OUTSIDE THE BOX
BY ALEX OTTI, Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
A few friends hosted a dinner in my honour at Federal Palace Hotel in Lagos yesterday. I’m taking liberty to share excerpts of my speech with readers today.
Today, I’ve chosen to talk about the low level of participation in our nation’s political process especially amongst our educated elite, professional class, young people, the clergy etc. I remember with great nostalgia, the vibrancy and political activism of the then irrepressible National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS. I am reminded of the public agitations which gets me wondering about what happened to us that we have not only been cowered into political disengagement and apathy but have allowed our political process to be hijacked by professional politicians and Lilliputians, not to mention their handpicked godsons and criminal apprentices. Consequent upon the abdication of our civic responsibility of political participation we have ceded the political playing field to fake merchants of change whose notion of governance is one that is geared at perpetuating their political dominance and self-aggrandizement. Ever since the advent of our nation’s second attempt at electoral and constitutional democracy, the governing elite who have straddled our political landscape have continued to be sustained by a culture of silence of both the likes of us here today and the dispossessed. Their grip on power has been strengthened by a silence and obsequiousness on the part of many Nigerians that has not only been defeating but also economically, socially and politically crippling. As a result of the self- imposed political disengagement by many of us bad things in our polity keep getting worse. It was Plato that quipped “one of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”.
A cursory look around the country both in governance and the staffing of our many institutions reveals the emergence of mediocrity, with the best and the brightest scared away either by revulsion of our politics, the do or die nature of our electoral process or the lack of faith, confidence and trust in our political system and processes. On the many rare occasions when some of the disillusioned and disaffected voiced their concerns and somewhat muffled comments of rebuke they are treated by a dismissiveness that bothers on ignorance and in some occasion outright hostility and indifference. As a consequence what we find at both the national, state and local government levels are a growing debt burden, economic stagnation and even deterioration, national instability, rising ethnic tensions, growing unemployment, rising incidence of religious intolerance, non-payment of worker’s salaries and pensions etc. It is therefore very unfortunate that in the face of such national malaise many of us still choose to sit on the sidelines or are ensconced in our silos of political apathy and indifference. The reality of our national predicament today is that never in the history of Nigeria’s national and state governance has there been on display for everyone to witness, such a degree of profound incompetence, moral bankruptcy, visionary blindness and governance ineptitude.
Maybe it is time to make a semantic distinction between political engagement and political participation. While political engagement could be said to include financial contribution to candidates or political groups, voting, volunteering for campaigns and even making contacts with office holders political participation on the other hand could take the form of getting involved with any activity that shapes, affects the political process or outcomes, such as attending party conventions, and registering as a member of a political party. In a sense, it can be said there’s not much of a distinction between the two. Nevertheless, studies in political science inform us that one of the basic civic responsibilities of any citizenry is the extent to which they take part in the political system and process, whether they are voting for a candidate seeking political office, participating in acts of civil disobedience or simply making their opinions and beliefs known and while the aforementioned are the most common forms of political participation, others may include, blogging about a political issue, writing a letter to a public official, publishing opinion page essays, signing a petition, joining an activist group, running for political office etc. As we can see there are many ways to get involved in our political process here in Nigeria, yet the question remains, why the political apathy when as a country we are blessed with the largest concentration of an educated intelligentsia, experienced technocrats, and articulate social commentators in all of Africa? Why the political disengagement in the face of glaring governing mediocrity and incompetence? Why the public silence and subdued indignation when we can raise our voices in protest against mismanagement, malfeasance and the lack of accountability? Why fall victim to the intimidation, political harassment and threats of violence by criminal political elements?
It is my honest opinion that there is so much we as citizens can do to change the trajectory of governance in this country if only we can all resolve to actively get involved rather than leave the political process to grafters and political charlatans. As we all know and as I’ve come to discover, every act of political conquest implies both the conqueror and the conquered with the conqueror imposing his views, vision, objectives and values on the vanquished. By staying away from any form of political involvement despite our positions in society, affluence or intellect, we have allowed ourselves to be part of the vanquished and the oppressed majority. Whether we like it or not, we all have invisible scars of the political system and process that have been exploited and hijacked by a criminal few, an electoral system whose integrity has never been a reality only an aspiration, a political process that empowers the strong while hastening the disappearance of the weak.
