On Thursday the 5th day of February, 2015 I was among those invited by the American Corner in Abuja to be part of the audience in a discussion titled ‘Role of the Citizens in elections’. The American Corner in Abuja is a confluence provided by the American government to interface with Nigerians seeking to know more about the US, and who want to study in American institutions. Before that day, there had been other activities, literary and educational, one of which I have participated as the first Nigerian writer whose story, ‘Journey by Night’ was read and critiqued there. I have not been able to express the eloquent profoundness of my excitement for that event, and I wish to so do here.
The lead discussants on the 5th of February were a lecturer in one of the universities in the North, and the other a former chairman of a dominant political party, and whose name I prefer not to mention here. Before I made up my mind to attend this workshop, I’d already become curious at the opinions of the discussants concerning a citizenry that had already voted with their feet, and scrambled to their respective states in anticipation of an orgy of violence if the pendulum of the election shifts one way or the other. Most of my neighbours who were yet to vote with their feet had assured me that on February 14, the now postponed Election Day, they would curl up and savour the warmth of their beds and enjoy the comfort of the company of their families instead of putting themselves in harm’s way. They are not interested in who becomes president, and I cannot be hard put to come to terms with their indifference – for many years on end before and after this New Year we have run our lives like mini-local governments where we have provided our own power, our water and our own roads – this is true – some of our roads are simply littered with garbage and it’s only a matter of time before an epidemic would break forth if something is not done.
For most of the people who ran home, there was and still is the dilemma of what they are going to do with their PVCs – most are registered to vote where they were running away from, and that singular action of running away because of the fear of violence in the result from elections immediately diminished the value and import of the vote as represented by the PVCs which some citizens hold dear like some prize for winning a marathon. But even as holders of the PVC exult in their possession of their ‘power’ to vote in or vote out a politician, we immediately come to this point of convergence between those who exhibit an indifference with carrying out their so-called civic responsibility and those who have PVCs and who want to vote but cannot because before the election day proper, they would vote with their feet. Part of the crisis of convergence of the frustrations behind the vote and having possession of a document that allows you to vote in a developing country like Nigeria comes from an understanding of what Eric Liu, an American Civics teacher describes as the core values of civics itself – a ground or foundation of civic values, an understanding of the systems that make the world go round, and the set of skills that allow you to pursue goals that make others want to join you in that pursuit. Liu has said that the bulk of what constitutes the citizenry is profoundly illiterate, to the extent that the few who are politically literate are just as happy to keep the illiterate rest illiterate and control the vacuum provided by the illiterate. It is that illiteracy of the vast majority of our people who have been indoctrinated again and again and made to believe that the exercise of their right to cast a vote in favour of a preferred candidate is a civic responsibility. I have often disagreed with this assertion.
Well, I can say with due respects that the discussants hardly satisfied my yearnings, and they did very little to mop up my perspirations concerning the topic. One of the discussants went through the usual gibe, and adumbrated on the theory of, and virtues of casting our votes as the first and last of the laws of political participation. The other did as well to tell us why Nigerian politics is politics of soap and salt, aka stomach infrastructure, and how this is invariably linked to the ‘education’ of the citizenry and not its ‘enlightenment’. When I rose up to question their presentations and explain why not voting is also part of my civic responsibility, all hell broke loose. One is the discussants told me as a matter of fact that if I don’t vote, I should shut my mouth up and shouldn’t complain if the politicians begin to mess up.
Section 69 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) stipulates that if a politician fails to meet the goals for which he is elected, he may be recalled if a petition to that effect is presented to the Chairman of INEC. If this is true, it therefore means that the mere casting of a vote, and the mere declaration of a winner at the polls cannot be said to be the beginning and end of our civic responsibility, for that is the way it is being presented to us. For those who have chosen to curl up in their beds on voting day, and for those who will vote with their feet on election day because of the fear of the breakdown of law and order, the issues are much more serious that the notion ascribable to civic responsibilities. From 1999 till date, there is no record of any one politician who has been recalled from the National Assembly or from the government houses that dot the Nigerian political landscape, on grounds of ineptitude, inefficiency and a failure to deliver the ‘dividends of democracy’. There is hunger in the land, there is no power supply, there are no jobs, and the HDI of most Nigerians is one of the lowest in the West African sub-region, and irrespective of the fact that we are the 6th oil exporter of crude in the world. The politicians who should work to provide these things have done so, only to their own benefit. When they drive on the highway, they push the rest of us aside; when there is no light, they have these giant power generating sets that give them power. Their children do not attend schools in Nigeria and when they have headache they hop on their private jets to Germany, Finland and Switzerland for medical attention.
I have had reason to try to educate my friends and colleagues that the foundation of the rule of law – the doctrine of the Social Contract, where a people surrender their rights and privileges to a benevolent dictator who guarantees their rights and privileges – is an outdated and eroded foundation. The doctrine suggests that we should fold our hands and be comfy on our couches and earnestly wait and do nothing apart from sitting comfy on that couch, for the benevolent dictator to secure our rights or devalue them. And to that extent, I believe that we should no longer abide by these outdated foundations which tell us that just casting a vote is a civic responsibility, even when these benevolent dictators consistently deny us and abuse the rights and privileges that we have given them custody of. Thus, I hereby activate my civic responsibility not to vote in these elections, and do please wake me up when the elections are over.