• Friday, June 14, 2024
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Why Nigeria could use some self-awareness

Why Nigeria could use some self-awareness

A couple of years ago when I was at Channels TV working on Nigeria’s first political satire TV show, I got into an argument with a colleague over a prominent Senator who was active on Twitter and had a habit of appearing on air to deliver slightly cringey 30-second ‘words of wisdom.’ “Social media senator,” she insisted dismissively. “Why does he come on TV to give us pep talks? He should save all that talk for the floor of the Senate instead of keeping quiet there.” Did she actually watch Senate floor proceedings before drawing the conclusion that he was a “social media senator” who kept quiet when it counted, I wanted to know? No answer.
As the argument dragged on, I insisted that even if he was indeed a “social media senator,” the simple fact that he rated his constituency and the Nigerian public enough to interact with them regularly and personally on social media was a good thing. Would she prefer it if he was aloof and sat quietly in Abuja for four years like so many of his colleagues, I asked. Again no answer. I wanted to know – apart from his (admittedly cringeworthy) TV appearances, what exactly was so disagreeable about a Nigerian senator getting off his high horse and acting like the representative he is supposed to be?

“I don’t like him.”

Imaginary political leaders and where to find them
That little anecdote is of course too small to be treated as a scientific dataset, but I would be willing to bet a significant sum of money that most people reading this article either align with my colleague, or know someone who would. A good number of Nigerians, particularly those of us in the social media-using, “enlightened”-opinion-having category have all sorts of specifications and preferences for what their ideal leader or representative should look, act and sound like. He or she must have a commanding presence, speak eloquently, avoid patronising the audience, and leave the room feeling inspired when they’re done talking.

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Like with my colleague however, these wants and nice-to-haves sometimes become so important that they begin to outweigh the things that are actually important. You know, stuff like “Is there substance behind the glam?” “Is this person merely an eloquent speaker or in fact a charismatic fraudster?” “Are these things I love about them merely the optics of a leader with a presence or are they telltale signs of a brewing demagogue?”
On at least one occasion five years ago, Nigerians from this category found themselves almost entirely carried away by this exact rigmarole when the then-opposition invested heavily in media buying, visual narrative shaping and even David Axelrod’s ethically sketchy neuro linguistic programming to portray Candidate Buhari as a sort of Obama-Mandela-FDR hybrid. The incumbent by contrast, came across as an awkward Ivory Tower resident with all the eloquence and stage presence of a…Goodluck Jonathan.

Five years later, we are all learning at leisure that during the electoral process, we must first inform ourselves about our own circumstances and how the candidates who want our votes will impact us if they get them. We are learning that a David Axelrod campaign messaging contract cannot stand in lieu of constructive economic and foreign policy, coherent trade policy and political will to tackle insecurity. Hopefully we are also learning that we are not yet at the point in our development where we can turn up our noses at 4/10 without examining the alternatives.
As I hope the Jonathan-Buhari downgrade has shown us by now, even in political terms, beggars don’t really get to be choosers. If we live in one of the most dysfunctional places on earth and our electoral choice is between a boring and unexciting 4/10 and a proven 0/10 who employs all the practitioners of optical arts to promise that he has transformed into a 10 overnight, we should probably stick with the 4. It is hardly glamorous, but that is what political self-awareness is all about.

Why politicians like wasteful projects – To please the public
Some of this enforced wisdom is also needed in the arena of interacting with the decision making process for state investment. The point that Nigeria is desperately poor and not in fact a “rich country” has been made to the point of boredom, but clearly the memo is still not getting through. Rather than shift the conversation to exploring comparative advantage and spending government budgets on what will boost productivity, too many Nigerians still believe that chucking a couple of billion naira to build yet another white elephant airport is what their locale needs.
The Nigerian government has not been a cash flush entity at any point in its history except a single decade (the 1970s) and a few fluke standalone years in the early 1990s and late noughties. Still, too many Nigerians actively campaign for waste of state funds through construction of white elephant infrastructure projects that often end up being loan-funded. Raise the Nigerian state’s debt problem with many of us and the response will be something to the effect of “Nigeria will be fine. Nigeria has oil.”

The message is not getting through and that in turn makes it difficult for even politicians who understand the true fiscal situation of the country to act accordingly. As I outlined in an interesting pictorial thread on Twitter last week, state governments across Nigeria are still busily lighting vast amounts of money on fire through one vanity project or the other with no hope of any kind of return on investment. Let me be clear – I am not suggesting that the politicians have no fault in this, because they could if they wanted to, choose to do things the right way instead of wasting public money on flights of fancy.
The fact is though, that the final decision always ultimately falls to the people who give the politicians their mandate. That 18-storey five-star hotel in a remote village? You did that. multimillion dollar loan to build light railway in a non-commuter city? The politician didn’t do it alone. The umpteenth airport within a 200km radius? The governor merely gave form to your wishes. We did all of that, not ‘them.’
That also means that if we stop giving free reign to our flights of fancy, our politicians will too. The power was in our hands all along.