From activism to governance and vice versa
The whole concern here is to get young people to aspire for public positions by devoting a substantial part of their youthful energy, ingenuity and exuberance to volunteerism, humanitarian services and philanthropic activities, thus contributing to the common good of their communities and societies. This will offer them sufficient credentials to aspire for public office. Through years of devoted service and patient tutelage, they grow in wisdom, knowledge and understanding, and in the demands of public responsibility, in what the renowned public intellectual Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah once dubbed as “the difficulties and complexities of this country called Nigeria.” Here we can see the important role that good role models and political mentors play in the lives of the young. Everything comes down to how we can restore sanity, nobility, dignity, and morality to politics and governance in Nigeria.
In asking these questions, we should also ask: How can we put the resources and facilities of faith at the service of educating young people for public life? Our religions have immense resources for ethical formation, and this is one missing link in our quest for good governance in Nigeria. For many years we have been unable to get public office holders to manage the common wealth with accountability, transparency, justice and equity. This situation has left millions of young people in despondency. The level of misery and desolation in the country is unimaginable. There are suspicions that if things continue this way, we will one day get to a point where our leaders will be unable to drive their exotic cars freely on the streets, because they will meet with the wrath and rage of the youth, who feel used, dumped, neglected and excluded from benefitting the dividends of democracy. The men of power and privilege who occupy the rungs of the ladder of leadership in our society ought to think about this always.
There is no doubt that there are many young people with warped values, who will not be any different from the current leaders they are constantly criticising, if they have the opportunity to get into power. These young people also admire the wrong role models. Many of them strive to imitate patterns of lifestyle beyond their means. Some of them disregard the benefit of sound education, partly because they believe that what works in Nigeria it is not ‘what you know’ but ‘who you know’ in the pyramid of power. All of these are products of a broken value-system. That is why those of the adult generation, the good men, ought to fashion new and creative ways of helping our nation’s young people to channel their ingenuity and strength in the right place. This demands ethical reorientation, and a value system that rewards good deeds and punishes bad deeds.
There are many avenues of contributing to the common good outside of politics. But we speak about politics because it is the best avenue to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In other words, if those who enter politics go into it with the right intention, character and mindset, so much can be achieved for the benefit of the people, far beyond what our individual little efforts in other spheres of society can do. In his political memoir, The Accidental Public Servant (2013), Mallam Nasir El-Rufai said that he felt a calling to write his book for several reasons: “One is to make the case that public service is important – a necessary thing for every well-meaning Nigerian to consider in order to set our nation on the right track, so that it may attain the potential we all know it is capable of realising. For developing countries like Nigeria, where institutions are weak and the capacity for people to help themselves is limited, a responsive public service is vital – it gives honest people the minimum base for them to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. There are certain things that an individual cannot achieve single-handedly; hence the mission of the public servant is really to solve collective, public problems.”
To those aspiring to a career in public service, El-Rufai advised: “Be prepared to be tested in ways impossible for you to foresee.” To the good men who spurn government and public life on account of the impression that politics is a dirty game, El-Rufai has these words for them: “We cannot improve as a nation without attracting our best and brightest human resources to the public sector. As things currently stand, we have surrendered the bulk of our political space to the dishonourable, the incompetent and worse, to the criminally minded. This is the basic problem with Nigeria. The brightest Nigerians are either abroad, or at home in academia, in the military or the private sector – particularly in the telecommunications, oil and gas or financial services industries. This is an undeniable fact; the dregs of our society dominate the politics and have created a negative image that makes talented people spurn helping the country.” Many centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Plato said: “The price good men pay for their indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” These words need to resound in the ears of those who have given up on the battle for a more just and equitable society through active participation in politics.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells the story of the Last Judgement and how God will reward both good and bad deeds. This passage has informed much of the contribution of religion and the church to social and humanitarian services because it deals with feeding the poor, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and visiting the imprisoned. All these acts of charity are known in Christian tradition as “corporal works of mercy” because they deal with coming to the aid of the poor and vulnerable in imitation of God’s compassionate attitude towards us. They are acts of charity, which we should encourage young people to undertake, as their contribution to society and as sufficient credentials for aspiring towards public office. But beyond charity, we should undertake the long work to justice, where we do not just give bread and fish to the hungry, but also ask questions about why they are unable to provide bread and fish for themselves. It is here that we poke governments and leaders to create the right environment and the right social conditions for people to realise the full stature of their human potential.
So whether the trajectory is from activism to governance, or from governance to activism, both spheres of engagement are concerned with the same issues: how to help the poor, serve the people, equitably distribute the wealth of society and create a system of social prosperity that excludes no one, includes all and benefits all.
Ojeifo, a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja, delivered this speech at a forum organised by The Kukah Centre.