Political Obligation and Democratization


Professor Julius O. Ihonvbere, OON

Text of Lecture Delivered at the Workshop on Political Obligations/Social Contract for Local Government Political Officers in Cross River State, Calabar, April 21st, 2008

It is indeed a pleasure to be amongst you here today. Let me congratulate you all on your election as chairmen of your respective local governments. I know what it means to win the ticket, go into elections, win and retain the victory in our dear nation. My prayer is that you will all keep your covenant with your people so that your names would be written in gold in the history books and minds of our people.

My brief remarks will be focused on “Political Obligation and Democratization.” Our goal will be to highlight the linkage between political obligation and the deepening, widening and sustenance of democratic practice, thus making democratization part of our political discourse and practice. First, what is political obligation?

Obligation simply means a bond. This could be legal or moral. Legal obligation is “the responsibility bestowed or vested in someone or a bond between two legal persons which ‘enforces’ duties and rights.” It is the “legal liability imposed on someone to act in a certain manner towards others.” Moral obligation on the other hand “accrues from … personal grounds- the idea of being bound to do something.” Moral obligation may not be legally enforceable but may be “morally desired” and may make one feel uncomfortable for not doing what ought to have been done. Moral obligation also can be reinforced by societal sanction or public condemnation and may seriously compromise or mediate someone’s social, political or professional career. It is a universal norm that moral obligations are binding on all rational beings since they carry the idea, knowledge and consciousness of what is good or bad. This is what differentiates human beings from animals. Human beings that behave like animals usually end up in psychiatric hospitals, mental asylums or in prison cells. We can therefore assume that we are all rational human beings, that chairmen are special breeds of rational human beings and that we all know what is right or wrong.

Political obligations are those expectations or obligations arising from responsibilities attached to particular political positions through the constitution or other regulations, from the constitution of political parties, or from commitments and promises made in the political process such as those made during political campaigns. The people, their organizations and the media are usually the custodians of such promises and commitments and they may end up advancing, mediating or terminating the career of politicians if not adequately handled.

It is clear therefore, that you all, as LGA Chairmen, have obligations at three levels: First, obligations arising from the Constitution that clearly defines your functions as Chairmen and your functions and responsibilities to the people you govern. Second are obligations arising from the Constitution of the political party that you belong to, its code of conduct, party platform or programme and expectations defined from the screening processes. Third, are obligations arising from your campaigns through the promises that you made to the elders, women, community organizations, party leaders, youth groups, students, contractors, and I hope not, herbalists and diviners!

But do Politicians in Nigeria care about Obligations?

The evidence on ground is that politicians generally do not care about obligations. They see politics as a game that has no rules or principles. They do not believe that they are bound by rules or regulations. They assume that the people are more objects of politics than subjects of politics. They assume that the people cannot think, they are not exposed or educated or are too rural to remember commitments made on the campaign trail. Once they give money to the so-called leaders and the police, they think it is all over. After all, it was not the vote of the people that got them into office so, why should they bother about the people. The campaign was just to fulfill the political righteousness of going round and making some noise. And because, politicians and militricians have gotten away with doing so much injustice to the people since political independence, modern politicians believe that it is business as usual. Why worry? Wetin dem fit do? Wetin dem sabi?

This has been the case because we have managed to put a sick horse before the cart in our politics and planning processes. The power elite, including most of us here, have managed to do so much to the people and so little for the people. Look around our country today and show me the evidence of careful, well-thought-out, consistent, holistic, integrated planning that is pro-people, pro-community, pro-environment, and pro-stability? We have actually used power, opportunity and resources available to all to undermine, compromise, contaminate and confuse the process of nation-building and development. We have created suspicion, anger, disharmony, disunity, discord and jealousy between the poor and rich, rural and urban, literate and illiterate, employed and unemployed with very few but weak meeting points.

Normally, if the power elite realizes this and begins to recognize its obligations to the people, to community, and nation, even its obligations to God, then we can say there is hope. If the power elite recognizes the value of history, the importance of a good family name, and the need to ensure or assure prayers from the people rather than curses, then we can say that there is hope. But this is not the case in Nigeria.

What has the Nigerian elite done about its failure to keep its political and moral obligations? What has it done about reproducing the pain, misery, and poverty of our people? What has it done about strengthening or whitewashing the structures of domination, exploitation and underdevelopment? What has it done about destroying public institutions- airways, railways, electricity, schools, hospitals, water supply, paper mills, steel mills, shipping lines, you name it? What has the Nigerian elite done about increasing hopelessness, disillusionment, anger and violence in the larger society? How does the Nigerian elite account for all the violence, poverty, crime, insecurity, and despondency in the nation?

