By Salihu Moh. Lukman
In his book, The Age of Turbulence, economists and former Chairman of US Federal Reserve (1987 – 2006), Alan Greenspan asked the question, “How do we reform government and return money and power back to the American people”. This question is perhaps more valid today in Nigeria than could have been the case in the United States in 2006. Probably in response, President Obama while visiting South Africa remarked that “terrorism is more likely to succeed in countries that are not delivering for their people and where there are areas of conflict and underlying frustrations that have not been adequately dealt with”.
The question of delivery is certainly about the existence of opportunities, how citizens are able to access them and convert into income or welfare benefits. Unfortunately, in our case, there has been systematic contraction of available opportunities, access has been privatised and virtually restricted to functionaries of government and therefore capacity to earn income or enjoy any form of welfare benefit is correlated with access to government.
This has consistently been the situation perhaps since the days of military rule, from the mid 1980s. The coming of democracy in 1999 could have altered this but sadly has been very slow if not strongly enforcing situations of denials for most citizens. It could be argued that this is very subjective. With prohibitive levels of poverty, which the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) estimate at an average of 69% and unemployment of about 24%, the question will be what is being done to ameliorate the situation.
It could be justified that it should not be the sole responsibility of government to ameliorate this unfavourably bad situation. However, to the extent that government responsibilities include public services and guaranteeing economic stability, government’s capacity to come with initiatives that create opportunities and widen access for citizens become important.
Two fundamental preconditions for this to successfully take place are leadership astuteness on the one hand and right sets of actions or programmes, on the other. In summary the competence of our leaders to be able to drive governance process to produce desired results – improved welfare and higher living conditions for citizens. Issues of knowledge and experience supposedly play central roles and in a democracy whereby citizens elect their leaders, these should have been the guide.
With largely money and other sentiments, cheaply ethnicity and religion, becoming primary, the possibility of leaders emerging without any understanding of the problems facing society and therefore incapable of initiating any action or programme is very common. In fact, the dominant perception among contemporary Nigerian leaders is that the country is endowed with all the needed resources. The major problem therefore is the share of it that gets to them, whether at the federal, state, local government or even nongovernmental organisations. This then means that preoccupation of government excludes issues of wealth creation.
On account of this, citizens are regarded as liabilities and parasites and exclusive in discussing resources of the country. This is informed by an ideological mindset that is revisionist and departs from the classical economic dictum that identified land, labour, capital and entrepreneurs as the four factors of production. In the Nigerian case, the only factor of production is land largely limited to the oil producing communities which is the one that generate virtually all the resources of government.
With the high foreign content of the oil sector, capital and entrepreneur are hardly Nigerian. This reduced Nigerian citizens and nearly all other parts outside oil producing areas as imaginary in the psyche of our leaders. To realise the much talked about government revenue, our leaders really don’t need much in Nigeria beyond the oil producing land.
In the circumstance, all the priorities of our leaders is reduced to simplified projects that hardly go beyond buildings and physical installations without necessarily paying attention to issues of human development focusing on education and healthcare services. Classrooms and schools get constructed that way without worrying about or recruiting teachers that can use the classrooms and schools to teach pupils and students. Hospitals, clinics and primary healthcare centres are built without concern for doctors, nurses and other medical staff to use the structures to attend to patients.
With this strongly perverted capitalist ideological bent influenced by wrong application of IMF/World Bank prescriptions, which emphasises deregulation of public services and increased role of private sector, the dominant approach is to surrender key functions of government to private operators. Through that, public resources get diverted to so-called private operators with zero value input. In terms of qualification, the most important factor is relationship with functionaries of government. Knowledge is immaterial. Thus, the resort to coercion is easy and almost given. Citizens’ willingness to respect the conduct of these so-called private operators is not stimulated by the services they provide but out of compulsion.
Yet, as citizens, we continue to hear statements about dividend of democracy and performance of governments. How can anyone be talking about dividend of democracy or performance when poverty has increased from an average of 54% in 1999 to 69% today? Where is the dividend or performance when the reward to citizens for living in a country that its government recorded increased revenue from N8 trn between 2002 and 2006 to N8 trn annually today is increased poverty and unemployment?
However considered the situation simply alienates citizens and translate to outright denial. Almost all the resources of society become controlled by the few functionaries of government and their hangers on. Citizens have very little influence, if any at all. It has been our national reality since the period of military rule and our democracy is yet to produce any alternative.
The hope of many Nigerians is that the birth of APC should translate into an alternative – the emergence of competent leaders with clear knowledge and good initiative. Should APC reduce the challenge of leadership to simple issues of ethno-religious factors, its capacity to respond effectively to the task of returning money (resources) and power to Nigerian people would have been weakened. The reality is that once ethno-religious factors are the most important qualifications, the loudest of those demanding for leadership will be empty and all they will be aspiring for is simply access these resources that are in the custody of government and covert them to privatised use.
Nigerians are hungry for knowledgeable leaders coming with good initiatives to produce a new beginning for the country. A new beginning that translates into government at all levels emerging as strong facilitators for economic activities with democratised access to opportunities for all citizens irrespective of religion, ethnicity or any other form of differences. The primacy of knowledge and experience should therefore replace ethno-religious consideration.
Our democracy should begin to produce a shift in the way leaders emerge in Nigeria from cheap ethno-religious to the primacy of knowledge.
(Lukman can be reached on: firstname.lastname@example.org)