We, the people-Punch

IN one of his memorable works, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Afrobeat music genre pioneer and human rights activist, sang:

“My people self dey fear too much

We fear to fight for freedom

We fear to fight for liberty

We fear to fight for justice

We fear to fight for happiness…”

What runs through the mind of the average Nigerian when he/she sees the television images of ordinary Ukrainians marching for freedom? Or of Turks asserting their rights in the face of a government they view as authoritarian? Apparently not the evergreen lyrics of the Nigerian musician quoted above.

Last week, some groups of women took to the streets in a few cities across the country to protest the killings of over 50 schoolchildren in Yobe State and the abduction of 25 girls in Borno State by Boko Haram terror sect last month. Though symbolic, their action should make other Nigerians come to terms with the stark reality that democracy can only thrive where there is civic consciousness and where the people are prepared to claim their rights by all legal means.

Worldwide, there is an increasing recognition that citizen involvement is critical in enhancing democratic governance, improving service delivery and fostering empowerment. “Demand for Good Governance,” says the World Bank, “refers to the ability of citizens, civil society organisations and other non-state actors to hold the state accountable and make it responsive to their needs.” But here, democracy is not delivering on the universally accepted dividends of liberty and popular participation for two main reasons.

The most palpable is the incredibly incompetent, corrupt and visionless leadership. The second is an equally complacent and complicit citizenry. There is, however, nowhere that democracy is entrenched as a self-sustaining system of government on a platter. Where it thrives, representative government is sustained by the will of the people and their readiness, when necessary, to make sacrifices to protect their cherished freedoms through all legal means. To enjoy the benefits of democracy, Nigerians will have to rouse themselves from their insufferable lethargy, shake off their pre-occupation with self, ethnicity and narrow sectarianism, and stop deifying those who, by means fair or foul, occupy public office.

History and contemporary events teach that no democratic system is safe from attacks on basic freedoms, from incompetent governments or from unpopular government measures. What has seen democracies grow in strength over the centuries, despite the imperfections of man-made structures, has been the dynamism of the people. Let Nigerians learn from the US where civil rights movements, pressure groups and class action law suits help to deepen democracy. From protests over police oppression to the Occupy Wall Street marches, Americans regularly assert their right to be heard and to shape public policy. No French government toys with popular clamour since 1789 and, just recently, President Francois Hollande backed down on a proposed family law following sustained public protests. In Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland, major issues such as joining the Euro zone are subjected to referendum.

But in Nigeria, public officials get away with anything, including murder — such as when their vehicle convoys kill people. It is difficult to imagine that people will watch helplessly in any other democracy when elections are so brazenly rigged and billions of dollars plundered as the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation is revealed to be doing. When the Executive arm of government loses touch with the people and the parliament has a majority concerned solely with self-enrichment and self-promotion, the people suffer.

For over two decades, Nigeria has been importing petrol, despite being a major crude oil producer; kerosene is unavailable and legislators appropriate so much to themselves. Turkish people have been in a year-long peaceful protest against perceived creeping authoritarianism by the government, including street rallies lately against new laws to tighten government’s control over the internet. Rival groups of citizens have been staging mass street protests in Thailand since December 2013.

In Ukraine, mass protests have ousted President Viktor Yanukovych from power, forced changes in some laws and restored power to the people. Ukrainians were part of the “colour revolutions” that swept autocrats out of power in 2004-2010 in former Soviet republics. In Russia itself, ordinary people are staging peaceful demonstrations in continuation of the “Snow Revolution” of 2011 against electoral fraud, despite persecution, jailing and police violence. In repressive, one-party state, China, activists seeking civil rights, democracy and a halt to corruption have, since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, used symbolic walks, blogs and other social media to peacefully press for inclusion and accountability.

Democracy requires mass participation and a resolve by everyone to preserve their freedoms through peaceful means. This translates to refusal to accept false election results as Ukrainians did in 2004 and when Filipinos swept Corazon Aquino to power through People Power in 1986 after rejecting Ferdinand Marcos’ attempt to rig the presidential poll. Nigerians must overcome the timidity that allows state governors and godfathers to solely determine who represents them by rigging elections. Democracy is a sham where the majority of “elected” officials are actually not the people’s choices.

There are ways people peacefully can demand their rights and accountability. Peaceful assemblies, rallies and marches are guaranteed under the 1999 Constitution and the Court of Appeal has affirmed this in a landmark judgement. Police insistence on permit is a flagrant abrogation of that right and should be resisted through law suits. Class Action suits — where a group of citizens jointly seek legal protection of rights — have played important roles in America’s civil rights and constitutional development. In China where the state is heavy handed, rights activists organise symbolic “walks”, wear same colour arm bands or scarves and stage plays and concerts to press for democratic reforms. In South Africa, dubbed the “protest capital of the world,” there were 540 protests in its Gauteng province alone in April and May 2013.

Villagers, community associations and groups can organise a procession to their councillors and local government chairmen to demand that roads be tarred, mini waterworks built and garbage cleared. Legislators at the state and federal levels should be confronted regularly to justify their pay. Officials are servants of the people, not their masters.

This is the time for Nigerians to regain their voice by re-enacting the heroic past. Under colonial rule, Aba women resisted oppressive taxes followed later by Egba women, under the indomitable Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti; Michael Imoudu led Nigerian workers in a nationwide strike; Mbonu Ojike’s “boycott the boycottables” campaign opposed European monopolies on goods and culture; and the late Gani Fawehinmi campaigned relentlessly through the courts and public protests against military dictators and civilian oppressors. Nigerian students at home and abroad marched for freedom. In the North, Aminu Kano, Joseph Tarka and Ibrahim Imam led mass movements to resist oppression by the dominant elite. Throughout the periods of military rule, students, trade unionists, academics, professionals and even clerics, peacefully, but doggedly, rose for the rights and the dignity of all Nigerians. The Fourth Republic was the culmination of those peaceful struggles that gained impetus after the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election.

We must face the brutal truth: There is no external force or Messiah that will come galloping on a white horse to rescue Nigerians from corrupt leadership, election riggers and thieving parliamentarians.  The lesson across the world is that people get the kind of leaders they are willing to tolerate. Unless Nigerians rise above fear, deification of leaders, and primordial sentiments to demand accountability, the prevailing awful quality of governance, poverty and misery will continue to thrive.

Edmund Burke, an Irish statesman and philosopher, aptly summed it this way: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

 

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