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Democracy Dividends: Between privileges and principles

By Omagbitse Barrow FCA
01 June 2017   |   3:33 am
We have even had two of such national leaders place primordial value om the number of ‘billionaires” that were created during their tenures, reflecting the very sentiment that Eisenhower shared.

The war-time General and later President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower once said “a people that values its privileges more than its principles soon loses both”. As Nigerians look back at the 18 years of uninterrupted democratic rule, it is very easy for us to focus too much on the privileges that we expect from democracy, rather than on the underlying principles that a democratic society brings. For any society to make progress, the people must focus on the things that are beyond the ephemeral, and build their society on a foundation that does not last. Since 1999, we have had our leaders at all levels report on their performance and the so-called dividends of democracy from only one perspective: prosperity and wealth. We have even had two of such national leaders place primordial value om the number of ‘billionaires” that were created during their tenures, reflecting the very sentiment that Eisenhower shared. The Nigerian people guided by such vain perspectives on societal progress, have themselves developed this parochial mindset about how to measure the success of a society.

It is my fervent hope that as we reflect upon the 18 years of unbroken democratic governance in Nigeria, that all our people and our leaders at all levels will begin to pay more attention to the fundamental principles that will drive the sustainable success of our nation. That the expectations of our people, and the score cards that our leaders present will focus on the principles and not the mere privileges.

Some of the principles that have transformed many modern societies that Nigeria must borrow a leaf from include, but are not limited to: servant leadership; social justice and equity, delayed gratification, meritocracy, fidelity; courage and innovation; and discipline.

The concept of servant-leadership (itself tautological) is at the heart of our national transformation. When societies like Ghana led by Jerry Rawlings, Botswana led by Seretse Khama and India, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi have made significant progress, it is because their leaders have subjected themselves to the rule of law, and focused on building stronger institutions than themselves. So, when Nigerian leaders append the title “Servant Leaders” to themselves, and continue to remain distant from the realities of their people, one just wonders. Rather than measure a leader for the roads, bridges and stadia that they build, that will soon become dilapidated, we should be more concerned about our leaders’ ability to connect with our realities, lead from the front lines, lead by example, and lead by walking around. It is this principle of servant leadership and these practices that will endure, much more than roads and bridges.

The principle of Social Justice and Equity challenges us to measure the wealth and prosperity of a nation not by the number of billionaires and sky scrappers, but by the quality of life of the poorest people in society. Unfortunately, we have become so used to the widening gap between the rich and the poor, that the poor people of Nigeria have come to accept their poverty, and the sub-standard lives that the elite willed to them. We should be challenging our leaders to improve the welfare of the poorest Nigerians rather than focusing on making the rich, richer. Tax policies and social incentives must be focused on re-distributing wealth. For example, why are property taxes not being collected for the mansions and sky scrappers so that we can invest in quality mass-housing for the poor, and why is the VAT on the consumption of basic food items the same as the VAT on expensive champagne?

Delayed gratification requires Nigerian to understand that saving for the rainy day is integral to securing our future. Whether it is the Federal Government or State Governments that consume our entire revenues when oil prices were over USD100 per barrel or the individual worker who refuses to participate in the compulsory pension scheme because his take-home pay cannot take him home, we all need to imbibe and practice this principle of delayed gratification. Closely linked to this is the crass indiscipline that is pervasive in our land. We are a dirty people, littering our streets with waste, and indulging in brazen acts of personal indiscipline that bubbles up into the mountain of corruption that has become pervasive across the land. From our petty “10 per cents”, we graduate to stashing millions of dollars in water tanks, and sewers, and then on Sundays we make huge donations from these pots and receive thunderous ovations and blessings from the so-called “people of God”

One of the core principles upon which our weak democracy has been built is something we call “Federal Character”, which in my mind only continues to perpetuate distrust, mediocrity and nepotism across our country. Instead of working hard to create a meritocracy, we spend all our time counting what part of the country public servants come from, as if this in any way has guaranteed an even development of our country. If this were so important, why doesn’t the Government legislate that it extends to the private sector, so that we will finally kill our country! The right to education should be guaranteed for all Nigerians, but the principle of meritocracy and fair competition must guide our professional and business lives in the public and private sector.

There is so much to be said about what it takes to build a strong and virile nation, and it surely goes beyond the ephemeral discussions around the “dividends of democracy”. The context and the narrative around democratic dividends need to shift from privileges to principles, lest we lose both and lose all, as Eisenhower predicted, and as we have typified in the last 32 years.

Barrow is a teacher of values-based leadership and strategy at the Abuja based Learning Impact NG