Nigerian author Ehi Agboaye says "true democracy" will be possible in Africa only when most of its people have a basic education. He's written a book he says explains politics in "simple terms," in an attempt to "empower poor people" in Nigeria. Its title is Wakaman Politiks – or "Politics for the Common Man" – and it's written in Pidgin English, which is commonly used in West Africa. Agboaye argues that most Nigerians are excluded from their country's political processes, simply because they lack education. This, he says, makes it easy for corrupt leaders to exploit them. VOA looks at Wakaman Politiks in the first part of a series on informative African books.
Agboaye says Wakaman is a "kind of everyman figure" that one finds "all over" West Africa. But, according to the Nigerian writer, Wakaman is also a figure who's increasingly being abused by "clever" and "unscrupulous" politicians.
In his book, which makes liberal use of illustrations, the associate professor of government studies and political science at Tarrant County Community College in Arlington, Texas sets out to explain Nigeria's constitution and citizens' basic rights and the structure of its government in language he hopes will be understood by the masses.
Agboaye's writings and pictures reveal the "machinations" he says Nigeria's political classes use to "trick" citizens into voting for them. In one illustration, a potbellied man in a suit and tie is depicted delivering bags of rice and beans to a thin villager in tattered clothes. The well-dressed man tells his poor compatriot: "If my boss reaches parliament, you get the rest!"
Agboaye explains: "The reason for Wakaman Politiks is to educate the poor people in Nigeria about what politics is not: politics is not about bribery and assassinating people; politics is not rigging elections; politics is (supposed to be) a clean power struggle, to find out who would do the best for the people."
He remains disappointed by his country's 2007 election, after which Umaru Yar'Adua of the People's Democratic Party succeeded Olusegun Obasanjo as president. International observers maintain the polls were not free and fair and were marred by violence. Yet President Yar'Adua remains in power.
Despite the serious undercurrent of his writings, Agboaye often uses humor to expose the corruption of modern-day Nigeria and what he sees as the failings of its leaders. He urges the "common people" to become more enlightened about politics and not to be "bamboozled" by "fancy speechmakers in fancy dress."
In his teachings in the United States, Agboaye teaches his students about the responsibilities of elected officials. He says he was inspired to write Wakaman Politiks after a recent visit to Nigeria.
"I was sad at the rate of poverty. You see people so lean and gaunt, and you think they have AIDS. They tell you: 'I don't have AIDS; I'm just hungry.' You see the rate of armed robbery – young university students with arms killing people; stealing and ravaging. It's that bad," he laments.
Upon his return home to Denton, Texas, Agboaye says he "couldn't stop thinking" about Nigeria.
"I was – and still am – caught between my life in America and a longing to return to the country of my birth," he reflects.
Agboaye says he was sitting in his armchair complaining to one of his daughters one evening, when the girl - clearly irritated by her father's "depression" - snapped at him, "If you are so sad at the state of Nigeria, do something about it."
That's when he says he put pen to paper and Wakaman Politiks "came flowing" out.
"My inspiration comes from the fact that the educated people, the rich people, the military in Nigeria – and a few other African countries – have taken the common man for granted…. Many of our leaders have stolen the wealth and hidden (it) overseas. Many of our leaders have lied to the people consistently. And poverty has devastated Nigerians. I mean, you can imagine a country that sells oil to the rich countries of the world, yet you go to Nigeria and you have abject poverty – people eating from trash cans," he tells VOA.
Agboaye says his book explains how "the oligarchs and the military" control Nigeria, using the common people as "pawns on the political chessboard."
"What I have done (by means of my book) is to say: 'We want a revolution, an intellectual revolution.' I'm not asking people to carry guns or sticks or bows and arrows; no. We are saying, 'Educate the common people so they know exactly what is going wrong so when you lie to them, they know'…. Education is a key to democracy, which most of our leaders have not realized."
Agboaye says it's in the interests of those in power in Nigeria to keep the people ignorant but maintains that it's up to the citizens, no matter how poor they are, to educate themselves and to become "politically aware" so they can't be exploited.
He's convinced that his book is a good beginning towards political enlightenment for Nigerians, especially because it's written in Pidgin English. A passage from Wakaman Politiks reads as follows: 'You think say Niger Delta man go carry ogbunigwe (a weapon) if we leader them do wetinn them suppose to do for them? Man weh get light, water and work go happy! Naija man go happy if hospital weh get doctor, nurse and plenty medicine dey him village.'
Agboaye says a rough translation of the above is as follows: "Do you think a man from the Niger Delta is going to resort to violence if the politicians do what they're supposed to? A man who has water, electricity and a job is happy! A Nigerian is satisfied if he or she gets medical attention in the village."
He reasons that poverty in Nigeria will ease significantly if the country's leaders distribute income from resources, especially oil, fairly. Militants in the impoverished but oil-rich Niger Delta continue to fight government forces for a share in oil revenues.
Agboaye, with his mantra of "knowledge is power," expects "resistance" to his book in Nigeria, especially from those who are currently in control of the country's wealth.
"I am sure they fear that my book will awaken the masses to demand better behavior from those in government," he says. "There's always a danger for someone who is a pathfinder. Mahatma Gandhi faced danger. Nelson Mandela faced danger. All these individuals spoke the truth. All these individuals wanted help for the poor people."
Agboaye says he would love to visit his homeland to promote Wakaman Politiks, but his family fears it would open him to attack by what he calls the assorted politicians, warlords and magnates who control Nigeria's resources.
"(I) address them here in the book. We are telling them: 'Look, Nigeria belongs to everybody not just to you alone, and the wealth in Nigeria is sufficient for each and every one of us. Let us maximize it so that you will still be rich, but the poor people will have something to eat (as well). What we want is for everybody to taste of the oil wealth in Nigeria one way or the other – not just a few people,'" he explains.
Agboaye empahsizes that he's not "preaching Communism" or asking wealthy Nigerians to surrender their riches. "Just give Nigerians the crumbs," he says.
Agboaye acknowledges, "Maybe I'm a dreamer. But I couldn't live with myself if I didn't at least try to do something to help Nigerians out of their mess."
In another section of the book expected to cause controversy he urges his compatriots to challenge their elders when the older people are "in the wrong."
The author explains: "In Nigeria [as in much of Africa] custom dictates that one always obeys an older person. It's unusual to see a younger person challenge an older person, even if the older person is wrong. In the African tradition, I'm going to respect my elders simply because they're my elders. But when it comes to politics, this doesn't work. You shouldn't respect bad politicians just because they are your elders," he emphasizes.
Agboaye agrees that "respect for one's elders is generally a good thing." But he maintains that respect is earned, and shouldn't be granted to people just because they're older.
"For me to respect you, you have to do what the law says. You are not above the law, no matter who you are. If the law says: 'Don't steal,' it means no one must steal, even if they are old."
Despite his strong opinions, Agboaye remains concerned about the way in which Wakaman Politiks and its author are going to be received in Nigeria. He acknowledges that some Nigerians will say: "Here's a man living in warmth and safety in America, telling us to question corruption, when he does not have to deal with the (potentially) fatal consequences thereof."
When that happens, Agboaye says, his answer to skeptics will be: "Judge me not on where I live, or who I am, but judge the words and messages of the book. Decide for yourselves if there is something worthwhile therein."