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News and Society Expression Unfold


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President Tasks State Chief Executives on Humane Governance:


In the words of the great Irish writer, George Bernard Shaw, the worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them. 

In the face of the grueling conditions the majority of Nigerians are presently going through, many questions are increasingly being asked of the manner of governance the people are being served with. Nigerians are no longer sure what their leaders feel about them: hatred or indifference. 

Much has been said about the corrupting and corrosive effect of power in all its forms  – political, military, economic and even spiritual – on the fabric of human nature, culture and civilization. In some instances, this corruption, this corrosion of human character is not as tangible as the act of stealing or mismanagement of public funds. Sometimes it has more to do with the misplacement of priorities – usually arising from a general disdain for the ordinary people, and a total disregard for their needs, opinions or sensibilities. 

Although the phenomenon of bad governance is, unfortunately, a universal reality, it seems to be more pronounced in some societies than in others. Societies most impacted by bad governance are characterized by the lack of the rule of law and the weakness (or even non-existence) of the institutions that undergird it. In such societies, the rich, powerful and connected (including the politically exposed) are hardly held to account. In such societies, brazen impunity on the part of the powerful  (commonly expressed in Nigeria by the question, ‘DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? ‘) is the norm rather than the exception. 

In Nigeria, the flip side of impunity on the part of the politically powerful, their family members and associates is accentuated by the sheer helplessness of the general populace, and their inability to seek redress when their rights are infringed upon, when their legitimate expectations are not met by their leaders, and when their basic human dignity is trampled upon. The late Nigerian Supreme Court Justice Chukwudifu Oputa (of the Oputa Panel fame) was fond of saying that in Nigeria, politicians are not afraid of what ‘the people’ might do; they are only afraid of what other politicians might do. In the event that their political interests align – as they almost always do, since such interests have more to do with economics and business rather than ideology or creed – what ensues is a conspiracy against the masses (a conspiracy which, however, goes by the grand name of ‘Unity’). 

In such a scenario, all the people can do is plead with their leaders to show a bit more concern and compassion for their plight, and to act in a spirit of empathy for the people who voted for them. Where it seems the leaders are disinclined to hearken to the cries of their people, their only recourse is to God. In fact, it can be said that the very essence of Nigerian religiosity – especially in recent years – is the feeling of angst and the air of economic uncertainty among the people (no thanks to the failure of leadership and governance) rather than a spiritual quest. 

At a recent emergency meeting with state Governors at the Council Chambers of the State House in Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital, on Thursday, February 15, 2024, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu took on the rather unusual role of Pleader-in-Chief and an advocate of sorts for the downtrodden in the country as he asked the state helmsmen to be a bit more people-centred in their stewardship and management of public finances. During the session, the President repeatedly urged the Governors to “Spend the money and not the people.” 

The “money” in question is, of course, the increased monthly revenues from the FAAC that state governments are now getting – chiefly as a result of the removal of subsidy payments on petroleum products. In particular, Tinubu wants the assembled leaders to expedite the payment of outstanding salary arrears to civil servants, as well as pensions and gratuities to retired workers. He stressed the impact these payments would make in the lives of the beneficiaries and their families in the face of the challenges currently confronting the country – most notably the rising cost of basic items and the escalating scourge of insecurity.

The meeting, which was graced by Vice President Kashim Shettima and the 36 State Governors, as well as the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Nyesom Wike, saw the President also present the Governors with a bucket list of items he wanted them to address – on rising insecurity and its deleterious impact on farming and food security, and on stemming the rising tide of unemployment and social dislocation – especially among our teeming youths. All these actions, he stressed time and again are well within reach of the Governors – thanks, again, to the significant increase in the FAAC allocations to their respective states. 

On the one hand, the President is right to make his passionate plea to the Governors – considering the limits of his powers in relation to theirs, and of his ability to influence outcomes at the subnational level of government. Unfortunately, as many political commentators have noted, state Governors have become ‘demigods’ in their domains; their policies, decisions and their patronage systems are marked by a high degree of arbitrariness, even impunity. In most states of the country, institutions that are supposed to check and balance the Governor’s powers – notably the State Houses of Assembly and the Judiciary, which along the Executive form the tripod of constitutional governance in every democratic system – are themselves in the Governor’s pocket. In many states, the principle of local government autonomy exists in name only; the LG Chairmen and their councils serve only at the pleasure of the Governor, rather than of the people. 

The manner in which Governors use their powers further attests to the general failure of governance that Africa’s most populous nation has been bedeviled with since she began her journey into independent nationhood. This failure  is manifested in the declining capacity of political leaders to recognize and confront systemic risks to the welfare, livelihoods and security of their people. Though there have been pockets of good governance at subnational level here and there since 1999, bad governance, corruption and socio-economic disparities continue to run rampant and make a mockery of the social contract that democracy ought to represent. Since 1999, the democratic space has been dominated by political players who consistently violate fundamental principles such as competitive elections, the rule of law, political freedom and respect for human rights. Statistically speaking, Nigeria has consistently ranked low in the World Governance Index in areas such as government effectiveness, rule of law, and control of corruption. 

Over the years, the political elite in Nigeria have also exploited the prevalent poverty and illiteracy of our people, especially by mobilizing voters with food items such as rice, seasoning, and money – a practice now popularized by the phrase, “stomach infrastructure”. Thanks to stomach infrastructure politics, Nigeria’s current political culture rewards incompetent persons over reform-minded leaders who demonstrate the intellectual and problem-solving capabilities needed to adequately address systemic issues of poverty and inequality. 

