In the past few months, I have gotten to discover that the things I have taken for granted about democracy and its principles are really not plebeian. A lot of people I meet amaze me by the attitudes they display towards the different structures that make up a proper people’s government.
Most Nigerians have heard it said that “Democracy is a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Those who have heard the statement claim they accept it as true, but I doubt if they have ever processed those three ideas rolled into one beautiful definition (by the great Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address) before.
To agree that democracy should mean a “government of the people” is easy, as opposed to government of the animal kingdom, or that of aliens or angels. Yes, it is people that will be governed.
The final phrase is also quiet easy to swallow, “for the people”. Yes ke, we the people are the ones that should enjoy the “dividends of democracy”, as we have come to label the public works like good roads, adequate health facilities, electricity, security etc.
The middle phrase, which is the logical link between the first and last phrases, is the one that we find hardest to swallow: “By the people”.
We have seen so many generations of military dictators in Nigeria – dictators that got to become our leaders without our consent – that we are finding it really difficult to believe that we have the POWER to determine who leads us. What is more, we have hailed them as soon as they seized power for fear of being locked up or being sidelined when the “for the people” part of government is being implemented.
But all things being equal, “by the people” should not be difficult to understand. It just simply means that the person (or persons) that lead is a choice that must have been jointly agreed on by the people that will be governed. Over time, man has devised various ways of “jointly agreeing”. A toss of the coin, leaving the choice to fate, or the gods, was once acceptable to all. A show of hands in support of a nominee later became very acceptable, so those that lose out in the race will know that everything was done fairly. I can guess that the ballot became a logical progression as you could not have all the hands hanging up while the count was completed in the next village. So we get people to indicate on a paper who their hand is being raised for; all these ‘improvised-hands’ are then collated, and counted in the view of all, while the real flesh-and-blood hands rested.
It is assumed in this “counting of hands” that there is no pre-conceived winner amongst the contestants for the leadership position. But it is from here that my headache begins.
“Ah! Me, I don’t want to waste my vote o. We all know that the fisherman will still win. Is he not the present leader?”
“These people will still win. Why waste my time, and my vote.”
“You know, I voted for the economist in 1999, and I was so disappointed that my vote was wasted, when Uncle Sege won”
I hear these statements so regularly, it is becoming rather alarming. It was only recently that I tied this attitude of not wanting to “waste a vote” to our educational culture. Let me explain.
The teacher gives a test to his/her students already knowing the answers but wanting to know if the students have grasped anything at all in the preceding lectures. There are some tests in which the teacher asks you a question, and leaves you room to structure your answer to your own delight, sometimes limiting you to a number of words. I am not referring to that type here. I am referring to the other type of tests we call Multiple Choice, where you are given about three or five choices as possible answers (A, B, C, D or E) and only one of them is correct. To make this more difficult, the teacher sometimes throws in a nearly-right answer to trap the mentally-lazy.
We always fought to get the answers right. We were always heart-broken when we ‘nearly’ got the correct answer but missed it anyway. We were most overjoyed when the answer we guessed at ended up being the correct one. There was no greater joy than that.
Coming to the polling unit, and faced with a similar multiple-choice answer sheet with a new question on top of the sheet, we inadvertently revert back to our school days and misread the question. Instead of reading “Whom would you want to lead you amongst these contestants?”, we have constantly misread it to be “Which of these contestants will be taking the Oath of Office soon?”
And we do not want to fail this test that the great fortune-teller has placed in front of us. Getting it right could mean that we have favor on our side, or that we will succeed in our enterprise. If we do not get it right, do we not lose the moral courage to ask our school-age children why they did not come out on top of the class? So we take our thumb-print, or pen or whatever should be representing our raised hand in support of a particular contestant, and we guess away. Then we go back to our houses and wait with bated-breath for the announcement of the results of our examination, sorry, election. We expect our joy to be full if get full marks. It appears that we think it is one new joke or invention of the powers that be that we try our hands at guessing who they will see fit to crown next.
I think we can do better than that.
I would rather keep my hand raised up till the very last vote in the farthest village is counted, in support of my choice for our new leader; simply because I am right. All my teachers are retired. I can waste my vote if I like. I can raise my hand for as long as I like. For whomever I like.
Because this is government BY THE PEOPLE.