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Town hall meetings APC government still grappling with the basics

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Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi (left); Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola; Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed; Deputy Governor of Lagos State, Dr Idiat Adebule; Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu; Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyema; and Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Okechukwu Enelamah, at a town hall meeting organised by the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, in Lagos …                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              PHOTO: NAN

Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi (left); Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola; Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed; Deputy Governor of Lagos State, Dr Idiat Adebule; Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu; Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyema; and Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Okechukwu Enelamah, at a town hall meeting organised by the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, in Lagos … PHOTO: NAN

One of the iconic moments of the 2015 Presidential election was captured when Professor Yemi Osinbajo, the then running mate on the All Progressives Congress (APC) Presidential ticket, was seen selling his party’s message to voters inside a BRT bus in Lagos.

As expected in a highly charged political environment, reviews of that strategy varied according to partisan leanings. While political opponents dismissed it as a campaign gimmick meant to score cheap political points, Osinbajo’s supporters celebrated that moment as a demonstration of the readiness of the Buhari ticket to reach out to ordinary Nigerians on policy and programmes, if elected.

Coupled with what many have described as the dismal record of President Goodluck Jonathan in fighting corruption and the insurgency in the Northeast, the message of the Professor and his principal, resonated with the Nigerian electorate.

On May 29, 2015, the duo of Muhammadu Buhari and Professor Osinbajo were sworn in as President and Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, respectively. As an opposition party that sought to dethrone a ruling party for the first time in the history of Nigeria, the campaign rhetoric of the APC dripped with a multitude of promises. Added to this was the no-hold-barred approach with which Buhari’s supporters on social media crusaded to get their man elected. The snag now is that since taking the reins, Team Buhari has been grappling with the fundamentals. The task of governing in such a way that would result in the quick realisation of the promises made, has not proved to be as smooth as it was presented in the campaign trail.

The talk of hitting the ground running, which tended to mirror the popular expectations of the electorate, has not proved to be the case. Rather, the President has tended to prefer a slow and somewhat sure footed approach to governance.

In place of speed, he has harped on the need to get things right no matter how interminable the process takes. Nigerians, who tend to be more at home with quick fixes, have not found this style alluring. To make things worse, the President’s pace has tended to be interrupted on several occasions by some of the very problems he has tried to mitigate with a deliberate style. For instance, the case of how the budget he submitted to the National Assembly ended up with several curious, bogus or padded items was a serious cause for alarm.

The time during which the Federal Government began the budgeting process, for instance, was a valuable opportunity to organise a series of vibrant town hall meetings, during which inputs of the citizens and serious civil society organisations would have been factored into the budget formulation process. That opportunity was missed, so much so that the budget became prey to predators who padded it to the embarrassment of the government.

On the other hand, the level of attention sapped by the Boko Haram insurgency, and the emergent terrorism being unleashed on several communities by herdsmen have impacted the President’s plans.

All these in the face of a severe cash crunch occasioned by plummeting crude oil prices in the international market, have meant that Nigerians must make further sacrifices in the form of a long wait for the fruits of the change agenda. The battered state of the economy has meant that many Nigerians are losing jobs; with severe implications for the mouths they are responsible for feeding.

It is against this very tough background that the Presidency is talking in terms of instituting town hall meetings to explain its policies and give citizens the opportunity to make their inputs in the governance process. In fact, the process has started with some ministers interacting recently with Nigerians in Lagos.

The weakness of this model of the town hall as proposed by the Federal Government’s communication managers is that it comes across as reactive and driven by the government’s need to push through its messages.

Ordinarily, town hall interactions that are productive, and result oriented actually provide a platform for a critical appraisal of the government by citizens. They are also veritable avenues for the government to get some valuable feedback from those directly affected or impacted by policy. The time during which the Federal Government began the budgeting process, for instance, was a valuable opportunity to organise a series of vibrant town hall meetings, during which inputs of the citizens and serious civil society organisations would have been factored into the budget formulation process. That opportunity was missed, so much so that the budget became prey to predators who padded it to the embarrassment of the government.

One lesson learnt from that sordid experience is that a people centred and participatory approach has a way of creating shared ownership. It is however not too late for subsequent budget cycles to benefit from such town hall engagements, which would focus on getting citizens inputs in a policy document.

Another apparent flaw in the sudden hurried approach towards instituting town hall meetings is the appearance that Minsters need to desperately score themselves. That would take a lot away from the meetings, because the truth is that there isn’t much in terms of the bread and butter achievements to score.

Many objective Nigerians understand that this government is in the process of erecting the architecture with which it will deliver its promises to the people. From the anti-corruption war front for instance, recoveries of substantial amounts looted from the treasury, are being made. While that is progress, it would not mean much in concrete terms to a man who is starving.

With the issues around the budget finally being laid to rest, most Nigerians expect some funds to be injected into the system to stimulate economic activities and the attendant cash flow. Once the economy is stimulated, and the severe crunch currently making people groan is averted, then the other building blocks would then be mounted.

Given the difficulties currently faced by citizens, an indication that government is organising town hall interactions to talk of abstract things could further dampen an already foul mood. Beyond the fact that the release of budgeted funds would help the economy to rev back to life, the funding need to fix areas like power, railways and roads would be freed up for those tasks. At that point, the town hall meetings would come in handy because citizens are supposed to monitor these projects and ensure the right thing is being done.

In the same vein, there is no doubt that the governance narrative in Nigeria has to change. From the way national attention has focused on the Federal Government, the subliminal message being passed is that the Federal Government is the only tier of government.

The governance debates in the states and local councils are almost non-existent. It is therefore imperative that citizens begin to push for better governance at their local levels, especially in the states and the local councils. This will make governance complimentary and take away the fixation on the centre. However, for that to happen, the Federal Government with its financial muscle must first stimulate and lubricate the economy, such that Nigerians do not appear in the proposed town hall meetings to participate as hungry citizens.

Many Nigerians who have been waiting so patiently for the President’s change agenda to translate into reality in their lives are becoming exasperated. The communication at the town hall meetings would only become mutually intelligible, if the current economic squeeze across the land is alleviated, and a level playing field is created for citizens to get their voices heard in the governance process.


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