AS Nigeria marks her 58th Independence anniversary today, celebrations that attend such events elsewhere are expected around the country. Though political leaders will give the usual bland and uninspiring speeches to mark a hugely significant national holiday, the reality, however, is that, for the majority of the estimated 193 million odd population, emotions range from pessimism to gloom and a general disappointment. This is because the record of progress since the British left almost six decades ago has been unimpressive.
Though the take-off point of the hard-fought nationhood offered huge hope, where we are now as a free and democratic country is not flattering. Start with the political arena where ideology, issues and public service are alien concepts and where electoral contests within and among parties are mini-civil wars, complete with weapons, storm troopers and thugs. Nigeria has since 1999 been attempting to build a nation without nationalists and run a democracy without democrats, with predictable results: Nigerian state agencies and institutions, including the electoral bodies at federal and state levels, political parties, parliaments and public offices, serve only personal and narrow interests.
The economy is in ruins, growing at a weak 1.5 per cent in Q1 2018 and 1.9 per cent in Q2 after enduring an avoidable recession in 2016/17. While 3.4 million persons enter the labour market each year, about 9.8 million have lost their jobs since 2015, accelerating a trend that began over 10 years ago. Infrastructure is archaic and collapsing; 69 million lack access to safe drinking water; British Prime Minister, Theresa May, reminded us in August that 89 million abjectly poor persons live here, the world’s largest; just as we harbour 11 million, the largest, of the 57 million children worldwide that are out of school; and also hold the record for uneducated girls. Cholera, polio, malaria, meningitis are among a depressingly long list of diseases eradicated elsewhere, but thriving here.
Efforts at harnessing the country’s ample natural and human resources have faltered or, at best, achieved very minimal results and made our aspirations to join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) club of emergent economies a mirage.
We are backward because we lack viable institutions. A former United Nations Under-Secretary General, Ibrahim Gambari, noted that, apart from a defined territory, institutions such as the bureaucracy, an economy, civil service and judiciary must combine with the “tangible and intangible” threads like shared purpose and common destiny to make progress in today’s globalised system.
Institution-building goes beyond establishing agencies; it involves values, rules, processes, conventions and the right persons that can sustain the country. Nigeria does not lack agencies and the trappings of modern governance; making them work is the problem. As we lament our stunted growth and lack of real participatory democracy, the approaching election cycle, the general prevailing discontent with the wobbly union and economic adversity demands that we begin to build institutions that can endure stress and deliver democracy and development.
The starting point in a democracy should be the political parties: without ideology, principles or shared values of public service, our parties are run like personal fiefdoms or gangs, lacking internal democracy and serving only as platforms for individuals to secure public offices, a sure route to power, wealth and affluence. But parties everywhere formulate policies that shape countries. The UK’s Labour Party and Social Democratic Parties in Western Europe ushered in the welfare state model after World War 11; the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher popularised privatisation and liberalisation in the 1980s. Though regionally based, our First Republic parties espoused unique ideologies and programmes. The welfarist Action Group, pro-business National Convention of Nigerian Citizens and the feudal, conservative Northern Peoples Congress all had cohesion and purpose. We must end the system where a few handpick candidates at all levels and run parties and states like personal fiefdoms. This has rendered state Houses of Assembly rubber-stamps of the governors and rendered local governments parasitic appendages.
Democracy cannot deliver development without a vibrant, professional civil service. British statesmen adjudged the old Western Region civil service comparable to the United Kingdom’s in 1950s an 1960s. Strong bureaucracies propelled the old four regions and the later 12 states. The federal service delivered four model five-year development plans; today, it can’t even produce a coherent annual budget! Federal, state and local governments should drastically prune their bureaucracies and professionalise them.
Our political leaders are crude and run the country like a primitive enclave. Officials in modern democracies do not abandon their jobs to line up to welcome a President or governor arriving at the airport. Heads of anti-graft agencies, intelligence service and civil service should stop jostling to be at religious services with the President. This is barbaric just as the obscene practice of military and police aides-de-camp standing straight like a ramrod behind the President and governors at public ceremonies. You don’t see this holdover from military rule in the United States from where we copied the presidential system or in Britain, the world’s oldest continuous democracy.
Indeed, many countries emerging from dictatorship like ours have imbibed the democratic culture. Ghana, for instance, has transformed from a parochial political culture and slain the demon of riotous elections. Unlike Nigeria, its independent judicial arm is exposing and trying corrupt judges successfully. Romania’s anti-graft agency has proved its independence, moving against serving ministers and ruling party officials. South Africa’s institutions did not relent in investigating and indicting the then President Jacob Zuma who was put on trial immediately he vacated office. America’s law enforcement bodies are defying President Donald Trump’s bullying and his appointed Attorney-General has publicly declared that loyalty to the country and its laws comes first.
Nigerian officials should imbibe this ethos: it is principled men and women who uphold service to country above personal or group interests that build such formidable institutions. The police and other security agencies should be independent like in Brazil, Israel and Europe.
The US state and local election bodies conduct all elections, federal, state and local. Its Federal Elections Commission only oversees campaign funding. We should strive for such an ideal. Only strong institutions keep India, a country of 1.34 billion people with more than 2,000 ethnic groups and deep sectarian divides, running.
We need to evolve a participant political culture where citizens are informed and actively participate in the political process. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says citizens are not government; they elect it and want to be served by it. But if they are to participate more than just via the ballot box, then they need proper access. The days of “Big Man” in politics should be over. A former US President, Barack Obama, put it succinctly: “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” He said again recently, “Look around – strongman politics is ascendant, suddenly, whereby elections and some pretence of democracy are maintained, the form of it, but those in powers seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.”
The culture of veneration of public officials should give way to one of demand for service, accountability and responsible governance. Citizens should use their votes wisely and insist that politicians listen to their concerns. They should resist being manipulated on the altar of ethnicity, region and religion.