Nigeria: Why Change And How?


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Now that President Muhammadu Buhari has named his ministers and his Government is taking shape, it is an appropriate time to ponder on the course of the unprecedented wind of change and hope that has been sweeping across our nation since May 29th, 2015 .We rejoice with those who satisfied the standards of scrutiny of the President for membership of his cabinet as indeed we do with the gentlemen and women who were successful in obtaining the mandate of their people to the various elective offices they hold across the country. We hope that they are prepared to set their sails windward as they help navigate the turbulent seas of national rebirth ahead.

I am sure we are all aware that Nigerians at home and abroad have higher expectations of this Administration than any previous democratically elected regime. Unabated since 1999, poor, generally insincere, and corrupt governance has deprived Nigeria of realising her potential as a great nation. Our tragedy is that Nigeria arguably earned, but largely squandered more revenue during these last 16 years than all the previous eighty-five years combined.

The challenge before this Administration which was voted into office on the platform of change is to critically and holistically examine the root causes of Nigeria’s missed opportunities and map out some coherent approaches to bring about the promised change, but mindful always of the need to manage expectations. Since his inauguration, President Buhari has already demonstrated an awareness of, and a preparedness to rise to this challenge. Any endeavour or process of change is never smooth sailing and will inevitably run into head winds. The forces of resistance usually lie low, take their time and regroup to counter attack.

Even in these short five months, the apostles of the status quo have already signalled their reluctance to come to terms with the fact that by their votes in March 2015, Nigerians expressed, in unmistakable terms, their dissatisfaction with the way and manner the affairs of the nation were miss-managed over the past two decades. By their votes, Nigerians had rejected a nation of broken hopes and increasing insecurity. They voted against dreadful divisiveness, incessant internal strife, loss of values, and collapse of infrastructure and national institutions.

Let me be perfectly clear from the outset that I am a firm believer in ‘the Nigerian project’ to which I have devoted all my working life, and I remain an incurable optimist about its future. When we consider our journey to statehood since Amalgamation, our turbulent post- independence history which included a terrible civil war, and the many political, economic, religious and other upheavals that we faced and overcame as one united nation, we can say that our story has not been all about doom and gloom.

Indeed, Nigeria’s success story is much bigger than our self- inflicted short comings. There is much to be joyful and proud about Nigeria and about being a Nigerian. Indeed, there is a surfeit of literature in celebration of this fact. However, a time comes when there is a need for an impassionate self-examination and consider if and why we need change, and the solid foundations on which to reposition our nation. Going forward, it should, therefore, be understood where I am coming from if I do not dwell on our many positive national gains which we must maintain and re-enforce.

The very notion of change in the context of the current national mantra implies the idea of dissatisfaction with what is, and the need to improve upon it or discard it. Evidently, the Administration inherited a state of governance that fell far short of acceptable standards. As demonstrated in Nigeria’s rankings by the Mo Ibrahim Index for African Governance, Transparency International, the Human Development Index as well as the Ease of Doing Business Index, the country performed poorly by all indices used.

In 2014 for instance, Nigeria was ranked 37th out of 52 countries in Africa by the Mo Ibrahim Ratings. We consistently scored below the African average in virtually all the categories- safety and the rule of law, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunities and human development. Nigeria also ranked poorly in the Transparency International survey of countries for public sector corruption, placing 136th out of 175.

In the Human Development Index used by the United Nations to measure progress, Nigeria was placed 153rd out of the 186 countries surveyed. In the Ease of Doing Business Index, Nigeria was rated 170th out of 186 countries. We were scored at 26.9% for Crime and Security Risk, placing Nigeria on 33rd position out of 48 states in Africa.

These ratings are not mere numbers. Poor governance also has a human dimension, especially for the ordinary Nigerians who were rendered poor, jobless and powerless by insensitivity, impunity and insincerity by their elected and other public office holders. By 2013-2014, it became crystal clear that the point had been reached when the centre could no longer hold. The failures of governance at the Federal, the State and the Local Government levels were set on course to implosion.

Nigerians have known better times. Indeed there had been much imperfection in the past, but then, there was also hope and life was tolerable. There was a modicum of limits to leadership failure and elite excesses. At a point in our not distant past, corruption was hardly practiced in official circles and generally abhorred by the citizenry. Then, gradually we eased into a situation of accepting corruption as inevitable, so long as our noses were not rubbed in it.

In the last two decades, however, we willy-nilly descended into a moral cesspool, a state of anomie, where corruption and other manifestations of moral decadence were brazenly perpetrated with impunity and sadly, even celebrated. In the last few months, shocking revelations have come to light of grave misdeeds, serious and wilful looting of the public treasury and worrisome weaknesses in the capacity of national institutions. There were accounts of lack of commitment, indiscipline, deficits in ethical standards and betrayal of public purpose by many functionaries.

