By Chidi Anslem Odinkalu
Fifty three years after Independence, Nigerians are caught in an uncertain land between nostalgia and Nirvana. For the young people who comprise the overwhelming majority in the country, nostalgia is not even an option and Nirvana is not on the horizon: We have abolished our history and they are the leaders of a tomorrow that is perpetually postponed.
Across the country, it’s raining invectives, shrapnels, cudgels, and bits and pieces of the kitchen sink. While all this happens, a majority of the tribe of politicians are engaged in plunder. Government is the biggest business in town and being in it is the surest avenue to inexplicable wealth.
Was this how the country’s founding leaders envisioned it? In 53 years as an Independent country, we have never quite managed to count our votes, count our people or count our money credibly, the three basic functions on which government is based. It is not because we cannot count.
Rather, it is because counting properly comes with obligations of honesty, fairness and accountability that a succession of managers of the Nigerian State, with the active connivance and complicity of communities and citizens, have declined to subscribe to.
In its 2011 report, the Federal Government Investigation Panel on the 2011 Election Violence and Civil Disturbances, better known as the Sheikh Lemu Panel, narrated that “elections held even before Independence in 1960 were generally fraught with violence arising from intimidation of voters, burning of ballot boxes and papers, snatching of ballot boxes, diversion of electoral materials, outright rigging…”
For about 29 out of the 53 years as an Independent country, we were ruled by soldiers. They messed with our heads, our country and our institutions. If Lemu is to be believed, the civilians who have ruled the country for the remaining quarter century have learnt a lot from the soldiers but mostly the wrong lessons.
Fourteen years ago, we finally returned to government with electoral legitimacy. To many Nigerians, however, democracy – government in which citizens are counted and their votes count — remains postponed.
Today, Nigerians have no expectations of those in power, our country struggles to compete in the world and our institutions are ill-equipped apply our rules properly or call to order those who do not wish us well.
In theory, we were supposed to achieve better governance through decentralisation. So, in 1967, we began creation of states. The problem was that the impetus for state creation was not de-centralisation or better governance but narrow reasons of regime security.
The three regions of Nigeria at Independence were each too powerful. We wanted to ensure that no sub-unit of Nigeria would be strong enough again ever to challenge it like Biafra and the late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu attempted in 1967-1970. The last act of state creation by Gen. Sani Abacha in 1996 essentially dismembered the last significant sub-unit in Nigeria – the Sokoto Emirate – into three States (Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara).
Meanwhile, in 1976, local government reform brought an additional level of government. Today, we have one Federal Capital Territory, 36 states, and 774 local governments, each with its own machinery of administration.
State creation has created a growth industry in navel-gazing public officers whose preoccupation seems to be leeching on the State. Members of Parliament, Cabinet officers, permanent secretaries, advisers, their wives, husbands, spouses and mistresses all deserve and desire their own perks, perquisites, and retinues to be paid for, of course, by the State.
Each also desires to bring to their own networks, the benefits of propinquity to power. More cars are bought so that each can employ a driver or nanny from their village. And openings must be created in the public service so that they can ensure the next State employee is from the same place too.
If teachers are to be hired, it can only be by allocation to the godfather, of those in power and its bedrooms. So too with hiring nurses and doctors. Why should any rules matter? The only rule that matters is that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Surely, why should we start applying any rules only when it comes to our own turn to chop?
With about 71 per cent of the public appropriations at the federal level currently devoted to servicing recurrent expenditure, the cost of running the public sector has bloated by nearly 25 percentage points in the less than one and a half decades. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the public service is not public and hardly renders service. The only reason it exists is to provide the needs of those who work in it and alleviate poverty among their kinsfolk.
The result of this has been a frightening growth of different forms of retail, wholesale and spectacular violence across the country: Domestic violence is on the increase; commercial kidnapping is booming; electoral violence is a given; inter-community and ethnic violence seems to be the default for settling disputes across communities; improvised explosive devices are in the hands of extremists who kill en masse the name of hate; and vigilantism seems to be the preferred law enforcement method with the support of a vast majority of Nigeria’s communities.
