Nigeria, Time for change!

This is not the topic that I had chosen to write about this week. I had planned to move away from the increasingly boring debate on the 2015 power play and focus instead on something really exciting—like a no-holds barred assessment of Nigeria’s investment climate, otherwise termed ‘ease of doing business’, and the country’s international competitiveness. I had to reconsider in light of the persistent rumour that the President was determined to run for another term in 2015. Apparently, the advice which I gave the President in my previous post fell on deaf ears. By all indications, the advice had either arrived too late or had somehow slipped through the cracks and therefore gone unnoticed. Or, if at all the advice reached anyone in Aso Rock, it must have been considered unworthy of any serious consideration.

For the benefit of those who missed last week’s post, the advice in question could be paraphrased as follows: Before deciding to throw his hat into the 2015 ring, Mr President should start by liberating himself from the steely grip of family members, his closest advisers, his lieutenants, and other vested interests. The advice was anchored on the assumption that leaders held captive by vested interests were liable to take decisions favourable to the interests concerned but detrimental to others, the decision-maker included. I tendered the unsolicited advice fully convinced that whatever decision the Number One citizen takes is bound to have grave repercussions for the peace, stability, and probably, survival of our country, Nigeria.

If President Jonathan is bent on running in 2015, so be it. I do not have to wish him luck as he already bears a name which does exactly that, thus relieving me of any further obligation. Whether the President’s good fortune will spill over to the rest of Nigeria is of course another matter—one which this article will later address one way or the other.

For now, let us leave the President‘s 2015 dream aside, and instead look at Nigeria’s year of destiny from a completely new angle, the pan-Nigerian angle. In this regard, I find a message posted by Jibrin Ibrahim on Facebook a few days ago highly pertinent. This message captioned “Great Expectations” was Jibrin’s way of ushering in 2014 and sharing his wish-list with the rest of us, his compatriots. Among his wishes for the new year are vigilance on the part of Nigerians (so they would see “the trap being set by politicians to intensify violence and lead us into the sordid path of ethno-regional division”), a judiciary that renders judgments without fear or favour, and a police force that sticks to its constitutional role of maintaining law and order, and performs its tasks in a professional, non-partisan manner. As I understand it, the greatest expectation in Jibrin’s New Year message is of politics (and political discourse) that is steered far away from personalities (and pettiness) down the path of issues and ideas.

I call the last the ‘mother of all expectations’. The ascendancy of issue-driven politics is the ‘mother of all the New Year wishes’ for the simple reason that it is what we, at this critical juncture in our life, badly need but sorely lack. If truth be told, our country is long overdue for reinvention. The time for change is now. And nowhere will that change be more meaningful than in the way politicians mobilize grassroots support. Sadly, and for far too long, incumbents and power seekers either appeal to ethno-religious sentiments or, if that fails, fall back on financial inducements, intimidation, barefaced rigging or a repertoire of these dubious techniques.

It is puzzling that in a country wrestling with multiple and complex challenges, politicians have little to occupy them except the pursuit and/or retention of power. I do not have to catalogue the challenges facing Nigeria. Those living with the dominant challenges on a daily basis are already familiar with their nature, possibly with the remote causes, definitely with the severity of their impact, and, to a certain extent, with the effectiveness of the remedies tried in the past. All the same, and against the backdrop of the argument advanced in this article, I have flagged a few of the vexing challenges.

For reasons that would soon become clear, corruption ought to be on top of the list. However, since the ‘National Question’ has gone unanswered for decades and is now back on the table, I might as well start with it. The National Question came up during the heady days of military rule. It was left in abeyance with the return to civilian rule in 1999. It suddenly returned as a hot-button topic when the PDP crisis broke out.

We cannot understand the attention given to the National Question unless we recall its antecedents. The issue regarding the purpose and structure of the Nigerian state became topical when the cumulative impact of military rule bore down on the people. The military had demolished the key institutions of civil government (parliament, political parties, the ballot box, etc.) and had made a mockery of the federal constitution by bringing the supposedly federating units under a unified command. As the federal system retreated, corruption (along with tyranny, abuse of power, impunity, and lack of accountability) advanced. The centralising tendencies fostered by the then rapidly evolving unitary system also widened the distance between the centre and the periphery, between the state and society, and, of special significance, between the “rulers” and the “ruled”. Naturally, the steady marginalization of the citizen bred resentment, and sparked off loud and insistent demands for one type of autonomy or the other.

