Why our involvement matters
One of the most poignant illustrations of how poverty contrasts sharply with prosperity is contained in the book, Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.
In that seminal work on power, wealth and want, the authors mapped the origins of the three, their trajectory through history, in different countries or regions, and why so much inequality now pervades the entire world.
Their research took them to the sprawling city of Nogales, ordinarily or historically one abode of the same people, but now divided into two by a fence not more than a few inches thick.
To the north is Nogales, Arizona where the average family earns a decent income and lives a prosperous life. Infrastructure is first-rate, health-care delivery is superb and education is top-notch. Life expectancy, understandably, is very high and security of lives and property is one of the best in the world.
In Nogales, Arizona, the institutions of government work, law and order are preserved under a regime of perfect rule of law and the people have an inalienable say in who governs them at any level and at any given point in time.
Across the fence is the second part, Nogales, Sonora, in another country, Mexico. Though still relatively prosperous by Mexico’s standards, this other Nogales is a much poorer city than its northern half. Income is very low, education is fourth-rate and health-care delivery is junk. The roads are very bad and all public amenities advertise dilapidation in ways the word itself could not have envisaged. Chaos reigns, of course, in a place where order means little and to which law is alien. The politicians in Nogales, Sonora, are not only mindlessly corrupt, they are inept and live a life of too much impunity at the expense of the people.
Institutions of governance hardly work and deference to rules, without any enforcing system, is done largely in the breach. How could the two halves of the same city be so different when the people share almost everything, including geography, climate, culture and even ancestry? How could life be so prosperous in one and so harrowing in the other?
Of course the answer, as Robinson and Acemoglu found out, is simple: the people of Nogales in Arizona have access to the economic institutions of the United States of America which enable them to choose their own lives, acquire relevant education and skills, give expression to their creative instincts and liberate their innovative energy. They also have access to sound and long established political institutions which not only make the laws and policies that support the economic institutions but ones which allow the people to take part in the processes of governance.
The same cannot be said of Nogales to the south. No doubt, there are deep and long historical reasons for the two divergent routes both sides have taken, including colonisation but the main underlying reason is that the institutions on both sides are different. One builds, the other does not and cannot. More importantly, the people make that difference possible by being insistent on the right thing.
Societies where the political and economic institutions work are ones not only in which the political leaders choose to be servants but ones in which the citizens have not shirked their responsibility and have demanded service from their servants in whatever leadership positions. Without good political institutions, the economic institutions that will ensure economic prosperity are hardly possible. Not only is responsible leadership needed, therefore, it must be one that deliberately or consciously build strong, inclusive economic institutions. This means the leadership must create an environment, with laws, policies and infrastructure that enable the majority of the people to make the best use of their skills, talents, education and liberate their creative energies in an inclusive economic playing field.
There is no doubt, however, that all efforts especially by the current government notwithstanding, the supreme law of Nigeria today is a hindrance to the fulfillment of the people’s full potentials, the liberation of their energy and their inclusion in an economic level-playing field.
Hence, the cries for a properly structured federation may sound trite but it is the only way to genuine development in Nigeria.A constitution, experts say, is the autobiography of a nation. I am sure we all agree that our extant constitution is not a truthful autobiography of Nigeria. Indeed, it is not one since it was not authored by the people about themselves and it hardly reflects the true essence of Nigeria or its real character. Even as a biography, written by self-appointed authors, it is a poor account and the evidence of its poverty is in its disservice to its subject today.
Nigeria’s strength is her diversity of people and resources and her path to progress is already well laid: allowing the different peoples, large or small in numbers, till their rich land in healthy competition between each other and inevitable collaboration with one another.
Somehow, this huge strength is either being denied or even undermined. For one reason: laziness or convenience as well as dishonesty. This has, over the years, created the absurd mindset that an acknowledgment of our diversity, which would lead to restructuring the country and adopting economic plans that would ensure regional or even individual hard work, would undermine the nation’s unity! The result has been the poor governance and the economic stagnation under which the nation reels till today.
Of course, Nigeria as it is politically arranged now is incapable of engendering prosperity for the people, north, west, east or south. A system that shackles the people, builds a majority tribe of the extremely poor by caging creative and productive abilities cannot be right for any nation like Nigeria.
Meanwhile, let us even imagine that the unnecessary fear of Nigeria’s diversity as well as restructuring ends today and a federal system that befits the country is institutionalised, how prepared are we?
What is our educational system like?
Little learning, I can say boldly, appears to be taking place even at the foundational levels of primary and secondary education. The teachers are not there and the physical structures or equipment for learning are not available. For example, a charity to which I subscribe has had to buy mathematical sets in their thousands for many schools when I heard of their non-availability in those schools in my home state, moved as I was by the pain at the spectacle of a whole generation of innocent Nigerians not being able to study mathematics properly!
What are the skills being acquired by our young ones today?
To build the economic institutions that will make us the prosperous half of Robinson/Acemoglu’s Nogales, what manner of work force is being developed in our region by our tertiary institutions?
Or, firstly and more fundamentally, what kind of political institutions are we building and what kind of political leaders do we have? What is our leadership recruitment process like?
Who do we send to our councils as chairmen and councilors, when we are allowed by our almighty governors to do so at all? Who are in the Houses of Assembly and even in Government Houses? Certainly, the leadership recruitment process all over Nigeria has descended from being values-based to one in which only money is valued. No questions asked as we all bow at the feet of the one who has some money to spare, never minding that he is giving us crumbs from our patrimony!
It was not always so! Long before now, character (iwa) was the only currency with which the people’s respect or even vote was bought. Not anymore!
Not much store of iwa is set in our land today or little premium is placed on character before we choose our leaders. To change this, the good people must get involved.
As the late Czech writer and former president, Vaclav Havel, once said, politics is not essentially a disreputable business; and to the extent that it is, it is only disreputable people who make it so. Politics is not for liars, the vain and the vulgar; not for the corrupt and the despicable. It is for the honourable, the distinguished and the decent. So, as part of the preparation for making our land one in which all prosper, we cannot abdicate politics for those who have made it a career, even a commercially profitable enterprise.
Bad governance and the consequent poverty of the people is the creation of those heartless ones who invariably rely on the people’s passivity or unwitting, even ignorant connivance. Hence bad governance thrives where poverty reigns and poverty festers where bad people govern. Indeed, a bad elite consciously impoverishes the people so it can thrive in power.
So, let all the good people get involved. We cannot all be governors, senators, councillors or be in political offices, but we all occupy what some people have appropriately called the highest office in a democracy: the Office of the Citizen. That office, we must execute very well by getting involved and holding the ones we sent into offices accountable. Let us follow the Havelian ideal that change would not necessarily happen by occupying power or by simply replacing dishonourable people in power with honourable ones. That is okay, if we can do it. But real change will come from a deliberate and concerted work of mobilising the citizenry, from the bottom to the top, into action, with a view to making everyone part of the governing process. The people’s involvement is a duty, not only to affirm it but also to enrich the taste of democracy and good governance.