Saturday, June 15, 2013

The People’s Broadcast on the Nigerian Centenary

By Olu Akanmu

One hundred years of the Nigeria nation is gone. Perhaps another one hundred is ahead. The managers of the Nigerian state have called for celebrations. There will be pomp and pageantry, gala nights and award dinners, lotteries and beauty contests.  A centenary of the Nigeria nation should however call for more sober reflections of hundred years of opportunities lost, potentials unfulfilled and generations wasted. There are far many more things to be sober about on Nigeria than what we have to celebrate. Some will say that we still do have a nation united despite our history of ethnic and political schisms.  These are the politicians talking, the few who are reaping disproportionately economic benefits from the weakness or the “near-failed” nature of the Nigerian state and its weak institutions.  How many unfulfilled potentials can we count?  A state, whose people have been getting doctorate degrees in medicine and law from prestigious universities like Oxford since 1898, yet has some of the lowest quality of university education in Africa, with no Nigerian university among the top 5000 in the world.  The Nigerian state that gave Malaysia its first seeds of palm oil in the 1960s yet now has to import or smuggle palm oil from Malaysia. Groundnut pyramids of Kano are gone, cocoa is gone, and cotton is gone replaced by an oil industry largely on the sea that has done little to create employment for the mass of our youths.

The unfulfilled potential of our resources is even more illustrated by contrasting us with Dubai and the United Arab Emirates who has leveraged its oil resources to diversify and modernize its economy to match the best of the western world. Therefore resources do not necessarily have to be a cause. It could be a blessing if a nation state is blessed with the fortune of good rulers, true statesmen who govern for the common good and put the nation first. Nigeria has however had the misfortune in its hundred years of being a state with few statesmen.  Late Papa Alfred Rewane lamenting the unfulfilled potential of the Nigerian state had to say during his lifetime that “yesterday (at independence), we prayed for a better tomorrow; but today, we now pray for a better yesterday”. A centenary celebration of the Nigerian state therefore has to be more introspective than beauty contests, march pasts and award dinners. It must ask the fundamental question “Why would the next 100 years of Nigeria be different from the last hundred?” Would those who are members of this state in the next hundred years look on this generation with kindness that we laid a foundation for a better centenary or would they refer to us as another generation wasted  just like those before us?  History has a way of defining a mission for each generation depending on the turn of history to which it finds itself. Perhaps, it is not an accident that we happen to be the generation at the centenary of the Nigerian state.  If we therefore reduce a centenary celebration to gala nights, march pasts and beauty contests, we would have missed an historic opportunity to fulfill a generation mission of tilting the ship of the Nigerian state on a new course of progress.

In this essay, we highlight some of the things that must be done to make the next centenary different from the current one. We expect to provoke some sober reflections and challenge more patriots to change the current paradigm of the celebration of the Nigerian centenary.  First we must build a more inclusive society where every citizen matters, have an opportunity to make it and fulfill her God-given potential. Today, the Nigerian state is increasingly becoming an opposite of this. What is the essence of thumping our chest that we are the biggest black nation on earth when the largest majority of our people cannot fulfill their potential or are just barely existing only in number and add no serious value to society? We must deal with the social exclusion mechanisms through institutionalized political and economic  arrangement s that make it difficult to climb the social ladder or even have real choices and voice in the  way society is governed.  In a young country, where the majority of our citizens are below the age of thirty, investment in the youth and their education must be top priority to liberate the potentials of our largest majority. Access to good and quality education is one of the biggest social exclusion mechanisms in Nigeria. The education of the youth must be matched with an inclusive economic arrangement that recognize that they youth must find gainful work to fulfill their potential and add value to society.  So much has been written around this, the need for strong formal vocational and technical education system that produce young graduates that are truly employable in industry or can work as small vocational businesses supporting big businesses in their economic value chain. The German education system in a strong organic link with industry has been built around this principle. It has enabled Germany to keep it youths gainfully employed with one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe.

