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Promises as debts in heavily indebted governments

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The most remarkable thing about the just-concluded elections in Osun State was not the marginally inconclusive win of the PDP in what many considered an APC stronghold, especially with the full weight of the APC’s national leader in his primary sphere of influence behind the party’s candidate. Rather, it was the fact that notwithstanding Osun’s monthly internally generated revenue being equivalent to roughly only 1% of its total debt, 48 candidates put themselves forward to be chosen to grapple with the impossibility of the state’s finances.

This is a state that owed its workers several months’ wages in the lead to the elections, saved only by Governor Aregbesola’s discovery of the leprechaun and his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, just in the nick of time. This is a state widely reported a few years ago as being subject to so many first-line creditor charges on its monthly federal allocations, that the governor’s credit alerts were only for a few million naira.

It was also clear from the debates that none of the candidates in attendance had given this particular matter much thought. The inconclusively marginal winner of the elections stayed away from the debates altogether but even his interviews in the run up appeared to focus more on the showbiz credentials of his sons and nephew than matters of governance. To be fair to him, maybe that was all the star-struck interviewers bothered to ask.

However, as we move closer to silly season, when all kinds of fantastic and phantasmagorical promises will be made to woo the electorate, it is important that candidates are asked the right kind of questions. As President Obama reminds us, elections have consequences. The people who take office ultimately determine the kind of lives that the majority of us will have and it is important for the governed to understand the sort of choices their leaders are likely to make on the most pressing issues of the time.

Issues like extreme poverty and the literacy rates and population explosion that are more than likely to exacerbate that crisis in the coming years. With over 100 million people living below the extreme poverty line, should it be a priority for government to attempt to reform the pan-cultural belief that ‘an African man does not count his children’? Should the government perhaps adopt a more aggressive population control policy? What viable forms of this policy are there? How about finally determining exactly what the population is, so that effective planning can take place?

The presidential candidates will promise restructuring, which is no doubt a necessity. However, this is a constitutional, legislative issue, not an executive one, and a minimum of 24 states will be required in addition to the National Assembly, to pass any consequential amendments to the constitution. With the reality that restructuring is less favourable than the status quo to many states, how does your favoured candidate propose to secure their agreement? How will they bring transparency to the affairs of government agencies like the NNPC?

Gubernatorial candidates will again promise the customary basic amenities of roads, education, healthcare and potable water despite the fact that this is 2018 and these are 19th century issues in reality. However, with the scourge of ‘acid rain’ dissolving the evidence of their hard work particularly in states like Imo, it is important for candidates to show how they intend to deliver quality infrastructure sustainably. This means not only that project life-cycle is clear from the very beginning but also that the maintenance programme, inclusive of funding and management, is also built into project designs.

Many readers will argue that none of this really matters, and they may have a point. Not all parties are given to internal democracy and the candidates that emerge are sometimes the personal choices of the party leaders. They will argue that money and party structure are everything and having the right answers is a mere nice-to-have, rather than a must-have. The voters of Nigeria remain the only ones that can prove them wrong and I am hopeful that in time they will.

However, in the interim, Nigerians with public voices must do their utmost to set the agenda, because even the most crooked vote-buying, thug-unleashing politician, post-victory inevitably seeks legitimacy and acceptance from the public voice – the newspaper columns, the radio and television shows, the praise from musicians and other custodians of the arts.

One of the challenges of running Nigeria is that virtually everything is in a crisis. Those who can, have an overwhelming duty to let the candidates know that even if it is stomach infrastructure that will win the polls, it is cranial infrastructure that will deliver change and transformation. Assuming, of course, that those are indeed the things that politicians care about.


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