A case in point is the Petroleum sector which had been not only about oil, but we now know it was also about “oily business”. Nobody could have imagined that our oil fields would be turned into a hissing cauldron of criminality – populated by corrupt officials in cohort with local and international accomplices. We had already got used to losing millions of Naira to what was then called illegal oil bunkering. Then suddenly, billions of dollars began to be regularly lost to outright oil theft. We read of concessions and transactions that at best could have passed for poor judgment if not for the reality that they were deliberately contrived for self-enrichment.

In the past, officials that bent or broke the rules feared retribution. Then, everyone was certain of official and social opprobrium if discovered. No more! Across the entire spectrum of government, rules and regulations were ignored with impunity. Procurements were made without real due process, contracts inflated by billions of naira or poorly executed, and payments were made for jobs not even executed. The cumulative effects of the “free money” thus generated on our already under performing economy were rising inflation and unrelenting pressure on the exchange rate of the Naira.

National assets were cannibalised and time tested institutions were desecrated through various schemes purporting to be aimed at sectoral reforms, privatization, commercialization, and public- private partnerships. Executive fiats, concessions and waivers were recklessly and mostly corruptly applied.

Consequently, new predatory elites and power blocs were forged on the anvils of our national suffering. Indeed, the pursuit of influence, power and wealth became the altar on which many ordinarily decent men sacrificed their honour and many a woman lost their virtue. No system or nation can endure the loss of moral compass and unbridled indulgence of its elite becoming so self-destructing to the point of taking down the entire edifice with it.

In truth, we hung precipitously on a cliff of moral collapse. Political jobbers, known gangsters with criminal records, and other nouveaux riches of dubious sources of wealth were honoured in official circles and celebrated by many in the society. It became a norm to exercise power and influence without principles or purpose, and be rich without creativity, innovation or invention except in criminal pursuits. Some of these rentier class became so giddy with their self- touted success that they began to imagine themselves as the new economic theorists of our time!

Our landscape was littered with previously hard working, decent, and honourable people who were pauperised and consequently forced to jettison our core values, accepting fraudsters as philanthropists, promoting dubious individuals as their new champions, and falling prey to those who feigned piety and religiosity. These new elites brazenly instigated or capitalized on the genuine cries of marginalisation and neglect of their regions to corner personal privileges. Unimaginable economic atrocities committed were legitimatised as entrepreneurship or on the basis of “it is our turn to chop”.

Nigeria was thus ripe for change. But change meant different things to different people. For some, change takes the form of a fantasy in which a new government would right all the wrongs of the past on its first day in office. If the expected magic does not happen, the leader ends up being accused of ‘going slow’. For others, change means throwing out a set of Government Ministers and enthroning new ones, preferably themselves or others affiliated to them.

There are those who are satisfied with a change of personnel in strategic public service positions even if the failed policies and failing politics, the patronage-driven and corruption-ridden governance practices of the past were retained. Yet, there are those for whom change meant reversing the old policies and immediately introducing new ones, even before an exhaustive assessment is undertaken to determine what was working and what was not.

Irrespective of our individual constructions and expectations of the change we want to see in Nigeria, at the minimum, our starting point should surely be a commitment “to tame the power of the state and direct its activities towards ends regarded as legitimate by the people it serves, and to regularize the exercise of power under the rule of law.” That includes an end to impunity in official and personal conduct. It will require a new rule- of- law based paradigm in governance and new attitudes in the entire society, all the time knowing fully well that there will be resistance.

As I have earlier noted, even at this early stage of the drive to institute irreducible minimum demands of modern statehood, we can discern the forces of reaction already at work. They come in many forms. There are those who oppose change based on misinformation or inadequate information. Others are wedded to an old thinking, to their engrained political loyalties or outdated dogmas. Yet others oppose change because they cannot wean themselves from the comfort and vain-glories of the past.

They would rather remain eminent persons in an under-performing nation than be outside the vortex of events in a new and successful Nigeria. The most invidious resistance to change, however, will come from strong vested interests who fear that in a new Nigeria where no one is left behind, they stand to lose all. The challenge before us all, but especially before those charged with the task of managing this change, is how we overcome these sources of resistance.

Socrates observed that “The secret of change is to focus your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new.” Yet, past misdeeds hang on the nation like an incubus. So deal with the past we must, but we should do so fairly, firmly, and consistent with the rule of law. Government has a duty to let the Nigerian people know what happened in recent times and who did what. People accused or suspected of abusing the public trust must have their rendezvous with the law. Not the media or even public opinion, but the courts of law, should have the final say.

As long as there is fairness and transparency in the process, people will see that justice is done, examples made, and lessons learnt. The media must focus not on hearsay and often libellous reportage, but on exposing the facts so that a well-informed public can discern what is fair, and in due course, form a bulwark against the corrosion of national values and those who resist change.

