I confess to feeling inspired with every visit to this institution that shaped my perception of life and grounded my entire intellectual development. This intellectual development is not only a debt I owe to my teachers who have formed me but a challenge to me to go out there and influence society for the benefit of those to come. For this, I must say thank you! I thank my teachers, of the academic, the moral and even the political, who showed me the virtues of honesty and commitment to serving humanity. And for the students who consider me a model worthy of their time and regard today, my gratitude to you is as large as our great institution. Ahmadu Bello University is an institution with a weight of history that challenges us to do justice to whatever comes our way. Our diversity in this prestigious institution, across ethnicities, religions and regions, stimulated by remainders of the legacies of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, after whom our institution is named, instills a pan-Nigerian spirit in us such that we end up as tolerant and understanding wherever we find ourselves in private and public engagements. You must consider yourselves lucky for being a part of these distinguished Nigerians!
As philosophers teach, everything changes. So we don’t need a political philosopher to spell out that there is dynamism in our politics. Our politics is an interpretation of who we are, what we are and the things we stand for. The presently unclear phase of our political disharmony is the issue we must reflect on today—and that we must do together. The dynamism of modern politics is one further excited by the reality of the internet and a consequent increased participation of the youth in political and civic matters. But the place of the youth in our democratic space is jeopardized when the elite in our State decide to model our government after a gerontocracy—a government by the old and for the elderly. Ours is a system in which new and modern ideas are denied a chance to grow and mature. The tragedy of our democracy is that it is one in which the yearnings of the youth are stamped down in order to perpetuate a tyranny of interests. Tyranny it is when a certain slim range of people impose their private interests on the majority; tyranny it is when the agents of change are left on the cliffs of unemployment, poverty, insecurity, substandard education and, worse still, policies destroyed by our heritage of corruptions.
The Age of the Internet has opened a new door of social and political influences for the youth and the oppressed. Recent events across the world and even those ongoing within the country call out loudly for careful and people-centered leadership.
Who we are… in Democracy
The biggest illusion we have lived in as a people is believing the cry heard from various corners that Nigeria is an unnatural entity coerced together—a sort of Frankenstein state. I have no doubt that this is a very, very inaccurate judgment. The truth is far simpler—there is not a single region in what is now Nigeria that was home to just a single ethnic group living all by themselves before the coming of the colonialists. Exclusive ethnic identities are inventions of our political advocacies and relevancies. Nigeria was a stretch of land hosting many city-states and cosmopolites, where in the south-west the Ijebu and the Egba people didn’t consider themselves as one, talk less of as Yoruba. In the south-east, it was a taboo to infer that the people of, say, Arochukwu and Onitsha were one—none accepted identification as Igbo. The Hausaland too was not monotonous as today’s Hausamen from Kano and Katsina would rather identify with their city-states than with any corporate ethnicity. But while they each had their distinct identities, they also welcomed anyone who could come and contribute to the city or state, they welcomed anyone who desired to be a citizen. So why these unnatural and suddenly insurmountable walls of ethnic exclusivities? We live in the saddest form of self-deceit, that this or that region of Nigeria favoured by someone or the other would remain one if we allowed the secessionists and ethnic irredentists get their cartographers working against our country’s map.
There is no country in this world whose borders simply surrounded a people of the same identities, wishes and desires. Our ability, in spite of the divides, to come to a consensus or sacrifice a cause or compromise a stance, is what makes us a nation. But we have chosen to play the politics of exclusion where the trust of the people is first for their kinsmen or religion before alignment with the nation. This dangerous departure from patriotism, which saw to rise in ethnic advocacy, nepotism, bigotry and militancy, has been used by enemies of change to subdue and destroy any quest for the Nigeria of our dreams—a Nigeria where we abandon our bloodline in our service to the nation.
Who we are in a democracy is not ambiguous; it is a single identity vested with the same rights for all, rights of equal citizenship! We are citizens, just citizens, not Hausa-Fulani, not Igbo, not Yoruba, not Jukun, not Ijaw, not northerners, not southerners, and no matter our protests, no matter our influence and affluence, we all must have just a single vote in a participatory democracy.
What we are… in Democracy
What are we? We are Change! We are the scattered, and mostly unfamiliar and unrelated citizens, in who lie the same purpose, in who lie the hunger for a functional society, in who lie the dream of a new Nigeria. Change, in this time of political anarchy, is the wisdom to see through the propaganda designed to destabilize the country. Change, in this trying time, is the strength to stand together despite the blowups of bombs-per-meter-square in our land. Change, in this time of distrust, is the maturity to disregard the theories of stereotype artists who heap the failure of a nation to a particular region or people, to an “other”, a “someone else” who is not “one of us”. Change, in this era of internet evolution and revolution, is the maximization of the privileges offered by the internet in which every man with a laptop or tablet or mobile phone has a valid voice that must be heard.
