Why they wanted their own countries
Every fourth of July in America, presenters at the National Public Radio read the text of the US Declaration of Independence. Besides the popular lines, I have never paid much attention to some obscure lines in the Declaration of Independence. This year, I did. And I think the new meaning that I got from it must have something to do with today’s Nigerian situation.
Of course, I have always admired the first line. “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
It always makes me think of the human events in Nigeria. It makes me wonder if it has become “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which connected them with another.” Has it, I asked as I listened to the reading? For those who think it has become necessary, I wonder if they have “declared the causes which impel them to the separation” in reverence to “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”
Mankind. I could see that the appeal was to Mankind and not to the King of England, who was the head of the British colonial masters of America. For the people fighting for America’s independence, they were not sure if the King of England believed that they have the right to “equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitled them.” Two hundred and forty-five years after, those who control the lever of power still feel the same.
The second line is often the most quoted: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Some rights are unalienable. Some truths are self-evident. At this juncture, I asked myself if we Nigerians, if we Africans, agree that some rights are unalienable and some truths are self-evident? Maybe that is where the problem starts. Here is a common example from recent Nigerian history. Those who believe and publicly proclaim that the life of a cow is more important than their own lives and the lives of their neighbors have different ideas of rights that are unalienable. They obviously have a different idea of truths that are self-evident.
If we cannot agree on what unalienable rights are and what truths are self-evident, we definitely cannot name them.
Suppose we adopt America’s idea of unalienable rights as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, so many people in our society will disagree with them and with the interpretation of the terms. For some, life as a second or third-class citizen of your country is life. And we should be grateful for that. For some, liberty means freedom to live the way they want you to live and where they want you to live that way. As for the pursuit of happiness, scores of people will protest that your happiness is the source of sadness to them.
How do we navigate these narrow paths to arrive at a consensus? How do we, when we have discarded from the very beginning, the popular maxim that “our rights end where the rights of others begin?”
The third line is perhaps the most potent. And I think every Nigerian, and indeed, African should read it again and again. It goes: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
This is why governments are established- to serve the people and not to subjugate them. When a government fails to serve the people anymore, when the government ceases to operate by the consent of the governed, that government has lost its power and legitimacy. Of course, it goes without saying that when the government becomes destructive to the end of uplifting the commonwealth of the people, the Declaration says that the people have the right to alter it or abolish it.
It says that by altering it or abolishing it, the people will “institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”
At this point, I asked myself if this was not what those demanding for the restructuring of Nigeria were asking for? Were they not just demanding to lay a stronger foundation and organize the powers of the government so that it could have a chance to guarantee safety and happiness to the people?
The sequence of the Declaration writers’ argument shows deliberate and logical thinking. They were not obviously flippant. The next line showed that much. “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Thomas Jefferson writing these in 1776 could have been in Okitipupa or Kafanchan or Nnobi writing the same thing today about Nigeria. We are familiar with “long trains of abuses and usurpations.” We are in the midst of another “absolute Despotism.” Why is it not the right or the duty of the people to throw such a government off and “provide new guards for their future security?”
Despite listening to the US Declaration of Independence year in year out, I have never paid much attention to some of the lines. I am especially shocked at the charges they laid against the King of Great Britain. His “history of repeated injuries and usurpations all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,” all sounded so familiar.
After stating, “To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world,” the Declaration went on to make a list of the gregarious charges against the King. There were laws necessary for the public good that he refused to sign. There were laws that he forbade governors from passing. These laws were of “immediate and pressing importance.” This line makes me think of the exclusive lists in the Nigerian constitution. There were accusations of obstructing justice, marginalization of groups, stealing resources of people, and manipulating immigration policies to the King’s favor. A line says, he “sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”
Even the most politically incorrect of all the lines could get an interpretation in the Nigerian situation. And it is this: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
In Nigeria, all complaints about unfairness and injustices in the system have received the same dismissal from those benefiting from the current structure. They often tell those demanding change to follow the “proper channel.” And as we have seen year after year, the proper channel is the one that guarantees that nothing will change. The Americans encountered similar obstacles, and this is how they expressed it.
“In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people… We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity… They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.”
When in the course of human events, all appeals fall on deaf ears, and the people are pushed to the wall, they will do what all other people since the beginning of time have done. They react.
Here is how the Americans reacted: “We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
How the Nigerian reaction plays out is a matter of time, space, and the characters who lead them. At the right time, the oppressed people will give authority to the leaders of the agitation. When there are sufficient people who will pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, the Supreme Judge of the world will hear their appeal.
On a day like this, someone should please read the U.S. Declaration of Independence to President Muhammadu Buhari and members of the executives; Senate President Ahmed Lawan and members of the legislature and; Chief Justice Tanko Muhammad and members of the judiciary. At the end of it, let them use their tongue to count their teeth. Let it be a reminder to them of why Americans wanted their own country, for as the French say, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”
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