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The doubting Nigerians

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In the normal cause of human development, I should be used to it by now because
a) I am a Nigerian and have lived most of my life in our dear country and
b) this has been a regular diet that I, like many compatriots, have been served for an entire generation. So, why am I still shaken by a) rumour-mongering, a staple diet not of the idle but of the informed and b) why do we cast dark doubts about honesty and sincerity of our governments and their officials at all levels? And by the way, why should I bother?

Here is why. A family friend visited me recently and asked me if I believed that the coronavirus was real. Is it killing Nigerians at the level the authorities claim? If so, why are the infected and the dead not named by the authorities? Was I sure this is not one more channel created by the government people to empty our federal and state treasuries into their pockets so that the lucky few would continue to grow fat at the expense of the unlucky many? I felt sorry for all of us.

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I am sure you too must have heard similar questions raised about the global killer virus. I can see that some people have made a career out of questioning the sincerity of federal and state governments about the coronavirus. On any given day, you are more likely than not to find someone in the electronic and the social media sounding off on why the whole thing is a scam devised by the government people to steal from the people. They are not men and women on the fringes of lunacy. They are the people’s champions; some champions.

The people asking these questions are not half-educated and uninformed people. They are well-educated and informed people who have eyes that ought to see and ears that ought to hear that COVID-19 is not a Nigerian disease invented by Nigerians to cheat Nigerians. It is a global health problem, the like of which the world has not known, at least since the dawn of modern times. It is killing people in all nations in their thousands. No nation is safe and no one is safe. It would amount to over-stretching conspiracy theories to suggest that world leaders conspired and hatched COVID-19 as a scam, each to deceive their people and freely help themselves to their national treasuries in the name of fighting the virus.

I know it would be naïve to deny that perfidy is a fact of life in governments everywhere but it would be equally uncharitable to see our country, warts and all, as the lone island of lies, cheating and deceit in the sea of global truth and honesty. It seems to me that Nigerians have no problems accepting that there is COVID-19 in Ghana and South Africa but are unwilling to accept that the same disease is sending our country men and women down six feet below.

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Why? That question set me thinking. There must be something much more than mere mischief at work here. As I see it, part of the reason is that the so-called anti-graft war that has been going on under military and civilian governments since 1966 provides ample evidence that our public officers cannot be trusted. The war has succeeded in branding them as thieves, men and women with palm oil permanently on their fingers. No national institution remains untainted by this vicious propaganda, the peg on which the ambitious khaki men hung their rationale for coups. Not the executive, not the legislature and not the judiciary. The law of unintended consequences insinuated itself into the anti-graft war. The net effect, as desirable as it is to shepherd Nigerians out of the crooked path of the damned to the narrow path of the saved, is that the bond that binds leaders and the led feels like gum made of eba. The moral fibre is weakened, creating the current gulf of disconnect between the rulers and the ruled.

It has created a trust deficit. The rulers and the ruled are held together by the bond of trust forged on the anvil of mutual trust. Snap that and you create doubting Nigerians who are given to wrestling with being able to trust their leaders at all levels of government. The doubting Nigerians have been shaped over the years by the dictum: khaki good, agbada bad. It is not of much comfort that the anti-graft war has proven time and again that khaki is not corruption repellent. When people have problems believing in what their leaders say and do, the gulf of disconnect between them widens, leading to some decidedly outlandish conspiracy theories.

Trust deficit in government is a global problem. It varies only in degrees from one country to another. I am intrigued that there is a global watchdog, called Edelman Trust Barometer. It issues an annual report, called Global Trust Index, in which it assesses the level of trust in selected countries rated from the highest to the lowest among the people. The report, according to the organisation, “is an international study based on the opinions of elites that focuses on the principles of trust in business, government, media and NGOs.”

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Its 2019 report issued this year has some surprising findings. Of the 12 selected countries from Europe, Asia and the United States of America, the two leading countries with the highest trust rating are China and India with a score of 84% and 70% respectively. Japan, the United Kingdom, Spain, the United States and France are in the bottom six. Both the US and France had the same score of 33% – right at the bottom. No African nation featured in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 reports I read. That, I think, speaks volumes. Their individual scores must be too low to merit any serious attention by the watchdog.

American leaders should worry. According to the World Economic Forum, their citizens “are less trusting of their countrymen than perhaps ever before. Public trust in government is at its lowest level since 1958…” There is a high economic price to pay by every country with a low level of trust. The World Forum report under reference, notes that “some economic research suggests that countries with low levels of trust can find themselves in a reinforcing circle of greater regulation and lower economic growth.” It is called moving in circles. The real danger here, to further quote the report, is that “in distrustful societies, people are more likely to craft public policy and do business in ways that benefit their own family, social class, tribe, religion or another group.”

Think about that when you analyse public sector policies in our country.

The 2019 report says that “India is among the most trusted nations globally when it comes to government, business, NGOs and media.” It points to why India is a success story in the anti-poverty war. The second most populous country in the world lifted millions of its people out of poverty and yielded its former place as the poverty capital of the world to our own country. I suppose this must mean that if President Buhari wants to lift 100 million people out of poverty in ten years as he has promised to do, he might as well begin by fixing the low level of trust between the government and the people and make Nigerians doubt their governments less.

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