For The People

A/N: In light of the recent events, I will not be sharing anymore of my portfolio until I feel comfortable enough to use this platform to turn your attention away from what’s going on. Instead, I will be sharing with you an essay I wrote on thought and emotion where public policy is concerned.

Naomi

Above the Bundestag in Berlin, you will see engraved into the façade of the building “Dem Deutschen Volke”; which translates as “[To] the German People”. This is just one of the many iterations that represent the foundation of democracy and in the case of Germany, points back to its politically confusing past and upwards to the symbolic dome of transparency. However, despite the zeal that democracy often represents or the hope it gives, we have to wonder if the system is properly set up to empower all those living under it or if those holding it up are willing to dedicate themselves fully to those, they are responsible for. In this essay I will be discussing the relationship of knowledge, thought and the consciousness of inaction in public affairs and public policy, specifically focusing on the governments of Nigeria and the United States of America. In particular, I will be discussing the ways in which elected officials and the system of partisan politics renders democracy useless, the bleak reality of voting power when considering oppressed groups and finally, the disparities in public reaction to inept governance where developing nations are concerned.

Democracy ensures that we are all given the opportunity to demand better for ourselves or worse if we choose; however, how the choice made is a gray area. At its core, it does not address the issue of a choice influenced by political media content developed from information; which has been siphoned from our data via social media platforms. It does not speak on the more implicit and subtle kinds of coercions that we see being enacted on voters or on the trade-offs voters often have to make (e.g. economic stability or human rights?) but we must assume that the aforementioned situations are not optimal for unadulterated human thought. So is Democracy really achieving its intended goal? In 2016, more Americans voted for Hilary than Trump, but Trump became president and despite how this can be justified through the electoral college does that really align with the core of America’s identity, the things America claims it fought so passionately for? 

If democracy is so foggy in Western countries, then developing countries are expected to be far worse. From the perspective of someone who grew up in one of such nations, I can say that there is far more power in the word than in the established institution; but that isn’t much different from any developed nation. Democracy in Nigeria is signified by the fact that every four years, most of the population may attempt to choose a leader based on what they want for themselves and their country; however, seeing as Nigeria has only been democratic for 20 years (continuously) it is hard to determine how much we understand this thing we’ve been fighting for, for so long. The reason we support this system of government so fiercely is because, after languishing under dictators for so long and being told that democracy is our only salvation, there’s nothing else we can hope for but that one day democracy, true democracy will swoop in and save us. Unfortunately, we are yet to see this holy symbol of light shine anywhere in its full glory. 

On that note, it isn’t too hard to question the value of a choice in a democratic system. An election usually involves a long process of campaigning where votes are treated like material items up for sale to the candidate with the most formidable supporters. Campaigns are expensive, this year Michael Bloomberg spent over $500 million dollars of his own fortune on his presidential bid; which in a typical scenario would guarantee his immediate success. Funding for campaigns directly equates to access; which works both ways to ensure that a candidate’s access to voters and vice versa makes them more likely to be successful in an election. This becomes an issue when the bulk of this funding comes from big organizations and groups with major political ideologies to promote. The whole process of campaigning resembles buying votes via some kind of formalized lottery system and selling deeds of promise for the enactment of policy through donations. In this case, democracy works as a tablecloth to conceal these very questionable processes that in any other case, would be considered unethical.

I wonder a lot about things like this, things that we as a society do not question. Growing up, I wondered about the long list of presidents that campaigned on infrastructural growth and economic development and how it was commonplace for them to say these things and then do absolutely nothing once they got elected. These days I fume over the lack of empathy in our governments because now I see that it’s just not Nigeria that has this problem. Partisan politics will always mean that individuals will convince themselves that they are doing something for the greater good and whether or not this is true, it doesn’t matter because in order to get themselves a platform to inspire change they have to conform to the will of an established institution. Have we ever stopped to think about why it has to be one or the other? Liberal or Conservative? Gun control or not? Certain people control the ideas that translate into public policy and these ideas are not in any way influenced by those they will be forced upon. It seems to be an accepted fact that politicians will pull out all their resources when campaigning only to create a façade of what kind of leader they might be. What is really most concerning is that they allow themselves to carry on in that way, promising and kissing babies, knowing deep down inside what intentions they have for the country. So where do the lines between altruism and responsibility get blurred? In governments riddled with corruption it’s easy to say that they can’t simply care about the people for whom they are responsible, especially not while they blatantly pocket large sums of public funding. However, I don’t believe that the conclusion can be as simple as that. Everyone has their limit and their own unique moral compass; there must be something that some people absolutely won’t do. Unfortunately, the United States of America, under Trump’s regime, has proved over and over that if there are limits to immorality then America hasn’t found them yet.

