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Nigerian public opinion: Does it matter at all?

Last week, the main media and social media platforms were replete with stories and videos of Danladi Umar, the Chairman of the Code of Conduct…

Last week, the main media and social media platforms were replete with stories and videos of Danladi Umar, the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) shamefully assaulting a “common person” employed as a parking attendant at a shopping plaza in Abuja.  Practically, every opinion writer, newspaper editorial and social media post called for him to be sanctioned if not removed from office. In reality, everybody knows Umar will remain in office and won’t be officially sanctioned in any manner.

The relevant part of the Constitution states that as CCT chairman, he can only be removed by a two-thirds majority of each House of the National Assembly. This won’t happen because these days, neither public officials nor political office holders have the slightest regard for public opinion.  Danladi Umar isn’t the first high-ranking government official to be filmed displaying conduct unbecoming of a public officer, and most likely won’t be the last.

Nowadays, it’s become routine for those whose salaries are paid by the government and who have access to perks of office such as unjustifiable expenses, luxury cars and police escorts to show utter contempt for citizens who aren’t wealthy.

Not only did Umar show scorn for “common” Nigerians, but when traders in the plaza voiced disapproval of his arrogance and inability to respect the human dignity of a member of society’s underprivileged, he went further to disparage a whole ethnic group in an indecent manner totally unbecoming and unbefitting of the office he currently holds.

Nigerian public office holders must learn to show respect towards honest, hard-working, law-abiding “common” people. They deserve it. Giving respect would have spoken well of Umar’s character, but he evidently cared less even though he heads a Code of Conduct Tribunal where he sits to judge others!

The real question arising from the incident is how come despite public opinion, elite public officials routinely get away with assaulting and even illegally arresting law-abiding “common” Nigerians? Although “public opinion” is a universally accepted terminology, there’s a lot of variation in the way it’s defined and applied in politics, commerce, religion, and social activism.

In politics, broadly speaking, it’s the people’s collective opinion on a specific topic influenced by age, gender, income, hobbies, race, religion, nature of employment, or the mass media of television, magazines, radio, and newspapers.

Many political scientists regarded public opinion as equivalent to the “national will”, which is supposed to play a part in governance by influencing policymaking. This isn’t the case in Nigeria where public office holders tend to do as they please.

The English historian and jurist, James Bryce insisted that governments based on popular consent give nations great stability and strength. As far as he was concerned, public opinion is supposed to set the general tone for policies in line with the sentiments of the electorate. This, he believed would ensure policies that are just and honourable.

However, by contrast, there were those like Plato who found little value in public opinion. They believed that society should be governed by philosopher-kings whose wisdom far exceeded the knowledge and intellectual capabilities of the general population. This is the current modus operandi of governance in Nigeria where political office holders, for reasons best known to themselves, feel that they have a monopoly on wisdom and are the only ones entitled to hold a point of view, thus making public opinion redundant and irrelevant.

In authoritarian nations, a great many people may be opposed to the government but may never express their attitudes even to their families and close friends for fear of reprisal. In such cases, the anti-government public opinion fails to develop and the nation becomes worse off for it.

Although sliding fast into authoritarianism, Nigeria should not become one of those nations. The nation is still a democracy and anti-government public opinion should never be totally suppressed even though those currently in power are hard at work on the matter!

A cursory reading of national newspapers, opinion columns and social media posts reveals that Nigerians, except those holding lucrative political office, believe their country has deteriorated into a nation where nobody appears to be in charge, competence and merit have no currency and self-interest is the motivation of political officeholders. Public opinion is that there is no branch of government in which the nation is blessed with intelligent, public-spirited, confident leadership.

Indeed, governance has deteriorated into a chaotic, cynical, haphazard and temperamental affair. Nigerians mainly agree that the nation is regressing into becoming a “banana republic” with little international significance outside West Africa, no solutions to its self-inflicted problems, and no serious meaningful ambition other than to remain united at all costs. Ignoring public opinion has become the norm for those in governance. Trusted opinion polls reveal that Nigerians both Christian and Moslem detest Boko Haram, yet they continue to kill, main, rape and pillage at will. The majority of Nigerians also believe that the greatest danger to the nation is the threat of growing religious and ethnic hatred, yet nothing tangible been done to reduce religious tensions and assert the fact that Nigeria is a secular nation. In terms of everyday worries, public opinion is that crime and corruption remain to all intents and purposes unchecked, and again nothing is being done to upgrade and restructure the police force to fight crime successfully with state poling and elementary Information Technology equipment such as Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems (AFIS).

Meanwhile, public opinion is that the anti-corruption war long has since been exposed as a sham and degenerated into political farce. Opinion polls also show that Nigerians have little regard for government and feel that the nation is heading in the wrong direction. Citizens are becoming less politically engaged because they truly believe that most political leaders don’t care what ordinary people think. As a result the majority of Nigerians qualified to vote have never voted in an election, and regard casting a ballot and attending campaign events as a waste of their time.

A recent poll by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems found that the vast majority of Nigerians had either not bothered to register to vote, not collected their Permanent Voter’s Card (PVC) or were unlikely to vote in elections. In short, they believe their opinions to be of no consequence.

Nigerian political leaders mistakenly believe that the only measure of public opinion is their electoral success no matter how it’s achieved and that once in office the will of the people can be totally ignored. According to the American researcher, Irving Crespi, the very nature of public opinion, is to be interactive, multidimensional, and continuously changing. This means in effect that people who were declared as “winners” of elections at a point in time have no right to ignore the public in the belief that it only matters during election time.