Government by the People

When one asks a multitude, what role governments should play, it is remarkable the dimensions to which the answers emerge. The responses border on either the provision of basic non-rivalrous amenities or an alleviation of the plight of the people. However, seldom do we ask what contribution each one of us makes to the process of governance or to the government delivering on its responsibilities. But for effective contribution to the governing process, it becomes essential for us to understand some basic terminology. Over the coming weeks, this column will discuss pivotal issues on governance and the people in an attempt to spur greater accountability and good governance. Our overarching objective is to provoke thought in each one of us and propel action towards the greater good of the country.

It is common for people to attribute Nigeria’s currently stunted development to the years of military rule. People who hold this view claim that they (the military men) failed to invest in human capital and infrastructure whilst also promoting corruption. To buttress their view, they highlight the reduced spending on education and healthcare in the 1980’s, and the lack of investment in infrastructure and public services. Beyond the military years, uninterrupted democratic rule since 1999 has also failed to produce the desired outcome – that of inclusive people-focused development. While the African Development Bank recently stated that the Nigerian economy grew an average of 6 per cent from 2002 to 2006, it appears much of that growth was on paper. The reality is that average Nigerians have not experienced or taken part in this so-called economic growth. The African Development Bank has also highlighted that Nigeria’s economic growth is largely driven by capital-intensive sectors and that has not translated into sufficient job creation with poverty remaining high, yet our aggregate Gross Domestic Product is the highest on the continent. 

Experiences from other countries highlight that regardless of the system of government, development can be achieved.  Asian countries like South Korea and Indonesia witnessed impressive economic growth under military juntas while the US, France, Germany and Brazil developed impressively under democratic regimes. The common denominator between both regimes are the people in government and their commitment to doing good by their people; adopting attitudes, laws and policies that promote development. 

Having reviewed the system of government let us consider the structure of government and its impact on development. Nigeria is a federal republic with three tiers of government; federal, state and local governments. Its structure as a federation is modelled after the United States of America (1788), which is considered the first modern federation. Other countries such as Switzerland (1848), Canada (1867), Germany (1871 and again 1949), India (1947 and again in 1950) and Brazil (1889) also established federations modelled after the United States, though adapting this in various forms. 

Brazil shares the same governance structure as Nigeria and is worth a cursory look. Brazil is a federal republic with the federal, state and municipal governments. Its federal government has three independent branches: executive, legislature and judiciary. Its 1988 constitution provides states with wide remit of powers, including exclusive control of policing and the criminal justice system while sharing responsibility for health, education, economic development and infrastructure with the federal level. The municipal government’s only exclusive public policy responsibility is transport. Both the states and municipal governments depend on federal transfers though the states generate some internal revenue via value-added tax (ICMS). Yet Brazil has the 7th largest economy by nominal GDP and by Purchasing Power Parity and the World Bank considers it to be one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Within twenty years, 1992 and 2012, the number of poor people in Brazil reduced from 63.1 million to 22.2 million and the proportion of illiteracy reduced from 17.2% to 8.4%, which mainly accounts for aged rural dwellers. The growth and development in Brazil over this period was impressive and inclusive.

We can therefore infer that inclusive people-focused development can be achieved despite the political system and the structure of government. It depends on the willingness, commitment and actions of the people. In fact, the core functions of government which include maintaining law and order, protecting individual and civil rights, promoting citizen’s welfare, defence from external aggression and foreign diplomacy all depend on people and not necessarily on systems or structures. Consequently, there are at least three things that we can do as individuals to contribute to the process of good governance:

Firstly, we must do what is right. Doing the right thing influences others to do right. Doing right also means that we should not be content with taking advantage of the poor for soon the oppressed will devour the oppressor. We must be mindful not to exploit the system or our positions of authority. Paying or demanding for bribes, asking for hand-outs from leaders, jumping queues, unduly giving advantage to (unqualified) people and engaging in subjective justice are examples of things that are wrong and we must stop. Our judicial system is cumbersome, slow and open to manipulation by people with deep pockets but we must continue to appeal for justice until the system changes and equity and fairness are restored. Let us stop singing the adulation of poor performing leaders, conferring chieftaincy titles and doctorate degrees on thieves and rather, celebrate hard-work and honesty. Our unity demands from us great responsibility to seek and do what is right. 

Secondly, we must live our pledge. Let us return to the days of reciting our pledge frequently, for it is by so doing that we remember it and live it. “I pledge to Nigeria my country / to be faithful loyal and honest / to serve Nigeria with all my strength / to defend her unity and uphold her honour and glory so help me God.” We make a solemn promise to our country and the men and women who gave their lives for her freedom and unity. We belong to the country before any state or ethnic group and have rights as Nigerian citizens. The pledge evokes a commitment from each of us to be faithful, loyal and honest; these are pre-requisite for any enduring relationship. We should not cheat our country or her other citizens and we are called to be dependable stewards at whatever we find to do. We are required to serve Nigeria with all our might and to work in her best interest. While we hold her citizenship, we are expected to contribute all of our positive energy to her development. We commit to defend her unity and uphold her honour and glory with the help of God. Whether the government provides security or not, we are required to defend the unity of this country against all manner of terrorism. It also means that we should not speak vile against Nigeria or tear her down with our actions or inactions. 

Thirdly, we must reprioritize national-interest. High-flying executives should take some time out to become part-time teachers and more intelligent people should join public service. In South-East Asia, only top performers are recruited to their governments to ensure that the public sector remains dynamic and is able to keep pace with changing trends and best practices. In Nigeria, it is an anomaly for the best in a graduating class to join the police force or the state civil service, as first choice. The best of our youth chase after private sector jobs while leaving those who cannot find work to teach at public schools. We must therefore make our public sector more appealing to young minds, less bureaucratic in operations and more performance-based in evaluation. In addition to these, we must all vote competence over ethnicity or religion, agitate to make our votes count and make demands of our representatives and leaders to increase accountability. Through our failure to hold our leaders accountable for their actions (or inactions), we exhibit a distinct disregard for national interest. Let us learn from the patriotic women (and men) who on Wednesday, 30th April 2014, turned out in the rain and marched to the National Assembly to demand that more be done to find the missing children of Chibok. 

In the words of Franklin Delano Rooservelt, the 32nd President of the United States “Let us always remember that the government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not the president, senators, congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.” These words are apt. We are the government and we must all take responsibility for our national unity and inclusive development.