The question is whether the periphery’s autonomy of the centre (as envisaged by the advocates of the Sovereign National Conference for instance)would take the form of infinite state creation; the return to the old regional arrangement necessitating the merger of existing states into larger, viable governmental units; substantial devolution of authority to the existing states; resource control by the resource-producing states; the replacement of the federal constitution (which the military did not allow to operate as intended) with one devolving earth-shattering powers to substantially autonomous states; or outright self-determination.

To promote a healthy dialogue on the National Question, and simultaneously underscore their own relevance, the mainstream political parties ought to clarify their positions on the type of country they expect Nigeria to be. The political parties need to lead the debate on this crucial subject and mobilize their supporters accordingly. We need to settle once and for all the question whether Nigeria serves a purpose and what form the country ought to take.

Still, the National Question would not have engaged our attention if government had operated the way it was supposed to—that is, if it had provided the mechanism that the representatives of the people would faithfully and assiduously apply to serve their constituents. The National Question became an issue when government was increasingly perceived not as a means to accomplish a nobler end, but as an instrument of oppression and for rent-seeking as well as resource extraction. In effect, the National Question became loud, strident and inescapable because corruption not only crippled the service delivery capacity of government but also succeeded in turning the people against the government.

By corruption, I mean systemic corruption. This menace rears its ugly head at the high, intermediate, and low levels of government as well as in the corporate world. Shielded by a culture of entitlement and impunity, and sustained by cynicism at the top and by apathy/indifference at the lowest level, corruption grew into a monster that literally strangles our economy; serves as a disincentive to investment and productivity; erodes the integrity, reliability and service delivery capacity of our institutions; undermines our sovereignty; tarnishes our external image; threatens internal peace and stability; undermines citizen faith in institutions established to promote public order and good government; and as earlier argued, turns the people against the state. The formula, the way out, is deceptively simple: Get a handle on the corruption challenge, and almost every other ailment suddenly responds to even the simplest of palliatives. Allow corruption to fester, and other opportunistic diseases become virulent. The political parties need to let us know which formula works for them so we can decide who gets our votes.

Insecurity is another issue that the political parties need to sink their teeth into. In Nigeria’s unique circumstance, insecurity is the other half of corruption’s Siamese twin. Like corruption, insecurity is a hydra-headed monster. Like corruption, insecurity wreaks havoc on our economy, on peace and stability, on our external image, on the service delivery capacity of institutions, on efforts at the eradication of poverty, and measures designed to expand access to the good life, on the citizens’ equanimity and naturally, on citizens’ faith in government’s ability to protect them.
Again, here is a formula that each political party may wish to examine: Replace insecurity with public order and other good things we dream of suddenly appear to be within reach. However, that would not happen without a clear and comprehensive strategy—a strategy that factors in the visible and the remote causes of insecurity, addresses the basic conflict triggers, and inserts a win-win solution in place of the zero-sum security proposals flying around beer parlours.

Managing the economy comes next on the list of issues that need to be addressed by those seeking our votes. If the contestants are going to squabble, let it be over the logic underpinning the neo-liberal policies implemented with alacrity over the past three decades. The political parties need to educate us, ordinary citizens, on their assessments of the impact of these policies on aggregate economic growth, per capita productivity, per capita income, gainful employment, income disparity, social equity, the revitalization of the food and agriculture sector, infrastructure development and renewal, as well as on the civilizing mission/obligation of government. Governing, after all, goes beyond capturing power, sharing the spoils, and conspicuously enjoying the perquisites. Yet, under the erroneous belief that minimalism has effectively relieved government of its basic obligations, political leaders have in recent years adopted a laidback approach to the task of governing, and particularly, to issues like law enforcement, development of urban and rural infrastructure, employment generation, provision of access to water, electricity, health care and sound education.