It shouldn’t be surprising as it seems given America’s bloody and troubling history but because we’ve grown accustomed to the manner in which politicians go about their business, we forget that Trump’s separation of migrant families and backing of white supremacists is just as American as apple pie. We mustn’t pretend not to know what kinds of thoughts and emotions influence these kinds of policies and we mustn’t pretend that Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric wasn’t an obvious predecessor to his executive orders. But what follows an absence of thought or empathy in government officials? In 2015, when over 270 girls were kidnapped in Chibok, Nigeria many said that the government would have done more to secure their release if they had been the children of important people; government officials, celebrities and the like. It was also reported that the government had at least 4 hours’ notice of the attack and failed to act and reinforce the school. In situations like this, I struggle to understand how someone can put themselves in such a position of power and be so unwilling to use it in a situation as desperate as this. Over time, it has become clear to me that what follows an absence of thought in the government is nothing. This is because of partisan politics. Elected officials are and always will be bound to the ideas that guide their parties. As much as they owe the public a responsibility, they will struggle to get any support from their colleagues because of what will be perceived as their unorthodox behavior. This effectively determines a fixed fate for the nation that bounces back and forth between pre-determined societal norms.

It is important to constantly be aware of the fact that elected officials owe a debt to the public regardless of political affiliation because the less willing we are to hold them accountable, the easier it is for them to get away with their negligence. This can’t be more evident than in Nigeria and the U.S, where in both countries rigid systems exist which make it hard for individuals to affect much change. America has always touted this notion of freedom; which we can safely say, is unique. This freedom usually centers around a very important arrangement of words that make up the First Amendment; the ideas that breathe life into free speech, the right to assemble and the right to express your beliefs. Things that are assumed to be commonplace but in reality, don’t exist (to the same degree) in most of the world. It is for this reason that Americans, like citizens of any Western country are emboldened to speak out and demand better from their administration. Despite a more global openness to protesting and taking action (legally as a civilian) Nigerians have not taken to it in the way that others have. The saying “there is strength in numbers” doesn’t quite apply, as Nigerians have not been able to push the government into actually working in their favor despite a population of about 190 million. And it isn’t just that Nigerians are unwilling to protest; there has been a substantial increase in the number of protests being held in the country however; Nigerians simply do not believe that anything can come from protesting and we aren’t wrong. There were protests over the abduction the Chibok girls; who are still largely missing today and despite the international outcry and pressure, there was no significant resignation or emphatic admission of guilt. They told us they would get them back and in a series of short news cycles, a girl or two or fifty would suddenly be found. The most the government ever did for them was to negotiate with terrorists to ensure the return of some of them and for that too, there has been no consequence. 

With the rise of social media and what I like to describe as the enlightenment of our generation, (or at least of those who are willing to be receptive) the outcry continues. The stance against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a rogue police unit known for profiling, harassing, sexually assaulting, kidnapping, extorting and murdering Nigerians was well-chronicled through the hashtag #EndSARS and extended from social media into the streets; however, no arrests, no structural reform and no abolishment of the unit or any miniscule fragment of consequence followed. It was the same when high-profile accusations of rape and sexual harassment were raised against an influential pastor; who has been able to move on with his life and ministry after the court ruled in his favor and demanded that his accuser pay some kind of reparations to him for “defamation”. In the end, these great tragedies lose their effect and all that is left is a bitter taste in the mouth. They dissolve into stories of hardship that Nigerians use to teach their children to be strong. The moral at the end of the day is that bad things happen, and we can’t just burst into tears every time. The moral is true of course, especially for a country as turbulent as Nigeria and regardless of the toxic nature of this resignation, it is the only way to live in a country such as this.

But what about nations with symbolic glass domes and doors open for demonstrators to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming? From up there it’s easy to pity people like us because we have no access but in fact, it is the Americans I pity; I would rather have no semblance of food than wake up every day to the smell of the most sumptuous dish on the other side of a door that will never open. To be an American in this post-2016 atmosphere is to be a person with strong issues on many specific matters and a strong desire to tell everyone about it, to recruit more members for your belief system because depending on what societal privileges you’ve been allocated or denied, there might be very little you can do about your beliefs. For America, the great injustice is being sold this idea of a freedom you may never own. A greater injustice still is lending your voice to certain causes knowing that the powers that be will put them exactly where they want them. Such is the case with Black Lives Matter; the outright disregard for a group of people riddled with traumas to last a lifetime, literally fighting for their lives through protests and demonstrations only to have those with access step on their hopes and plaster them with epithets like “thugs”, “Antifa”, “criminals”, words that corrupt their mission and ensure that they will never be listened to or remembered for who they really are. It is the same with Christine Ford and the cruelty she endured at the hands of the nation because she used her right and opportunity to speak up, because she offered herself as the sacrificial lamb so that other women can be validated and respected; only to be thrown to the side and have the man who sexually assaulted her ascend to one of the highest positions in the U.S Justice system. The fact that this same narrative has now occurred (notably) twice in America’s history; with varying levels of politics at play show that this freedom that America won for itself is subjective and can’t even be guaranteed through votes. It matters not whether the “right” person is voted in, all that matters is that there will always be a side looking for their own representation as long as elected officials don’t practice empathy.

