Political Apathy And The Vicious Circle Of Poverty


By Akido Agenro

It is not for nothing that a nation so endowed as Nigeria has failed to harness its natural and human resources to improve the lot of the population. The reason is self-evident- poor leadership. According to the famous Japanese economist, Kin Xu, “Leadership is the greatest single factor that drives human development.”  Elections are here again when it is expected that all eligible voters in Nigeria will be eager to turn out en mass to exercise their civic responsibility as a matter of duty with voters not allowing themselves to be excluded from the polls, in the understanding of George Jean Nathan’s often quoted proclamation that “bad leaders are elected by good citizens who do not vote”, apart from the fact that the frequent incidents of post-election violence can be drastically curtailed with a massive turn out of voters at the polls. Unfortunately, the contrary is the case. Those who close their eyes to facts learn from accident.

It agonizes those of us in the pro democracy movement to observe how so many people in the country trivialise a fundamental issue and one that is pivotal to the struggle for improved wellbeing of the people for that matter as elections to an extent of allowing themselves to be overwhelmed with inertia that border on self induced mental fatigue and physical sloppiness at a time of transition when one expects a great patriotic outpouring from all the citizens. A university don, Prof Niyi Osundare postulated that “When you cast a ballot, it is a spiritual act. You are committing your being, your spiritual essence, your future and that of your family by the act, that decision.” It’s individuals’ inclination to the electoral process that determines whether they are a part of the problem or solution to the myriad of problems troubling Nigeria.

The direction which events will lead in the next four years at the 36 states and federal levels in the country whether upwards or downwards will depend to a large extent on the quality of the next crop of leaders elected at both tiers to pilot the ship of state from 2015-2018. In essence, there are states in the country which can consolidate on the progress of the last few years of democratic practice in Nigeria while the gains of the last few years could easily be eroded depending on who succeeds the incumbent at the close of elections, likewise at the centre. Among the contestants in the 2015 elections will be found wily politicians, the apostles of Machiavellian principle. However, it’s not all a hopeless situation since there will also be found among the political gladiators great statesmen and accomplished personalities in their chosen fields who are motivated by the desire to serve. Accept there is an overwhelming support for candidates with genuine intentions, those with vested interest easily have their way. This is the crux of the matter.

Delivering a paper entitled ‘Why Elections Matter in Democracy’ at a lecture held in Abuja in July 2010, Prof Mobolaji E. Aluko opined inter that “Here is the bottom line: if elections in a democracy do not lead to accountable governance where ineffective and incompetent elected persons genuinely fear losing the next set of elections, effective and competent elected persons are reasonably confident of being returned and promising and effective candidates are given an opportunity to offer themselves for election and have a good chance of being elected, then democracy is under threat and the chances for political, economic and social development of that national polity is remote”.

A careful study of the politician reveals an array of motivations underlying their quest for power that can be classified into three categories: [1] those who are in politics to pursue selfish interest, [2] those in government to pursue the common interest and in the process to realize selfish interest and [3] those in power solely for altruistic reason. Politicians in the first category dominate politics in developing countries particularly in Africa. Politicians in the second category can be commonly found in Asia and Latin America where political consciousness among the people is increasing and the legal framework is made more effective to curb executive/legislative excesses with all those found culpable of corruption made to face severe penalty, while those in the third category are the exclusive preserve of developed countries where the instrumentality of the rule of law, transparency and accountability has long been instituted in the system hence persons that aspire to public office understand that like Caesar’s wife they have to be above board in all their conducts.

It’s time to dispel the misconceived opinion held by many that since their votes don’t matter in the fraudulent electoral process run in Nigeria, they will not take the trouble to appear at the polling station and cast their vote. Others will rather remain in indoors for fear of violent eruption at the polling centres. None of the aforementioned points offer a reasonable excuse for anyone to avoid the onerous responsibility of exercising their franchise at the polls. Democratic practice is often turbulent and offers a range of challenges to various nations from generation to generation. Those peoples around the world who today enjoy bountiful dividends of democracy in their countries did not wake up one morning to meet it so. They laboured hard for it with great sacrifices made by individuals and groups at a number of stages in their history. Only recently, many lives were lost in a bloody revolution that swept across the Middle East organised by the masses to rout out leaders who manifested the evil trait of sit tight syndrome in what came to be known as the Arab Spring.

Insecurity is a constant variable in all human endeavours since creation that varies with time and space yet the risk factor has never deterred determined people from achieving their set objectives accept for the cowards. Even in the insurrection infested part of the world where ferocious gunmen emerge from the blues to spray hot lead on electorate who are waiting on the queue, people still muster the courage to register their presence at the polling booths in appreciation of the invaluable role that elections play in the democratic process.

