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Imperatives of active citizenship: Why Nigerians must hold their leaders accountable

Imperatives of active citizenship: Why Nigerians must hold their leaders accountable

Nigeria is one of the very few countries in the world where politics is the most attractive human endeavour, where holding a political office is more profitable than running a business. In Nigeria, politics is the easiest and quickest route to wealth, thanks to outrageous salaries and allowances – Nigeria’s federal legislators earn far more than their American counterparts – and, of course, corrupt self-enrichment.

Truth is, in Nigeria, politics is a quest for private gain rather than public good. But nothing entrenches this perversity more than the lack of strong institutions and active citizenry. For not only do the system and the citizens allow wrong politicians to get to power, but there’s also virtually no institutional or societal pressure to hold elected politicians accountable.

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In recent weeks, some prominent Nigerians have lamented this situation. First, Rotimi Amaechi, former governor of Rivers State and Transport Minister, balked at contributing to public discourse. “What’s new to say,” he said. “Nigerians don’t react to anything. Nothing bothers Nigerians, nothing.” In a TV interview, Bishop Matthew Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, said: “The political class will continue to behave the way they do largely because we let them do so,” adding: “Our duty and responsibility is to constantly make those who govern us feel uncomfortable if they are not performing well.” Lastly, Professor Pat Utomi, renowned political economist, argued that “the major problem of Nigeria is the docility of its citizens,” saying: “Nigerians are at home with anything thrown at them.”

Some centuries ago, the philosopher Joseph de Maistre famously said: “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” What he meant was that it’s up to the citizens of every nation not only to elect the right leaders but also to hold them accountable. Unfortunately, Nigerians don’t perform these sacred duties; they don’t act as a bulwark against bad leadership. Indeed, Dr Segun Aganga, a former minister, rightly said in his book Reclaiming the Jewel of Africa: “Our greatest weakness is the Nigerian citizen who needs to be reminded what it means to be a citizen all over again.”

But what do theories of social and political change tell us? In his book Why Change Happens, Professor Cass Sunstein, a renowned American legal scholar, argues that social and political change occurs when people are willing to challenge the status quo and their resistance reaches a critical mass, a tipping point. But what pushes citizens to that level of resistance?

Well, in a paper titled Democracy, Development and Conflict, Professors Paul Collier and Dominic Rohner, of Oxford University, posit that pressure for change is inevitable in countries where poverty and inequality are rife, and the quality of political and economic governance is poor. Then, in their book Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that without pressure from citizens, a government may not perform and serve the public good.

 If Nigeria’s institutions are weak and the media can’t operate as they should, where should the pressure on the government come from? Undoubtedly, from the citizens themselves, through non-violent resistance

Now, as I said earlier and as the prominent Nigerians quoted above affirmed, Nigeria defies the theories. Although Nigeria is ripe for radical social and political change, given the extreme levels of poverty and inequality and the abysmal levels of political and economic governance, there’s hardly any pressure for change. Of course, Nigerians often ventilate their suppressed outrage about the status quo on social media, but the pressure for change never reaches the critical mass, the tipping point, necessary for the dam to burst, for change to happen. Thus, change eludes Nigeria, and the country remains sclerotic!

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In many countries, the first line of resistance against bad leaders and bad governments is strong and independent institutions, followed by robust and fiercely independent media. But, as Professor Collier rightly points out, in some countries, governments can’t tolerate strong institutions, such as independent legislature, judiciary, electoral body, central bank, anti-graft agency, etc., because such independent institutions will constrain them. And, of course, they don’t want free, vibrant and probing media.

Nigeria is one of such countries. Indeed, in Nigeria, the preference is for strong personalities rather than strong institutions. Thus, all national public institutions are controlled and manipulated by a powerful president. And while Nigeria’s media are largely vibrant and independent, they face political pressures and, indeed, outright hostility from the government. For instance, recently, the NGO, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) sued the president, Bola Tinubu, for banning 25 journalists from covering the Presidential Villa!

But if Nigeria’s institutions are weak and the media can’t operate as they should, where should the pressure on the government come from? Undoubtedly, from the citizens themselves, through non-violent resistance. Sadly, while governments, courts and law enforcement agencies in civilised nations allow peaceful protests as a legitimate tool in a democracy, the Nigerian government and security agencies suppress them, as we saw with the #RevolutionNow and #EndSARS protests. Yet, even without statist suppression, societal pressures are rare in Nigeria. Why? I adduce four reasons.

Well, tribalism tops the list. Recently, a relative told me: “Please tone down your criticism of Tinubu in your column.” Why? I asked. Why did he not say that when I criticised President Buhari and his government for eight years? “It’s different,” he said, adding: “Tinubu is one of us.” By which he meant he’s a fellow Yoruba. I was livid and told him I abhorred the ethnic game. But, truth is, most Nigerians play ethnic and religious games, which politicians selfishly exploit. Consequently, it’s hard for any pressure for change to reach a critical mass and a tipping point in Nigeria.

The second reason is Nigeria’s patron-client system. Many Nigerians vote and act at the direction of politicians whose patronages they enjoy. For instance, the thousands who gathered daily in Tinubu’s house in Lagos for stipends, and those thuggish motor-park illiterates enriched and empowered through his patronage, will defend him to the hilt. The same is true of other politicians who used their patronage powers to acquire fanatical supporters. Such blindly loyal followers, who are part of Nigeria’s patron-client networks, are enemies of change.

Then, there’s the detached middle-class. In many countries, the middle-class are a powerful force against bad government because they have more to lose if things go wrong. Because of their lifestyles, they are more personally exposed to political decisions and governmental acts that affect, for instance, quality of education and healthcare. But in Nigeria, the non-politically-connected middle-class live in splendid isolation. They have their own generators for electricity, they secure their own clean water, they provide their own internal security, etc. They don’t send their children to state schools, and don’t use state hospitals. Put simply, politics hardly affects them in a discrete and tangible way. Thus, apart from a few active NGOs, most of Nigeria’s middle-class don’t agitate for change and, indeed, hardly ever vote.

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Finally, taxation. In countries where most people pay taxes, there’s a strong demand for good governance. Why? Because everyone sees the government as the steward of their hard-earned tax money. Surely, when a lot of your hard-earned money goes into the government purse, you would question why the president should buy a yacht for himself and a fleet of SUVs for his wife. But the tax-revenue-to-GDP ratio is only 6 per cent in Nigeria. So, most of Nigeria’s citizens and businesses don’t pay taxes. As such, the expectations of the government and demand for performance are extremely low.

Yet, Nigeria is an extractive state where the elite, the political class, has captured the state for private gain. But Nigeria can’t succeed that way, hence the need for active citizenship. For without active citizenship, bad leadership and bad governance will perpetually thrive in Nigeria. And, surely, if Nigerians don’t hold their leaders accountable, no one else will!