Looking ahead, to sustain change and overcome resistance, Government must communicate very clearly – to Nigerians and the world at large – their core principles, strategies, policies, plans and programmes for change. We live today in a world of the 24 hour news cycle, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and all the other real time communication tools of the Internet Age. No leader or Government can afford to lag behind their detractors in the competition for public support.

The task is the more urgent because there is only but a limited time before impatience on the part of the public, blends with resistance from vested interests and dilutes the national consensus for change. Fortunately, goodwill for the person of President Buhari is considerable and people are willing to give him time to reset the country. There is general willingness so far to allow the new administration to undertake meticulous assessment and reach evidence-based conclusions on how to proceed.

However, this patience will not be extended to any public official who comes into office with whatever baggage from the past, but who falls below the high standards of personal integrity and probity which candidate Buhari promised the electorate, and on the basis of which he was elected President.

The President and his team of change agents will do well to profit from the warning of Nicolo Machiavelli that “there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For, the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution, and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.” To retain the current public confidence and trust, Government’s core principles and strategies for change, if I may suggest, should prioritise consolidating national unity, the rule of law, and the renewal of public service institutions.

We must strengthen unity by reinforcing our national identity and purpose. Nigeria is a multi-cultural and multi-religious society. It is, therefore, understandable that there would be recurrent debates on federalism, indigence, democratization, participation, social capital, culture, gender, ethnicity, and, ethnic and religious conflicts. They are perennial ingredients in our politics and national discourse on our development agenda. Prudent nations use their diversity and the inherent capacity for interactive value creation that each group brings to the table as bases for national progress.

The most successful countries adopt some organizing principles to promote national solidarity and cooperation and tame divisive competition. In a democracy, this is typically organised through the educational system, faith based groups, civil society organisations, and political parties offering distinct choices of ideologies or, a body of ideas and ideals that transcend the narrow cleavages of sub-national norms and interests.

Societal values are normally reflected in the values of the middle class. Some have argued that the middle class has expanded in Nigeria in recent years, but even if this were true, it did so without internalising the values that go with it. Our media which should be part of this class sometimes appear to be almost courting sedition given the way they sometimes inflame passions by setting up one religious group against the other, one ethnic group against another, and entire regions against each other. Another important segment of the middle class, our public functionaries, tend to be unable or unwilling to find the necessary balance between their personal or group interests, and the larger national interest.

This has resulted in increasing arbitrariness and impunity by individuals and various rapacious cliques in privileged positions. Acts of impunity by one clique in power were repeated or surpassed by a succeeding clique knowing fully well that “their people” would cry foul if there was any call to account. We must break this vicious circle. We need a strategy for national consensus and cohesion beyond our personal or group proclivities. One of the corner stones of this strategy is a return to a law- based society.

For change to be meaningful and irresistible, it is not enough , to borrow Borno State’s Chief Judge, Kashim Zannah’s phrase, to practice the “law of rules or rule by law”. What we need is to enthrone the rule of law which finds ramifications in constitutionalism and where the law governs government conduct at all levels. The law must be consistently applied in an efficient and timely manner. Human rights must be protected. There should be no ambush of due process as often happens. Antiquated laws should be changed by established processes which are transparent and accessible to all.

The rule of law will resonate with the citizens if there is affordable and easy access to the judicial process, efficient and impartial prosecutions, and sanctions for proven breaches.They want to have access to public sector information, including affairs of the legislature, especially their processes, agenda, costs and remunerations. The Police must be seen to deal with even hands and swiftly with all crimes, and show courtesy and respect to citizens in handling peaceful protests and other forms of social agitation.

Government actions in handling domestic armed conflicts must be purposeful and aim not only at winning the war, but also hearts and minds to ensure citizen participation and cooperation. We should avoid our recent experience where law abiding citizens were as fearful of the legitimate forces of the State as they were of the militants in the creeks or the terrorists in the North- East, and where the security agencies and law enforcement agents did not distinguish friend from foe. These are some of the measures and attitudes which will encourage Nigerians to readily support any effort to bring about meaningful change and be committed to fight those who seek to thwart it.

For the change we seek to be more than a mere slogan, it must also temper official attitudes in the public service. It is necessary to reform all arms of government and their institutions. The simple truth is that despite the leadership and vision of the President, and regardless of the merits and commitment of every member of his team, without change in the capacity and attitude of the public service, good intentions will not produce change.

Bureaucracies instinctively try to resist change even when change is inevitable. The public service consists of institutions and persons that enjoy wide latitudes of constitutional protection, inter and intra-institutional bonding, as well as social power. Most, if not all, of the malfeasance by political office holders were facilitated by public servants. Even when the greed of the politicians and their associates in the corporate board rooms are tamed, critical accomplices remain embedded in the public service. Many of them appear unrepentant and most are still “doing business as usual”.

