What is the problem with Nigeria?
For good reasons, there are as many answers to this question, as there are persons who have given it a thought. Still, it helps that the question is posed in order that we may agree useful answers to it. There is increasingly strong evidence that, to use a favourite local metaphor, “the ship of state” may be letting in water. It has always leaked. Is it presently letting in too much water? There are those of our nationals who hold that an original design defect is by far the most serious of the problems we face.
Yet, unlike previous such occasions when signs were very strong that this vessel required immediate fixing, this time around, there are a couple of unusually loose cannons on deck. Given the variety of solutions that have been proposed for the country’s current portfolio of difficulties (from the hare-brained to the more sophisticated), and their persistence despite all, one is prone to suppose that we may be asking the wrong question.
Nigeria is not a “democracy” yet. This, incidentally is not because elections are routinely rigged. Which they sadly are. And on account of which “the people” are denied the “voice” that has been critical to good governance elsewhere. Instead our “democracy’s” shortcomings have more to do with the structure (no, the composition; maybe even the quality of the electorate). At both ends of the electoral list, we have complications.
Lower down the voting ladder, a very poor people have proven themselves persuadable by baubles and small change at every single poll we have conducted so far. Long ago, a friend of mine (since turned “big time politician”) argued that the immiseration of the people by the political class is not fortuitous. Rather, the poorer the people are, the cheaper the cost of appropriating the votes, a necessary condition for the strange management practices across the economy, delaying, at the same time, hopes of public accountability.
How about disenfranchising this mass? What if we enacted either property or educational qualifications for voting? On the face of it, we may thereby ensure that the “electorate” (now sanitised) will vote according to a fairer appreciation of the issues confronting this economy.
Nonetheless, questions of equity aside, any such proposal is still hostage to the “good offices” of current beneficiaries of the system. In this sense, it would be equivalent to inviting the current class of politicians to commit suicide.
Beyond this, though, there is also a problem with the upper cadre of the electoral list: one that a property/educational qualification will not probably solve. Atop the voting ladder, there is a frightening indifference amongst the middle and upper classes (and I use these terms both loosely, yet in their best acceptations) that establishes their complicity with the rot in the system.
One often-heard explanation for this torpor is a reluctance by the well-off (who, thus, have more to lose) to join in the fisticuffs that result each time politicians move to force their way into office. Apparently, these two classes have too much invested here to endanger it by confronting vote theft at the polls. The difficulty with this explanation, however, is that even the one space where these classes should rein unchallenged (ideas) is no more occupied than are the polling booths.
Is there a further case for implicating our fiscal structure in our failures? Until recently, I had always believed that bad governance would be more difficult off a government revenue base financed by tax. Taxpayers would, at least, react adversely to government officials spending their hard-earned money on bulletproof vehicles, when hospitals, schools, and roads are daily and everywhere falling apart. The only reason according to this argument why successive governments here have continued to dissipate the contents of the public purse is that oil revenues intervene between the electorate and government.
Take a closer look at Ghana, however. It is only slightly better governed. A lot more of its public revenue is tax based. Yet, its government has pursued salary increases in the public sector that now ensure that the public sector’s wage bill is 70% of public spending. On this score, the argument around the causal relationship between the composition of public revenue and public accountability is in want of a good leg to stand on.
We do have, then, much to talk about in resolving the innumerable problems we confront. I can understand that the established fora for this conversation (the different legislatures) are compromised by the way and manner in which members entered into office, and may not be able nor willing to address themselves to this task.
What assurances do we have that a national conference (sovereign or not) will fare any better?