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Democracy and optimism for Nigeria’s future

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“No one leaves home,” the poet Warsan Shire once famously wrote, “unless home is the mouth of a shark.” That certainly seems the case for the many Nigerians who trekked the Sahara to make it to Europe, but not for everyone. Skilled, employed Nigerians have always migrated. In the past year, Nigerians represent third-highest number of immigrants receiving Permanent Residencies through Canada’s skilled migrants program and the second-highest group seeking asylum in the country.

Also, resettling in another country in this way can be expensive; a recent Quartz Africa article puts the cost at as much as 7,000,000 naira for the first year which you would largely have to put together before moving.

No country is perfect; indeed, not even the countries that are often the target of these migrations. Italy, for example, is in the middle of a potential financial crisis. When Libya was a destination for Nigerian migrants, it was an oppressive dictatorship. The US, UK, and even Canada have their own internal wranglings as well. These migrations are often rightly seen as an indictment of the average Nigerians’ quality of life where water and electricity are luxuries, good healthcare is by no means a standard, and government after government promises the most and deliver pitifully little.

I think of what they tell us about our level of optimism. In the context of national-level discourse, I think of optimism as: how much of a stake you believe you have in your country’s (or, more narrowly, the community within your country that you identify with) future. This is related to how much you think you matter; and how much you can see yourself achieving your own private dreams within the confines of the country’s borders.

And so, with apologies to Warsan, I present this edit: No one leaves home, unless home has become a place without cause for hope.” A sense of hope is linked to the quality of our democracy and the ability of government to deliver for its people the kind of environment where optimism is possible.

Democracy is meant to be a tool to strengthen these two levers of optimism, and while it is true that a lot has changed since 1999, even more has not. A cheery view would note that, contra the military era, we now have robust political conversations both on and offline; that Pres. Obasanjo did not face the level of scrutiny that Presidents Jonathan and Buhari are facing; that our civil society, though far from perfect and with varying degrees of success, has fought for transparency and reform.

Alongside the progress, though, our institutions have not been strengthened; our police and military are often as much a danger as those they are protecting us from; we have largely paid lip service to the need to diversify our economy; important sectors like education and healthcare have failed for too long, and the government at all levels has simply not done enough to address gaps. We need to urgently achieve socioeconomic development milestones that more developed countries than ours have taken decades and even centuries to record, while also addressing the ethnoreligious divisions and gender inequalities that continue to beset us.

With both our old and new Democracy Day having come and gone and an election looming large ahead of us, it is worth asking: can Nigerians confront the political stasis and orient the country towards a better short and long-term future?

Framing the responsibility of moving the country forward solely as a citizens’ responsibility to vote, however, is disingenuous. Political party primaries are often an opaque mess and put forward candidates following a process concerned largely with pacifying key regional interests, not what is best for the country. This means that there is little to no quality control for candidates for political office we eventually get to choose from.

This is also not about a lack of institutionalism; a country that faces the same problems regardless of who is in power cannot claim not to have institutions; we do have institutions, they are just built, not to move us forward, but to ground us to a halt with thievery, patronage, or both. This is not even merely about “smart people” being in government. We have never been short of intelligent people at various levels of Nigerian government; the challenge has always been addressing damaging incentives and putting this intelligence to work at the service of the greater good.

Our broken political system is often cited as a reason not to engage with it, but even if we cannot yet control for the quality of leaders it puts out, we can improve on the quality of our demands and willingness to hold them to once they are in office. At the same time, Nigerian leaders must garner the will to shun pettiness and sectional interests to work towards progress for all of us. The latter is less achievable than the former; indeed, I do not believe that Nigeria will mount a convincing argument for optimism in the short term. We can, however, improve the quality of our leadership over time by deciding to accept our stake in Nigeria. That much is within our grasp.


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