My apologies for my long absence which was due to a very busy schedule. We are now in the season of politics with incumbents and challengers positioning themselves for elections. What do we the people expect from them? Everyone aiming for political office or a leadership position in any form must understand that those they serve or seek to serve must have trust in them. The conduct of a government official determines whether people can trust him, which in turn impacts government and the institutions of government.
A large percentage of people in Nigeria however appear to have lost faith in government officials and the institutions they represent. Why is this? Over the years through their conduct, decisions, and actions these officials and their institutions have lost numerous opportunities to demonstrate themselves as people and institutions worthy of people’s trust. The result has been not only the apathy of people towards government institutions and its officials, but also the lack of credibility of these people and their institutions, which makes trust in them difficult or even practically impossible. People may seem to ‘follow’ a politician or government official, but this is often because of pecuniary needs which does not equate with trust in such a person. Trust requires no material motivation because it is borne out of personal experience and conviction. It is an abuse of power when people are put in positions in which they seem to be left with little choice but to follow those not worthy of their trust in the first place.
When people have a high degree of trust in their government’s officials, they will be more likely to cooperate and comply with the government’s policies and proposals, because trust in government through its officials incentivises people to do the right thing. When there is no trust or the trust is low, people are less likely to co-operate with the government, which manifests in their having objectives and taking actions that are divergent from government’s. When there is distrust, governance becomes difficult because the people as necessary partners in governance, are not fully on board to work and cooperate with government in whatever it seeks to achieve.
The low level of trust in government and its officials is however not unique to Nigeria. It is a worldwide trend. In the 2020 Edelman Annual Trust Barometer, of the four institutions surveyed worldwide for people’s trust in them (Government; Business; NGOs and Media), government scored the lowest on the two identified drivers of trust: ethics and competence. People did not trust government to act in an ethical manner nor did they trust it as competent at the things it is meant to do. The report advises governments to practice transparency and good communication, otherwise people will assume the worst. If governments are not transparent in what they do and how they do them, and do not communicate effectively and truthfully, then people will have to create their own narrative based on perceptions that result from the trust gap and such narratives are never favourable to government and to its reputation.
The impact of trust in governance can be seen in every sphere of government activity. One example is how trust influenced various governments’ handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. Around the world, different countries have had different outcomes from their governments’ handling of this pandemic. While some countries were acknowledged to have handled it well, there is evidence that others did not handle it as well. Surprisingly, some of the ones that have not handled it as well have been developed nations.
One thing that has been identified as a contributory factor to this less effective handling is a lack of trust in government and its institutions. While some countries did better because (along with other factors) their people trusted their governments and cooperated with the mitigation steps set out by those governments, others performed worse because (among other reasons), people did not trust their government officials, their institutions, and the information they were giving, or there were conflicting messages from officials and relevant institutions, which ended up undermining trust. This distrust has been seen in many countries (especially in the developing world), where there has been difficulty among the populace in believing the disease is real. One of the reasons for this (though not the only one) has been a lack of trust in government officials and government institutions. The result of this distrust is that pronouncements by governments are received with suspicion and doubt. The governor of Bauchi state lamented that citizens of his state did not believe that Covid-!9 was real, even though he (the governor) was the index patient in the state: officially the first in the state to contract the disease! Such is the level of distrust. For governments to successfully deal with any crisis especially a global one like this, they must work to build the trust of people both in their officials and in their institutions, because without trust effective governance becomes difficult and can even become impossible.
The overwhelming absence of trust in actors in the political and government space presents the people themselves with the opportunity to begin to seek changes through the power that they have. It also creates a charge for others who can be credible in this space to step forward as viable alternatives to those who are currently there. If people in politics and public governance want to be trusted, they must have ability as well as character. For government institutions to be trusted, they must show themselves trustworthy.
Thank you and until next time, let me challenge you to begin to lead from where you are.