How does a horror thriller starring Ethan Hawke and set in the USA of 2022 relate to Nigeria of 2015 and its near future?

A pretty cool concept

2022, the United States of America. Crime and unemployment are at an incredible low of 1%, business is booming, the people are happy. To maintain this status quo, the “New Founding Fathers of America” instituted a national ritual known as: the purge. Once every year, for a 12-hour period, every conceivable criminal activity becomes legal. Kill, maim, steal, rape, vandalise! The aim is to provide an opportunity for the American people to release all repressed emotions and aggressions. This is the world of James DeMonaco’s The Purge.

Beneath the surface

But the purge isn’t actually about releasing repressions, that’s just on the surface. Its actual function is related to power and submission. In the pseudo-utopia of DeMonaco’s 2022 the purge is a socio-political structure used by the powers-that-be to keep the people under submission, a trap of docility. This is the same effect the purge of elections has on the Nigerian people.


In his Poetics Aristotle highlights a socio-political relevance of purgation. Watching the tragic hero suffer through torturous experiences, the audience undergoes a catharsis, purging itself of hubris. By extension, society is also cleansed.

The flip side to purgation is that it could rob society of its progressive spirit, sapping the passion needed to confront challenges of the world. Should one form of energy (angst, frustration, etc) not be separated from another (passion) catharsis would see both expunged, creating a docile populace. This is a passive catharsis.

As history piled upon itself and socio-political concerns diversified, so also did the nature of catharsis. From this arose, an active catharsis. Unlike its antithesis, active catharsis works in tandem with the progressive spirit. It is marked by a desire in the man and woman on the street to exert more influence over political structures.

We can turn to art for an example of how this works. A film, play, or song built on active catharsis deliberately leaves the experience of purgation incomplete. It engages audiences and stirs up their repressions, bringing anger, frustration, desperation and more, to the surface, right to the very point of catharsis but it doesn’t provide a release. This leaves a storm of dissatisfaction brewing in the belly of the audience. Therefore, to complete the purgation, the people must take those awoken repressions back to society and release them in their streets, homes and offices.

Whether the medium is art or something else, the process and effect is the same. In this light, we can associate active catharsis with times such as the US of the ‘60s/’70s and Nigeria of the ‘10s. Used properly, active catharsis can lead to an outpouring of the progressive spirit unto society. Of course in excess even the progressive spirit can turn destructive.

How does the interplay of power and submission manifest in each case? Where catharsis is passive, power is with the ruling elite and the people give in to submission. Where it is active, more power shifts to the people and the political elite must give more room to submission.

This is the foundation upon which the 21st century Nigerian purges have occurred – a catharsis which presents itself as active but in truth is passive, caging Nigerians in docility.

2015 Elections

The elations following the announcement of General Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria’s next president are historical for many reasons but most of all for its significance for the Nigerian people. It was the first time an incumbent president was not only defeated by an opposition, but kicked out of office by the Nigerian vote!

A resounding sense of empowerment followed: the peoples’ votes count! Democracy works! From this sense of empowerment has emerged a popular thought, one which seeks to capsule the peoples’ newfound might:

“Now our politicians know we are not joking. President Goodluck didn’t deliver and he has been kicked out of office. If the new president doesn’t deliver, in four years he will be kicked out of office. We will keep doing so until they get the message and do what is right.”

Nigeria election

The voice of the empowered?

On the surface this thought suggests empowerment, but peel at its layers and we find it is a far weaker position than its speakers realise. It presents the power of the vote as an active catharsis but in actuality it is passive. Why so?

Nigerian elections: a false active catharsis

In practice, Nigerian elections function (incidentally and deliberately) as a passive cathartic structure while masquerading as active. The elections use ‘hope’ to create a loop within which Nigerians are kept docile, submissive to oppression. At no time in our democratic history has this been stronger than in the 2015 elections.

