One of the most fundamental yet perennial questions in the discourse on economic growth and development revolves around the persistent disparities in wealth among nations.
Conventional neoclassical and contemporary development models have long emphasised factors such as income per capita growth, steady-state growth, technological progress, and economies of scale as key determinants. However, a crucial, often overlooked aspect that significantly influences these outcomes is the strength and efficacy of a nation’s institutions.
But what are institutions precisely? In simple terms, institutions refer to the rules that govern social interactions within a society. More formally, they can be defined as the consciously designed constraints that shape human behaviour and the overall dynamics of a nation.
This includes the formal constitutional and legal frameworks, and informally uncodified socially transmitted customs, traditions, and attitudes embedded within society. Simply put, they are the durable systems through which social order is created by lending legitimacy and interpretations to patterns of behaviour. This article is more concerned with the former.
Understanding the important role institutions play is vital to shaping the growth and development of any country. As a matter of fact, strong and efficient institutions provide predictable frameworks that are conducive to business, encourage investments and foster an environment conducive to efficiency.
On the other hand, weak and dysfunctional institutions hinder development and thus fuel the triumvirate of corruption, lack of accountability and disregard for the rule of law. So, we see how it may come about that our policy decisions have been largely ineffective. This is because together, these issues not only constrain economic growth but erode public trust.
This indeed is the crux of the matter. Because a decline in trust fuels social divisions and leads to arbitrary behaviour among social actors, especially those who are supposed to be decision-makers. These and other implicit other issues tend to undermine the overall fabric of any society.
If, however, the goal of the next government is to pursue Nigeria’s prosperity, then the importance of trust in institutions cannot be disregarded. Institutions are the fundamental bedrock on which strong and robust economies are built. I hasten to insist, I am not denigrating any positive strives that may have been achieved, but I want to make two assertions based on recent events which have highlighted the decline of trust in key institutions including the electoral commission and the police.
The decline of trust in elections
Free and fair elections form an essential cornerstone of any democratic society, hinging on the trust and confidence bestowed upon them by the electorate. Unfortunately, we have witnessed concerning occurrences of electoral malpractice in recent times, ranging from voter intimidation and ballot box stuffing to irregularities in the voter registration process. These actions not only erode the credibility of the electoral process but also sow seeds of doubt among the electorate regarding the integrity and character of their leaders.
Consequently, a pervasive sense of discontentment takes root, leading people to build lasting distrust towards these institutions. It is important to note that once distrust takes hold, it casts a powerful shadow over the relationships between individuals and institutions, impeding progress and hindering the development of a cohesive and prosperous society.
A positive step towards rebuilding trust can be initiated by focusing on trust in elections. This entails incorporating transparency into the electoral processes, implementing reforms, enforcing electoral laws, and ensuring concrete sanctions for officials and stakeholders found guilty of misconduct. By establishing a system that is transparent and accountable, faith in the electoral system can be reinstated, fostering trust between citizens and the democratic process.
Trust Deficit in the police and policymakers
There is clearly a strong inverse relationship between the police and the citizenry. As the custodians of law and order, the police hold a crucial responsibility in creating a safe society that fosters economic growth, social cohesion, and stability. It is imperative that they are perceived as impartial and non-partisan in their actions and duties. However, the account should be taken here of the pattern of police brutality, corruption, and extrajudicial activities that have severely eroded public trust.
To rebuild trust, it is vital to establish accountability within law enforcement agencies. This can be achieved by implementing tangible measures aimed at enhancing professionalism, orientation, and oversight mechanisms. It is important to note that the oversight commissions should not be solely overseen by former police leaders to ensure impartiality and independence.
Moreover, policymakers must prioritise comprehensive reforms that prioritise transparency, inclusivity, and the public interest. Decision-making processes should be based on factual evidence rather than influenced by ethnic, religious, or partisan considerations. By fostering a culture of transparency and inclusivity, trust in institutions can be gradually restored.
This then leads to the next question. How can we rebuild institutional trust?
Strategies to rebuild trust:
The restoration of trust is essential, and addressing the decline of institutional trust requires deliberate efforts towards repair. This involves two crucial processes: reconciliation and the rebuilding of trust. Reconciliation necessitates mutual efforts to resolve underlying issues. It represents not only the act of forgiveness but also requires the victim’s deliberate decision to set aside anger. On the other hand, rebuilding trust involves active measures to rejuvenate the vitality of the relationship.
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Therefore, it is imperative for the government to demonstrate a strong commitment to upholding accountability and the rule of law. This entails nurturing and developing robust and efficient institutions that have the capacity to enforce sanctions and mechanisms for addressing misconduct. A key principle to emphasise is that no individual should be exempt from the reach of the law, regardless of their position or influence.
Investing in education, particularly civic education, is of paramount importance. This investment will cultivate an informed citizenry that actively participates in the democratic process and holds its leaders accountable. Additionally, fostering dialogue and reconciliation initiatives at the community level is crucial. Collaborating with civil society organisations, religious and traditional leaders can facilitate these efforts, contributing to the establishment of trust and fostering a shared national purpose.
It is crucial to recognise that trust serves as the vital lubricant that binds society together and is an essential element for Nigeria’s prosperity. As noted by Simmel, without trust, the very fabric of society risks disintegration. Therefore, building and nurturing institutional trust must be prioritised as a fundamental endeavour for the nation’s progress and well-being.
Omeihe is the President of the Academy for African Studies and serves as a Senior Economic Advisor at Marcel. He holds the position of Associate Professor at the University of the West of Scotland.