I was about fifteen the first time I realized the impact elections and the government could have directly on my life. I couldn’t even vote at the time but my parents could. My statesmen had massively voted in a little-known candidate from a very unpopular party as the State Governor and about two months into office, he invited my father and his colleagues for a meeting. There, they were informed that the government had decided to increase their salaries and to provide all the judges in the state with official vehicles and security personnel. My father was still a judge at the time and so the impact of this announcement (and the government’s subsequent action) was felt by everyone in my family.
Since then, I have actively participated in two general elections even though Nigeria’s elections and her democratic system is nowhere near the best there is. Elections here are often marred by rigging, intimidation and sometimes violence. The electorate have been on alternating seasons of immense participation and total apathy. In some cases, voters come away from the polls knowing their votes matter as was the case in 2011. At other times they come away feeling shortchanged as was the case in the Presidential elections conducted last month. The aggrieved opposition candidate is still in court and frankly, Nigerians are getting to the point where they do not care.
It is easy to see why the government and politics may have lost favour in the eyes of this generation. In my opinion, the foremost reason is that we have come to regard politics as a game for the loud, uncouth and sometimes downright notorious. In my country, young people who get involved in politics while sometimes respected, are generally regarded as unserious egomaniacs. By the time they get into professional politics and government, after one too many incidents of financial misappropriation, they are regarded as criminals.
Nigerian politicians are probably the worst set of people to grace the halls of leadership but I do not believe this sad narrative is confined to my country. From Australia to Britain to the United States, politicians across the globe are some of the least trustworthy professionals to be found. Somehow, the world over, societies still unwittingly give the reins of leadership to the people they trust the least.
Another reason for this fall of governments from “grace to grass” lies in how governments have been cast worldwide. In recent times, government has been made out to be this unwieldy bureaucratic machine (and justifiably so) which serves no purpose and only hinders “progress”. Governments are lauded as the core of society, but they appear to have nothing to do with our daily lives.
All our daily interactions, the services that make our lives comfortable, from phones to Uber all seem to have nothing to do with the government. So, why then, one might ask, should we care? Often times, when we come in contact with politicians and the government, it is in the form of a negative experience. Think of getting pulled over by the police, or paying income taxes or (especially for Americans) a visit to the DMV. The result is that government and all of its features (politicians and elections included) are soundly ignored at worst or at best, merely tolerated by the public.
While government has been cast in this negative light, public and private enterprises has been put forward as the poster child of efficiency and public good. This faith in enterprise is mostly justified. Enterprises have managed to provide solutions to many of mankind’s pressing problems, often with little or no help from the government (that’s of course, ignoring the huge amounts of corporate subsidies flowing from public coffers into private ones).
In light of all these, it is easy to look askance at the whole lot of politics, politicians, elections and government, and try to stay as far away as possible from the system. This is especially so in developed countries where efficient institutions and smooth systems have long since been put in place. Why should I care for who becomes President (or Prime Minister)? People say. It’s not like he or she can affect my life directly. Should we then stay away and leave the business of politics to the politicians? You see, in the long run, this would not be in our best interests. There is a saying; one oughtn’t throw baby out with the bathwater. Applied to this discussion, it means that our governments may have lost their ways but feigning blindness isn’t the right thing to do. Problems in the political process can be fixed. If for no other reason, because it’s in our best interests to do so
For starters, government is probably the only institution expressly created to cater to the needs of everyone, rich or poor. In addition, democratic governments are the most diverse institutions known to man. They allow the representation of, and for people from all walks of life and this gives a government the ability to effect change to the widest range of people. Enterprises might provide solutions but these will always be targeted at a certain sect out of all the rest. No matter how “transparent” and “public” an enterprise is, it remains a “one man show”, a singular entity seemingly devoid of morals and values, although technically run by a private individual, group of individuals or an exclusive group of shareholders as is the case with public companies. With this structure, it is difficult to see how an enterprise genuinely works for the “public good”.
Another reason to participate in politics, is that with or without our participation, the government has the power to affect our lives because it has the power to make the far-reaching changes required to make life better for all. From healthcare to climate policies, the government calls the shots in a way no one else can. Individual ‘conscious’ choices and personal activism while a powerful tool in its own right is not enough. Thus, a decision not to participate becomes nothing more than an easy way out.
If you avoid turning a blind eye to the sheer amount of money spent by businesses lobbying the government, schmoozing politicians and trying to influence policies, you begin to understand the influence of money on people with power. Wealthy elites and businesses that profit from favourable government policies wouldn’t do this if there weren’t any financial gains to be had; indeed they understand more than most that winning over politicians is extremely important in their quest for ‘growth’ and ‘profits’. To choose not to participate in politics is to hand government officials directly to big business on a silver platter.
This is a very decisive time in world affairs. From immigration issues and tech governance, down to climate change and wealth distribution via progressive taxes, the leaders who emerge in this era will determine to a large extent, the fate of mankind for many generations. Somehow, it also coincides with a time of elections for key countries. Nigeria just concluded hers, the US has theirs next year, Australia in the next few weeks, and Britain might call theirs faster than you can say Brexit.
Elections are democracy’s best gift to a society. Electoral systems in places like the US, Britain and Australia are the Nigerian electorates’ dream. The discussion in these countries has shifted away from the fairness of the electoral process and is now centred whether the masses will choose to exercise their will. The power has literally been placed in the hands of the people. This is too good an opportunity to pass up on the altar of disinterest and “personal choice”.
American novelist and activist James Baldwin once said, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”. A lot can be said about whether our political processes and governments can be changed. The reality is we will not know until we try. Where do we start? With elections of course. Go out, take part, volunteer for your party of choice, vote for people who share your vision and values, and let’s take it from there.
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Title image of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at SXSW 2019. Photo: Stle Grut / NRKbeta.