By Benzak Uzuegbu
I watched the movie V for Vendetta years ago. A line said by the main protagonist caught my attention and has refused to leave me till this day. It goes thus: “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
I have pondered over the line for years and have come to the conclusion that it clearly captures what democracy is or should be – that is: “a government of the people, by the people, for the people”. This means that We the people should have the ability to place representatives in power, and also remove them from power when the position is abused or taken lightly, and should therefore be feared and respected.
Fear and respect of the people forms the true bedrock of democracy. When the government fears the people and recognises their rights and power, there is liberty, and the government keeps it promises and performs. But when the people fear the government or when a government is not concerned with serving the people, there is tyranny and non-performance.
Unfortunately, our sham of a democracy has turned the bedrock of democracy on its head. Democracy, as practiced in this part of the world, is laden with the electorate being morbidly afraid of the government. As a result, rather than canvas for our votes, we are intimidated with the force of arms. Rather than woo us with policy talk and concrete plans, we are bamboozled with stale talk on corruption and past mistakes, while the same anti-corruption preachers go ahead to corrupt the electoral process by offering bribes for votes. Rather than give Nigerians the life we deserve, poverty has been weaponised, so we have people who are afraid of tomorrow and would rather sell their votes for a few naira to guaranty survival today. Rather than government to perform and keep promises, promises are cancelled and the press is intimidated and warned not to critique its performance.
Although we have been socialised to believe that all is well, if you look behind the glossy façade of our democracy, all you will see is a murky system so rigged that the honest and upright majority are practically giving up. I watched, live on Facebook, as voters went on a spree of destruction – out of frustration – after the Ekiti election, burning and cutting up their voter’s card when it became clear their votes didn’t count in the areas where they voted.
In our self-styled democracy, the executive, in a bid to have its way, has continued to undermine the two other equal arms of government, by attacking the integrity of the institutions of justice and the National Assembly. The homes of our justices were invaded gestapo-style in the deep of the night and they were treated like common criminals. When our justices pronounce judgment or grant bails, they are routinely ignored, with fellow citizens kept under lock and key, even though the government promised to uphold the rule of law.
The National Assembly is worse hit. It is the arm of government which has suffered from military adventurism in the past and continues to suffer today. The reason is simple: When the military strikes, the Constitution is suspended, the National Assembly disbanded and the interventionist force rules through decrees made by fiat. Unfortunately, for the likes of President Obasanjo and President Buhari, who came back wearing borrowed robes, they had and continue to have a hell of a time trying to get their agenda through, because in a democracy, laws are not made by fiat but via consultations and agreement. So they resort to de-marketing the National Assembly in a bid to make the institution appear redundant and ineffective. In continuation of that onslaught today, the Senate and House of Representatives pass resolutions that are ignored, while their leaders are hounded.
All this has undermined our democracy right before our very eyes.
At the root of the problem is the fact that many Nigerians lack a basic understanding of what democracy is. We need to know our institutions, our representative democracy, our obligation to the next generation, and what each of us can and must do to preserve our democracy. Ask Nigerians what democracy is and the general consensus you will get is that democracy is the power to vote. However, voting every four years is not democracy, but merely one expression of the democratic process. Voting is important – but not enough. Without the protection of human rights, civil engagement with our representatives, participation of civil society, the right to protest and the rule of law, in which all citizens are subjected equally to the same laws and procedures, there is no democracy but tyranny.
Unfortunately, in this “era of change” where we have a Senior Advocate of Nigeria as vice president, votes are bought, human rights are trampled on routinely, Nigerians are locked up indefinitely, the press and civil society groups are often fearful of making their voices heard for fear of victimisation, and common thieves meet justice in the marketplace, while elite looters evade jail or justice by joining the governing party.
Can we really build a strong virile democracy with all the shenanigans going on? With our democracy endangered, we cannot afford to be resigned or complacent; we all have to get involved at the local level immediately, making our voice heard and trying to change the dangerous trajectory our society and democracy is headed.
We have to sit back and ask ourselves honestly, if this was the change we voted for? Do we deserve better? Is it right for fellow citizens to be locked up despite the pronouncement of Courts? Are our lives and the lives of our fellow Nigerian more secure now than before? Is it right for us to be afraid of government rather than the government being afraid of us? Are we better off now than before?
We must also begin to engage our leaders and hold them accountable at all levels. All elected representatives, when they come back seeking our votes, must give account of their stewardship. If you are upset about the influence exerted by special interests; if you are upset about the actions of a public official; if you are upset about the condition of your local school; even if you are upset about a pothole in front of your house, make your grievances known. This is the only way to make our government responsive to We the people.
We must as a matter of urgency begin to insist that policy discussions and debates take place now, rather than blatant noise and showboating. It is sad that although we are in the election season, and a few months to elections proper, there has been no policy discussion offered by the president seeking reelection nor his challengers, except save for Kingsley Moghalu.
You and I deserve quality leadership at all strata. Michael Willian in his article “complacency is a threat to democracy” says: “What Nigerian politics needs more than anything else is the involvement of middle class professionals, because they are unlikely to be bought off by bags of rice and will be held accountable by their peers. That is where the real change will be made – when local wards and constituencies are controlled by conscientious citizens who democratically select the candidates to face the ballot box. That’s when Nigerians will be able to choose between a doctor and an architect, a local entrepreneur or a head teacher – all level-headed people – instead of the unsavoury touts and hangers-on who are forced upon us currently.”
Now is not the time to lose hope, now is not the time to destroy or burn your PVC. It is time to dig deep and insist WE the People, must be respected, feared and our votes must count come 2019.
Benzak Uzuegbu, an estate surveyor and valuer, writes from Lagos.