Despite my reservations about the Christian ethos and mythology, I have always identified with the Christmas spirit. The décor, the ambience and the harmattan usually add an exotic flavour to the season that propels the emotions to cheerfulness. But 2016 has been anything but a cheerful year and Christmas is suffering the effects. The “change” touted in the 2015 elections has yielded little or no results. Nigerians are gradually realising that a change in the composition of government is not necessarily the same as a change in the system of government.
As I have often said, the Nigerian system of government is an anocracy. That is, it is an autocracy cloaked in the garments of a democracy. As designed and practised, the interest of the Nigerian government—making profit for the treasury and the allies of government—rarely coincides with the interest of the Nigerian people, that is, sustainable development and communal progress. It is, therefore, a duty for all well-meaning Nigerians—particularly the educated middle class—to keep a watchful eye on the government and protect the interests of the undereducated and underprivileged masses.
“Government” here does not refer only to the current Buhari administration. The Nigerian government is a continuum since Frederick Lugard first carried out his “nation-building” massacres against indigenous communities. Although the style and structure of the Nigerian government have changed several times since 1914, the philosophy remains intact. Ours is a patronage enterprise designed to exploit the local resources of the masses for the benefit of a few through the machinery of government.
But the average middle-class Nigerian rarely contemplates these thoughts. Instead, there is a general sense of satisfaction with mundane performance. We have a willingness to grasp at any seemingly positive official action and exaggerate its practical value. Thus, we praise the ordinary and our standards keep dropping. And because our standards keep dropping, we continue to praise the ordinary. We are looped in a cycle of self-destitution.
Of course, this glorification of the ordinary mostly stems from our economic dependence on the patronage of government and its allies. However, it is also a residue of our colonial heritage: a tendency to justify our passive subordination by pointing to the “good deeds” of the colonial master. Uncomfortably, we are the sons and daughters of the colonial cowards. And so, we have been bred to shy away from social criticism.
Oppressors—and their supporters—have many criticisms of critics. Ironically, they are quick to employ the tool of criticism to argue against criticism. They will tell you a critic is bitter. They will say the critic simply wants a share of government. Oppressors, by their very nature, reject criticism and label most of it as unproductive. Unproductive criticism is one that disparages government or even rejects the role of government. “Constructive” criticism, of course, is that which frames issues in a way that puts government in a good light.
Nigerians have bought into this silliness. And so, we often ask that the critic should “provide solutions” instead of merely criticising. This is nonsense. The critic is not a politician. The critic is also a customer of the public official. You do not have to provide solutions to a mechanic to complain about your discomfort with the car. Let the critic complain and let the politicians—who are paid for this purpose—think things through and do their jobs.
Also, we tell our critics to talk of the “positive” things. You will often hear statements like: “The government is trying, you should support them,” “Mention some of the good things too”, “You didn’t talk about this so-and-so progress.” These may be well-intentioned suggestions, but they attempt to force a social critic into the role of government public relations. Once again, we see the vestiges of the colonial apologist. If the government is doing well, it hardly needs the media to publicise its activities. The proof will be evident to the relevant communities. But an irresponsible act of government often requires—and often generates—a complaint.
And so, all criticisms of the acts of public officials should be considered as valid perspectives for that critic. The fact that it is difficult to identify with the critic is irrelevant. We may be tempted to judge criticism as invalid from our own positions, but our experience of government differs. These differences should be respected. When we start to suppress criticism to suit our own experience of government, we cross the line of opinion and become part of the oppression.
Social criticism is not a job description or profession. It is a civic duty innate to our existence as citizens of Nigeria. Social criticism has come from teachers, from legal workers, from social and health workers, from corporate professionals, from traders and entrepreneurs, from labour workers. What we need are more Nigerians willing to be social critics. We need more Nigerians willing to force government to adhere to the highest standards of responsibility.
When we have insight into the point that every rebuke of our system of government is a benefit for the people, we will all be more critical. If Nigeria is to change in the real sense we must, amongst other things, stop this culture of discouraging discontent with government.
Originally published here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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