Perhaps, to the consternation of many, I have watched from the sidelines over the past few weeks as the people of Nigeria engaged the government in a conflict over the price of fuel. Personally, the realization that government has failed is nothing new, so is my conviction that the road to recovery from such institutional failure would lead through deeper and more fundamental examination of the issues.
It was great to see that within the first 48 hours after the protests began, the popular rhetoric, steered by some progressives, began heading in the direction of public corruption, waste and the failure of our public institutions. However, the escalation of the dispute had relied heavily on another institution, which in itself, was not immune to the failings evident in our system. Also, the issue that provided the initial spark for the conflict, fuel subsidy, had betrayed its own vulnerability by past precedents – a mid-way price adjustment was sufficient to douse whatever tension it created.
It would seem that, by relying solely on history, one could have easily predicted that we would arrive where we are now.
But if the script was written by history, then, there are a few things it left out. It could not have envisaged that the young, upwardly mobile elite would exhibit the kind of leadership that they did during the weeks after the removal of subsidies. It was also blind-sided by the willingness of an army of social media intellectuals to bite an issue and pursue it to a logical conclusion. Although the warnings had been there since a small group of young Nigerians supported #LightUpNigeria in 2009, marched with #EnoughIsEnough in 2010 and powered #NigeriaDecides over the line during the General elections in April 2011 – each time growing in number and commitment – history could not have envisaged anything of this scale.
Post the protests, a flurry of hearings and arrests have followed. This turn of events is however not dissimilar to experiences in the recent past that have led to tenuous and cosmetic conclusions.
It is therefore important to note that passion alone will not get us over the hump of the failures of our nation. If our generation is to overcome the challenges that floored the generation of our fathers, we must be ready to strategically confront the issues that forced that generation into compromise. For it is that original set of compromises that have precipitated the symptoms that we fight today.
Interestingly, the recent events have engendered hope. This is because the kinds of changes needed to right the Nigerian ship cannot be unilaterally pursued by the Federal Government. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the people, based on whatever trigger they deem fit, must make those demands first! The popular will then proceeds to drive the political will – ensuring that the invasive changes necessary are justified on the premise of a popular demand, rather than a personal or sectional agenda. It is encouraging to see this beginning to happen.
However, unlike many, who have been all oohs and ahs about the revelations of insensitivity and corruption at every level of government, I can’t feign surprise. The institution of government in Nigeria has been subject to decades of rot. Built on a delicate compromise to balance power, government at all levels in Nigeria has always survived on a heavy dose of patronage and an even heavier dose of atrocities. Even the attempt to claw back subsidies – and the attendant strife – have not been unique to any Federal administration since the Government of Shehu Shagari in 1982.
Neither has been the level of insecurity.
Since the first Nigerian coup on the 15th of January, 1966, millions of Nigerian lives have been lost, sacrificed on the altars of political convenience, ethnic cleansing and the control of resources. It is noteworthy that these deaths have either happened with the active or passive participation of the Nigerian state.
The security apparatus is weak, not only at the top, but all the way through. Taking the Nigerian Police Force for example – starved of funds and subject to mediocrity, the job of the police has been left to the dregs of society. Those who have picked up the job have also proceeded to act like they have been treated – like the dregs – beholden to the elite and despising the people.
Time and again, each sectional or religious agitation that emerges pushes the republic closer to disintegration, and just before we get there, the cracks are papered over with the mortar of compromise – leaving Nigeria to survive for another day.
And that is what we have been doing – surviving.
However, this generation was not born to just survive. It needs to start living. However, in order to do so, the first thing we have to do is to familiarize ourselves with some hard truths:
The problem with government isn’t just the present administration.
By all means, someone has to be held accountable and the current President’s response to issues have been underwhelming at best. But to dwell on that is to scratch the surface and nothing more. If our memory wasn’t that short, we would remember that in January 2002, the then president, visiting a site where more than a thousand Nigerians had lost their lives turned to the press and said “Shut up! I shouldn’t even have come here”. If we are not distracted by the different personalities of our leaders, we would come to the conclusion that although the personalities have changed, the output from government has been the same regardless of who was at the helm. Rather than point fingers at each other and argue about how one leader from another tribe did the same thing and “why wasn’t there any outrage then?”, we should, therefore, come to the more progressive conclusion that the problem is deeper than the personalities. Government, as an institution in Nigeria, has a certain consistent character and part of that character is not to care about what happens to the people.
But it is the people that chose to make their Government so.
Part of the compromise that we had made years ago, to preserve our imposed unity, was to saddle government with the responsibility of reflecting the federal character of the nation. On the surface, this appears to represent fairness and equity – every part of the country should be equitably represented in government. How noble? Well, not quite. This objective has created two problems that has hamstrung government from ever transforming into a service provider to the people.
1. “Chop, I chop” – Every tribe was afraid of being dominated, so the intent of the federal character stipulation was to manage this. Smarting from colonial rule, the last thing anybody wanted was for another tribe to replace the British as lords and masters of the rest of us. So we agreed to share this “dominance” rather than diminish it. The result: the definition of Government as “dominance over the people” was preserved. The new Nigerian elite could replace the old colonial masters as long as every tribe was represented and power, with its attendant perks, was shared. We institutionalized “chop, I chop” or “rotational corruption”.
2. Mediocrity – According to Victor H. Vroom, humans are motivated to select a specific behavior due to what they expect the result of that selected behavior will be. According to him, an average, rational person asks themselves three questions before they are motivated to act in a certain way: (a) If I try harder, will I do better? (b) If I do better, will it mean more reward? (c) Do I like the reward? Only if the answer to all these three questions is “yes” will the person be motivated to engage in that activity. It is easy to imagine why people who find themselves in an environment where tribal balance is the first priority will not be motivated to try harder (unless an artificial incentive, typically in a brown envelope, is introduced into the equation).