Out great elites have simply created a parallel state, an alternative to the public sphere. An alternative that allows them to dodge their responsibility to the people and allows them to undermine their legal and political obligations and commitments. Of course, they still retain and patch up the formal or public sphere. They are experts at this, especially since the end of the civil war. But they retain and manage the public sphere in order to enhance private and primitive accumulation. I do not need to educate you on the numerous scams and unbelievable stories of looting of the public treasury. But because they have little confidence in the state and political structures that they control, they construct private alternatives and rely on the private sector for almost all their needs: private hospitals, private schools, private clinic, private water bore holes, private generators, private security, private airlines, private jets, even very private commentaries. They build their personal prisons with thick walls, high fences with spikes, barbed wires, electrified fences and closed circuit TVs and dogs, even snakes roaming their compounds. In this way, they are able to stay away from the people, ignore the people and even terrorize the people with their policemen, thugs and siren-led convoys of bullet-proof jeeps as the case may be. This is the reality in the country and you all know what I am taking about. Such an environment does not privilege obligations or social contracts based on the commonwealth or common good.

Let me take one more example from our politics and political style. We have learnt to be smart. Politics is seen as a business. You invest in it and reap doubly if you succeed. It is not a business of investing in the people so that we can collectively build a solid foundation for peace, unity, love, growth and development. Rather, we hook up with the gatekeepers, the lords of power, those that dominate the party and make friends with the security forces. Then we proceed to generate resources by all means necessary. If we prepare manifestoes at all, it is a matter of routine. We do not sell issues, mobilize people, engage the opponents in debate, and present alternatives positive futures for our people. At rallies we insult opponents and demonize other parties. We believe that all opposition should be wiped out of existence. In all of these, we convert political rallies to arenas for singing, dancing, eating and gossiping. At the end of the day, we believe we have paid our dues, we have satisfied the people, and we do not owe them anything else: No obligation and no commitment. Is this really the case?

Obligation and Democratization

When politicians fail to acknowledge their obligations to the state, the constitution and the people, they become politically careless and reckless. Political rascality becomes the order of the day and the rules of politics and principles of governance are compromised and contaminated. They undermine the foundations of democracy and encourage a culture of indiscipline and impunity. In fact, politics becomes normless as political forces engage each other in a do or die duel all to the detriment of the collective good. Rules are rewritten and people take positions on the political canvass to articulate the best war strategy. In all of the meetings that political forces hold day and night but mostly at night, development is hardly discussed. Unemployment, deteriorating health services and dilapidated infrastructure are not discussed. Democracy takes a back seat and dies slowly.

Democracy- multi- parties, multi-candidates, elections, free voting and periodic change of office holders- is just the beginning of a democratic political construct. Democratization is the grounding, routinisation, and popularization of political practice and processes. Democratization ensures and assures efficiency and effectiveness at the level of service delivery; the involvement of the people, equal opportunities for all and emphasis on social justice. The rights of all are respected and access to the state and its structures is liberalized. The people are given the centre-seat in the political process and the constitution is respected. The political parties are democratized and it functions are true political parties, identifying and presenting the best candidates for elections. Politicians recognize their limitations and strive to prepare and present the best programmes to the people in order to ensure a good record and win elections. Elections are not seen as war and there is constant and sustained effort at ensuring platform superiority among political parties. Party leaders are not seen gods whose pronouncements cannot be questioned. The rules are open, public, known to all, obeyed and defaulters are sanctioned under laid down rules and regulations.

The conditions just described can only take place when obligation has meaning and politicians care for both moral and legal obligations. Indeed, when political leaders begin to adopt shortcuts, disregard laid down rules, disrespect the constitution, and abandon political programmes and promises, the people begin to adopt extra-legal and other innovative mechanisms of survival. This often compels otherwise ordinary and good people to become political crooks. The final impact is the weakening of democracy, democratic values, and democratic practice. The larger society remains stuck with superficial or ephemeral democracy and democratization is kept at bay.

Local Government and Democratic Practice

I know that as Chairmen of local governments, you all have serious challenges. These include receiving your allocation in full; getting the support of your governor; sustaining the support of party leaders; meeting the pressure to recruit every eligible and non-eligible person in the local government; careful deployment of scarce resources in the face of growing demands; generating internal revenue without promoting mass revolt; developing new programmes to retain the enthusiasm and support of the people; and promoting democracy at the grassroots.