The debate has always been that online representations of Nigeria in cyberspace do not capture our social realities in the actual world. While I agree that cyber-Nigeria, which a public thinker has famously dubbed Cyberia, is not our absolute portrait since our non-literate fellow countrymen in their teeming millions have been left out of its political exchanges and interactions, we must recognize the power and influence of the internet users on the psyche and struggle of the nation. Globalization is not just a word, and as slow as it is in Third World Nigeria, it has interposed unimagined twists of events we have only been reading in foreign tabloids in Nigeria. Globalization is a teacher of the good and the bad, and today the influences are no longer passed just through the privileged bourgeoisie. The increase in internet access enhances the speed of the dispersion of ideas. It happened in Tunisia. It happened in Egypt. It’s happening here… But, we must be devout apostles of change to realize our dream of Change!
What we stand for… in Democracy
Democracy loses its allure when it is perceived as a forte of the rich—through oligarchic eyes. With such a mindset, the people themselves make democracy expensive and destroy it. The moment you task your candidates with paying to earn your votes, you lose your moral right to question his excesses. I agree with the Australian political theorist, Professor John Dryzek, when he explains the essence of democracy, thus: “Democratization… is not the spread of liberal democracy to ever more corners of the world, but rather extensions along any one of three dimensions… The first is franchise, expansion of the number of people capable of participating effectively in collective decision. The second is scope, bringing more issues and areas of life potentially under democratic control… The third is the authenticity of the control…: to be real rather than symbolic, involving the effective participation of autonomous and competent actors”.
To democratize Nigeria, we must understand the powers we refuse to explore. The “tyrants” in democracy are actually individuals from amongst the people, but when they become agents of electoral malpractices and political dishonesty, the dice turns up against the people from which they have come. When I say “people”, I don’t mean just the voters. The electoral officers who comply to rig a fair election abuse their chance at creating a saner nation while damaging the trust and hopes of an oppressed people of whom they are members. Politics is not magic; it’s a calculation of the good and the wrongs we do in the quest of power.
Here is where we need to come together to make our democracy work; let us drop any form of identity that introduces us as something other than “citizens”, and let us drop any citizenship that asks for anything other than “Change” for the better. Let us destroy any institution that preaches divisions and exclusions. Unless we put our patriotism away from greed and any undemocratic advocacy, our collective struggle to install a popular government will remain a mission impossible.
Approaching the Modern Democracy
Traditional political engagements were, until the coming of the internet revolutions, carried out largely by the civil societies and opposition political groups. But the Internet has introduced a medium not only for instant dissemination of information and broader based interaction, but one that has also offered us a new space for the gestation of political ideologies, mobilizations and revolts.
The trigger of this Internet-based political revolution is, perhaps, the suicide of Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi, a young vendor whose singular act to protest repeated harassment by the local police punctured the overstayed dictatorship of that North African country. In his book, The Challenge of Third World Development, Howard Handelman aptly captures the Bouazizi Effect: “In earlier times, the death of a poor, provincial vendor would have attracted little attention. But in this era of cell phones, the Internet, Twitter, and Facebook (even in poor countries), information can spread enormously quickly and widely. A cell-phone picture of his suicide soon went viral. While Tunisia had been considered North Africa’s most stable nation, Bouazizi’s act of desperation struck a cord (sic) with millions of citizens, many of whom suffer from unemployment and most of whom had tired of the 30-year dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Protest demonstrations in his home town quickly spread throughout the country, bringing out a broad cross section of the population. After 3 weeks of massive demonstrations in Tunis, the nation’s capital, and elsewhere—during which government security forces killed more than 200 protestors—Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.”
The fall of Ben Ali sent a message to other similarly oppressed people, a message that went beyond the North Africa territories. Thus, as Handel further observes, “Suddenly, many of (the oppressed North Africans) were willing to risk their lives for a more democratic society (and hopefully a better standard of living). Within weeks of the triumph of Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” (named after the national flower), protesters in neighboring Egypt began sit-ins at Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, aimed at ending Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade dictatorship… On February 11, 2011—after a series of government concessions that failed to satisfy the protestors and only 18 days after prodemocracy demonstrations began—Hosni Mubarak resigned from office and the military named a caretaker government.”
What has this got to do with Nigeria, you ask? The Bouazizi Effect is not only an instigator of Arab Spring, it taught disgruntled citizens worldwide a way to take their anger beyond cyberspace. It taught the loudest way to condemn anti-people policies. It taught Bahrainis to demand for a freer political clime… It taught the Egyptians to demand for a new president… It taught the Libyans to take up arms against their president whom they not only overthrew but killed… It taught the Yemenis to oust their president. And, welcome back home, it inspired Nigerians to take to the street in their revolt against the removal of fuel subsidy in January 2011.
