A Flag Is Just a Flag
Chijioke Osuji
Illustration of a flag

A Flag Is Just a Flag

Chijioke Osuji

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  • Nonfiction
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Free societies in their truest sense are rare. Most places across the world have not known such an arrangement for as long as we have actively recorded history. So it is easy to assume that it has never been. Most people adopt a paternalistic view of leadership. In some cultures, the belief is that specific individuals are ordained to lead and to know what is right.

However, although poorly documented, there have been some societies that have been well and truly free. The people were free that is, to interact with one another, trade and compete as they chose, without the supervision of some kind of central authority. The absence of central authority does not necessarily mean that there were no rules. It just means that the rules did not restrict the individual's ability to make a decision or act. The rules mostly ensured that a person was held responsible for their actions and had to bear the consequences. The traditional Igbo society was one such society, organized on multiple levels of age groups and kindreds, that ensured adequate checks and balances across the board. We need not descend into an Igbo history lesson but suffice to say that this decentralized form of government proved to be a major stumbling block to the British imperialists during the colonization of Nigeria.

The barter system of trade, which is a more universal concept, is perhaps one of the last surviving clues that offer some context as to how such societies functioned. The system depended essentially on the trust between two individuals. They would agree on what they wished to exchange, and as long as both were satisfied, it did not matter who had the material advantage.

Somewhere in the course of history, some members of society decided that they were smarter, stronger or more experienced than others, that it was their God-ordained responsibility and right to lead and thus the idea of central authority was born in a bid to manage conflicts, ensure fairness between people and guarantee a measure of orderliness in the relationships we had with one another. Hence, we collated all the trust and power that was formerly distributed freely and unevenly as it may have been, and we invested them in a central authority. The rest is quite literally history.

Recently, more people are beginning to ask whether the cure of government may be proving to be worse than the disease of a truly free society. Some argue that many governments today are simply too big to fail, and exist to serve some abstract objective of a state, whereas the people, actual human beings, are seen and treated as economic appliances deployed by the ruling class to serve the interests of a king or country.

Strictly speaking, the cardinal function of a government is to secure lives and property, while ensuring the fair distribution of resources within a community, to the satisfaction of its members. Plato in book VI of Republic likens the governance of a city-state to the command of a naval vessel, a task only suited for the Philosopher King, a breed of men most wise and benevolent, hearts full of love for the people and heads in an equal measure full of wisdom and intelligence. An individual who could be trusted with absolute power to make decisions for everyone. History has proved that this is the most impervious standard for anyone to live up to. So it is surprising that many members of society still expect their leaders to live up to this utopian standard. We analyze and scrutinize everything about our leaders from their academic qualifications to their stance on moral issues, even their personal preferences, and past choices, in a desperate attempt to elevate these people to those lofty ultra human heights. We even go so far as to attach prefixes to their names; His Excellency, The Distinguished, Honourable, His Holiness! All in a bid to convince ourselves that these are not ordinary and often flawed human beings.

Plato’s or Socrates’ utopia ended up existing only in their writings. In reality, greek society was governed by noblemen whose dominance over the rest of the population has carried on for millennia and laid the foundations for modern politics. So what are the distinguishing features of a nobleman and how do they stack up against the philosopher-king? Nobility is simply a respectable status in a society attained by inheritance or by individual success in one’s endeavors, accompanied by considerable wealth and education. Save for the guarantee of reliability, intelligence, wisdom, and love, the nobility is as close as a man or woman can come to being a philosopher-king or queen. This has been true at least for the majority of recorded history. In the time that this has been the case, it has mostly made sense that the governance of the state should be the prerogative of the noblest of men. That is the noblest and wise of the noblemen. In a democracy, the irony is that the choice to determine who among the few noblemen meets the criteria is delegated to the masses, most of whom are poor and uneducated. This very critique of democracy earned a death sentence (determined by a popular vote) for one of its earliest critics, and the propagator of that ideal philosopher-king, Socrates.

