By Rafiq Raji, PhD
“We the people…”; that is how most constitutions start. Of course, the politicians who tend to refer to those words the most are usually the ones who also hold them in contempt the most. It used to be the case that they could actually get away with the disgust they often have for the very people that voted them into office. Aloof and conveniently tone-deaf for most of their tenures initially, their amnesia is miraculously cured at the near-end of their typical four to five-year first term in office, when it dawns on them that should they not now grovel to the same people they cared little about hitherto, they may soon lose the office that has been the source of their ostentation. In other words, as much as they dislike the very people they are supposed to serve, they know they are ultimately vulnerable to their whim. Power truly belongs to the people. Shrewd politicians realise this very early on. And the successful ones are able to hold sway over the affairs of their fellow men and women for as long as the Heavens allow irrespective of whether they hold office or not because they stay close to the people and go with their ever-changing tide of opinion. Inevitably, they are populists. Politicians, even the supposedly altruistic ones, do not like to admit it. But ultimately, it is the desire to rule that really drives them. Power is the end, not the means.
All about power
A person has to have a certain level of hubris to think himself qualified to rule over a multitude. Some do not realise this until they lose an election. Otherwise what would motivate some men to seek political office repeatedly even as they lose with the same frequency. Take Kenyan opposition figure Raila Odinga, for instance, who has been aspiring to be president for almost all of his political life. He probably made his last futile attempt last year. Probably realising he no longer stands a chance, he now seeks to be president of a so-called “peoples’ assembly”. If what has happened since the idea was first mooted is anything to go by, it has not been as successful as he might have hoped. An earlier botched swearing-in as the “peoples’ president” is now supposed to happen anytime soon or never. Perhaps taking a cue from his older fellow opposition politician, longsuffering Ugandan presidential contender Kizza Besigye also called for the establishment of a peoples’ assembly in early January. What instigated his call was the recent enactment of a law that removed presidential age limits, enabling longtime president Yoweri Museveni to run for office again. In both cases, the opposition politician’s frustration made them resort to the people. Had they been more successful, it is hardly likely their reckoning would ever sway towards them. Their evolution lays bare what they wanted all along: power. They are not any different from their supposed antagonists in office. And were they to secure power themselves, they may behave similarly as the politicians they oust or worse.
Yours to wield
This new trend of African opposition politicians drifting towards alternative and mostly informal platforms to wield power after failing to secure it via state institutions is not entirely novel. They are simply latching on to something that already started without their urging. What is a peoples’ assembly? What is it supposed to achieve? Is there somewhere they are supposed to gather? Are they voted for? How long do the members serve in office? The peoples’ assembly is you and I. When Nigerians finally lost their patience with an effective but wayward police commando unit, they raised their voices. Were they heard? You bet they were. Nigerian authorities were finally forced to go after marauding Fulani herdsmen, long maiming and killing innocent farmers with impunity, after the people said enough! South Africans have been unrelenting in their insistence that the “capture” of their state by private persons – who have, in collusion with the very people they elected, been pilfering their commonwealth – must stop and the culprits punished. Did their voices matter? Yes. Now a judicial commission of inquiry is slated to get to the bottom of the matter. But for pressure by Ghanaians on their government during the infamous “dumsor” period of power load-shedding and cuts, they may have suffered a little while longer. Opposition politicians are clearly being opportunistic. A peoples’ assembly is not something you organise per se. It is leader-less. Put another way, all of its members are leaders. Before the advent of social media, people power manifested itself in African countries only on occasion. Now, it can be as immediate as the time it takes to type a hashtag. We all have the power to make a change.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/rise-peoples-assembly/