Taking Collective Responsibility

And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works – Hebrews 10:24

The 2013 report of the annual rural economic development conference in Peoria, Illinois threw up some interesting facts. A typical city council meeting in a city of about 115,000 people had been attended by only 30 people. “Besides a surveyor, representing a sub divider, I was the only citizen in attendance at a planning commission meeting,” a citizen lamented.

Further statistics revealed that in a village of 3,500 adults, only 3 to 7 turn up for a typical village board meeting. In a city of 5,000, only 5 to 7 turn up for a city council meeting. The results are equally dismal for school board meetings or constitutional hearings.

The question is: why do people show so little interest in such weighty matters? A few answers might suffice: Apathy – who cares? My opinion doesn’t matter. Lethargy – I can’t be bothered. The government will do what it wants anyway. Indifference – one crook is as good as another. Complacency – why rock the boat?

The truth is, the welfare of the generality of the people in any given geographical space is tied to how effective those who have been elected to govern perform. This is a generally accepted principle. But also more important is the fact that the effectiveness of those who govern is directly determined by the willingness and ability of the people to hold them accountable.

The willingness to be involved by actively participating, directly or indirectly, in governance is at the very heart of citizenship. It was the American politician and one time Governor of Illinois, Alder Stevenson who said, “As citizens of this democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the law-givers and the law-abiding, the beginning and the end.” George Nathan put it this way: “Bad officials are elected when good citizens do not vote.” Every way you look at it, citizen participation, at every level, is a critical component of nation-building. But it is important to note how much of a decline there has been in citizen participation, particularly in this part of the world.

A comparative global report by IDEA on voter turnout in parliamentary elections across the world showed Nigeria scoring 50.3%, placing her as 157 out of 169 countries. Decades of military dictatorship which usurped the basic rights of citizens, and recent democratic experiments that have not lived up to the expectations of the people, have created inequalities, depleted trust and resulted in a decline in civic engagement.

In his phenomenal 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. describes two opposing forces that seemed at play in keeping the Negroes in America subservient to the Caucasians in his era. And King’s theory very well describes the current situation in Nigeria.

On the one hand is complacency, resulting from many years of oppression which has succeeded in draining the self-respect of the generality of the people and forced them to become passive on-lookers in the decisions that determine the outcome of their lives. This is aided and abetted by the complacency of an upper-middle class “who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.”

On the other hand is bitterness and hatred for the political class, brought upon by the growing disillusion with government. And one way this bitterness and hatred expresses itself is through violence, as seen in widespread cases of kidnappings and partly responsible for the ongoing war of terror in Northern Nigeria. The only way out of the current fix is not more passivity, but active engagement. Nigerians, at all levels, must rise up and take responsibility for the direction of the nation. We can no longer afford to just sit back idly and point fingers at our various governments.

We must get involved by holding government, at every level, accountable for its actions and inactions; we must also get involved at the level of actively participating in the local, state and federal government parliamentary and presidential elections.

Informed citizens in the media and elsewhere must take up the challenge of shaping the discussion, educating the electorate on their civic duties and rights, determining what the key issues are and critically examining the men and women who put themselves up for election. It was Alexis de Tocqueville, that extraordinary 19th century thinker who said, “… the concentration of power and the subjection of individuals will increase amongst democratic nations in the same proportion as their ignorance.”

We must also get involved at the level of demonstrating personal leadership everywhere we find ourselves. Part of the problem is that we have completely circumscribed leadership to political office. But we are all leaders – we are leaders in our homes; leaders in our offices; leaders of religious and community groups and we must demonstrate the same level of leadership we expect from government at every level.

Taking Nigeria back and lifting it up to the level we desire will demand we each promote and defend a principle of egalitarianism everywhere we find ourselves, ensuring we give everyone his or her due based on character and performance and not on ethnicity, religion or gender. It will demand that we resist the temptation to pervert the course of justice or subvert due process by paying instead of earning our way through.

It is our firm belief that Nigeria will be great, but it will take personal and collective leadership. It will require active and involved citizens refusing to elect and tolerate nothing but the best men and women to represent their affairs in government. The months leading to the next general elections will be a great test not only of leadership, but also of citizenship. We cannot afford to go to sleep now, only to wake up in 2016 to complain about the sort of leadership we have allowed into office. We must remain vigilant.


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