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
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.