Politics: I recently saw a documentary exploring the rise of Alexandria Occasio-Cortez (a 28 year old congresswoman) as well as other candidates who ran for Senate or House of Representatives positions during the 2018 United States elections.
The documentary highlights the grassroots mobilization which was at the core of their success, enabling the most diverse Congress in US history. As a Nigerian viewer one wonders: can political outsiders make it into the system? Can we “deepen our democracy” (to use a worn-out term) without challenging the hierarchical “bigmanism” of our society which doesn’t support equality? If we aren’t all equal and all our voices don’t carry the same weight, how can we aim to have a democracy? After all, the idea of democracy itself is premised on social justice and equality. Listening to Alexandria Occasion-Cortez (AOC) and other candidates it quickly becomes clear that the issues many Nigerians believe are particular to us or to Africa are in fact global concerns which have a lot to do with the ostensible contradictions and tensions within the notions of democracy and economic prosperity.
Nigerian culture, or rather, the post-colonial variant, a mish-mash of reinterpreted, exaggerations of local, indigenous pre-colonial norms, unquestioningly celebrates wisdom as a false outcome of age, status and wealth. The post-colonial elite, in its quest for stability after decolonization, kept many of the “traditions” of excessively formalistic, hierarchical, discriminatory, colonial authority. In fact, the modern conception of power in Africa is only an adaptation of colonial, elitist injustices masquerading as self-rule. The Nigerian society, full of contrasts, is bound together by inequality and a strangely American, “democratic” promise: anything is possible and anything can happen, except that in Nigeria, control of the state and its resources is the means to achieve individual dreams and aspirations. The turbulence of our national life, where through intense battles, outcomes are endlessly remade, benefits only a few who’ve mastered the rules of the game. It appears the same in “more advanced democracies”. This term makes me wonder, more advanced on the road towards what exactly, if not the final victory of elite interests over popular democracy? In the US, democracy has also been co-opted by special interests. It seems inequality, in Nigeria and America is a necessary condition for both democracy and capitalism: capitalist competition requires that some win, others lose and unfailingly, most people fall behind, and without disparities and imbalances of outcomes and opportunities, the democratic longing for “anyone to be anything” couldn’t exist.
AOC quickly becomes the documentary’s focus. A former waitress, she knows the struggles of the working class. In fact, at the time of the primaries, she was still a waitress. Interestingly, most of our leading political figures were working class, if not poor. Former President Jonathan himself said he wore no shoes, and most of our military heads of state also share “grass to grace” stories. So why then is it so difficult for leaders in Nigeria to empathize with the poor? A former speaker of the house of representatives, Patricia Etteh started out as a hairdresser. Is betraying the working poor a condition for political success in Nigeria? An organizer on the AOC campaign says “if we can elect working people, we can change the way we see politics and government in this country”. Nigeria has elected many working people, people who without political success would have remained traders, or even bus conductors. So, what exactly is the difference? Money corrupts American politics but perhaps in a different way than in Nigeria. Social class seems more fluid in Nigeria than in America, going by the social origins of established politicians in both countries. The problem, perhaps, is that social mobility in America happens through economic, or business success, and it is the power of those lobbying on behalf of corporate interests which corrupts pro-people politics and policies in the US. In Nigeria, the state and its resources are the primary means of social mobility and economic success. Big businesses are all more or less directly connected to government in one way or another: without special waivers and discretionary approval for contracts, the majority of our so-called business gurus would find it difficult to exist. But ordinary people in the US complain of the same. Maybe we must consider a more radical thought: there is no fundamental difference between democracy in the US and Nigeria. Nigeria is simply the naked face of capitalism, without the polite pretensions of Western democracy, or the institutions necessary to counter the rot (e.g. an independent judiciary, social welfare etc.), so the rot itself is unbearably unmasked.
We are a more extreme case of the issues prevalent in supposedly more advanced democracies but with a surprising twist: outsiders do make it into Nigerian politics but they are easily bought over by established interests because of the lack of economic possibilities in the wider society. Internationally, the fusion between the public and private sectors both advocating for the same set of people and interests, is a danger for democracy and prevents truly insurgent candidates’ access to power. All things considered, the documentary didn’t discourage my faith in this country or the possibility of grassroots organizing in Nigeria. In fact, here, the inbuilt traps of democracy which enable a concentration of power at the top, have not yet been completely sprung, given that our democracy is still in-development, still reinventing itself and “becoming”. The question is, becoming what? Will we have the courage to reinvent our political economy in a manner that recognizes the failures of the West or are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes?
The PDP Vice-Presidential candidate in the 2019 elections, in a recent interview refused to recognize corruption as a fundamental problem and his failure to link it to pervasive unemployment shows a certain level of hypocrisy. “Nigeria is not the only ‘corrupt’ country in the world (…) It is not possible to have a nation of saints. In trying to rid the society of corruption, we have to pursue the vision of building a nation” he said. How does one pursue nation building without fighting corruption? Economic injustice is the unresolved contradiction at the heart of capitalism and democracy. Corruption is an expression of the problem which he either doesn’t perceive or doesn’t want to acknowledge when he says “unemployment is the number one problem the country is facing”. How can we deal with unemployment without tackling the gross misappropriation and misallocation of resources? PDP governments have supported too many waivers and tax exemptions for those at the top. Now that Nigeria can depend neither on oil revenue nor taxes, our untenable socio-economic arrangement is unraveling.
The minister for foreign Affairs, Godfrey Enyeama said: “investigations conducted by the Airport Authorities and National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) in Kano discovered a drug cartel at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport that specialises in planting illicit drugs on innocent travellers without their knowledge. It was also discovered that the bag tagged in Zainab’s name was planted by the cartel without her knowledge”. Surely, no one then could possibly have an issue with the intervention to save an innocent? Why politicize Ms. Aliyu’s origins? A CAN spokesperson said: “but as we rejoice about this development, we are also compelled to ask this important question: are all Nigerians equal or some are more equal than others? We appeal to President Buhari to direct his security agencies to double their efforts and get Leah released and reunited with her parents. Leah, too, wants to enjoy the protection of her leaders.” This isn’t just callous it’s misleading. Leah Shuaibu was taken by unknown, faceless terrorists, negotiations or efforts to secure her release are obviously a lot more complex than discussions between two governments (Nigeria and Saudi Arabia) in the Aliyu case. This has nothing to do with religion or state of origin. Religious organizations make themselves political mouthpieces but we mustn’t allow them divide us on ethno-religious lines.
Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.