There are other burning issues that time and space would not permit me to touch. The intention in any case is not so much to list or even rank the challenges confronting Nigeria, as it is to highlight issue-mapping as a key function of those wielding or seeking power. As noted earlier, designing citizen-targeted policies and strategies is not the way political business is conducted in Nigeria. Issue-driven politics is a sea change in the way electoral support is mobilized and candidates for leadership positions get picked or retrenched. Even the late Mandela could not help questioning the yardstick that we apply in selecting our leaders. To quote the late icon of the anti-apartheid struggle: “… we hear that you cannot be president in Nigeria unless you are Muslim or Christian. Some people tell me your country may break up. Please don’t let it happen.”

I say Amen to Mandela’s prayer. But I also hasten to acknowledge the reality on the ground—the reality that we must move quickly to isolate and reconstruct. The practice up to now is for someone to say “I want this or that office” and for the rest of us either to join the chorus singers, or to ask questions that are completely divorced from the challenges staring us in the face. Instead of making an honest effort to find who has a plan to get us out of tricky situations, we ask questions like: Which tribe does s/he come from? Who are the people backing him, our friends or enemies? Which church or mosque does s/he go to? And most important, how much is s/he ready to shell out? These are the types of questions that would make Mandela cringe in his grave. Yet they are precisely the questions which bounce off almost every Nigerian tongue every day, the educated or the illiterate tongue, that is. For crying out loud, it is only in Nigeria that narrow-mindedness is celebrated and that bigotry is taken as a badge of honour! Love of hate Dokubo Asari, but his latest salvo aimed at OBJ (and faithfully reported by SaharaReporters) is, at once, a bitter truth tactlessly told, and an apologia for the rotation of mediocrity:

“Name one Nigerian leader that wasn’t known for his clannish, ethnic and tribal interests…. How has Nigeria fared since independence if not on the tuft of steely ethnic considerations? How do you expect President Goodluck Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan to be divulged of this, after you led many others in the display of ethnic and tribal purges?”

It is this type of reality—the type which justifies, nay, glorifies, mediocrity—that we must move collectively to change. However, the long desired change will not happen unless we de-escalate tension. The only way to de-escalate tension is to de-regionalize, de-personalize, and, strange as it may first sound, de-politicize the struggle for the office of President and Commander-in-Chief. The ethnic and regional solidarity fronts must, in the national interest, leave partisan politics to the registered political parties.

It is fair to ask what tasks would be left for cultural organizations (like the Arewa Consultative Forum, the Ohaneze Ndigbo, the Afenifere, and the Ijaw National Congress) to perform if they stop championing regional interests. My answer to that question is “plenty”. Instead of setting one zone against the other—and in the process turning political contests into a do-or-die affair–these organizations would do well to address challenges peculiar to their immediate environments. The Arewa Consultative Forum set a good example in September 2013 when it appealed to the Boko Haram to embrace peace. The Odua Peoples Congress was a force to reckon with in neighbourhood watch and crime control in south-western Nigeria. Besides serving as beacons of equity and good government within and across zones, the cultural bodies are also well-placed to settle internal boundary disputes, to extinguish communal fires, to promote inter-zonal understanding, and most important of all, to “name and shame” bigots.

Incidentally, any cultural organization that regards the Number One post as its birthright risks shooting itself in the foot. When the struggle for the presidency of Nigeria takes an ethno-regional form, a potentially good candidate from any particular zone is likely to have his chances compromised by his zone’s pre-emptive and prejudicial declaration of the top job’s “ownership”, by the predictable resistance from rival zones, and, above all, by the notorious communication blockers (notably, tribe, tongue, and faith).

Let me leave you, my esteemed readers, with a subject to ponder—the case of President Barak Obama that Nigerians constantly point to with a mix of pride and incredulity. Here is a black (or partly black) man overcoming superhuman obstacles and rising to the most powerful position in the world, that of the president of the United States of America. The Nigerians who keep show-casing Obama most often ignore the vital lessons. Beyond seeing a black man calling the shots from the Oval Office, they rarely ask what would have been the outcome if in declaring his intention to run for the office of US president, Barak Obama had told his audience from the get-go: “Listen up guys. It is the turn of the Luo, or of Kenyans, or of the blacks, to rule this great country called America”. Yet this is precisely what Nigeria’s ethnic supremacists are encouraging their own potential Barack Obamas to say–with dire consequences for their candidates’ leadership ambitions. In the interest of our children and our children’s children, we need a new Nigeria in which things work. Such a country will remain a pipe-dream unless we refuse to be passed down from one under-performing generation of leaders to another.

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