Ibadan — The role of active citizens in an effective democracy cannot be overemphasized. Nigeria is believed to have a population of over 180 million of which 120 million are said to be of voting age and yet in the last election only 28,587,564 votes were cast.
For Nigeria to develop, we will most definitely need to tap into our greatest resource, which is the people. The people must begin to participate in governance by holding elected and appointed officials accountable for the expectations on the backs of which they rode into office.
There are many ways by which Nigerians can hold elected officials and appointed representatives accountable, but I will focus on steps which relate to my audience for today. I believe that most of the people present here are between the ages of 16 to 35, have access to mobile phones which can send SMS and access the internet.
The first step to being active in governance is to ensure that you use the power you have to elect those that will best represent your interest and that of your community. Sadly today in Nigeria, if we are to take a sample of registered voters in this immediate room, I doubt we can have up to 20%, which clearly is the sad state of the reflection of the larger Nigerian population.
Having played a somewhat active role in Nigerian politics for over a decade, with my first stint being with the North American group that examined the possibility of Project 007, a brief attempt by IBB wanting to be the president of Nigeria, followed by consultations for Honorable Abike Dabiri, then I was Special Advisor to UNESCO, followed by consultancy gig to Senator Obanikoro when he was Ambassador to Ghana and worked deligently as the North American coordinator for Dele Momodu Presidential campaign, then now with the President of Nigerian Senate, Dr Abubakar Bukola saraki. I have come to realize that Nigerian politicians can only rig where citizens fail to come out to defend their votes. If the citizens can stand up and challenge the powers that be from the polling unit level to the federal level, things will definitely change.
My friend, Debola Williams got a standing ovation from Barack Obama in Chicago this week for saying that the highest office of any country is the office of the citizen. It's about time for us to start exercising the powers of that office.
So how do we activate the highest office in the land?
We must first begin to expand the conversation of the enormous rights and powers Nigerian citizens have to influence election and checkmate political office holders.
We must never allow ourselves to be pushed into substituting availability for popularity. A large acceptance of the majority is what popularity thrives on and this is the bedrock of democracy. People can only be elected based on popularity and how much trust the people have in them. Even in Nigeria that rigging is still a regular occurrence, it is the level of participation that allows rigging.
It is necessary that decisions of representations must be challenged from the Ward level to the Federal level. We need not fear for harassment or rigging because those are machinations of the mischievous and as such we need to defend our votes with our sweat; betraying our conscience means we have betrayed the man in us and succumbing to threats and intimidation in such situation is subscribing to what a great Alumnus of UI calls 'The man dies in every man who keeps silent in the face of tyranny."
There is power in a united front and for far too long, we have allowed those before us to divide us along political, religious and tribal lines, and in fact, any other lines they decided to create. I see citizens all the time praising and wailing simply based on where someone is from or the party they belong to even when the policies in question will affect them negatively.
Permit me to say that with much power comes great responsibility and as much as we have the power to ensure accountability by our representatives, we as citizens must also act responsibly.
The Nigerian state is one with its unity as the core of its existence. It is our duty as citizens to stand up for and protect the unity of Nigeria.
Responsibility entails that we live in peace and mutual understanding with each other to preserve the co-existence that has lasted more than 50 years and was borne out of the sacrifice of our fathers and ancestors. We cannot afford to betray the sweat and blood that was shed to defend our unity and our freedom. There is unity in purpose and as such there must be purpose in unity, our diversity gives us strength.
The power of a citizen is also wielded by the use of his/her voice. That voice has to be respected, no matter how it's expressed, and that is why our power of expression has been magnified by social media.
It is a power we must utilize for great things and not to hail or wail based on ethnic sentiments or political affiliation, without thinking about how decisions and policies affect the general good. The moment we can realize that our commonwealth thrives when our interest aligns with those of others for the general good of all, is the moment we start using our voice consciously.
Those before us stood for what they believed in and the world has noticed, we need to not only stand for what we believe but also consolidate on the principles of truth, equity and fairness in which great alumni of this university have been known for. People like Wole Soyinka, Bola Ige, Chinua Achebe and Ken Saro Wiwa have laid a foundation so great that no student of this institution must betray by selling out on their conscience and the spirit of true democracy.
When France elected Macron, and Canada elected Justin Trudeau And Austria broke the historical political cabal to elect 31yr old Sebastian Kurz as their chancellor, with the passage of the Not To Young Bill, now is the time for the Nigerian youth to start taking what belongs to them. That promise in the words of Awolowo, the desire in the thought of Azikwe and the determination in the action of Tafabalewa. Reminding us of their deeds that the future belongs to those few youths that have the courage to take their destinies into their own hands.
Let us use all within our means to ensure that the status quo is transformed, there is a need for citizen participation and political consciousness that helps us breed good leaders, it is our collective responsibility and not that of one man. Thank you all and God bless.
Bamikole Omishore is Special Assistant on International Relations, Office of The President of Nigerian Senate. The speech was delivered at the Faculty of Law, University of Ibadan.