Inclusive economic arrangement also implies a more inclusive financial system where many more citizens have access to financial service and all its benefits. Financial services and the banking system are the bedrock and blood of the modern economy. If more than half of our citizens continue to be excluded from this service, they will be unlikely to fulfill their God-given potential and add their best value to society.  Banking penetration and access to credit must improve.  Brazil found its own way to democratize access to financial service and credits for its initially excluded majority and it became one of the strongest economies in the world. Brazil had similar social structures like Nigeria, a very unequal society with extreme wealth on one side of society and extreme poverty and misery on the other. However, by democratizing the financial system , public-private sector housing programs and improving access to property titles as collaterals to access financial credit for the its large majority, it liberated its people from poverty and misery.  In this centenary period, we need to introspect on the progress we have made in building a more inclusive financial system, consolidate the gains made and publicly debate what else are standing in the way to improve the pace of this critical initiative.

On the political front, we must deal with institutionalized political exclusion mechanisms that offer no real democratic choices for the people.  Weak political parties with poor internal democracies exclude the true will of the party rank and file and ultimately true democratic choices at elections.  Unless the party rank and file can freely choose their representatives and present such to the electorate in a free and fair election, we will continue to have a selectocracy rather than a democracy.  Unless the people can find their voice and choose their leaders in a free and fair electoral process, we will have to kiss good governance and responsible government a perpetual goodbye in Nigeria. This is because the only incentive for politicians to act responsibly and govern well is the fear of losing elections. At the turn of this new centenary, we must therefore strengthen our electoral process and the political institutions that will make our elections truly what they are supposed to be, with the plurality of choices that capture the diversity of patriotic ideas in the nation.  To do this, INEC and its future successors and the courts must be able to sanction the breach of internal party democracies.  Other things to be done  to strengthen the electoral process, make INEC  truly independent of the executive including special sanctions for electoral offenses are contained in the Uwais panel electoral reform report. At this historic turn of the Nigeria’s next centenary, we call on President Jonathan and the national assembly to summon the necessary courage to put our democratic process on new progressive trajectory by implementing the Uwais panel report.  

Over the next centenary, we must become a more open and transparent society. Government must become more open to citizens. This will drive accountability of the managers of state resources to the people on whose behest they are supposed to hold their jobs. A more open society also implies a Nigeria state where the people can enforce their right to know and can freely debate the actions of their government. It implies also a strong press, the modern equivalent of the classic Roman forum, where the people can debate or challenge the actions of the state and its managers. We must consolidate on the gains of our checkered history of press freedom and get the Freedom of Information Act to truly work. Currents efforts to use the Freedom of Information Act to enforce better government transparency has not been very successful suggesting that while we need good laws, we will also need strong judicial institutions to get a good law to fulfill its purpose. A more open society will also engender better trust between government and citizens rather than the cynics that citizens have become of government. A more open society is also a critical ingredient for active citizenship which is critical to building strong accountable public institutions.

A more open and accountable society also implies that the incentive to join politics will gradually change from “intent to corner public funds” to true public service.  Our electoral choices will increasingly be based on ideas and perspectives of better public service and delivery of public good. This coupled with the strengthening of judicial institutions that sanction corruption and criminal behavior in governance, will drive a better incentive for our politicians to become true statesmen who serve only for the common good. We must build a more active citizenship where the people believe in their capacity to determine how they are governed. A people who believe that their vote do not count, who live in extreme poverty and misery will probably sell their vote for a bag of rice.  This further compound their poverty and misery as their so called elected representative becomes more irresponsible knowing that it is not performance but a bag of rice that will win them the next election. And the people in this reinforcing feedback loop fall further and further into despair becoming more and more passive as citizens. We must cut this negative reinforcing feedback loop of irresponsible governance and passive citizenship by ensuring that votes begin to count in free and fair elections. That is one more reason why the recommendations of the Uwais panel on electoral reform must be implemented especially at this historic turn of another Nigeria centenary.

The plural and diverse nature of the Nigerian state, the need to build a strong unity in diversity, and the constant political rancor over presidential succession makes it imperative that we must strengthen our federalism. Current political arrangement with a near balkanization of the old regions into largely economically unviable states has turned our intended federalism upon its head to make the political centre so strong and the federating states so weak. Hence, the struggle to control the centre has become a constant do or die affair. What will be our solution to this un-intended consequence of our peculiar federalism? How would we build stronger federating states within the nation? Should the current state structure remain what they are today or would we need to reconsolidate them to more economically viable units?  All questions as such must be put on the table in a sober introspection on Nigeria’s peculiar Federalism over the last century. We must also arrest the increasing astronomical cost of governance. In a next century that will be far more competitive among nation states, where Nigeria will need to play a catch-up for the missed opportunities of the last century, we cannot afford to have governance structures whose costs will weigh down our national development.

