Nigerians criticize the government because they love Nigeria. Patriotism is not love for one’s government; it is love for one’s country. Theodore Roosevelt said in 1908 that “patriotism …does not mean to stand by the country or any public official save to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is unpatriotic not to criticize the leaders to the extent that by inefficiency or otherwise they fail to serve the people.” With that statement, Roosevelt articulates the notion that progressive dissent in form of criticizing one’s government is a democratic instrument. Criticism is an important democratic tool available to the people when the government fails to meet their aspirations and hopes. What the rod is to the child, criticism is to the government; spare the government your criticism and you spoil it. Governments that bear any resemblance to tyrannies hate to be criticized.
Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency was the closest Nigeria has gotten to tyranny. Therefore, I was not surprised when, a few weeks ago in London, Obasanjo told a gathering of Nigerians that criticizing the government in a foreign land is an unpatriotic thing to do. He also said that any expectations that Nigeria will be a better country in our lifetime are unrealistic. I find it contradictory that while telling Nigerians to be patriotic Obasanjo painted a gloomy picture about Nigeria’s future in a foreign land. That in itself is unpatriotic.
My first reaction to Obasanjo’s admonitions was to write and explain to the General that the concept of patriotism revolves around love for one’s country, which I doubt that most Nigerian leaders have. Scholars of politics and national character have included constructive criticism of the government as a form of patriotism. What Obasanjo and people like him fail to understand is that Nigerians criticize the government not out of hatred for Nigeria. Nigerians criticize the government because it has continued to fail to meet their aspirations and hopes. In the political climate that Nigeria has been in since independence, anybody who believes that Nigerians should not criticize the government is advocating blind patriotism. It suffices to say that Obasanjo was asking Nigerians to blindly support the government.
But these are not the only trepidations I have with Obasanjo’s sound off about patriotism. If you consider that the paramount task of a patriot is to defend the constitution of Nigeria by any means necessary, then Obasanjo hardly passes for a patriot. Clearly his third term aspiration warrants a circumvention of Nigeria’s constitution. If I put Obasanjo’s third term aspirations next to his comment that Nigeria will never be a better nation in our lifetime, my questions are: why was he seeking a third term? And when did Obasanjo realize that Nigeria will never be a better nation in our lifetime? Was it before or after his desperate attempt to change the constitution and run for a third term? Only in Nigeria can a former president make such a comment and still remain relevant in discussing the future of the country.
However, I must say that Obasanjo’s advice to Nigeria’s Diaspora not to criticize the government raises a very important question: is criticizing the government really unpatriotic?
I raise this question because Nigerian leaders have mounted propaganda to make Nigerians believe that criticizing the government is unpatriotic. They are afraid of being criticized. Yet, they have failed the Nigerian people at every turn and in every respect. It reminds me of the proverbial goat in an old Igbo saying; the goat ate the child’s yam and still forced the child to submission. While it is not unusual for government to push any kind of agenda or propaganda, my fear is that many Nigerians now believe that criticizing the government is unpatriotic.
The right to criticize the government is a very important aspect of democracy. In fact, in a democracy like Nigeria’s, where elections are not necessarily a reflection of popular choice, it can be reasonably argued that criticizing the government is the only option left for Nigerians to voice their opinions. It is the last democratic tool left for Nigerians.
Criticizing the government is also an indication of the palpable anger against those whom Nigerians have entrusted with leadership positions.
Yet, those who have the power to change the trajectory of Nigeria pretend not to see this palpable anger. Throughout history, there have been courageous patriots who hated the government but loved their country. For instance, Martin Luther King stood up against the government in times of oppression. But he loved the United States. The Magna Carta was forced on the English King by patriots who hated the government but loved their country. It required that King John of England accept that his will was not arbitrary. Nigerians are patriotic. They love their country, but they hate the government. Loving the country and hating the government are mutually exclusive concepts. The passion with which Nigerians discuss the need for change is an indication of how much they love Nigeria and desire change.
When the issue of a Nigerian revolution is discussed, the only indication of such a possibility is that Nigerians are becoming increasingly vocal in criticizing the government. Anybody who is opposed to Nigerians criticizing the government, even in the current political climate, is afraid of the Nigerian revolution. They are the same people who have weaved corruption into the fabrics of Nigeria.
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