Is it worth it to be a law-abiding citizen?

This past week, the chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Chidi Odinkalu, called on Nigerian youth to take charge of their country, saying that “a society is built on values” and that the youth should defend their values to affect change. He said “I charge the younger generations to take charge of the country… There is nothing bigger the country can do for you than to call you a citizen.”

It almost sounds like Odinkalu is calling for a proletariat revolution. On the one hand, I completely agree that if people are unsatisfied, they need to hold their governments accountable. (Arab Spring, anyone?) Across Africa, governments are not held accountable and corruption levels are extremely high. According to the Credit Suisse Research Institutes’ 2013 Global Wealth Report, while global household wealth is now “USD 51,600 per adult, a new all-time high for average net worth, [this] average global value masks considerable variation across countries and regions.” This global pattern is mimicked in Africa’s wealth patterns: “Half of all African adults are found in the bottom two global wealth deciles. At the same time, wealth inequality within and across countries in Africa is so high that some individuals are found among the top10% of global wealth holders, and even among the top 1%.”

Statements like Odinkalu’s completely ignore the fact that the state has an obligation to its people. Calling on disenfranchised youth to “take charge” of their country is a way of passing the buck- of putting the blame on citizens when the government is failing to do its part to protect them. Nowhere is the wealth gap more severe than in Africa, and Nigeria is one of the continent’s worst offenders.

The purpose of a government is that in exchange for giving up some of your freedom, like not being able to go around murdering people, stealing their land, assaulting with impunity; paying your taxes, and generally being a law-abiding* citizen, the state is supposed to protect you. It is meant to defend you from outside aggressors and domestic terrorists, and you should have access public transportation, healthcare, decent housing, and education. You should be able to feed your family and drink water that doesn’t make you sick.

These things are not happening in Nigeria.

Sure, there are political elite whose rights are protected, and a middle class that is doing okay, but that is at the expense of many people’s well-being. Combined with South Africa, Nigeria accounts for half of the continent’s GDP thanks to oil revenue and foreign investments, and yet over half the population of Nigeria is living under the poverty line.

If Odinakalu wants things to change in Nigeria, he should start making sure that the government be accountable, and that it promotes and respects its people’s basic rights.

*This doesn’t mean I think all laws should be blindly adhered to, after all there have been, and are still laws that permit, even condone some pretty unjust things.

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