In developing countries as well as in the jurisdictions of actually existing capitalist democracies, government has become synonymous with the art of muddling through. Corruption, bungling incompetence, scandals, official lying, unaccountability and other maladies continue to afflict governments in rich as well as poor countries.
As far back as 1787 the American statesman James Madison decried what he referred to as “the blunders of our governments”. The Enron Bankruptcy in 2001 signalled a failure of American financial regulators, presaging the financial Tsunami that was later to sweep away Lehman Brothers and other Wall Street giants in 2008. The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in September 2001 amounted to a failure of American domestic security policy. The intelligence services often preferred to compete rather than cooperate with each other, leading to the death of over 3,000 Americans. The result was a disaster of seismic proportions. Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in August 2005 that took the lives of 1,833 with billions of dollars’ worth of material destruction demonstrated how a rich advanced industrial nation could fail to protect the lives and properties of its people against a predictable natural disaster.
In the case of the United Kingdom, two distinguished political scientists from the University of Essex, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, have written a refreshing book, The Blunders of Government (Oneworld Book 2013), detailing the failures of British government over several decades. According to them, governments “screw up more often than most people seem to realise”.
I was a graduate student in England when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced the poll tax on British households that was considered both prejudicial as well as regressive. Apparently, the policy was promulgated without adequate analysis. There was no technical paper providing a basis for the decision, neither was there a broad consensus within the cabinet or within the wider spectrum of key stakeholders. It was to lead to widespread riots within the country, contributing to the downfall of her government and an ignominious end to an otherwise illustrious political career.
The introduction of “market approaches” to education and health was a reckless disaster. The venerable British National Health Service which was designed by illustrious social thinkers such as Aneurin Bevan has never quite recovered from the neoconservative onslaught. British inner city schools remain a disgrace for a civilised country.
The Thatcher administration took a hard-line ideological approach against the unions, leading to the closure of coal mines that had been in operation for centuries. The emphasis on finance, banking and the City led to massive de-industrialisation across the country, particularly Scotland the north. When we were children, any product “made in England” was synonymous with quality and class. After Margaret Thatcher, nothing is made in England anymore.
During the 1980s, to give yet another example, the French public health service mistakenly administered blood infected with HIV and hepatitis to thousands of patients, leading to the eventual death of hundreds. Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, one of the most promising young statesmen of his generation had his career blighted by the scandal.
During the premiership of Dominique de Villepin in the autumn of 2005, thousands of African and Arab youths rioted in the decrepit, poverty-stricken banlieues of Paris. The riots continued for days, shaking the very foundations of French society. Millions of emigrant youths have faced a combination of racism, unemployment and social exclusion. Fed up with everything, they took their destinies into their hands, rioting, overturning cars and razing down buildings.
More than any other country in Europe, France suffers from a deeply entrenched malady of intellectual elitism. Those who call the shots in high society are almost uniformly recruited from the white middle classes of the provinces and the Parisian bourgeoisie. They graduate from elite grandes écolessuch as the École national d’administration (ENA), École Polytechnique and École normale supérieure, from where they move on to occupy life-time positions in government and the private sector that guarantee them a life of affluence and privilege. Despite avowed claims to being an egalitarian society, French ideology operates an institutional glass ceiling that excludes millions of Arabs and Africans from the mainstream of society. Sadly, French leaders have never marshalled the resolve to find solutions to these existential challenges.
When it comes to governmental blunders, Nigeria has the dubious price of being a world leader. It goes back to the post-war cement scandals, when the Gowon military administration indulged in an import binge that led to thousands of ships being jammed in our ports, laden with cement that would have taken ten years of offload, given our logistical constraints. Most had to be turned back or diverted to neighbouring countries.
The decision by the Murtala Mohammed administration to purge the civil service, with the benefit of hindsight, was a disastrous mistake. It robbed the civil service of some of our best people. Moreover, the erosion of tenure exacerbated the problem of corruption. Civil servants rightly calculated that it was prudent to amass a fortune because one could sooner or later be shown the door without warning.
The Shagari administration during the second republic committed a fair share of its own blunders. In April 1980 police moved against unarmed peasant demonstrators who were protesting against the environmental damage visited on their communities by the construction of the World Bank-assisted Bakolori dam project. Hundreds of innocent people lost their lives.
Another example relates to the steel sector. We invested over $18 billion in Ajaokuta Steel, with nothing to show for it. Putting a steel rolling mill in Katsina made little economic sense, given that the heavy iron and other raw materials would have had to be shipped from the south to Katsina, only for the final output to be shipped back to the market which was largely in the south.
With regards to petroleum, the whole world watches in amazement the fact that the sixth largest exporter in OPEC remains a net importer of refined petroleum, with the persistent spectacle of shortages and long queues of desperate motorists in our cities and towns. Nigeria’s 4 refineries, until recently, have remained in the doldrums while the highly costly importation of refined petroleum has been under the control of a vicious cartel and collusive elements within the government and NNPC. Meanwhile, criminals from within Nigeria and from an assortment of reptiles from Lebanon, Ukraine and our neighbouring countries continue to pillage our oil on a scale never seen in the annals of human criminality.
The power sector remains by far the biggest blunder in the history of Nigerian public policy. After over $20 billion in investment, we produce a mere 4,000 MW of electricity, thanks to grand corruption, bungling incompetence and collusion on the part of the diesel and generator importing cartels.
There are legions of other examples. While some significant progress has been made with regard to mobile telephony, it is disturbing that a country of nearly 200 million people does not operate any meaningful land telephone system. There is no civilised country on earth that operates only on mobile telephony. There is also the question of the railways that have virtually disappeared. Our road carnage record is the worst on earth. Death, destruction and nihilistic violence stare us on the face every day, thanks to terrorism, cultism, violent crime and ethno-sectarian mistrust. Even our constitution remains suspect. Our nation had a constitutional settlement imposed on it from shadowy creatures who operated under General Abacha’s smoke-filled barracks. It has no historic legitimacy.
Why do governments commit such blunders?
King and Crewe conclude that many of the blunders are caused by a combination of “cultural disconnect, groupthink, intellectual prejudice, operational disconnect, and symbolism and spin”.
From the viewpoint of public choice theory, politicians and civil servants are utility maximisers who operate largely in their own selfish interests, first and foremost. Rent-seeking behaviour and what we term corruption obtains when controls and checks and balances are lax in the context of a rentier post-colonial political economy. Government failure also derives from poor planning, lack of adequate resources and the absence of monitoring and follow-up.
Another factor relates to regulatory capture. Vested interests, cartels and mafias do manage to capture specific sectors. Some of Nigeria’s richest barons actually call the ultimate shots regarding what becomes policy and who can be a minister of a particular department of government.
Ultimately, knowledge, intellectual capital and leadership are critical to the success or failure of a government. There is no substitute for technical competence and for the role of a professional bureaucracy. Strategies and effective organisational designs must be put in place, in addition to targets, public service agreements, monitoring and evaluation, and performance audits. Enlightened leadership is of the highest importance. Leaders create the atmosphere for change, building the momentum and galvanising key stakeholders for national reconstruction.
Ultimately, no government can ever hope to rise above the knowledge and stature of its leadership or the competence of its civil servants. The change we seek in Nigeria must take account of these capital lessons.