While Socrates may have been killed for talking democracy down, history has so far justified his criticism of the system. Although, every subsequent attempt to replicate his ideal of a Philosopher King has only given rise to numerous tyrants replete through history. So what is the problem with democracy? It rides on the back of demagoguery disguised as popular opinion, to give power to opportunists. It relies on the decision of a highly impressionable and ill-informed majority to the detriment of what is empirically proven to be good for society. Finally, while it pretends to give a voice to the majority, modern democracy relies on the political party to set the agenda and present a candidate- A form of trickle-down decision-making. The party members decide whom amongst themselves that the masses may choose from. So on that level, an increasingly small minority of delegates and party executives reserve a great deal of influence over the masses.

In theory, the reason that the process happens this way is that these delegates, being educated noblemen, would be in the best position to present the best of their ilk for the masses to choose from. Therefore the fundamental difference between the noblemen and these masses has always been the gulf in education and wealth. So if we agree that the government of a state should be left to the most intelligent and educated among us, then who stands to benefit from a society when more than half of the population are uneducated and poor? Who stands to benefit from the one where the majority of people can read, comprehend, write, think, and speak for themselves? What happens when they can understand by themselves, that a system of corruption and oppression has ridden on their backs for generations, and intends to do so in perpetuity? What happens when they demand to be free to pursue their fate?

What is Freedom? It is defined firstly as the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants. The second definition is the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved. I think it is a gulf in the two definitions. One is an assertion, a possession of power. The second is a state of not being imprisoned or enslaved. It just sounds like a watered-down version of the first one. How did it go from talking about having power, down to just not being enslaved? It almost sounds like someone went to great length to create two brands of the same word for different states of mind. I think a major difference between a free society and one that pretends to be free is that the members believe in either one of the two types of freedom.

Let us talk about the Nation-State as it exists today in pretend democracies like Nigeria. In our constitution, the very chapter that is supposed to guarantee the sovereignty of the citizens and make the government accountable to the people is characterized as unenforceable at law. What this means is that before the constitution set out to guarantee our sovereignty, civil liberties, and the accountability of government to the citizens from sections 13 through 24, the draftsman first sterilized the said powers in the earlier section 6(6). How can one tiny clause in the entire constitution obliterate the sovereignty of the people for whom the law was drafted?

In section 15(1) The Motto of The Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress. A quaint note here is that of the four virtues listed in our motto, only one remains, albeit now blind Faith. There has been no unity nor progress, and we have not known peace either. What we have seen is a succession of unmitigated impunity, avarice, and oppression by leaders who continue to demonstrate a lack of interest in the people’s wellbeing. We have endured two full generations of authoritarianism and quasi-authoritarianism, resulting in an impoverished present generation who are inheriting one of the most regressive economies in the world, and with one of the largest and fastest-growing populations, we are dancing on the precipice of complete chaos.

To be clear, the question is not whether or not the government is a necessity. Undoubtedly it is necessary for a measure of orderliness. What comes under scrutiny is the role that a government should play in the affairs of the people who are the republic. The state by itself, as a geographical expression, is only land and natural resources. People are the first most important of those resources, and it is for our sake that we decided to organize society, not for the sake of the state!. Let us now consider a vision of a free society in the most dynamic Nigerian context.

