How politics shortchanges Nigeria

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By Ayo Olukotun

“Although Nigeria’s economy is the 20th largest in the world and is expected by 2050 to rise to number 9, it has not been invited to membership in the G-20, which claims to represent the world’s most advanced nations”.–A former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington

“Our office holders must resist the temptation and pressure to abandon governance and plunge head on to political manoeuvring”. –A former chairman of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, Sam Ohuabunwa.

A former Ambassador of the United States of America to Nigeria, Dr Walter Carrington, took the opportunity of Monday’s book presentation by his wife, Arese, to lament Nigeria’s waning influence in global affairs. As one of the opening quotes indicates, Carrington sees the non-inclusion of Nigeria among the G-20 as evidence of disrespect or snubbing.

We can debate the specificities of the example given by the diplomat, by pointing for instance to Nigeria’s industrial lacuna, as well as the vulnerabilities of a one-legged economy, that notwithstanding, the general point about Nigeria’s diminishing influence is valid.

It is suggested that one of the principal reasons for Nigeria’s dimunition and failure to achieve projected developmental status is the tyranny and pervasiveness of politics. Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, a former chairman of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, in a piece entitled, “The Early Arrival of 2019”, also quoted in the opening paragraph, complained about the anomaly of the outset of political competition a full year ahead of schedule. Ohuabunwa cited as evidence, the defection to the Peoples Democratic Party of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, as well as the increasingly loud hints of President Muhammadu Buhari that he will likely contest the presidential election.

In other words, whether we like it or not, the political season with its shenanigans, amassing of huge financial warchests by aspirants, abandonment of governance for politics has descended on us precociously. The argument here is that Nigeria continues to mark time precisely because of what Prof. Claude Ake described as the overpoliticisation of social life. Describing it as the crux of the Nigerian predicament, Ake decries the premium of political power as well as the fact that “our energy tends to be channelled into the struggle for power to the detriment of economically productive effort”. That is the only way, in my opinion, to explain the entering into the political fray of Buhari, lingering concerns about his health status notwithstanding, and Atiku, who has crossed political parties so many times that we have lost count.

In a political culture with well-developed traditions of succession, both politicians, who have been in politics for over 30 years, would have groomed successors to whom they can reliably hand over. It is part of the overwhelming dominance of politics that men and women in their 70s and 80s continue to be recycled into leadership positions in a country, where life expectancy hovers around 54. That is not the only problem. I have been re-reading books and articles about the ill-fated career of Nigeria’s Second Republic. I find striking similarities in the attitudes of the political class of those years and what we have today. As Stanford University Professor, Larry Diamond, described it, despite the recession of those years, the country had state and federal legislators, almost 2,000 of them, “who had not only voted themselves generous salaries and benefits, accommodations and staff, but who are known to be receiving and exchanging huge sums of cash for their votes”. Today, the number of legislators at the federal and state levels has increased, while their appetite for conspicuous consumption has grown bigger alarmingly.

Not long ago, one of our newspapers reported that the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, eased out over 100 aides, raising the question of how many political aides he assigned to himself in the first place. It will also be interesting to know whether there had been any trimming in the N1bn monthly expense maintained by his office (The Sun, January 29, 2017.) As known, the whole arena of the emoluments and salaries of our legislators constitutes a Pandora’s Box. It will be good to know whether there has been any change since 2015, when The London Economist described the Nigerian legislature as one of the most privileged in the world, netting salaries of close to $190m per annum, a figure higher than the salaries of British Members of Parliament.

Do you want to inspect the tyranny and tragedy of the politics of consumption at the level of the states? In that case, pay a visit to Cross River State, where the governor, Ben Ayade, enjoys the latitude of some 6,789 political appointees, many of them with no offices or job descriptions, but all invariably draw salaries from the state’s kitty. Go around other states including several others which are owing months of salaries and compute the overhead cost of running government, including the buying of new cars for members of the state assembly, as the Governor of Rivers State did last week to the state’s representatives at the federal legislature, whose job description is to do the governor’s bidding.

The issue is that, as was the case in the Second Republic, the cost of running Nigeria’s high-rise democracy has become a soar away one, irrespective of the fact that the country is barely out of recession, and spends close to one-third of its annual budget on debt servicing.

It is easy to see why this is so, given the huge and outsized nature of benefits appropriated by political office holders, and why politics rather than governance became the only game in town. Since the rewards are astronomical, political competition and struggle for power become frenetic and oil consuming. It also explains why 2019 can arrive this early in a country that should concern itself with exiting completely from recession and diversifying its productive base as shock absorbers for the down swings of commodity prices.

The tyranny of politics manifests itself in the subjugation of every aspect of life, education, jobs, reform programmes, health, distribution of amenities to the logic of the political. Also, because of rising unemployment and spreading poverty among the middle class, the public sphere is transformed into an arena of partisan warfare, rather than that of debate, polite discussion and evidence-based reasoning. Hence, rather than the kind of visionary and transformative politics that will lift the country into the respected class of players on the world stage, as envisaged by Carrington, what we have is a dwarfing of potential and the prevalence of low grade politics, informed by a do-or-die mentality. If, as Distinguished Political Science Professor, Richard Joseph, informed at the recent 12th African Economic Conference in Addis Ababa, Nigeria’s enduring challenge is to build institutions and development capacity, then the polity must be steered away from the prevailing politics of consumption.

This can only be achieved, given the unreformable nature of the political class, by the citizenry coming into its own in the form of a People’s Charter. We must aim to build a new generation of leaders, rooted in social movements and civil society, who can enforce pro-people politics against the prevailing tide of the rule of strong men.

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