Nigeria @ 57: Poverty as Threat to Democracy

Public discourse on state of the nation appears to concentrate more on

national structure as the real danger facing the republic and

democracy. The nation focuses on nature of our federalism and why

adjustment is the route to survival. I think we are missing the main

threat today-grinding poverty among the citizenry.
The best national structure can be compromised; the best constitution

can be subverted when the populace is hungry with no hope of

sustainable survival. Operators of democratic machine from top to

bottom of national ladder will cut corners for many reasons. While we

expect the leaders and public servants to be above board, they are

faced with army of desperate and poverty stricken citizens, whose

language is survival irrespective of the source of poverty alleviating

largesse. The officials and the citizens are married in unholy game of

survival with poverty becoming a preferred weapon of choice in some

depraved settings.
I make bold to say that poverty will compromise any referendum or

plebiscite that may be held in case of a new constitution.

The situation is becoming increasingly unsustainable as the rich are

targets of criminal offensive even as the armies of criminals grow by

the day. Major junctions in our towns are now controlled by gangs to

whom the leaders pay protection fees. The grassroots is deeply

challenged as economic machine of the local level has been largely

destroyed due to the paralysis of the local government. Purchasing g

power of the people is decimated as many states owe salaries and

pensions even after billions of naira of bailout funds. The central

government is overwhelmed as state governments have successfully lured

the public to blame Abuja rather than their governors.

The consequence is that there is an increasing elite migration to

Abuja. In a bid to escape pressure at home, top leaders have switched

to staying more in their Abuja residences than ever before.

Interestingly, the masses are also migrating to Abuja to have a taste

of commonwealth cake. The satellite towns are now homes to thousands

of new arrival with Abuja population now estimated to be close to six

million. Thousands storm the municipal every morning seeking jobs and

support. Around Maitama and Asokoro are emerging fresh slum

populations. Street boys are popping up in various corners and

criminal attacks within the capital are increasing with alarming

proportion. The poor are taken the battle to the abode of the elites.

Thus when the debate about restructuring takes the center stage, I

wonder what we are thinking about human misery that is gradually

enveloping us. If you restructure –which is a difficult task-what do

you do to the troubling question of mass poverty? The best of

constitution to emerge from that federal reform is sure to fail as no

one –not the millions struggling to survive-will obey it. It will be

subverted even more easily at the state level where Governors are tin

gods. Expecting reform to aid poverty solution is a false hope as

electoral inducement will stop genuine patriots from getting elected.

First, genuine patriotic leaders can rarely emerge under a poverty

ridden democracy. Yes. Real leaders with patriotic desire to serve the

people can hardly make it at election because of poverty crisis.

Voters who are hungry and bedeviled with multiple survival questions

can hardly make right decision. He wants to survive first before

thinking of what happens tomorrow. He has issues he wants to address

now and he is ready to collect money from the devil to survive. His

vision of the ideal leader is blurred by survivalist rationalization.

So he may vote for the armed robber who appears on the ballot if that

is the highest bidder. There was a time in India when close to half of

the legislature were confirmed criminals. Until recently many state

governors in that big democracy are leaders of criminals

In society where poverty crisis is substantially addressed, voters’

judgment is influenced by patriotic evaluation of the antecedent and

integrity of the candidates. In fact, western democracy survives and

blossoms for that long because voters across western world are not

within poverty trap. Offering inducements as the sole basis for

getting elected is a failed strategy in North America and Western

Europe. Nigeria and other African countries can hardly compare with

such settled societies because the voters here operate within poverty

cage, a condition that negatively affects electoral judgments.

It is also a fact that as the poverty level decreases, citizens’

challenge to the leaders and rulers increases. In Uganda, President

Yuweri Museveni has succeeded in reducing poverty level to less than

30 percent of the population. Interestingly, resistance to his rule is

growing on daily basis. Why? The voters are released from state of

perpetual want. They are empowered to rightly exercise their

democratic rights to vote and be voted for. The same scenario is

playing out in Rwanda.
Poverty is an existential threat to democracy for many reasons.

Democratic rights cannot be judiciously exercised in a state of fear

of tomorrow occasioned by survival demand. Two, Poverty enables the

criminal world by supplying needed manpower. Hence the wrongly elected

have armies of militant to suppress the needy and the hungry. Three,

citizen docility is encouraged as majority of the citizens are worried

more about what to eat than how the state is governed. Four, the

leaders are complacent as they have adopted poverty as an electoral

weapon to be deployed at each election circle.
But is it possible for poverty crisis to work the other way? Can it

make the populace to rise against their oppressors? Can the citizens

sacrifice to liberate themselves from clutches of oppressors? Can they

reject inducement and vote for the right leaders? Nothing is

impossible. People of Osun state did just that in 2003.This may

however be an exception to the rule.
I maintain that poverty may not just kill democracy but may even

enthrone a dictatorship. I restate that our challenge now is not the

structure of government; it is about the conditions of the citizenry

and the leaders. Poverty stricken population cannot hold their leaders

accountable. If leaders are not accountable, democracy is imperiled.

*Olawale Rasheed is an Abuja based media entrepreneur.


SOURCE :The Nigerian Voice (opinions)

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