While the decision to challenge unpopular policies is laudable, absolute orderliness is not expected from angry young men on the streets. This is where we must rub minds, like family, to find a way out of this mess; how do we end this reign of corruptions and insensitivity to the plight of the common man without subjecting any of us to the bullets of those asked to send us back to our houses in which we find miseries and hopelessness? How do we tell our political leaders that a thing is missing without getting shot? I use “we” because I’m just as young and concerned as you and YOU! I use “we” because if we allow ourselves to be divided into “Us” and “Them”, the possibility of winning this war is null. The exclusionists who invented “them” to stop us from forming a formidable political “we” are the people we must fight, and there is just one way to achieve this: Citizen Engagement!
The Meaning of Political Engagement
My commonsense understanding of engagement in a democratic polity is the realization of one’s rights, having studied and understood the deficiencies inherent in a system from which expectations of satisfaction have been unsatisfied. Political engagement is inspired or justified by one’s decision to discharge his or her constitutional responsibilities in an attempt to either react to an unpopular reform or policy or merely embark on a personal quest to contribute one’s quota to a government found wanting.
In our response to the dynamism of present politics, the traditional engagement that tasked the civil societies and opposition parties with engaging incumbent governments and their reforms or policies, we must pander to the non-violent form of citizenship mobilization popularized by Bouazizi Effect. Mind you, I do not mean setting oneself ablaze to register a grievance. I mean exploring the power of the our numbers, from the internet to the physical landscape, to investigate and challenge a political injustice; I mean defying attempts by exclusionists to tear us apart in our campaign for an ideal candidate; I mean understanding that for achieving impact, an engagement in cyberspace is not enough until it is propounded and taken to the actual world. Here again, we have a task before us: Citizenship Mobilisation.
Nigeria: Engaging the Modern Politics
In 1999, we welcomed a democracy with a hope of building a civilian government in which every citizen is an active participant. A decade later, our democracy was led into chaos where the “Who” and the “What” of our identifications are colorfully worn to pronounce our differences and divides. This is a masterfully orchestrated bang that opened the Pandora box we have tightly secured since the unfortunate events of the Nigerian Civil War—in fact, since before then! We have existed as a nation struggling to forgive itself of the mistakes of yesterdays, but while we struggled with this, our democracy has become modeled into an avenue where sentiments are highlighted by pro-exclusion politicians to corner the votes of their kinsmen because they cannot do so on grounds of their individual reputation or records. This careless stratagem is a pathway to self-destruction begging for our collective, and very immediate, effort at snatching our future from the hands of those who ride on ethnic and religious and regional sentiments towards self-enrichment and fulfillment .
The challenge ahead is enormous. The challenge is for us to form networks that will engage and destroy the evil missions of the exclusionists and agents of anarchy among us. In a time of anarchy, everybody is a politician. This is a time of anarchy. In a time like this, we should have no identities other than ordinary Citizen. We are citizens of a world challenged, a people confused and abused, a nation whose resources is misused by leaders whose major worry is the amount of dollars in their bank accounts. The situation is one of psychological abuse, existential abuse. My antidote for this monstrous reality is also psychological:
First, while it has become really difficult to set aside our ethnic identities in discharging our civic responsibilities, we must know that in a democratic space, our only identity especially when we gather around ballot boxes and in the service of country is our citizenship: “Nigerian”. We must be conscious of this identity, it defines a patriot.
Second, always have in mind that politics is not magic. And that people are responsible for the governments that happen to them. If the electorates wear their patriotism to vote in a popular candidate, the electoral officers too must know that their manipulation of figures is a betrayal of trust and their fellows awaiting them at home. No candidate can rig an election without complicity of the people.
Third, offline and online political engagements are compulsory ventures of every citizen of a troubled country. Though, I have always maintained that Nigeria is a Third World country and, for this, we must not be carried away on the social media. A percentage of Nigerians who have no internet access is important. In every decision, and agenda, we aspire to pursue, they must be in the know.
Third, membership of social and political groups and networks including community volunteerism is the surest way of fixing our weakened bonds and salving our rivalries. The more we meet to discuss personal and public issues without pandering to the designs of the exclusionists, the more we understand and forestall propaganda fashioned against us. The new Nigerian, irrespective of his origin, must be a part of any networks that analyses and tries to influence public policies or government.
Lastly, let us have in mind that we are now in a sinking ship in which we alone understand, and can reestablish, the hydraulics of our statecraft. Let us have in mind that we are all politicians.
The reality of modern Nigeria is one that challenges us to drop any other identity aside from that of Citizen in our effort to rescue the ship of state from this stormy sea of chaos. All the destructions in the guise of inter-ethnic, inter-religious and inter-regional clash are traced to politics and this supports my earlier declarations that every citizen of a troubled country must become a politician. A politician is a conscious citizen of a country, a politician is first known by his citizenship, a politician is young and old, a politician is poor and rich, a politician is a thinker and volunteer, a politician is employed and jobless, a politician is a humanist and patriot, a politician is a teacher and a student, a politician is you and I.
Thank you very much.
Mallam Nuhu Ribadu delivered this paper at a public lecture organised by the Students Representative Council of Ahmadu Bello University, ABU Zaria, last weekend.