Buhari’s election, the challenges of governance in Nigeria and way forward for the non-partisan citizen

I was never more optimistic about the prospect of leadership and the promise of Nigeria’s democracy than on the 31st of March, 2015. On that historic day, I was on site commissioning an energy-saving application at a water treatment plant in London. Every few minutes, I would minimise the ‘professional windows’ on my laptop — Python editor, Python shell, and proprietary control software windows — and bring up the Chrome browser which was already running a TVC live stream of the presidential result proceedings.

I was set up alone in an office adjacent to the plant’s server room and human traffic was minimal. I would quickly minimise the browser window and bring up these professional windows at the slightest sound of approaching footsteps, desperately trying to live up to the professional expectation my business card bestowed on me. As the day progressed and Gen. Buhari, as he was then known, inched closer to sealing the win, the inevitability of which was infamously marked by Orubebe’s tantrums, I threw caution to the wind: I left the live stream up, allowing control room operators and process control engineers to see what I was watching. I would spend the next thirty minutes explaining to them how Nigerian politics works and how this, as the first win for an opposition party, was a truly historic election. Throughout the discourse, my immense pride would eclipse the guilt of my seemingly unprofessional behaviour.

That was over 25 months ago. President Buhari (PMB) has been in office nearly 24 months. The administration has exceeded all security expectations by eradicating the scourge of Boko Haram, giving the death-trap that was the northeast a fresh start and enabling the region to thrive once again. Delightfully and improbably, the release of 80 Chibok girls has been secured with more reportedly forthcoming. The corruption fight, though scandalised by allegations that close associates of the current administration have quietly filled the looting vacuum created by their predecessors (e.g. through exploiting new FOREX policies), has been generally successful. Modest, albeit non economy-altering, recoveries have been made in this regard.

On the economic front, the outlook is less encouraging. The administration has struggled to course-correct an economy it inherited on a downswing. The CBN’s partially shelved FOREX policy has only exacerbated the resulting impact on our feeble manufacturing sector. Flagrant corruption, budget padding and diversion of public funds (from the Office of Secretary of The Government to the Federation (OSGF) to the National Assembly (NASS)) that were considered impossible under a Buhari government appear to have transited. When you combine these with the malignant and cumulative effect of past actions — bad policies, mismanagement, misappropriation and wanton looting — the result is devastating.

If PMB’s administration had been perfect, most of us would still have been disappointed due to the fluid expectation horizon of democracy, à la the elusiveness of chasing perfection. And that is the beauty of democracy — that sky-is-the-limit potential it holds for each individual citizen. But the administration is not perfect. And Nigeria’s maladies are no run-of-the-mill ailments. They are vastly fundamental: non existent infrastructure, absence of democratic norms and institutions, debilitating corruption, crippling unemployment, endemic laziness, government ineptitude and illiteracy. Suddenly, some of us, for whom Buhari epitomised the moral ideal of democratic governance, feel Change is not happening fast enough.

The ordinary citizen is not the only one sensing a vulnerability in the Centre. From delaying budget assent, to repeated rejections of qualified federal nominees, to the odd critical interview in national media, the 8th national assembly has been gauging PMB’s invincibility since its inauguration. With the president’s decreased visibility due to poor health, the ambitious NASS leadership has become emboldened to add quasi-executive responsibilities to its legislative function, and is parading itself as the saviour of Nigerians.

With an apparent chink in PMB’s political armour, more vultures are circling. The same forces that led us here, who have covertly but with increasing confidence been throwing a monkey wrench into this administration’s better efforts, have already begun 2019 machinations. Early signs paint a gloomy picture of 2019: the prospect of a copacetic democracy held by many on election day in 2015, having had no tangible impact, will prove to be a mirage after 2019, whereupon the old order will be restored.

The foregoing has crystallised for me a long held view: our national issues have metastasised to the extent that they are beyond any one man. The preceding sentence should not be mistaken for an endorsement of the ill-fated, ill-advised and ill-timed “Change Begins With Me” campaign. (See my rant on that in the sidebar below).

[My problem with “Change Begins With Me” is mainly a messaging and timing one. Due to incompetence, bad messaging and monumental bad timing on the part of the program initiators, the campaign comes across as chastising poor people. For the majority of Nigerians, asking for any kind of change, much less adjusting to accommodate more suffering, is a slap on the face. For many in this group, to adjust any further is to die. They are already living on less than a dollar a day earned through the purest forms of hard work imaginable, and have nothing more to sacrifice. There is a reason why campaigns like these are launched immediately following electoral victories, usually at inaugurations when goodwill is at its peak (think JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you”). Flagging off this campaign at the apex of the recession is insensitive; akin to asking a person that has just been robbed for a loan. You just don’t do that. It is common sense!]

Nevertheless, the solution, I think, lies in a well formulated citizen-led strategy of collective change. Make no mistake, change must begin with some of us: the nonperforming politician that has lived off government largesse for what seems like an eternity; the truant civil servant that only deserves half, instead of his full salary; the average Nigerian who can offer solutions by way of ideas, donations and civic engagement but instead chooses to despair. I have little hope that the first and second groups will change in a significant way without some external stimulus, at least not as they are presently constituted. For meaningful change to occur, the third group, you and I, must first change and then be the impetus to the first two. But how?

