Corruption and repression
Are we really practicing democracy in this country? We may borrow an answer to that question from G. K. Chesterton, who wrote: “If we really lived in a democracy, we would not be deciding what to do about the poor. They would be deciding what to do about us.” We would have been able to answer in the affirmative if government at federal, state and local levels were to be at the service of the citizen. But the sad fact is: government has become a crushing burden that the citizen is forced by the same government to bear. This calls for change. In a truly democratic polity, laws are made to protect the citizen from government and from his or her fellow citizen. In Nigeria, laws are made to permit acts that are inimical to the common good.
Those who benefit from the laws are those making the laws. Think of state governors who arm-twist state houses of assembly to enact laws that make former governors regular recipients of exotic cars, mansions and millions of naira, in the name of retirement benefits, all at the expense of the citizen. This is happening in a country where the issue of a 30, 000 Naira minimum monthly wage is unresolved. The citizen is being compelled to pay more tax while the tax is used, not for infrastructure, not for the benefit of the people, but for running government. This is happening in a country where an already frightening level of poverty is on the increase. Nigerians are hungry and angry. They are finding it increasingly difficult to put food on their table. The poor have no access to good medical services. They have no access to good roads, no decent transportation, no good schools, no good hospitals. But they hear of public officers who, despite the salaries they award themselves, misappropriate public funds.
There is a need to urgently review and drastically reduce what is paid to political office holders in this country. The running cost of government is simply too high. It is immoral to build a country where political office holders milk the poor masses dry. This is the political reality we face now. If we continue this way, this country will go financially bankrupt. Our future, the future of our children’s children, is being put in jeopardy. Will anything be left for them with this level of abuse of office and abuse of public funds? The painful and sad reality we face is that we live in a country where leaders are very distant from the led.
We need leaders who are neither blind to the suffering of the people nor deaf to their cries, leaders who listen to the people, leaders who have the courage to be humble, and who are therefore ready to admit that they are wrong when they are wrong. In a democracy, those who govern are chosen by the people to represent the people. And if they are to represent the people they must listen to the people. Not only do true democrats listen, but they also are not afraid of dissenting opinions. They do not arrogate to themselves the power to accuse, arrest, prosecute and convict. But can we candidly say we have democrats at the helm of affairs in this country at this point in time? How can we claim to live in a democracy when presidential spokespersons tell us the presidency is always right? It is important to remind our political leaders at federal, state and local levels of government that they cannot enforce laws if they cannot obey the law. This country and its wealth belong to all of us.
No citizen is a slave of government. In a democracy, there are no subjects but equal citizens. That is why everyone is equal before the law. Everyone, even our leaders. If the executive disobeys court rulings, and if it intimidates and humiliates the judiciary, then we are back to the era when a military junta made laws and interpreted them without any regard for fundamental human rights. We have returned to a sinful past when citizens could be abducted and locked up in detention without trial under the pretext of acting in the interest of national security. Repression of dissenting opinions was a major factor that led to the end of the First Republic. But Nigerians do not want military rule anymore. Having experienced two painful bouts of military dictatorship, two periods in Nigeria’s history when men in uniform, trained and paid to protect the land and its people, visited untold brutality on each other and on the civilian population, we all must resolve to be responsible for protecting democracy in this country.
It was during military rule that Nigeria was plunged into avoidable civil war. The war could have been avoided if political actors adhered faithfully to democratic principles. Their failure to do so provided opportunistic elements in the Nigerian military with a convenient excuse for mass murder. Innocent lives were lost before and during that war. A month to the 50th anniversary of the end of that war, factors that led to the war are being reawakened. Our democracy is in danger because of corruption and dictatorship.
Let no one disturb the peace of this country. For the sake of generations yet unborn, we make a plea: let us learn from our past mistakes. Let us not repeat the folly of the past. May we learn our lesson.
Okogie wrote from Lagos.