselves more with putting their feet to the fire.

Democracy is the people understanding that we are all called to participate in governance not by tearing at one another because we seek advantage for our ethnicity or religion; it is the clear understanding that if a government is bad for one, it is bad for all. Democracy is a game of numbers but the interpretation of the numbers must remember the words of the late sage, Obafemi Awolowo, ‘the children of the poor you failed to train will never let your own children have peace’. It goes beyond education, so when government goodness favours some, even a majority, we must remember to percolate it all the way down or we breed trouble. It is the only way we will have peace and true growth.

Finally, ‘when falsehood becomes an institution, truth looks like rebellion’ (Anonymous). Irresponsible journalism or unbridled vituperation that hold potential to destroy our nation or bring our leadership into disrepute must be abhorred but the same vigour must be applied to nurturing an environment where truth, liberty and citizen confidence feed happiness. That, will be the true dividend of democracy.


Manuel, a Nollywood star, writes from Lagos

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