Our desire for tribal balance in the corridors of power is at odds with our desire for a responsive and people-centric government. We cannot have our cake and eat it.
We have lived a lie
The first words of our 1999 constitution reads: “We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria…”. Those words, ostensibly lifted from the preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America, have not been backed by the Nigerian spirit. The various micro-nations that constitute the Federal Republic of Nigeria have never engaged each other in a conversation about what it means to come together to form a federation. There has been no agreement about what it would mean to transform from being just Igbo, Ijaw, Hausa or Yoruba to being Nigerian. Questions have not been answered about what each micro-nation brings to the table and what conditions will guarantee social justice, and equality for everyone without any micro-nation feeling exploited or cheated.
The Federation has just been foisted on everyone, and for the fear of having nothing else as an alternative, everyone played along.
Furthermore, the initial social contract that ensured post-independence balance has expired for the following reasons:
1. It approximated the diversity of the Nigerian nation. Nigeria isn’t just North and South as the British saw it. It is more complex. There are other diverse interests that are far from represented by the pre-independence approximations.
2. It was limited to the sharing of power at the center. The assumption that if power is equitably shared, the effects will trickle down equitably to the people was false. It has never worked and it never will. First, the limited opportunities for representation at the center can never reflect the true diversity of interests evident in the nation. Secondly, and most importantly, the assumption relied heavily on the personal inclination of each representative to be accountable to the interest that they should represent. We have learnt that there is no interest greater than self-interest.
3. It never worked. Fifty two years later, power has never been equitably shared, neither have been any social benefits.
We need to get over the oil addiction
Since the first commercial export of oil from Oloibiri in 1958, economic activity in other sectors of the economy has dwindled as everyone responded to the allure of oil money. Over time, this has resulted in huge economic distortions that have plunged Nigeria’s per-capita income to 25% of what is was in the mid-1970s. Oil and gas now account for about 95% of all export earnings and 85% of Federal Government revenue. Every other sector has either remained stagnant or have declined over 50% from the levels that they were 25 years ago and today, over 80% of government spending gets recycled into foreign exchange – to pay for what has become another expensive Nigerian addiction – imports.
The implication is that, practically, only about 9 states (some say effectively 6) subsidize the Federation in its current configuration. Everyone else has become dependent on this bizarre form of welfare. This is dangerous for the following reasons:
1. At 37.5 billion barrels of reserves left and an estimated exploitation rate of 2.5 million barrels per day, Nigeria has only 41 years of oil production left. We might as well be the last generation to have lived in a period that had Nigeria as an oil producing state. The next generation will be reading about the oil rigs the same way we read about the groundnut pyramids – in textbooks. There will be no productive, sustainable, replacements that we have invested in to continue to yield collective revenue when we no longer have the oil.
2. Given the other social contract issues I have highlighted above, the micro-nations whose land the oil resources come from have a right to agitation or even secession. The sense of entitlement that the rest of Nigeria feels over the oil from the region might just be completely misplaced. Afterall, the transfer of petroleum resources in the delta region to the Federal Government was effected by decree – Decree No. 51 of 1969 – an imposition that the Niger-Delta tribes have contested till today, at the cost of thousands of their own lives. Given recent events, their cause might acquire new sympathies.
What must we now do?
1. It is imperative that we begin the push that would lead to a new social contract for the Nigerian people.
2. This new social contract must fundamentally align the economic, political and social expectations (as well as responsibilities) of the constituent micro-nations. For instance, the reasons why the south-east and south-south were not particularly interested in the fuel subsidy protests are based on valid political expectations that need not be ignored if a true Nigerian solution is the objective.
3. The social contract must also define new roles for the government, citizen and private sectors within the new context of national cohesion, economic development and good governance
4. These new roles might mean that we would not need a big federal government. It might mean that we resolve to strengthen the roles and the checks for local and regional government. It might also mean that we realize that we do not need, neither can we afford to fund 36 states, an FCT (that produces little) and 774 local governments.
5. It might also mean that we take a pragmatic and more long term view of our residual oil resources with the view to fully recover its value and re-invest in long-term sustainable enterprise with the Niger-Delta as a priority.
6. We might realize that a fiscal federalism system will be socially just, even if it hurts some parts of the whole. We might propose transitional strategies to alleviate the pain before the possible non-viable constituents achieve self-sustenance.
7. We must be ready to tell the masses these truths. The new breed of intellectuals must accept the responsibility to shape the public opinion away from survivalist opportunism to collective and responsible development.
8. We must also evolve a non-confrontational strategy to ferry Nigeria safely through the demands of the global oil grab. I suspect the key might be in fundamentally changing the way we see our own oil.
9. It would be an immense ideological challenge and it is neither going to be easy nor quick.
Finally, it is possible to be carried away by the fundamental perspectives herein expressed. Therefore, it is imperative to state that, we still need to, in the short term, drastically improve what we are doing to fight corruption, increase citizen engagement with government and propose a more pragmatic budget for 2012. There is no reason why all of this can’t happen concurrently with a complete overhaul of our socio-political space.
Given all of the above, it should go without saying that there is now, more than ever, a need for a resource that is scarcely found in Nigeria – Leadership.
It was Onyeka Owenu that sang the song “Run, Jonathan, Run”, imploring the man who grew up as a boy without shoes to run for President. It appears popular will is now singing a fitting sequel: “Lead, Jonathan Lead”, imploring the son of the canoe carver to grab a paddle and row the Nigerian canoe out of the treacherous creeks it has now found itself.
History will be unkind if he fails.