For most students of political science, one of the most known poems is, or should be, “Politics” by W. B. Yeats. It is a short poem of one stanza written in 1938, in which Yeats challenges and refutes Thomas Mann’s perspective about the centrality of politics in the life an individual. Like in a dialogue, “Politics” opens with Thomas Mann’s words in an epigraph:
In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms
Then sarcastically, and elegantly, most will argue, Yeats replies by asking:
HOW can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?…
The images that come out from this exchange are those of a doctrinal, exaggerated and maybe even sombre Mann, in contrast to a bubbly, open-minded, practical and wise Yeats. Reality, however, is rarely natty; rather, it tends to be bland and sometimes even gruesome. The events that occurred a little after that exchange and the history of that season proved Mann’s views to be right and those of Yeats to be completely wrong. Nazism and Fascism became real in Europe and millions of lives were thrown into disarray by Roman (Italian), Russian and Spanish politics, couples were separated, many of those kinds of girls that took Yeats’ attention became widows, and even more young men died without ever tasting the carnal joys a lover can give. Political decisions and misdeeds in that season caused the deaths of more than 62 million people, most of who were non-partisan civilians.
In the present season, many people living in the Western world have a propensity for political apathy; their reasons being mainly that their politicians say more or less the same things. Researches have shown that most eligible voters in Western Europe and North America don’t even trust those politicians that promise drastic changes or undertake to provide some needed services. They are conscious that nothing comes free in life and are mainly concerned that political promises tend to mean more expenses, and for these to be met more taxes may be asked for or some public services will be reduced. Most people living in these countries are protected by structures and reforms that were put in place when many of their present political leaders were either babies or not yet born. All they ask politicians today is not to destroy what they already have. Consequently, who (save for some political aspirants campaigning to win a marginal seat) really cares about the number of voters in an election?
Things, however, have not always been that way. History is full of examples where Westerners have come out with force, sometimes with fury and sometimes tactically, to challenge or to push for a position that concerned them. Within the last hundred years, ordinary men and women have taken up arms or formed resistance organisations to liberate their countries and neighbouring ones from dictators and their ideologies; women have taken to the streets to demand their right to vote; people have forced the issues of social reforms into the political agenda; voters have gone to the ballot boxes en masse to change leaders perceived not be in tune with the voters or to keep away some people or elements deemed dangerous for the country. A combination of intellectual and popular pressure has forced the environmental issues into discussions held in political and corporate palaces. However, when there is peace in these lands, when infrastructures are not threatened, when people continue to work and to own and increase their assets, when everybody (including eccentrics and provocateurs) is free to say what they wish, Westerners care little about politics — they suspend their activism and revert to a season of political apathy.
The situation is completely different in Africa, and in most developing countries. In Nigeria, roads are still bad, the public health system is a shadow of what it should be, many of the educational institutions certify rather than educate their students, people are waylaid and killed in various parts of the countries, businesses are choked by lack of clear and certain rules (many of them having to spend fortunes on common amenities such as security and electric power supply), and as a result cannot compete with their counterparts from other parts of the world. Most young people are now forced into placing their hopes in making the right contact or getting the right visa rather than strive to apply their talents or skills. Most of the people in Nigeria are poverty-stricken and don’t trust or respect their rulers; many of them feel that a good number of their rulers should be in prison rather than in power. We are in a season that needs a lot to be done, politics still plays a central role in people’s lives but alas apathy reigns.
Nigerians are not normally politically apathetic people — while those in the West are apathetic because they are more or less satisfied and do not expect a lot more from politics, Nigerians tend to sink into apathy due to frustration. It is a psychological and social shell of protection for people who have been disappointed, cheated and humiliated; it is a shell from where they judge political ideas and politicians with suspicion and cynicism. Decades of arbitrary regimentation, years of political uncertainty, fear of reprisal against the lives and properties of those who dissent or point out some basic facts when faced with an array of sociopolitical injustice and a hypertrophy of clearly wrong legislations and nominations — all have forced and fooled people into believing that the best one can do is to find a way to survive, manage the manageable, mind their own shed while the whole market is being ravished, and just pray and hope, because there is little we can do.