These failures are glaring at the state and grassroots level across Nigeria. 

As President Tinubu noted in his interaction with the Governors, Nigeria needs a new model of governance in which political leadership is characterized by accountability to the people. His concerns are not without basis, because, of a truth, those who occupy public office, including state Governors, have succeeded in making their personal or group interest appear as if it is the public interest – and their pursuit of these narrow interests, namely, the policies they prioritize,  have been to the detriment of the larger interest. Already, rumours circulating in many of the states are that some Governors have responded to the FAAC largesse like kids presented with an unexpected bag of candies; they are making extra-budgetary appropriations all of a sudden, expanding their patronage networks, and so forth – to the detriment of policies and projects with real value to the lives of their constituents. 

But President Tinubu must do more than just plead with his gubernatorial counterparts in the vain hope that they will begin to act out of the goodness of their hearts (or ‘with their church mind’, as we say in Nigeria). One suspects that if supplications (to God and man) were all that was needed to change the orientations of our leaders, Nigeria would be a model of good governance by now. As the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed ,Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as the national leader of his political party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), and as the custodian of the country’s commonwealth and patrimony, the President wields enormous powers – including the power to influence (if not exactly dictate) how state governments dispense of federal allocations remitted to them. 

Desperate times, it is often said, call for desperate measures. And no one can deny that Nigeria’s situation today is as desperate as it has ever been. For that reason, President Tinubu should begin now to put on the toga of a ‘democratic dictator’ in his response to the barrage of problems assailing the nation today. He must dispense with political correctness in his approach to these issues – in favour of a hard-headed, unsentimental engagement with the issues and with his fellow political actors. 

At first sight, the notion of a democratic dictator may seem like a contradiction in terms, but such leaders abound in every part and at various periods of history – including our contemporary times. While they hold on to liberal values – the rule of law, respect for fundamental human rights; the independence of the judiciary; the freedom of the press; gender rights and youth empowerment, etc, they have zero tolerance for the niceties that pass for democratic discourse (most of which, especially in our Nigerian context, is self serving and only aimed at gaining political advantage over others) and they routinely bypass the tangled and  often counter-productive processes of legislation and other bottlenecks. And most, if not all these ‘democratic dictators’ have been successful in turning around the fortunes of their nations and communities, and rewriting their socioeconomic narratives, going forward. 

Examples abound, especially in Asia, where the practice of democracy is firmly anchored on Confucian values that emphasize the partriarchal or matriarchal role of the leader, even as it demands absolute service, discipline and even the ultimate sacrifice, if need be, from him or her. Though not formally elected when he first took power, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) was a dictator whose legacy today is a Turkey that has risen from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire to become a modern, prosperous and democratic state today. Same with Indonesia’s Suharto, whose firm hand guided that country’s trajectory to its present profile as an emerging industrial powerhouse and a vibrant democracy, complete with strong institutions, that has been consolidated on by  his successors, such as outgoing President Joko Widodo (whose combination of decisiveness and his common touch, throughout his ten years of power, has been applauded across the globe). The late former Prime Minister of Singapore, Lew Kuan-Yew, took his country from a swampy marshland to one of the world’s commercial hubs today, not by singing kumbaya with unpatriotic forces within the polity, but by applying measures designed to undercut them, and minimize their adverse effects on the country’s march towards progress, with almost Machiavellian ruthlessness. The story of how he transformed the fortunes of Singapore remains a classic of political engineering and statesmanship. China’s succession of ‘democratic-dictators’ – and in particular Chairman Deng Xiao-Ping, who engineered the reforms that have now taken that country to the pinnacle of the global economy – also fit into this mould. Here in Africa, no one can deny that the transformation of the East African nation of Rwanda has been nothing short of astonishing. Rising from the horrific genocide of 1994, which shook the consciousness and conscience of the entire world, the country has become a haven of stability and tremendous economic growth – as well as an international profile that belies its small size. All this is thanks to the firm leadership of President Paul Kagame, a former army colonel who has overseen a programme of recovery and reconciliation with iron resolution and a refusal to be thrown off course by the winds of so-called opposition. 

President Bola Tinubu must understand that the inherent checks and balances within the democratic system are no excuse for weakness or diffidence. They are made to strengthen, rather than weaken, the machinery of government and to enhance its ability to deliver social services to the people. He must deploy the vast range of powers at his disposal to drive the outcomes he wants to see – at both subnational and grassroots levels. The fact is that, for all its faults, participatory and consent-based democracy has worked, and is working, for many nations across the globe. It can work for Nigeria, too. The President must muster the political will to push through the necessary reforms designed to ensure accountability and transparency on the part of ALL political office across the governance value-chain. 

Also importantly, like Indonesia’s outgoing President, Jokowi (as he fondly called by an adoring nation) Tinubu must show himself as a champion of the people, most notably by giving them a listening ear and enhancing their ability to hold their leaders (Governors and LG chairmen alike) to account. It is  unbelievable, for example, that some states received as much as a 70% increase in their monthly allocations, and yet their leaders are only going through the motions of governing – while waiting for the FG to sort out basic problems in their domans! The people must demand a stop to that charade, and demand answers as to what is being done with THEIR money. 

Already, there are rumblings across the land, as people mount protests in various Nigerian cities demanding relief from the harsh economic conditions facing them. Rather than discount these rumblings – or dismiss them as the malicious machinations of the political opposition – Tinubu and his team  must see them as his opportunity to go into emergency mode, and do whatever it takes to halt the slide and return the economy on the path of recovery. 

If he has to break a few skulls, so be it.  Nigerians and unborn generations will thank him for it. 


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