If we wake up in a free society tomorrow the apparatus of the federal government will be reduced in size by 90 percent. There are only a handful of sectors that need strict regulations. Security is the first, especially since that is the primary function of government. So the federal troops, including the Navy and Airforce, their respective training colleges and research institutes, are a necessity to protect the republic from external attacks and insurgency within. The police would be the responsibility of the federating states. The Tax Office is a necessity to fund federal operations as needed. The Judiciary should remain untouched and unencumbered. There is no justification for the two legislative arms so we can keep the house of representatives and the president or prime minister can be elected from that same chamber so we condense legislative and executive functions under one arm and bring the government that much closer to the people. There is no reason why lawmakers cannot handle the administrative duties of this federal government. That way we eliminate redundancies and red-tapism between the two arms. They can collectively debate policies in the house and then leave the execution to the technocrats appointed by the leader of the government, who will remain accountable to the house as a whole rather than to a presidency. Now let us cut that federal cabinet down to the bare necessities. First, an agency to regulate industrial impact on the environment and ensure that defaulters are held accountable to the tax office. A Home Secretary who will oversee welfare services, especially a national food security program, incorporating all the states, as well as stakeholders from the private sector. A secretary of state to work with the prime minister in coordinating all government affairs. The office of A National security Advisor/ The State Security Services. We can collapse the clandestine operations of the state under these two agencies. Finally, The office of the Attorney General to coordinate all legal affairs for the government.

At this point, we have a clearer understanding of the chain of accountability. We vote in representatives from our local constituencies to represent us at the federal. From within the house, the legislators will elect a house speaker and the house will present candidates for the office of the prime minister as it were, to the public. After a prime minister and deputy are elected, they can present nominees for cabinet positions to the house. This means that the individual members will carry the direct sovereignty of their constituents who can vote them out every four years if they are unsatisfied.

Of course, the reps and governors will not at all cross paths so there will be no incentive for colluding. We would have gotten rid of one of the most stifling instruments of this pretend federal system in the form of the exclusive list. States should be allowed to generate electricity. There is no reason two or more states and private interests cannot collaborate on projects. In short, we should shift the control of the capital from the federal government, down closer to the people in the states, and let allow more private-sector driven progress. So when the prime minister is not performing well, his people can recall him. Because the government’s pockets would have shrunk, there would be no incentive of political favors based on proximity, to keep “one of their own” at the helm. If a state is poorly run, the people know to hold their governor squarely responsible. The system exposes those who vie for a political power to a fair degree of accountability to people they have sworn an oath to serve!

Once this is done, the free market will handle the rest. People will be free to exchange goods and services. Ideas can flow freely from one stretch of the country to another. Innovation will be driven by unregulated and at times brutal competition, which is a good thing! Those who wish to play for profit would need better ideas to get ahead of their competition and pay both state and federal taxes commensurate to their efforts. The people will be free to determine their fate within the ambits of the law, and the state authority's capacity for overreach will be positively diminished.  

If we can agree that this current brand of pseudo-democratic, quasi-authoritarian big government leadership is not moving us forward then it is high time that we exercised what rights we may yet retain, and start to galvanize the kind of drastic shift in fortune that we desperately need. The comedian George Carlin once said that Rights aren’t rights if someone can just take them away. If they can be taken away then they are not rights, they're privileges. I am not aware of any agreement between Nigerians to mortgage our fundamental rights in exchange for a bunch of benign privileges under section 6(6), thereby rendering us voiceless spectators in our own fates.

We are forced to examine the social contract for a Federal republican Democracy, which we are all bound by. We ought to familiarize ourselves with the contents of the document that either guarantees or limits our rights. Knowledge of Fundamental Human Rights should be normalized and added to the primary school curriculum. Our children should learn to appreciate the importance of their civil liberties along with the national pledge. They should be conscious that the social contract is a two-way street between the people and the leaders, and that the citizens are not just voters. We should probe the motives of the draftsman and re-examine some of those provisions. It is the only sure way to protect our sovereignty and start moving towards the progress that we promised ourselves 60 years ago. We need to talk to each other in large and small groups, and we have to agree on the brand of freedom we want. The type that affords us the liberty to act and exercise our powers and talents, or the type that expects you to be grateful and content that you are not a slave. We have to resolve whether our motto represents our common truth and purpose and if that coat of arms stands for anything at all. We must tell ourselves if our flag is just a flag.


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Chijioke Osuji

Chijioke is the author of Memoirs of a Third World Milllennial. He is on Twitter @CJ_Factor and Instagram @ccosuji.

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