The new season we are approaching is one that gives us the opportunity to review and renew things. It is a season where technology — mainly the Internet, GSM telephones and digital and satellite TV — has made the world a smaller place, easier to see, faster to communicate in and easier to intervene in. We can now, real time, see in examples from around of how to deal with tyrants, incompetent and illegitimate rulers. It is now easier to communicate our anxiety and proposals to friends and communities. There are now websites that comment on issues amongst faceless strangers but with an osmosis that will suggest familiarity and a sense of shared values. In Nigeria, preparations are on their way for the 2007 elections, and political aspirants are rightly getting their tools ready. It is a season to review the past and to start afresh; politicians know they are not safe and they will do all they can to stay or get into power. What seems to be missing is the presence of that same civil society that
laments the calibre of its rulers and the quality of their stewardship. It will be rather naive of people to count on aspiring and incumbent rulers to renounce their power and ambition voluntarily or to improve their stewardship for the greater good of the country. People have to compel political parties to present only capable candidates, to induce these to talk only about real policies and issues and to demonstrate how they can solve the problems hindering the progress of the country. People have to come out of their shells, suspend their political apathy and shape their future.
The immediate advantages of being active in this season are psychological and moral. Participants will share some of the dividends that the valorial definition democracy promises; they will enjoy the feeling of getting their country back, setting the agenda for their country, like true masters of their fate; they will be able to choose who serves them and how they are served. Most people reading here are not just ordinary helpless citizens. Those who read this kind of article tend to have their own opinions and principles — you are people who can do a lot to shape the future of your country if you decide to come out of your political apathy. Merely reading and pointing out limits and merits of an article is not enough any more. There is a lot each of us can do to help improve the prospects of our country and it is not always necessary to run for office, march in the streets or organise rallies. Sometimes it is enough to point out to our friends and members of our communities a candidate or an idea that we judge to be good or risky for the country. We can achieve a lot by cautioning our friends and families about the risks of succumbing to the whims of powerful but incompetent people and practices. Even those who have successfully managed their own private stall in a ravaged market will gain a lot if they decide to influence the future of the country for the better. Talented Nigerians and millionaires who deal in the international arena know that they generally have more to prove than their counterparts, who maybe as individuals have less to offer but have behind them a credible, respected and stabile country. International and local businesses and professionals will see concrete gains in operating in a country with basic infrastructures. If invested with a forthright spirit, and for the common good, a negligible part of our time, money, influence and ideas can go a long way to improve things for our country. It must be said that, no matter how little we decide to do, it will still be a sacrifice. We will have to deal with the scepticism, cynicism and apathy of others, in a country with many paid sycophants and opportunists; we might even be confused as, and be accused of being, another one of them, but we should bear in mind the reason for our actions, remember that we are doing something good, that good things require efforts and sacrifices, that our allegiance is to our conscience and to the future of our lands.
Not doing anything or succumbing to history will erode the moral authority we have to criticise incompetent or corrupt rulers and to be irritated by public malpractices and disgraceful political misdeeds. We should all come out of our shells, suspend our apathy and actively do something for our future. We can choose issues we are most concerned about and write about them to the bodies or offices in charge; we can make sure the person in charge realises how important the issue is; we must identify valuable candidates and ideas and support them. Let us all imagine that one day our children, history and those that come after us might ask us: “What did you do to make things better?” We should have a credible and imitable answer to give.
In this season I have decided that my personal commitment is to help in the process of sanitising the public arena and to raise the level of the national political debate. I will help those working for an issue-based, policy-focused political campaign and a free and fair election. Pat Utomi’s bid for presidency seems to be going in that direction, and I am doing all I can to support it. I hope readers will join us to support the bid, and point out others who are worthy of support for the transformation we desperately need in Nigeria.
Anthony A. Kila London UK