Despite the reform efforts in the past, there has been little attitudinal change in public officials. There is an obvious need to re-examine the size and scope of state institutions and the competence of their personnel to position them for effective and transparent government service delivery. They must become fit for purpose, that is: “to formulate and carry out policies; to administrate efficiently and with minimum bureaucracy; to control graft, corruption, and bribery; to maintain a high level of transparency and accountability; and most importantly, to enforce laws.”

It is not only the Executive arms of government and their institutions that need to change, but so do the Legislatures with which there is a crisis of confidence nationwide. People are frustrated by their costs, their lack of productivity and their unaccountability. The State Houses of Assembly have long abdicated any meaningful function, save for the occasional threats or actual impeachment of errant State Governors who were not deft enough to suborn them. Under the watch of their Councils, the Local Government tier of administration is virtually comatose. Most of their functions and funds are often times unlawfully hijacked by the State executives without as much as a whimper of protest from the Councils. When we consider that over 42% of our national revenues are allocated to State and Local Governments, it is obvious that they constitute veritable financial black holes.

Legislative failures in these two tiers of government, if allowed to persist, will have dire consequences to our national progress. More importantly, the very idea of creating Local Governments in order to bring development to the grassroots will be defeated. In mitigation and as a first step, it is high time the so called “Joint Accounts” are abolished, thereby freeing local government resources from plunder by State Governments. Let the Local Governments be truly responsible for the management of their revenues and the execution of their projects. At least at that level, the reckoning for failure will be swift since the Council Chairmen cannot take cover from immunity even when in office since the Constitutional Immunity Clause does not cover them.

As for the National Assembly, it is considered by many as totally unproductive and the members largely engrossed with themselves and their welfare. Apart from what many consider as their occasional televised “show” public hearings, their operations remain opaque. The Constitutional guarantee of independence of the legislature cannot, and should not, provide a canopy to hide full disclosures about their inner workings, actual remunerations, and a number of other personal benefits which are in some cases fraudulently disguised under capital expenditure. There should be more transparency so that the public can objectively judge whether their output is commensurate with their cost.

It must however be said that the foregoing observations relate to our experience of the 4th to the just concluded 7th National Assembly. It is too early to prejudge the current 8th Assembly, but if the controversy that trailed it’s take off and the fact that it is dominantly led by members who have returned, some for their third or fourth terms, are any pointers to go by, it may be prudent to withhold judgement as to whether the Legislature can change from within. The members may well feel comfortable with the status quo and seek to retain its many self- allocated benefits and may thus resist change. It may require the intervention of an Executive committed to change to use its considerable power of persuasion and , if necessary, the lawful use of Executive Powers, to mobilize political parties with shared vision, civil society organisations, the Trades Unions, and all the forces of mass intervention so that the Legislature can be helped to help itself.

Finally and very briefly, it is trite to observe that a vibrant Judiciary is the pillar of the rule of law. Our Judiciary, though not entirely immune from the general culture of corruption and inefficiency everywhere, has of recent begun to show a commitment to self-correction. Yet, it cannot perform optimally without efficiencies in the investigating and prosecuting instruments which are in the domain of the Executive. Based on their recent performance, we cannot take the integrity of these instruments as assured. They have been known to be high jacked at times by criminals or by the forces who resist change.

They should henceforth be held accountable and penalised for any botched investigation or prosecution unless it is self-evident that they failed despite applying their maximum diligence in the discharge of their duties. May I conclude by noting that in virtually all spheres of our national life, we observe misalignments between our potential and our out-put. Fortunately, there is now a new awareness of, and a sense of urgency, for there to be a change, especially in our governance culture, if we are to make progress as a nation. However, as Robert Kennedy reminded us, “progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.”

In the preceding paragraphs, I focussed only on what I consider to be the foundational imperatives for change to happen- the need to consolidate national unity, entrench the rule of law, and strengthen public service institutions imbued with appropriate attitudes.The current national leadership has held up a promising hope for the desired change. The people, especially our women who make up 52% , and our youths who make up about 60% of the population both of whom unfairly bear the brunt of the effects of bad governance, are not only ready, but they earnestly yearn for change. The President and his government must have a definite agenda especially for our restive and mostly unemployed youths and communicate their plans in much clearer terms than just body language. With transparent commitment, a strong will to walk the talk, and the courage of their conviction, government will overcome any resistance, and change will come to Nigeria. However, let not the impression be given that the task of changing Nigeria is the job of the President and his government alone. We the citizenry also have the responsibility not only to keep them accountable and on their toes, but when they are doing right by us, to be ready to form the bulwark and vanguard to protect and defend them against any buffeting current.

God bless Nigeria!

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