Lemu had also foretold in 2011 that, The past decade has seen an unprecedented escalation of communal violence in various parts of the federation, especially in the northern part, which is virtually becoming the epicentre of the gravest form….Something must be done to stem this trend otherwise it will breed a balance of terror between groups hiding under different togas….It is fast becoming one of sustaining a mutual balance of terror between different groups in Nigeria.”
For this epidemic of violence, we seem to have developed no antidote. On the contrary, most involved in it seem assured of impunity while the politicians who plunder us enjoy immunity. The criminal justice system and legal process cannot be trusted to bring to account those who do this. This guarantees that new fronts of violence are opened with each new day.
As the country prepares for potentially explosive elections in 2015, victory seems assured to any party that will beat the rest in the competition to frighten the most or unleash the most violence.
National co-existence is deeply frayed. Two years ago, the Lemu Panel summarised the state of the country in an anguished three-word lamentation: “Nigeria has regressed”!
Around the country, true Nigerians are an endangered minority. The only place that you are likely to find any Nigerians anymore are in the immigration terminals of foreign airports. Back here, everyone seeks to be anything – ethnic merchant, sectarian bigot, militant, bomber, online irredentist, and a chief-with-a-cap – everything other than a Nigerian. We cannot be Nigerian, we are told, without being one of these.
Yet, we can and, to overcome our present difficulties as a people, we must. For we can come from one part of Nigeria and recognise that no one part of the country has a monopoly of good or bad. We can seek development in one part without any need to feel that it must come at the expense of impoverishing other parts; we can worship God the way we choose without the need to believe that God needs any of us to protect Him; and we can wish the country well without any need to claim a monopoly of patriotism.
The founding leaders of our country had mutual respect for one another and for the diverse peoples of this land. They were not thieves. They undertook public service without amassing wealth or making grand larceny a directive principle of state policy. Indeed, many of them died without homes of their own. Such was their abiding faith in the goodness of this land.
On most of these scores, our leaders of today mostly seem to take a contrary view. Competitive narrowness is the name of the game and the public purse exists to service private whims. Development is no longer the priority or business of governance. In every sector: education to health; security to environment, the indices of growth or betterment are hard to see.
The investments we need to make for a better country are endangered. With munificent new sources of energy now emerging around the world, the assumption that underpinned Nigeria’s political economy – that we could always binge or rely on free money from the sale of hydrocarbons – is about to be unscrambled.
But this is not such a bad thing. On the contrary, the possible death of assured oil money is the reason I remain optimistic about Nigeria. It could not come soon enough.
The death of oil will free us up to discover the capabilities and innate wealth of different parts of Nigeria and compel us to exploit and develop them. It will also mean the death of the political economy of allocation. It will compel leaders to invest in the skills of their youths and to see their people as assets. It will also enable us to return to harnessing the fertility in our lands and processing them to feed our people.
If fat and failed politicians do not have to converge in Abuja every month to share money whose provenance they are not interested in, they will have little option than to stay home among their people and raise the revenues they need to justify their existence.
Despite the difficulties, we cannot give up hope or walk out on the country. Despite the challenges, civilian government is here to stay. It is our place to make it work better for the people.
For the politicians who seek to lead this country over the next half century, the question is whether they will see these challenges as opportunities to be seized or whether they will continue to do business as usual. Those who choose the latter may find that they force a premature sun-set upon the country and may have the misfortune of paying a supreme sacrifice for this kind of avoidable folly.
For those who recognise the new opportunities, this dangerous new world is an exciting one too and offers a brave path to a new Nigerian century. On the occasion of the 53rd Independence anniversary, my only prayer is for leaders willing to seize it and for citizens able to see it.
Prof. Odinkalu is Chair, National Human Rights Commission