There is a popular belief among Nigerians that the country’s politicians are different from those you can find anywhere else: it is common to hear statements like ‘Nigerian politicians are different’, ‘they will only act in their self-interest’ or ‘their only objective is to steal’.
These beliefs are what I will call ‘the myth of Nigerian exceptionalism’, that our situation is uniquely different from that ever found anywhere else.
Politicians everywhere are, by and large, all the same: they often will only act in their self-interest and given the opportunity, they will abuse their offices for their own benefits. Rare is the politician whose motives are entirely altruistic and never about himself; this is moreso in a democracy as young as ours with weak institutions and a very individualistic bent.
However, this does not mean that all hope is lost in being able to make public office holders to act in the interest of the public that elected them. If we stay waiting for the politicians to quit acting in only their self-interest, we might wait for eternity. There is a way to deal with them as they are right now.
The first step is to organize around issues with clear, actionable goals and targets. By this, I do not mean to merely have a goal as ‘good healthcare’; it means going as far as being clear about defining what steps to take that will result in good healthcare: is it by increasing the health budget to 5% of the total budget? Is it by passing a National Health Bill? Is it by increasing the number of primary health care centres in a location to a certain number?
Having a S.M.A.R.T (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound) approach to how you organize around an issue makes it easier to be consistent in your messaging and interaction with the public office holders on the issue.
Another approach is to engage the public on what your specific demands are and educate them on how this will improve their lives. What this does is that it gets the public on your side and increases the public office holders to act in that direction. Politicians world over are scared of losing the goodwill of the electorate as that could result in losing elections and influence.
Finally, seek champions and allies in public office. It does not matter what his/her motives or interests are – do your interests align? One belief that has held back many Nigerians from properly agitating and organizing to pressure politicians on demands is the belief that the politician, even in fulfilling that demand, still has an ulterior motive. While that could be true, the most important thing is that the demand has been fulfilled.
Let me make it clear: this will not be a walk in the park. It will take a lot of pushing, sweat, blood and tears. But it has been done by others and it can be done by you as well: it was how the #NotTooYoungToRun bill came to be passed and signed into law; it was how a group of health campaigners got the Senate to make it that 2% of the Consolidated Revenue Fund to be devoted to universal healthcare.
As our democracy grows, it is important for us to realize that as citizens, we also have immense power. Let no one make you believe that Nigerian politicians are impossible to deal with, and they can never act in your interest.
It is very possible to make them act in your interest, and this is the goal of citizens who unite to organize.