Additionally, the consciousness of inaction looks completely different depending on the hemisphere in question. In a country like the U.S inaction is in a sense, legalized. It is explained away, refuted in press conferences with eloquent words and then it is discussed in a manner that fails to address the heart of the issue: indifference, or in some cases, well-constructed agendas set to maintain the current state of the social hierarchy or status quo. In Nigeria, or quite literally any other developing nation, inaction looks like a distress signal. It’s the kind of thing that the most supreme world leaders condemn. It rings loud in the ears of human rights agencies and depending on the severity, usually warrants some kind of interference from one of these Western countries (probably America). It is very important to think about why these two situations are different. First of all, it is assumed that developing nations have no idea what they’re doing. Former president Ronald Reagan literally said to then President Nixon over the phone “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” (Naftali). It could be true that these young countries on the African continent are following in the footsteps of former colonizers and navigating what it means to be a democratic state. However, the reality of the situation is not in fact what makes the media and the western world, take on a condescending nature in admonishing us for the way human rights are often disregarded. It goes back to the fact that most of these countries doubt our legitimacy as countries, leaning heavily on neo-colonialist ways of thinking. The outrage at our fight for independence is the lingering sense of betrayal. “How dare they demand to be their own state? How dare they demand to have the final say over the use of their resources? What do they know of independence anyway?!”

Race also has a big role to play in this (as it usually always does). White people can get away with virtually any crime they want—this is a fact. The CIA can run covert operations in multiple foreign countries without permission/the knowledge of the host country, they can torture and murder whoever they want on any soil in the world, they can set off elaborate plans to topple government administrations or preserve them as they see fit and all this can be explained away as necessary to preserve the security of America or the world. The president of the “free world” can stick his hands down any woman’s pants apparently and still be elected, he can get intel from another country (historically his host country’s nemesis) to help him win an election and he can be acquitted in an impeachment trial when there has been evidence of abuse of power and misconduct amongst other things. On the other hand, a black person can die a brutal death for allegedly whistling at a white woman, not to mention the extensive list of things that black people can now “legally” be arrested for doing. Crimes are crimes regardless of who commits them and where they are committed but those committed on third world soil, by people of colour always receive harsher penalties and more negative attention.

As evidenced in this essay, democracy exists in different forms all over the world and in some cases, isn’t easily translated to fit another country or culture. Regardless, the problem with democracy isn’t a problem within itself, it is the problem of its image. The western world markets this idea as a soothing balm to heal the scars of monarchy and dictatorship and oppression and we cling to it because we believe that it will embrace us and answer our prayers—every single one of them. The problem is that we expect the wrong things from this system, we expect to be satisfied and we expect that everyone will be more or less content. However, all democracy promises is the opportunity and the power to be heard, the power to contribute to the determination of your future but not actually determine it yourself. Interestingly enough the democracy that is established all over the world, ensures neither of those privileges for anyone. It does not take into account that our options are streamlined and prepped for us to  choose from what is possibly a corrupted fruit basket, our opinions are modified until they no longer look like ours and all our vote does is place power in the hands of a pre-established organization with their own ideas of what our world looks like. Democracy as it exists in this post-modern society does not take into account the margins our elected officials are working against and the fact that they cannot really answer to our every need. It also does not speak to the discrepancies with which governments are judged globally. The system may be working for us, but it is not working for all of us, it works for as many of us as it can manage, or for whichever ones agree with the commonly accepted ideology. Therefore, it is not an outlandish summation to claim that the absence of a tangible symbol of democracy is an indication of what lies at the core of this system and if democracy in its true form does not exist then the people it is established for also do not exist.

Bibliography

Naftali, Tim. Ronald Regan’s Long-Hidden Racist Conversation With Richard Nixon. 30 07 2019. 07 02 2020. <https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/07/ronald-reagans-racist-conversation-richard-nixon/595102/&gt;.

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