Cultural Adaptations

by Cheta Nwanze

“Dem give us dem culture, we no understand.” —Fela Anikulapo-Kuti from Why Black Man dey suffer.

So the re-run elections in Delta state have come and gone, and while a result was declared, it has been the same old story of snatched ballot boxes, voter intimidation and massive disenfranchisement of the electorate in whole communities.

However, what struck me the most was a statement by an election monitor who covered the elections in the Delta North area. He said, “the elections in these areas were largely peaceful and without incident. Voter turn out was low as a result of apathy, lack of adequate awareness and voter register issues. This was a classroom for INEC and other election stakeholders and there were many lessons to learn.”

The point I would love to pick on the most is voter apathy.

The biggest problem with voters in Nigeria is that apathy, and it is one of the things that is killing us with regards our electoral issues. Nigerians have time and again failed to constitute themselves into that critical mass that is required to make all efforts at electoral lawlessness to come to nought. We are too apathetic to our plight. The reasons for this apathy are many, chief amongst these the belief, mistaken or not, that our votes do not count.

To a large extent, this belief is true. Our votes have largely not counted in Nigeria, and part of the reason is cultural. Most people in our country, like it or not do not believe in representative democracy of the American or British models. And it shows. The average person on the street has no clue with regards the fact that it is his constitutional right to walk into the office of his representative in Abuja and demand a meeting. But then how would he, when our so-called representatives are so high and mighty, and frankly intimidate the poor masses with their wealth. In any event, Abuja is too far. Would one of those people who were disenfranchised in Obiaruku on Thursday, 6 January have the guts to walk into the Delta State legislative chambers and demand a meeting with the Ndokwa representative?

This is where the cultural disconnect comes in.

Traditionally, all Nigerian cultures have always had some form of representation in the council of elders (ndi ichie in Igboland) whom they could easily approach when they have problems. Our attempt to import the American model of democracy wholesale has removed this link, and people do not know who to turn to when they have problems, so in their confusion, they attempt to solve problems for themselves. This is why there is so much anarchy in Nigeria today. There is so much anarchy because almost every individual in Nigeria, within the limits of his abilities and resources, has become a government, and as a result, a law unto himself.

Consider this scenario, I live in Surulere, and I am responsible for my own power. My neighbours and I make a monthly contribution in order to secure our gated street. I have a water pump in my compound, and if it goes bad, we contribute money to fix it. Recently, some egghead has come up with the idea of making a contribution to buy cement and bricks to patch the failed portions of our street. All these responsibilities we are taking on, are in theory the responsibility of the Surulere Local Government chairman just down the road. However, he would most probably claim that he is yet to receive his monthly allocation, and since we are not the thugs that put him in office in any event, he really does not feel responsible to us. This attitude percolates upwards, and rumours reaching me indicate that the man no longer even lives in Surulere, but now has choice property in Lekki. How true that is, I do not know.

What I know for certain, is that this example I just pointed out shows us the real failure of government in Nigeria, it is at the local level. The truth is this, I do not have my mechanic on speed dial because of Fashola in Alausa or Jonathan in Aso Rock. I have my mechanic on speed dial because the man whom I can see is not doing his job. Unfortunately, this man in most cases has his hand tied by someone above, someone who I really had no hand in (s)electing because most of my fellow countrymen were too cynical to go out and protect their votes.

This is where the dynamics of democracy come into play.

Democracy as is practised in the United States is very different from democracy as is practised in the United Kingdom. France has a President and a Prime Minister. South Africa has three capital cities. Why then should Nigeria copy and paste the American constitution when our own cultural nuances are at variance with American beliefs and ideals? Would a Fifth Amendment (the right to remain silent) work in Nigeria? Would a Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) work here? Do we have a scenario for a Thirteenth Amendment type abolition of slavery? Is every human being born on Nigerian soil automatically a Nigerian citizen free to hold political office in every part of Nigeria as set out in the American Fourteenth Amendment?

I believe that a more functional system of government in Nigeria would emerge if we go back to the kind of representation that was practised by our ancestors. Now consider this, most people in Nigeria are sadly quite selfish and only concerned about their immediate environment. So, imagine if elections are held only for your own immediate community? Going back to my Surulere example, imagine if the Adelabu Community is allowed to vote for one person from the community to represent us at the Surulere Local Government office. Then from amongst these representatives, a chairman of sorts is picked (from within themselves). Then from these Local Government chairmen, a governor of Lagos is picked, and then from these state governors, a President is picked. Imagine, that to forestall a situation where the representative no longer bears the interest of his community at heart, he would be required to give up his seat immediately, if he is moving out of the community. I think that in such a scenario, since the representative is known to everyone, and is within easy reach of everyone, he would sit up. Especially since he can quite easily be kicked out for non-performance when his tenure ends. Maybe, just maybe, that is the answer to our apathy. Maybe, just maybe, that is the Nigerian form of democracy.

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