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Civics and the words, deeds of a Nigerian politician

The state of wisdom in Nigeria is that you believe the words of a politician at your own peril. The general assumption is that the…

The state of wisdom in Nigeria is that you believe the words of a politician at your own peril. The general assumption is that the only thing they are really good at is telling lies. I am circulating below one of the current posts going around on WhatsApp about specific lies some politicians told and did exactly the opposite of what they swore not to do. I have not fact-checked the quotations and I should be forgiven if they are all lies. My only point in circulating them is to draw attention to the widespread belief among Nigerians that when a politician talks, it is to tell lies.

I will never go back to the PDP. PDP is beyond redemption!

-Atiku Abubakar

I will never leave APGA. I’d rather quit politics. PDP is a curse to the South East!

-Peter Obi

I would rather die than to join APC!

-Femi Fani-Kayode

May God punish me if I ever leave PDP!

-Gov Bello Mohammad Matawalle

I will not join these people who carry brooms like witches. Over my dead body!

-Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi

Only house-helps go around with brooms

-Godswill Akpabio

If APC fails to perform, Nigerians should stone us!

-Tony Momoh

Nigerians do themselves a great disservice by accepting it as a given that they expect their leaders not to be truthful to the electorate. They are as guilty as the politicians in creating the ideological basis for excusing the political class from responsibilities for what they say and promise. The basic assumption in systems of representative democracy is that the people who offer themselves for elective positions are doing so on the basis of a pact. That they tell their constituents that they seek office to serve their interests. To make the pact formal, candidates present manifestoes to their constituents which is a solemn declaration of their promises to the people. The voters assess the manifestoes and elect the candidate that has promised what is closest to what they want. The expectation is that if they get elected, they are duty bound to fulfil their promises. If they do not, the voters respond by voting them out.

The political class is, therefore, by definition supposed to be composed of people with character and integrity who keep their word and do exactly what they promise to do. Nigeria has stopped the teaching of civics a very long time ago so we have lost sight of its basic principles. Civil culture is about citizens making clear demands on their elected representatives that they keep to their promise if elected. When they do not keep their promises, the expectation is that the people will at that point characterise their leaders as liars and deceivers rather than people of character and integrity that they thought they had elected. The discovery that a politician tells lies is supposed to be a big smear on their character which should lead to the loss of their popularity and subsequently to their fall from political grace into the political abyss.

When the electorate in a democratic country expect that their politicians are expected to lie habitually and not keep to their promises, it poses a serious concern about civic culture. It means the assumption of democratic theory that we have a rational activist model of democratic citizenship has no basis. The citizen is not an active participant in maintaining the democratic system and therefore decline in the culture of democracy sets in. In other words, democracies grow and flourish when both the political class and the citizens play the game according to its rules. What this means is that the vital control function of democratic rule – accountability is lost because the voter is not holding the elected official to their promises and responsibilities.

The other element in the equation is information. The responsibility of the citizen is the surveillance of elected officials to ensure that at each time, they are acting in accordance with the law, rules and above all in the best interest of citizens. When they are not, civic citizens draw that attention of other voters to the breach of democratic protocol that has occurred as the basis for withdrawing political support from the errant politician.

In the British tradition for example, there is a fetish that any politician that tells a lie to parliament must resign because they have broken a cardinal principle of truthfulness that would allow both citizens and peers to assess whether or not they are working in the interest of the people. Part of the crises in British democracy today is the emergence of a Prime Minister that is known to habitually lie to the public and to parliament.

During Nigeria’s First and Second Republics, part of the conversation about political recruitment was seeking people with good character, honesty and integrity to contest for public office. We have now completely lost the plot. In January 2008, Senator Nuhu Aliyu from Niger State stated on the Senate floor that many of his colleagues in the upper chamber were criminals and 419ers who he was gathering evidence to prosecute before his election. The most famous kidnapper in recent years, Evans, who only chose victims that could pay a minimum of one million US Dollars ransom explained to the press after his arrest that he went into kidnapping to make a lot of money so he could successfully contest for governor in his State.

Two things have happened in Nigeria. We as citizens have allowed a political class composed largely of people without integrity, sometimes outright criminals to run our political system. Secondly, many of us as ordinary citizens have come to accept that it is in the nature of politicians to have such character flaws. We must all go back to our Civics 101 and start seeking leaders with integrity and good character who we should hold responsible for good governance and when they fail we should ensure that they do not return to power. In other words, the late Tony Momoh was right – if your party fails to perform, stone them out of office.

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