Those outside government in Nigeria sometimes feel silenced by lack of knowledge about complex policy, economics and security issues when asked to comment on the path to reclaiming our country’s future and suggest ways of making Nigeria great. What indeed, can we say about security except that our government should provide it? Non-experts may not be able to say whether our security agencies need this kind of training and equipment rather than that, or whether it should be Nigeria’s armed forces who secure our land and sea borders, or private agencies. All we need to know is that there was once a time when Nigerians slept easily in their beds across the federation, and that now, since they do not, our government must be in default, and that it must rectify it. That is the simple premise behind the #BringBackOurGirls movement.
But our lack of specialist knowledge does not mean that we should not have ideas about reclaiming our future. Indeed, we ought to be casting our votes based on our perception of which candidates for office can best implement our ideas. Perhaps it is because we fail to crystallize these ideas that we fall back on primordial sentiments when voting.
With that in mind, areas to think about as we consider how Nigeria can reclaim its future, include:
- the size of the Federal Government,
- the public face of government, and
- the obligations of State governments in education and health.
The Federal Government takes the lion’s share of the nation’s resources as paid into the Federation Account, yet what ordinary citizens see of the areas under its direct control suggests that much of that share is wasted:
- The Nigeria Police Force is a sorry tale of inefficiency, graft and brutality.
- The inadequacies of the Army have left millions of Nigerians exposed to insecurity, slaughter and kidnapping, with the latest figures showing 1.6 million displaced by the terrorist insurgency in the north east.
- More than 50 years after oil was discovered in Nigeria, we cannot pretend to have any real control over our petroleum resources: our energies go into selecting a favoured few to participate in the allocation business, ‘monitoring’ what our joint venture partners are doing, and struggling to keep our commitments to an increasingly irrelevant OPEC.
- Few who travel have much good to say about our airports, our embassies, or our national image.
Arguments for State Police aside, these areas are the Federal Government’s exclusive and primary responsibility. If we are to reclaim the future, these are the areas – particularly Nigeria’s security and foreign relations – where it needs to focus its best brains and resources.
The public face of government in Nigeria is one of waste and profligacy. The wrong tone is set when public officials maintain lengthy motor convoys and compete with private sector billionaires in using private jets. Nigeria’s extravagance at the annual UN Summit in New York is legendary and – to ordinary citizens – disgusting. Public officers must understand that it is difficult to combat corruption when the ‘Joneses’ with whom others struggle to keep up, flaunt an opulent appearance provided by public funds that few can hope to achieve by honest salaried employment. ‘Low profile’ and a genuine commitment to transparency – as exemplified by the Freedom of Information Act – can turn Nigeria towards a more welcoming future.
Lastly, reducing the size of the Federal Government is not advocated merely for the sake of it or to transfer waste and extravagance from the centre to the regions. Education and health are selected as areas where State Governments must use their resources for a positive impact because these lay a foundation for each individual citizen and equip him or her to shape their own future.
If Nigeria boasts 10 million children out of school, that is because of decisions taken by State Governments, not the Federal Government (even though the latter wastes huge sums on Unity Schools for a few thousand privileged children). If Nigeria accounts for 13% of the world’s maternal mortality figures; if infant mortality rates are increasing instead of decreasing, that is also due to what State Governments have, or have not done.
The statistics show surprisingly wide differences among Nigeria’s 36 States. But these very differences highlight the fact that each individual State has the power to affect them: for worse, or – if Nigeria is to reclaim the future – for better. Since some States can improve, so can others. All of them must therefore live up to and beyond their obligations.
In closing, those reading are sure to have different ideas. That is not a problem. What is important is that when deciding one’s own priorities for reclaiming our future, those priorities are expressed with one’s vote.
– Obe is a human rights activist and legal practitioner.