With no Nigeria University among the top 5000 in the world at our national centenary, we must rectify this national embarrassment immediately. There are no great societies without great citadels of learning. Nigeria will not be an exception to this history. Our universities before the decay that started in the late 1980s used to boast of some of the best Professors in the world. And Professors were so much appreciated and respected. It is no longer so as our disdain for knowledge has become enthroned and we have become a nation that celebrates mediocrity. At this turn of our national centenary, we must restore the pride and honour of higher education while ensuring that they become more relevant to our national development. We must develop a public-private partnership model to fund higher education including a small taxation on foreign education remittance to fund our universities.  We must also incentivize science and technology training including related vocational education much better as they are far more critical to our national development than other disciplines of higher education.

Business and the private sector must play a more critical role in our national development working closely with government.  Over the next two decades, we must see the emergence of not one but at least ten Nigerian multinationals competing as strong Emerging market multinational corporations (EMNCs), first taking advantage of our strong domestic market as a launching pad into Africa and the rest of the world. This implies the need to promote and give preferences to our local businesses and local content especially where they understand and can manage investment risks better due to their local knowledge.  Just as the Asians had their Tigers in the Samsungs, Daewoos and the Tatas as private sector manifestations’ of their economic development, we must have our own Nigeria Lions competing on a global stage. To nurture Nigerian companies into true EMNCs however, we must ensure that they learn to compete fairly at home to toughen their competitive muscles and sound management practices which they will need to succeed abroad.  We must deal with cronyism which ultimately masks local business incompetence and cost society enormously in waste and corruption. Ultimately, local businesses that succeed on cronyism cannot compete abroad where they may not have their local cronyism advantage.  We must have a patriotic private sector that adopts a greater Nigeria economic development purpose as its reason for being with profits being a bye product of fulfilling this greater purpose. In financial services, telecommunications, oil and gas and manufacturing, working with government, business must support the building of a more inclusive formal economy that improves the quality of life of the majority of our people. 

We conclude our centenary reflections on the challenge of building strong national institutions. We must strengthen the institutions that will enforce the contracts, rule of law and sanction the pervasive impunity in society. At the back of our weak democratic system is the sheer impunity that elections can be rigged, electoral laws can be broken and you can get away with it with the right connections. Elite impunity is also the reason why economic crimes and corruption is committed in public and private sectors because the institutions to enforce sanctions for wrong behavior are weak or have been captured by a narrow cream of elite in their self-interest. To arrest and tame impunity in society, we will need to make the judiciary and law enforcement institutions independent of the executive and the politicians. The constitutional proposal to separate the office of Attorney General from Minister of Justice should be adopted at Federal and state levels. While the Inspector General of Police should report to the President administratively, they should be appointed independently of the executive for a fixed tenure by the National Judicial Council. The Police Service Commission should also report independently of the executive to a special arm of the judiciary.  Corruption must be purged on the bench to ensure that only men and women of honour sit in our hallowed chambers of justice. 

We must also have a stronger, truly independent and more active parliament that proactively makes good governing laws for our institutions, while holding them transparently accountable for the delivery of their social charter on behalf of the people.  All that is necessary should be done to promote active citizenship beyond the good civil society and human right organizations in the nation. They must hold elected officials accountable for their performance along with a vibrant press institutions for free, unimpeded public debate on social governance. Such active citizenship that we had during the Occupy Nigeria movement and petroleum subsidy debate must be revamped and sustained as a critical platform for public accountability and inclusive institution building. Institutional leaders must also adopt a new value system of character, honour and common good as the fiber of new institutional cultures along with the emergence of a non-partisan core of elder statesmen who will serve as moral guardians of society’s value and conscience.

A national centenary is a very serious matter especially when the history of the nation is a litany of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potentials. We need to introspect deeply and change the current paradigm of the celebration of the national centenary to capture the serious historic nature of the occasion. While there should be march pasts and gala nights, there should also be more serious active citizen debate on what we must do to ensure that Nigeria’s next centenary will more positively different and take real actions to make it happen. Then future generations would look at us with kindness that we recognized our place in history and that we fulfilled our historic mission of laying a foundation for a better next centenary.

GOD bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Olu Akanmu.
Lagos. June 2013