Thursday, March 02, 2006

No Privileges without Responsibility

I was fortunate to have met Eliot Spitzer, the New York Attorney General who is vying for the governorship of the state of New York in the next elections in late 2006. What struck me was the man’s intellect and profound understanding of salient issues, and what need to be done to move the state of New York forward economically and socially. It is no surprise that having been the Attorney General of the state that houses the world’s financial capital since January 1999, and having engaged in and won many battles with some of the biggest names on Wall Street, Mr. Spitzer clearly is a determined and focused social advocate.

He belongs to that rare breed of politicians who understand that profound social changes are best achieved through advocacy by holders of government offices and innovative application of the legal system. He has taken on the world’s largest businesses to reduce environmental pollution, tackled the largest investment banks on Wall Street about their complicity in misleading investors through doctored analyst reports and engendered prescription drug reforms among other things.

Mr. Spitzer attended some of the world’s finest educational institutions, having attended Princeton and the Harvard Law School. Some of the big businesses he has gone after are led by alumni of his alma matter, but this notwithstanding has not deterred him from his pursuit of reform.

The Nigerian polity could do with a few Eliot Spitzers. There is a need for people of high intellect, pristine moral standards and ethical courage to aspire to and ascend political offices. We need to have politicians who are not afraid to tackle corruption and through creative use of the legal system stimulate profound social changes. In order for this to prevail, there is a need to institutionalize ways of imparting ethics in the youth as early on in their lives as possible. There is a need for a situation where people have a clear perception of what is wrong and right, and what is legal and illegal and take responsibility for righting wrongs and setting in motion legal processes to redress illegalities.

It does not make sense for a group of people as vocal as Nigerians to demand truth, justice and fair play but not practice these themselves in every aspect of their lives and in their own little corner of Nigeria. If you demand constant supply of electricity, telecommunication services and clean water, then you must responsibly pay utility bills and not collude with corrupt officers of utility corporations to evade dues. If you demand good roads, public schools and quality health care, you must pay taxes and intelligently question how your taxes are disbursed and spent by public officers. If however you evade taxes and don’t pay utility bills, you truly have no ethical or legitimate grounds on which to demand these services.

There can be no privileges without responsibility. They go hand in hand. If Nigerians irresponsibly allow people of questionable character and competence to ascend to government offices through political apathy, or condone, encourage, perhaps even participate in fraudulent acts such as vote rigging or exchanging votes for money, where lies the legitimate grounds from which to complain.

Many politicians take advantage of the low level of enlightenment and abject poverty that still prevails in Nigeria to manipulate people to achieve their dubious ends. The low level of enlightenment makes it easy for these devious politicians to sow seeds of xenophobia with ethnic, religious and regional flavors. A case in mind is the recent senseless religious unrests in Northern and Eastern Nigeria, particularly in Maiduguri and Onitsha. It cannot be more asinine and patently illogical that innocent lives were lost because some misinformed and misguided individuals were incited by equally unenlightened leaders to riot over cartoons that were published last year in far away Denmark. Undoubtedly most of these rioters have absolutely no idea where Denmark is on the world map.

Why did not the Nigerian security agents act swiftly to quell the attacks? Why did the politicians, especially those with family ties across these religious and ethnic divides not make any public appeals for peace? The Vice President, Atiku, is from Northeastern Nigeria and is married to Titi, from the Southwest. Similarly, ex-head of state, Ibrahim Babangida is a moslem Northerner whose wife, Mariam is from Southeastern Nigeria, and who were both married in a church. Should these ties not be have been highlighted to help douse the riots? Rather, these politicians chose to keep mum. One can almost predict that in the next few weeks there is going to be a deluged of accusations and recriminations about what and who sparked off the riots.

The Obasanjo government should investigate the riots and make arrests of culprits both in Northern and Eastern Nigeria and bring to book guilty parties in these acts of ethnic cleansing as a signal to rioters that such criminal acts will not be tolerated. The truth is there can be no privileges without responsibility. And it's about time Nigerians understand this. People should be held accountable for their actions.

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