It is time to face the reality that there is no perfect life or a perfect country hence it is our duty as good citizens not to be political bystanders but to get involved-to build a new era of politics and leadership where we can disagree with one another and still remain friends as we search for common ground and compromise with willingness and humility. Most times, people in our positions in life tend to forget we are animals until we become preys. We isolate ourselves from happenings outside our cocoon of privileged comfort because we deem ourselves safe and unaffected by certain policy outcomes that affects others. Many of us suffer from severe cases of dissociation –removal from our emotional self until we become victims. Conscious of the fact that everything of lasting value demands a great degree of sacrifice and commitment and not a product of convenience it has been a source of enduring comfort to realize that the sacrifices of today give rise to the greatness of tomorrow and that the pain and regret of knowing that at one point in our lives we had the opportunity to bring about change in the lives of others is one that is difficult to live with. As Ronald Wayne, co-founder of Apple once stated, “the future belongs to those who can foresee it and give all it takes to get there”. I must confess that not many of us pause in our trepidation of what the future portends in this country and how to influence it or better still see the possibilities of a glorious future and work assiduously towards it realization. No country is better than its citizenry, its institutions and its constitution and to the extent that we aspire for a better nation let us not just make fame with our individual successes and achievements but use that fame to change people’s lives.
Let us have hope- hope that sees beyond the darkness of the moment and the possibilities of the future as democracy does not have a self-correcting mechanism unless we help to set it on the right course. As a matter of fact, what sets democracy apart from every other form of government is the input of ordinary citizens and as one notable public opinion writer put it, “it is the input of ordinary citizens into their country’s future”. It is the input of both the powerful elite and the powerless when they cast their vote on election day. It is when they register their opposition to their political leaders and the way they are governed, attend a political rally, engage in public protest and civil disobedience, voice opinions etc. Politics is not supposed to be a blood sport yet it is not supposed to be a spectator sport either for us to sit on the sidelines and applaud or express disgust. So I want to use this opportunity to urge every political bystander to endeavor to get politically engaged, otherwise, what they run from, they may run into and to those who feel the walls of our political process and practice are too thick to crack, let me remind them that even the strongest wall can come crashing down since all that is needed is to find a crack on its surface”. To those who think it is too late to participate because the elections are only a few months away, I will say the ship hasn’t sailed yet but is about to leave the dock hence it is not too late to step on board.
Five years ago when I decided to get into politics I, like many of you, have been apolitical and apoplectic about our politics and its enduring horrendous process. As I looked around I saw leaders who did not seem to be subject to any variety of democratic constraints ranging from legislative oversights to public opinion. I saw political leaders govern with such transactional styles that became the stimulus for authoritarianism and threat to democracy. I saw Governors who regarded themselves as the sun in their own universe with no form of accountability to the governed. I saw political leaders and office holders who were akin to roaches hence where you find one, there were many others around. In my home state of Abia with one of the highest number of university graduates, thriving businesses and economic potential, great entrepreneurial spirit etc, I saw a lost, disillusioned, confused and hopeless generation of young people with no hope for gainful employment, an oppressed citizenry suffering in silence and obscurity, entrepreneurs and investors fleeing the state for lack of an enabling environment for their businesses to thrive, failing health standards and increasing maternal and infant mortality and more importantly, the endemic corruption and fleecing of its resources by successive administrations.
So, given the deteriorating undercurrent of events in the state I decided to get into politics not to seek fame or affluence but to be an agent of change. In doing so I gave up my job as a bank CEO to the consternation of a lot of people including many of you here today and got myself engulfed in a political process and system that is riddled with all manner of vices, one of which is the attendant hypocrisy of our politicians. It is the kind of hypocrisy that allows us to demonstrate transcendent curse on our political associates when they commit the political apostasy of leaving for another party and when they come back as prodigal sons lavish them with flattering praise and adjectives such as wisdom and courage. However, I was not deterred by any of these and neither should you, if your purpose of getting into politics was borne out of good intentions.
So even though we were unsuccessful in 2015 in the sense that the election results were compromised and manipulated, I decided to join the political fray again because of the same concerns that prompted my entry into politics the first time around and for the fact that as Neil Young the American country music singer once said, “it’s better to burn out than to rust”. It is the reason why I am urging everyone to be part of something greater than him or herself. To be part of a change effort in our politics, our political discourse and the manifestation of the future we all desire for ourselves, our children and future generations.
So in the next couple of months as the elections approach the question we must all ponder is, who do we hope or expect to be our President, Governors, Senators, and Assemblymen as each political party parades candidates with different philosophies and competences? The truth is that we will need new leaders who will reconnect the country, their states, their local government areas , think outside the box and apply their expertise in new and imaginative ways, hence our inclination in the next few months should not be one of isolation, indifference and nonchalance. The next couple of weeks will test our resolves, our faith in our choices, commitment to change and fidelity to our hopes and vision for a new Nigeria and more particularly, a `new Abia state.
Distinguished Ladies and gentlemen, let me end with this favourite quote from Bertolt Brecht thus:
“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing, sees nothing, takes no part in political life. He doesn’t seem to know that the cost of living, the price of beans, of flour, of rent, of medicines all depend on political decisions. He even prides himself on his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and says he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that from his political non-participation comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber and, worst of all, corrupt officials, the lackeys of exploitative multinational corporations.”