How, then, do you live up to your obligations to your family, the people, the community, the local government, the state, the party, to history, and to God? Allow me to raise some issues and questions:

  1. You have to decided that you want to be a good politician that people will remember with joy and that history will be kind to;

  2. You have to decide to carry out a democratic restructuring of the local government, be truthful, open, accountable, sensitive, responsive, disciplined, honest, God-fearing and people-focused administration;

  3. Are you, as Chairman going to commit to balancing existing inequities and inequalities especially against the youth and women;

  4. Do you plan to document and make public your commitments to the people during your campaign;

  5. Have you prioritized your commitments and promises into immediate, medium term and longer-term projects;

  6. Will you highlight and make public your legal commitments to enable the people know realities and thus effectively manage their expectations;

  7. Do you currently live with your people. It is strange that local government chairmen tend to live in state capitals, at times outside their states. Please, live with your people, know them better, feel their pain, share their joys and give them positive leadership;

  8. Will you use resources wisely and not just to use resources meant for the people to satisfy the needs of so-called political leaders and party officials;

  9. Will you always explain to the people why there may be setbacks in your efforts and work, do not lie to them, play on their intelligence, manipulate them or set them against each other through distractions;

  10. Will you be committed to making your LGA the show-piece of the State. Make your achievements a point of reference- rehabilitate schools, roads, clinics, markets, dispensaries, public utilities and encourage sporting and social activities;

  11. Will you open a register and link up with indigenes of your local government that are in Diaspora…. Within and beyond the country and get commitments from individuals and associations to specific projects in the local government and be sure to give them regular and proper accounting;

  12. Do not award contracts that you know you cannot pay for. It does not help your image and only makes you appear unreliable, dishonest and crooked;

  13. Do you have a budget and was this budget discussed with your executive and stakeholders?

  14. Do you have a budget monitoring committee to guide you in the identification of priorities, the deployment of resources, and the monitoring of on-going and completed projects?

  15. Do you hold weekly, monthly and quarterly meetings with stakeholders in your local government to exchange ideas, hear of problems, provide explanations, and receive suggestions on salient matters;

  16. Do you have linkages with neighboring local governments to exchange ideas, share best practices, and widen the frontiers of local and grassroots democracy?

  17. Do you have any programme for attracting local and global investors to your domain so as to expand productivity, strengthen the market, and create jobs?

  18. Do you have a strategy for attracting skills, training, technology, and resources from international doors and NGOs such as the UNDP, UNESCO, DFID, etc etc?

  19. Do you have two or three show-piece projects that you plan to bequeath to your people through which you will be remembered in history;

  20. Do you plan to stand for re-election or to move to a higher-level political position? If yes, how do you plan to win the attention of the leaders of the party, the governor, and win the undiluted support of the community and electorate?

It is very pertinent that any leader must at all times demonstrate high qualities of leadership. If you do not have these qualities then, there would be serious problems and challenges. What are these qualities? A true, accountable, sensitive, responsible, efficient, effective, focused, credible, capable, reliable, dependable and progressive leader must be democratic, believe in the people, believe in the constitution, and be transparent, passionate and able to learn from mistakes. He or she must be a good listener, accommodating, tolerant, and not suffer from the arrogance of power. A true leader must fully embrace the politics of participation, accommodation, and accountability. Social justice, equality and fairness must serve as the hallmark of political conduct and activity.


I want to, once again, express my gratitude for the opportunity to address this audience. My only appeal is that you should all believe in yourselves and in your ability to provide leadership for your people. If you do much harm to your people, believe me, history will not be kind to you. I do not need to preach about what you will need to settle with our creator for not trying to improve the lives of your people. It is not an easy task but it is not impossible. Just commit to doing your best, use the opportunities and resources at your disposal, try to improve yourself, expand your horizon and knowledge, and take good care of your health.

Finally, remember that political and moral obligation require that you remain true to yourself, your family, your supporters, leaders, community, party, government, associates and God.

I wish you well. May God remain with you.

Thank you.

3 thoughts on “Political Obligation and Democratization”


    hello sir,complements of the season.im happy to your speech today.
    because of our leader we all turn to slave abroad,despite we are degree holder.nigeria can never be change,reason why?.nothing ever change in nigeria apart improvement in crime among our politial monkey.
    remain bless,
    kolawole .

  2. Dear Prof,
    We just finished reading this explosive article.
    Can’t believe a Nigerian can summon the courage
    to stand before our wicked leaders and tell them
    this bitter truth.Though,I have always known you
    to be blunt,couragious and pragmatic,this is a
    classical example of courage carried too far!
    Anyway,keep the flag flying.With rear gems like
    you,Nigeria still has hope.But play safe sha.Na
    only you we get o!

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