Social Contract: What it means to be a Nigerian

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I ponder a lot of things because I ask the questions “why” and “how” a lot, especially on mundane things like “why do bus conductors behave uncouthly?” or “how do black holes work?”

“Why” and “how” are words so important they cannot be used too often” — Napoleon Bonaparte

Recently, I have been questioning myself on what it means to a Nigerian. Then I came across the phrase “Social Contract” which seems to give a basic understanding.

A social contract is a philosophical theory or model that originated during the age of enlightenment and usually concerns the legitimacy of the authority of the state (i.e. government) over the individual. The argument typically posits that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority in exchange for protection of their remaining rights or maintenance of the social order. This is why a government is formed, why the Nigerian government exists.

Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea opines on this principle that without political order and law, everybody would have unlimited natural freedoms, including “rights to do all things” and thus the freedom to plunder, rape and murder, there would be an endless “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes).

So, we gain civil rights in return for accepting the obligation to respect and defend the rights of others, giving up some freedoms to do so.

The central assertion that social contract approaches is that law and political order are not natural, but human creations. The social contract and the political order it creates are simply a means towards an end — the benefit of the individuals involved — and legitimate only to the extent that they fulfill their part of the agreement.

According to John Locke, as expressed by Isaac Akuva in his research, Social Contract is a constitutional contract that is aimed at protecting people’s life, liberty, and property. To Locke, the people form the government to protect their rights and when the government reneges, the people have the right to revolt and change the government. In Locke’s perspective: the powers of the government are not absolute but defined by the constitution and the people who equally reserve the rights to check the government.

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The people hand over their rights to protect, judge, and fight for themselves to a constituted authority but reserve the right to remove erring leaders.

Having established the concept of the social contract, and not dwelling on the criticism or praises of the said theory, and importantly, the evident mismatch of ideal and reality of democracy especially in Nigeria, I intend to let you know the contract that exists between the Nigerian government and you as a Nigerian. The old saying that “Knowledge is power” is ever true, and, although this knowledge might be drops of water in the ocean of anomalies in our society, I believe that the ocean will be less complete without such drops.

Understanding the social contract that exists between the people and government enables the people to demand accountability and exercise their right to vote or recall an erring government (official). As mentioned earlier, the people form the government to protect their rights and when the government reneges, the people have the right to revolt and change the government. This is the power of the people and it is expedient that every Nigerian is aware of these powers.

This awareness transforms the powerplay. For example, it means that instead of lobbying your local government chairman to fix the bad portion of the road on your street, it becomes a contractual demand, as (s)he is obliged to fix that bad road. This brings yardsticks and metrics to public official’s performance, as the people get to evaluate, based on the contract, if the official fulfilled their parts of the bargain. The citizen’s part of the contract is to vote, entrusting their rights and freedom to government officials who in turn, are to uphold the people’s rights and promote safety and well-being.

rom my vantage point, a lot of people are not aware that social contracts exist, talk less of understanding the content of it (either to uphold it or discard it), or to make demands of these rights. This has led the people to nimble on the low hanging fruits from this relationship, and whenever a government official does a project (which are mostly inferior), the people see it as a favour and not a right.

Now some might be quick, as always, to rebuff this idea, as it sounds idealistic and far from our reality. And it’s okay because I ask myself also how do we reinstate this balance? My purpose is not to say that understanding our social contracts will solve all of our problems, but “knowledge is power”. This is meant to be a glint, the first step taken in the dark, which will unravel the next step, which hitherto would not have been revealed. I have a saying that “it is in doing that we know”.

conclusion, having an understanding of what brings us together can let us know what to expect of each other, help us to demand accountability from ourselves and government officials, and better use our power to vote, select, remove and replace those who breach the terms of our social contracts. Remember, knowledge is power.