I want to talk about civil engagement today, one of the most powerful tools available to us as tax paying citizens. With the upcoming Nigerian elections, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the role of the citizen in his or her country. So many of the problems affecting the african continent can find their root in governments, be they our own or foreign ones. While I’m setting the frame of this discussion around Nigeria, specifically its youth considering it is most relevant to the readership of this site, the comments and observations I am making are generally applicable across the board within the african context. The youth demographic (for the purpose of this piece I mean individuals from ages 18-35) make up 29.6 % of your entire population but a whopping 56.4 % of your electorate. How are we using that power? Not effectively. In your last electoral period, voter turn out was 28.66% and 53% for parliamentary and presidential elections respectively. We are not even maximizing the efficiency of our current system and we want to complain. You did not help to cook stew and you want to tell me it’s too salty?
We must promote civil engagement, treat civics with the same regard and esteem that we treat “proper” subjects as opposed to upholding that ridiculous dichotomy that puts home economics, TD and civics on one end and math, sciences and business on the other. All subjects have their value; the biggest achievements in human history have been born out of interdisciplinary collaboration. Think on this though, while most people won’t ever have to use calculus again past the secondary school level, all will live under governments where they will have to pay taxes, require roads schools and hospitals, live under a system of governance that will inform everything from their freedom of expression to their access to the means of production. For any such system to work efficiently, we will have to be aware of our rights and responsibilities, know how the system operates and what we are entitled to so we can remind the pubic servants as their name suggests that they work for us. They should be looking out for us and the policies they put into place must be in the interest of that public as opposed to being so closely aligned to those of the elite few.
If these institutions have shown us time and time again that they are not creating leaders looking out for our welfare, leaders we can’t depend on then we must take it into our own hands to create institutions that will produce the kind of leaders we do need. We need to stop being so passive about the way we are being governed. Our leaders are not appointed by some higher power; the system in which they operate were created by men, the leaders placed in power also by men. With the advent of the internet, not only can we spread information faster and further but we can bypass traditional structures when they have failed us. Think crowdsourcing and collective consumption (Netflix is my favourite example). Let’s use it to further educate and organize ourselves to create the change we want to see in our countries.
We are lucky in our continent, our demographic is the largest. We can’t always be blaming our governments. Obviously we know they are inefficient and fundamentally flawed but since they have chosen to claim the label of democracy let us hold them to it. Democracy means the people’s rule or power. This puts the responsibility for our fate squarely in our hands. Our leaders all over the world are taking advantage of our general complacency and low engagement in matters of politics to play with our future as they see fit, neglecting their duty to educate us then turning around and saying politics should be left to politicians. To that I say no more. The country does not just belong to the politicians, it belongs to all of us. They are merely our representative and emissaries to the world. When our currencies lose value, it is not our politicians suffering, it’s Awa who now discovers that the same money she used to buy plantain can only buy half that amount now. We all have a stake in the future of our nations so it stands to reason that we should all participate to a certain degree in building it. The system of governance you use is the foundation for anything that happens in your country. How can we expect to build anything that can stand on such a shaky foundation? I will cut our leaders some slack (not too much though). They are stubbornly clinging to models of governance influenced by and derived from the people who subjugated us, the same models that insure our 3rd world position. We are a different Africa than we were in the 60s, we don’t need to keep conforming to those archaic models, doing the same thing year after year and expecting change. As we grow as a society our systems should evolve to reflect that. I strongly suggest looking to our past to inform our future.
Can you imagine if those who gained us our independence waited until it was convenient for them to do so? Or even worse, if they waited until the colonial powers got some humanity and allowed us to be sovereign nations? When they were benefiting from a system that allowed them to use a whole continent like their own personal supply closet? That kind of power is hard to relinquish. Our forefathers did not like their conditions, said enough is enough and fought to claim what was theirs by right. That was only the first step. We face a similar yet new challenge now. We are dissatisfied with our government but we have as much, if not more power than those who came before us. We are the new culture shapers and the future leaders. Let us exercise our right not just to vote but to vote well, make choices at the ballot boxes influenced not by demagoguery but actual information on who our leaders are, their political stances, and what they actually hope to achieve in office and how. We have the right to stable and continuous governments regardless of what party is in charge. Government activities should not be significantly affected in times were power is being transferred, pausing the political process sets a dangerous precedent. We have the right to the right to full transparency and by default accountability from our leaders. Any candidate from the municipal to the federal level who can provide that for me or at least lay the foundation for such a structure has my vote. It’s a shame that the way we frame our political discourse pits parties against each other, forcing us to chose between 2 sides of the same coin (that’s if you’re lucky enough to live in a place where your leader actually agrees to relinquish power when the time comes). If you focus too much on Broom vs Umbrella, Blue or red or whatever the case might be for your country, you’ll forget that the real fight is between the rulers and the ruled. We’ve been deceived into this false sense of powerlessness because of our lack of information. Today I just want to remind you that your government exist for you and not the other way around. As africans we need to stop looking outwards for the solution to our problems. If you find it outrageous that a country with a GDP of $594.2 trillion has 60+% of its population living under the poverty line, a GDP per capita of $2800 and 32% of its wealth concentrated within 10% of its population, you cannot keep quiet. It seems age has made our leaders hard of hearing yet good with numbers by the looks of their bank accounts. Well if they wont listen to your voice, at least let your vote be counted.
A small suggested reading list for any interested in youth political organization within the african context:
I Write What I Like: Collection of articles, opinion pieces and speeches and speeches by Steve Biko, South-african anti-apartheid activist and youth political leader.
Wheats of Grain – Fictional account of the Kenyan independence struggle and its repercussions by prominent Kenyan writer and social critic Ngūgī wa Thiong’o.
Originally published on The Naked Convos.