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In the parliamentary elections that followed the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt held in 2012 a 55-year-old woman, Sharif Shinawi, who was spotted among the voters on a long queue waiting patiently for their turns to cast the ballot at a street in downtown Cairo told reporters: “This is the first time in 55 years that I can vote. It was never in the history of Egypt, since Adam and Eve that we‘ve had this opportunity. I am willing to wait 10 hours or until tomorrow morning if I have to but I will vote.”

Unfortunately, a lot of lily-livered and happy-go-lucky citizens prefer to live in perpetual slavery than risk even as little as a finger in a struggle for their emancipation, yet grumble to high heavens over the horrible situation in the country. In their utopian world they imagine that life can ever be made more bearable without they themselves working assiduously for it. How fitting to the Nigerian situation the observation by the Roman writer, philosopher and statesman, Seneca [4BC-AD65] that “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.”

The levity with which a lot of people relate to the electoral process disregards the painstaking effort spanning several decades if not centuries made by social crusaders and reformers to guarantee universal adult suffrage. The concern of the moment is about political apathy whereby many people refuse to vote, whereas decades back suffragists as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Candy Stanlon, Lucretia Coffin Mott, Lucy Stone, Abby Kelly Foster and Ernestine Rose along with Thomas Paine, anti-slavery leader, Frederick Douglas, the clergyman Henry Ward Beeker and the poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson at great risk to their personal lives vigorously campaigned against the disenfranchisement of the women folks on the grounds that women could reason less than men. This itself was after the sustained struggle to see to the end of discrimination against men on the basis of landed property, income, education and class in American and British societies that yielded result only after the democratic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Restrictions on the basis of gender were ended in the United States with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, and in Great Britain with enactment of the “flapper vote” law in 1928. In Germany under the Weimar Constitution in 1919, and the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution of 1917. In Spain, women were enfranchised in 1931, and in Italy and France women won the right to vote after World War II (1939-1945). In Italy and France the participation of women in the wartime resistance movement against the Germans was an important factor in winning the franchise. Full enfranchisement came in Japan in 1946 under United States occupation. It is interesting to note that under the Nazi regime, voting was restricted to members of the German race while in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, one had to be a worker to vote. There, any resident worker was qualified to vote, whether a citizen or an alien.

At the evolutionary stage of democratic governance in Nigeria back in 1922 when the elective principle was introduced to the political development process with the emergence of the Clifford Constitution, voting was restricted to only men with an income of not less than £100 per annum. Women in all parts of Nigeria could not vote until 1979 after the agitations of women leaders as Hajia Gambo Sawaba [1933-2001], Elizabeth Adekogbe [?-1977] and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti [1900-1978]. It is amazing how times change. Years after suffragists successfully agitated for all persons of suitable age to have the right to vote we are here imploring, entreating and cajoling reluctant men and women to vote. How true the maxim that a cow does not realize the value of its tail until it has lost it. The aversion to the democratic process sucks.

The history of democratic development shows the following criteria in determining the electorate: citizenship, sex, residence, property, age, religion, education and class all which have been substantially narrowed down with the passage of time. Women of the ancient and medieval times found it absolutely debasing and an affront on womanhood to be excluded from politics entirely, thus many of them did not take the slights lying down. In demonstration of the truism that to be out of power is to be excluded from the benefit of power the struggle for women liberation got impetus from the moments universal adult suffrage was instituted. Women welfare as mother and child care, equal education with men, pay parity with their male counterpart, free contraception and abortion were placed on the front burner of national discourse and accorded attention in policy formulation.

As the general elections draw closer I have had occasions where I was compelled to carefully explain to people that the multiple utility of permanent voter’s card [PVC] should not be allowed to overshadow its primary purpose of voting at elections otherwise the aim of the voter’s cards will be defeated and the huge amount expended on its project become a colossal waste. The wise hearken to the voice of reason yet many still remain adamant. It is appropriate to sound a note of caution to all who will remain indoors when elections will be ongoing in their neighbourhood that accept they turn a new leaf and decide to be relevant in the democratic process where they strive to elect credible candidates to preside over the national affairs or that of the state where they reside their living condition can even get worse and their children a bleak future. No be swear.

•Comrade Agenro is Coordinator Democracy Orientation Movement, 18 James Street, Iju-Ishaga, Lagos. Phone: 08055410516; email: [email protected]

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