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Do Nigerians have the politicians they deserve?

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AFP PHOTO / PHILIP OJISUA

Most people have heard of the widely misattributed saying: “You get the government you deserve.”

The adage has many incarnations; “Every nation gets the government it deserves,” or “The people get the government they deserve.” Earlier this year in May, former President Barack Obama put his own spin on it when addressing a crowd in Milan, telling them, “You get the politicians you deserve.”

Although the saying asserts the need for political participation and the role of citizens in ensuring a functioning democracy, it comes from a position of privilege, because it assumes there is a fundamental understanding of the role and rights of the citizen, and indeed, what democracy itself is. In recent times, it’s fair to say both those things have become debatable.

After the troubling scenes at Charly Boy’s Resume or Resign protest in Abuja, one has to ask if the phrase is apt in Nigeria: Do Nigerians have the politicians and the government they deserve?

Before the musical veteran began his protest, his ‘suitability to lead’ was questioned by detractors due to his ‘provocative image.’ Pictures of him in suggestive positions were circulated on social media as proof he was unfit to head a non-violent protest.

Attacking the messenger and ignoring the message is a familiar theme in Nigeria. Popular musician 2Face was criticized when he threw his weight behind the ‘One Voice Nigeria’ earlier this year. His literacy was questioned as was his ‘lack of personal governance,’ and now it’s Charly Boy, despite being a long time and outspoken critic of the government.  Even if you don’t agree with what Charly Boy is protesting about, his right to do so without being slandered, threatened or physically harmed should be unquestioned.

Such incidents do make you wonder who is considered ‘good enough’ in the eyes of some of the Nigerian populace, to question the government. Perhaps no one, and perhaps, that’s the point.

Questioning is not something that is welcomed or encouraged in general, even less so when politicians or politics is involved. A prime of example of this was when Lauretta Onochie, Personal Assistant to the President on Social Media said ‘no one has the right’ to ask about the president’s health, a clear deviation from democratic principles if I’ve ever heard one.

As far as I’m aware, Nigeria is a democracy and operates a presidential system of government, not a monarchical one. The word democracy, is taken from the Greek word ‘demokratia’ which literally means “rule of the people.” The Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”

So how can the people have no right to ask questions?

It is precisely this misinterpretation of democracy and the lack of robust rejection of this idea that is worrying.

Protesters, or those that dare to question the government, have their personal lives scrutinized and in some cases, they’re written off as whiners and complainers, despite the fact that holding politicians to account (irrespective of political party) is a central part of democracy. In Charly Boy’s case, his group of protesters were allegedly threatened and beaten. In part, at least, by everyday citizens like them.

Irrespective of political allegiance, anyone who believes in democracy should be troubled at the sight of peaceful protestors being tear gassed and attacked for simply exercising the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, both of which are enshrined in the Nigerian constitution. It is not rude, it is not disrespectful, it is a democratic right. So why are more people not up in arms about it? Why aren’t the government robustly condemning such behaviour? Where are the demands for the arrests of those who caused violence?

Instead the message is lost and grievances are ignored. Protesters are largely labelled troublemakers or written off as part of the opposition, which, ironically has an important role in governance in keeping the incumbent accountable. As I stated earlier, the premise of the saying comes from a position of privilege, it assumes most people are aware of what democracy is.

Many people heralded the 2015 election as a turning point in the country’s fortunes, no longer would Nigerians sit idly by and allow politicians to rule without question, but democracy doesn’t end at the ballot box. It is a continuous endeavour. At less than 20 years old, Nigeria is still a very young democracy, but in order to ensure it remains so, the right to hold politicians and government to account must be upheld, not only by government but Nigerians themselves, so they do end up with the government and politicians they really do deserve.



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