For as long as I can remember, the standard retort to legitimate criticism of the political process has been, “if dissatisfied, join politics and be the change you seek”. This is good advice but Nigerian political waters are murky and can be dangerous for the ordinary citizen. For the brave few, this option remains available. However, I believe there is a mass alternative: a think-tank type approach.

A think-tank typically brings people together based on shared ideas, values and interests. The aim is to bring maximum attention (with minimum resources) to these interests through persuasive arguments that are supported by verifiable, demonstrable evidence. A persuasive argument can be in the form of a policy proposal (to government or private entities), or it can be the basis for such a policy.

While building successful think-tanks is resource intensive, it is not impossible. With a growing number of idealistic Nigerians, there is no shortage of collaborators at all community levels. Traditional think-tanks tend to favour scholarship above all else. We don’t need this, if for nothing else than to widen the participation net. We, alternatively, should prioritise ideas and impact, thus removing the academic, and by extension elitist, barriers to participation that are the scourge of regular think-tanks. Therefore, ours should be a hybridised model that borrows the best parts of think-tank and community organisation models. Existing structures, such as those of NGOs or initiatives like Global Shapers (local chapters), can help jump start activities by lending their network and providing access to talent pools. In as much as any group can be decoupled from its members political ambitions (a big challenge, I admit), it can serve as ground zero for coordinating and advancing citizens legitimate interests.

One of the advantages of this social media and big data age is the ubiquity of data sources. Leveraging this advantage, the potential of this proposal is limitless. By utilising innovative data polling and predictive analytics tools, it is possible to collect and analyse all kinds of socio-economic and governance data, making it possible to report on, say, government projects and budgetary allocations. Such information can drive a wide range of issues, from improving government transparency, to recognizing bureaucratic inefficiencies, to identifying priority sectors and vulnerable demographics. This knowledge additionally enables forecasting of socio-economic trends that may drive parallel policy formulation, and provides a foundation for community advocacy and government/private sector lobbying.

We are already seeing a few of these tools employed by state governments (e.g. Kaduna) and citizen-advocates (e.g. BudgIT), as they aim to improve governance transparency through effective data presentation, but these practices should be much more granular, ubiquitous and autonomous.

Improving government transparency is critical to our democratic survival. Government ineptitude has had a field day for two reasons. The first goes to the complexities of governance, policy and performance assessment. With the information overload of the social media age and blatant propaganda spouted by elected officials and their surrogates, assessing government performance can be difficult. The muddled performance landscape makes it easy for a cunning politician to justify his/her incompetence to the uninitiated.

The second reason, perhaps cultural, is the conflation of respect for authority with kowtowing to power. This leads many to see government action as a privilege, rather than the right it ought to be. It is why state governments, in 2017 and with nearly half-billion-dollar budgets, get away with celebrating sub-kilometre-long roads and hand pump boreholes as “achievements” amid huge fanfare!

Effective transparency campaigns tackle these issues by untangling government functions — functions that would otherwise be exercised in the dark — and presenting this information in formats that are suitable for mass consumption. This then enables an objective assessment that distinguishes perfunctory efforts from legitimate achievements. A rather simplistic example: access to an effective means of comparing budgetary allocation against public spending provides the polity with a clear measure of ascertaining government’s fulfilment of obligations. Additionally, improving transparency forces accountability by allowing easier identification (and rejection) of the habitual false claims and excuses we have come to expect from our politicians.

As we employ these tools with demonstrable success, enough credibility is gained to form influential partnerships with reputable NGOs and international organisations in a way that can shame governments to action. Hence, with enough value demonstration and consequent popular buy-in of ideas, citizens can mount lobbies as a distinct, formidable polity. Instead of the current practice of individuals flocking to elected officials for the day’s grocery money, qualitative decisions can inform citizens demands, ensuring more meaningful and lasting returns.

Outputs from this initiative are not exclusively government-facing. They can also provide decision-support to well meaning NGOs and private citizens that seek to invest in our communities.

There are, however, societal impediments to the success of this proposal. Initial indifference and scepticism is to be expected considering that decades of misrule have beaten the average Nigerian into submission, rendering him/her helpless in the face of mis-governance. Additionally, in the post-truth dystopia of the Trump era where elected office holders can be impervious to shame, there is always a risk that applied pressures won’t trigger desired actions. But no one said this will be easy. To this day, governments all over the world respond to popular pressure. The only question is how much pressure citizens are willing apply. We should frankly look forward to this challenge.

If advanced societies with far-reaching national planning frameworks and minor governance issues feel the need to organise, and have their relatively capable governments occasionally tap into the resultant resources, why not us? Developing societies such as ours have a much greater need for such initiatives. In a country where the government of the day has no interest in planning beyond the next budget cycle, these initiatives are a necessity. An apt demonstration of this need can be seen in how one of the most important ministries for a developing nation, Ministry of National Planning, has become a deathbed, where the careers of non ‘kitchen cabinet’ politicians go to die.

So let’s decide, this very moment, to seize being political fodder for unscrupulous politicians. Let’s organise to form coalitions that are free of political greed and government bureaucracy. Let’s put our communities first, canvass popular support for and demonstrate the value of citizen-led advocacy. Let’s come together, as a distinct polity, to apply non-partisan pressure that can inspire government (or private sector) action.

At the end of the day, the dog in this fight belongs to every one of us, not to the political elite whose default concern is their careers. Let’s be the change we want to see.