Populism is growing globally like cancer and unlike doctors, we aren’t doing much to treat the root causes. When I look at what is going in America, I feel like it’s a blessing because it provides a glimpse of populism’s ramifications. The fact that other countries (France notably) managed to elect anti-populist candidates doesn’t mean all is well. The fact of the matter is leaders are the reflection of its constituency, and the rise of populist leaders, as well as their ideologies, are signalling an underlying problem which is slowly but surely metastasizing around the world. And just like chemotherapy is to cancer, the current political atmosphere is treating the symptoms of the underlying problem.

What’s the main Problem?

Civic illiteracy. As simple as it sounds, it is very difficult to tackle because these problems stem from a systemic as well as an intentional disruption of the educational system. When I look at the students at my university, I don’t see citizens, I just see a bunch of consumers who sub-consciously educate themselves to become experts at solving immediate problems (in the best scenario) or solving problems the way they are framed by those in power (in the usual scenario). As an intellectual, our primary function should be to question the very way a problem is presented in the first place.

Poverty is closely linked to governance and in my opinion, the main reason why there is high poverty rate in some places is due to lack of civic literacy. When one speaks about civics, it invokes something extremely virtuous, important and extremely boring as well. That’s why I believe it is important for people to be galvanised about civic literacy. Nonetheless, the only way to get people to be interested in civic literacy is to make it solely about the teachings of power. When I see the way the people at standing rock fight the Dakota Access Pipeline; or the way the English zone of Cameroon has been fighting against the French-backed government oppression; or even the influence the Gupta family has in the political mechanisms of South Africa, I believe this knowledge is more imperative now than ever.

What is Civics?

Civics is the ability to be a pro-social problem-solving individual within a given constituency. To personify this definition, people need to have sets of norms and values which hopefully will have the right moral balance. Irrespective of your career or discipline, there is the need for the basic understanding of the mechanisms that run the world, in other words: political climate. And finally, one must have the propensity to galvanise people into the pursuit of goals that will benefit the community or a country at large.

What is Power?

Power in this context means the ability to make people do what you will want them to do. The word “power” usually possesses a negative connotation but it is neither inherently good or bad just like a glass bottle which can be used to contain water or can be broken to stab a person. With this notion in mind, it is important to understand it doesn’t matter how power is used to govern: whether it’s a monarchy, federal system etc. What matters is that people around the world and especially in the developing countries are too illiterate in civic duty hence power literacy as well. The cumulative ramifications of such ignorance will lead to the collapse of democracy and rise of populism (in the present scenario) or anarchy (in the worse scenario). 

Ignorance is Democracy’s Kryptonite for an Ignorant Person can Never be a Free Person

Due to this high level of power illiteracy, the few who understand how power operates in civic life exert a high influence on the people and are perfectly happy to fill the vacuum created by the majority. With this kind of knowledge concentrated to a few people, it is, therefore, no surprise that they will use it to syphon as much wealth as possible leading to the high levels of income inequality currently seen. These inequalities lead to the crises we observe around the world: racism, xenophobia, sexism etc. But here is the catch: most of these crises are still a tool used by the power literate to maintain a firm grip on power because there is nothing as distracting as “divide and conquer.” Well, it is important to remember that in any crisis, there is always an undeciphered order and only those who are power literate enough can discern this order.

We should stop and ask questions like:

  • How does a relationship become a subsidy? When a person is married into a family of status and as his or her community (village) undergoes structural improvement such as roads, schools, and hospital construction. As we say in Cameroon “Il faut être quelqu’un qui connaît quelqu’un pour être quelqu’un”
  • How does a bias become a policy? When a government decides not to sell land to any person who is not a member of that community. It can be a person from a different village or a person from a different country.
  • How does a slogan become a movement? When the phrase “Fees must fall” became so powerful it forced the South African government to reverse its decision to increase tertiary education fees.

Most people are oblivious to these realities and some are oblivious on their own volition despite being directly affected by the ramifications of these power dynamics. Most youths think the whole issue of civic duty is just boring hence will rather engage in volunteerism. Most scientists believe the solution is more data and transparency. Some cry for socialism, communism while others: capitalism. But the truth is that most civil actions are because of a prior arrangement and an inherited allocation of power.

Because of these low levels of civic awareness, engagement and participation, the whole business of politics has been handed over to pundits, researchers, public relation companies, and journalists. The rest of us are just spectators. It doesn’t have to be like that.

The digital age has made us more connected than ever hence we can use this connectivity to democratise the knowledge of power. We don’t just have to spread the knowledge, we must practice it as well. The best place to do that will be within our townships or cities. People need to think about issues they face within their communities: improving the irrigation systems for farmers; installing streets light, or even prioritising the use of city funds. People need to think about all the forms of power at play within their communities: money, information, misinformation, police force, people, forces of norms and values, etc. Let them think about how to enhance or impede these forms of power with the sole aim to make their lives better. Due to globalisation, civic life seems to be more powerfully local than ever. The fact that most governments have tied themselves up in partisan knots isn’t helping but then again it has given rise to civic imagination and innovation which all emerge from local ecosystems and radiating outwards. By practising this knowledge locally and using the tools of the digital age to network with other cities, we will be able to bypass and hold government more accountable. Then and only then will the definition of power be fully exhibited in the sense that it will truly lie with the people.

It doesn’t matter how educated you are. If people don’t learn power, they fall asleep. If they fall asleep, they will be left in their slumber. If we can imagine and write down what we need for our various communities to thrive, we will be learning how to write power on the process.

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