What the Nigerian people want from their government
Why does government exist? While it may be easy to answer this question in, say, the United States of America, it might be very difficult to attempt an answer in Nigeria. The reason is simple: In the US, people feel the positive impact of government. In Nigeria, on the contrary, many people do not know there is a government. In fact, they don’t even “give a damn” – to borrow President Goodluck Jonathan’s new-found expression. When they ever get to feel the impact of government, it seems to always be in the negative – like when the government bans commercial motorcycles (okada) or demolishes ‘illegal’ structures.
In many parts of the world, governments find various ways of making life easier and more liveable for citizens. In the US, for instance, federally-funded and -governed welfare began in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The government responded to the overwhelming number of families and individuals in need of aid by creating a welfare programme that would give assistance to those who had little or no income. It was only in 1996 that the Republican Congress passed a reform law signed by President Bill Clinton, which gave the control of the welfare system back to the states. In the various types of welfare available, most states offer basic aid such as healthcare, food stamps, childcare assistance, unemployment, cash aid, and housing assistance.
In Germany, the social protection of all its citizens is considered a central pillar of national policy. 27.6 percent of Germany’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is channelled into an all-embracing system of health, pension, accident, long-term care and unemployment insurance. In addition, there are tax-financed services such as child benefits (Kindergeld, beginning at €184 per month for the first and second children, €190 for the third, and €215 for each child thereafter, until they attain 25 years or receive their first professional qualification), and basic provisions for those unable to work or anyone with an income below the poverty line.
In spite of all the arguments against such social welfare programmes, there is no doubt that in countries where they exist, they have gone a long way in alleviating the plight of the suffering masses.
In Nigeria, what does the government do for the citizens? Does it provide employment for the people? Does it provide assistance to those who are not able to find immediate employment after school? Does it create the necessary environment for private businesses to thrive? Does it facilitate loans for would-be entrepreneurs? Does it provide housing or even make possible a homeownership plan? Does it provide any significant assistance to the teeming population of small-scale farmers? In how many of the so-called cities in Nigeria (let’s even leave out the rural areas) are the most basic infrastructure available, provided by government? These are open-ended questions.
In the situation, people have resorted to self-help. They have become so used to improvisation – always finding ways to go around their numerous day-to-day problems in a poorly-run country. Just like the case of Igboland in the immediate post-civil war period where, in the absence of any genuine efforts on the part of the victorious Federal Government to assist the Igbo people towards the rebuilding of their war-damaged infrastructure, in spite of the much-touted 3Rs, the people took the bull by the horns and literally extinguished flaming fires with their bare hands. As Paul Obi-Ani aptly captures it in his Post-Civil War Social and Economic Reconstruction of Igboland: 1970-1983, “Save for the Igbo man’s self-help efforts, Igboland would have remained in a state of decay and neglect.”
In truth, the same could be said of present-day Nigeria: save for individual Nigerians’ self-help efforts, many parts of the country could still be living in the 15th century. Take the issue of electricity. In many rural areas of the country, especially in the Eastern parts, much of what is called rural electrification projects came through community development efforts: individuals in the communities were taxed (first on pro rata basis and later through voluntary donations) to raise money to purchase electric poles, cables and transformers. And since power supply became epileptic across the country, Nigerians have resorted to private power generation – at a huge cost to their pockets, environment and health.
Public schools are not working efficiently, people send their children to private schools. Government hospitals are virtually dead, people patronise private clinics. Security agencies cannot guarantee security of life and property, communities form vigilante groups. Even roads, rural communities (and urban residents, sometimes) go to the extent of contributing funds among themselves to purchase trips of sand and gravel to fill potholes on their roads or to hire tractors to grade their roads. All these amount to very high costs to the individuals, costs that would ordinarily have been borne (or at least, minimised) by government.
Is it potable water? In the urban areas, individuals are sinking boreholes. In the rural areas as well, those with the means are either sinking boreholes or constructing underground tanks to supply them with water all-year-round. The case of FESTAC Town in Lagos State, easily the biggest FG-owned estate in the country, is very familiar. Government taps in this town last functioned in the mid-1990s. Residents made do with well water for a while, and then started sinking their individual boreholes. Today, virtually every household – even in those 16-flat and 32-flat blocks – has a privately-built borehole, and I hear the state government is complaining about indiscriminate sinking of boreholes in the state. For crying out loud – to borrow that Nollywood-abused expression – what would government have the people do?
What Nigerians really want from government is simple. They are not asking for social welfare. They are not asking for free lunch, so to say. They are, I suppose, no longer even asking government to provide jobs. Nigerians that I know can create jobs for themselves, if given the right environment. Just the basic things – good roads, stable power supply, functional schools and hospitals, basic and affordable housing, good drinking water – and they are, as usual, willing to pay.
And in case the government does not know, the ordinary Nigerian does not care about GDP; he does not care about budgetary allocations; he does not care whether the economy is growing at 1000 percent or 0 percent. He does not bother about what the financial indicators are. Indeed, he hardly even understands these figures. And recently too, he seems to have also stopped bothering about corruption in government – especially now that it is very clear that this government is far from fighting corruption. If only the government could understand this, I think it would stop bandying figures about and face the things that truly matter to the people.
Chuks Oluigbo, author of Wings of Steel, is acting editorial page editor and member, Editorial Board, BusinessDay.
Big Read |