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The Nigerian citizen and the 419 of ‘development’

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Sometime in January this year I was in my hometown Abeokuta. I was interested in seeing how governance had fared and a close friend had driven me around the town, showing me the modernisations. New flyovers decked major intersections, revamped roads gleamed under the sunlight, and pedestrian bridges brimmed everywhere. It was an impressive makeover.

I asked my host if Abeokuta residents were satisfied with these improvements. He replied no. He explained that the state’s health sector was dilapidated. Government paid little attention to equipping the state hospitals and improving the primary healthcare system. Healthcare projects still relied heavily on donor funding. Similarly, the public school system was not exactly a joy to behold. Human capacity in the civil service remained underdeveloped. Small and medium scale enterprises creaked under aggressive fees, levies, and taxes.

I had just completed a research stint in Mauritius, also spending time at their human rights commission studying the country’s socioeconomic welfare system. Mauritius provides free universal healthcare and education, free public transportation for students and senior citizens, unemployment and welfare benefits, and even ‘social aid’ for families of detainees. Yet, the country’s infrastructural investment has only just started increasing to improve investment opportunities and tourism. Still, Mauritius is reasonably more developed than Nigeria.

It is frustrating that, whether deliberately or ignorantly, Nigerian politicians conflate infrastructural investments with development. Lagos State, for example, carried out the mass displacement of Otodo-Gbame residents to literally pave way for an estate. But international law, binding on Nigeria under the African Charter and the core human rights treaties, defines the principles of development. For instance, in the Endorois Case against Kenya, the African Commission noted that the right to development requires the state to ensure that its policies and projects are equitable, non-discriminatory, participatory, accountable, and transparent, ‘with equity and choice as important, over-arching themes’. Development has to be focused on nurturing the people, not just fashioning the state.

Unfortunately, Nigerian citizens are often misled by the simulated notion of development. Our governments copy and paste infrastructure, mirroring developed countries, but ignore the systemic socioeconomic empowerment of the people. We have roads and bridges without comfortable mass transportation systems, hospitals and schools without quality equipment and staff, and inaccessible government-funded estates while majority live under horrible conditions. Ultimately, these investment in ‘things’ put us in debt, transfer our resources to external investors and contractors, displace communities, are abandoned by new administrations, lack long-term maintenance and deteriorate, or simply have their funds looted.

And the majority of Nigerians remain disempowered.

Investing in human capacity and welfare before building cities should be intuitive logic for all of us. It is worrisome that it took a Bill Gates to make this a national conversation (and we have already switched to our favourite hobby: arguing over contestants in politics, sports and reality television). But while Gates may have spoken specifically on Buhari’s economic policies, the message cuts across all of Nigeria’s political history and applies at all levels of government. Nigeria has to adopt a human rights approach to public expenditure and investment if it is to cease being a dysfunctional country. This requires that the allocation of economic resources should answer the question: how does this expenditure protect, promote and fulfil the rights of the citizens? In other words, public money should be used only in ways that enhance human dignity and human rights for all members of society.

For example, we should buy arms only to demonstrably protect the right to life of the citizens and not merely to enhance state power or prestige. Similarly, roads and bridges are not important in themselves, but only to the extent that they fulfil the right to development of the people. A construction project that displaces people or creates more hardship in the construction process violates the right to development.

The Nigerian Constitution, problematic as it is, also recognises socioeconomic welfare as the basis of development. It does not mandate the government to build megacities. Instead, it directs government to provide ‘adequate medical and health facilities for all persons’, ‘equal pay for equal work without discrimination’, ‘public assistance in deserving cases or other conditions of need’, ‘eradicate illiteracy’ and similar objectives.

True, unlike Mauritius where many of these objectives have been realised, Nigeria has a very large population and geography. However, this point only takes us again to the issue of restructuring. Human development is best attained within relatively small political units. We cannot continue with Nigeria’s highly unwieldy centralised structure. We will need to devolve governance and return land – and the control and use of its resources – to organic communities under an evolved local system of government if we are to truly develop our people.

But these reforms will disempower our current political class.

For now, our politicians are more interested in encouraging photographable projects with high contractual value, scamming us with ersatz development. As a friend tweeted a few days ago: ‘When our senators speak at the NASS, they speak from a place of sentiments and hysterics, quote the Bible, Qur’an and stray far away empirical facts. They do not care about the citizens and they’ll never care. We the citizens are out of cards to play.’

She is very right.


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Ayo SogunroOtodo Gbame

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