Summarised into a historical timeline starting from Nigeria’s first democratic regime, we can examine how this loop works (note: each ‘purge’ is an election period):

  • The 1999 purge: frustrated with the terror and excesses of now-ended military regime, Nigerians are hopeful of progress under civilian rule. Nigerians vote a civilian president into power. Hopes, fears and frustrations carry us through…
  • 2000 – 2003: no major progress in the Nigerian condition. Nigerians look to the future for improvement. Hopes and frustrations climax in…
  • The 2003 purge: despite frustrations with the president, no concrete alternative presents itself. The incumbent uses power to ensure his stay in office. Deflated, Nigerians hope for progress in the future. Hopes and frustrations carry us through…
  • 2004 – 2007: no major progress in the Nigerian condition. The ills of corruption persist and new woes fall upon us. Angry we are determined to see the president not remain in power. Hopes and frustrations climax in…
  • The 2007 purge: a new president is chosen, a soft spoken apparently good-willed man (with a shoddy liver). Nigerians hope he will be the change they have been praying for. Hopes, fears and frustrations carry us through…
  • 2008 – 2010: the new leader dies. His deputy takes command. The Nigerian condition continues to worsen. Hopes and frustrations climax in…
  • The 2011 purge: the deputy is retained as president. As a man who once had no shoes, we hope his empathy will make him do right by his country. Hopes, fears and frustrations carry us through…
  • 2011 – 2014: the Nigerian condition worsens to dire and pitiful states. Woes increase: poverty, corruption, unemployment, and more. The man with no shoes now has shoes and can no longer empathise, he must leave and this time we can’t let the ruling elite manipulate us any further. Hopes, fears, desperations and frustrations climax in…
  • The 2015 purge: a new president from an opposition party is chosen. For the first time, Nigerians have made their votes count by kicking out an incumbent. We hope the new president can be the change we pray for. Hopes, fears and frustrations carry us through…
  • 2016 – ???

In generic terms, it is as simple as this:

Unending cycle

Vicious cycle

Cathartic deception

Build hope, lose hope, build angst, purge angst – repeat.  This is the cathartic deception, a loop sustained by blind hope, a rise in frustration then the calm after frustration has been released through the ritualistic purge of elections.

Tweet screenshots

The power!

This 2015 the ballot-power to eject an incumbent has given us a taste of empowerment but we overestimate the value of our votes by believing that alone is enough to effect political change. It isn’t! The passive catharsis of the elections is merely fronting as an active catharsis.

This front makes the illusion harder to spot. Have we the people not made a great achievement by demonstrating that democracy in Nigeria works? Indeed we have but perhaps an analogy will help illustrate how the illusion works.

In Krabi, Thailand, there is a place known as the Tiger Cave Temple.  To reach the summit of the temple requires climbing a whopping 1237 steps. The temple’s summit symbolises good governance and a thriving Nigeria, and so dire is our condition that we have been at the bottom struggling to climb the first 20 steps. Then, with a swift and sudden burst of energy we climbed 200! And now we celebrate this achievement ignoring the stressful fact that we still have 1037 steps to climb (Can you blame us?). Rather than continuing our climb we want to stop at the two hundredth step and hope the political elite will lift us to their backs and carry us the rest of the way. They won’t!

Beyond the purge

To expect that the fear of being kicked out of office will spur a notoriously corrupt political elite to “turn a new leaf” is grossly naive.  Revisiting the ‘popular thought’ discussed earlier, this naivety is glaring:

“Now our politicians know we are not joking. President Goodluck didn’t deliver and he has been kicked out of office. If the new president doesn’t deliver, in four years he will be kicked out of office. We will keep doing so until they get the message and do what is right.”

Nigerians' opinions

The power! The power!

The subtext of these thoughts reflect a people about to submit to the docility of passive catharsis.

The power of the vote puts a politician in office, it has no power over what the politician does in office. In the 4 year period while waiting for the next elections/purge, millions of lives can be ruined and industries damaged severely – especially taking the decades of ruination that the Nigerian economy sits precariously upon.

For the Nigerian vote to have power beyond the purge a new system of governance is vital, one which holds public office holders to account. For the Nigerian vote to be truly powerful, it needs to evolve into checks and balances which pressure politicians and public office holders to deliver on their duties regardless of elections.

Efficient governance is a system. A system does not hope for good natured hearts in order to be efficient. In fact, a system bends the nature – good or bad – of people who work under it to its order. Consider tellers at the bank, some may be saints others the biggest thieves West Africa ever saw, but they work within a system and are pressured by checks and balances to make ensure the deliver on their duties, and efficiently so.

The elections process is not inherently a passive catharsis, it is merely used in such a manner. Can we not turn this into an active catharsis? Can we not move beyond hope and passive observation to active participation?

It took 16 years before we learned the power of the Nigerian vote, a lesson we could have learned in a much shorter time. Will it take us another 16 years before we learn we need to be active participants in governance? Or will we continue to be like Ethan Hawke’s family, shutting ourselves in and hoping to make it through the 12 hour terror of The Purge?

Buhari Goodluck Jonathan

Hire and fire

The power?

The four year plan

The … the … power?