We have a serious problem in our country. I am not being an alarmist and I am not trying to depress you. I am just making my case based on facts currently in the public domain.
Let me highlight a sampling of these facts.
The problem 148 million people live in Nigeria. Life expectancy at birth is 47 years. Healthy life expectancy is 41 years. 27 percent of children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition. One in five dies before the age of five. 47 percent of the population (70 million Nigerians) has no access to water from an improved source. 31 percent of the population above the age of 15 is illiterate. Skilled health personnel attend to only 35 percent of births in Nigeria. Total expenditure on health per capita is $50 and nine out of 10 Nigerians (133 million Nigerians) live on less than $2 a day.
These facts are even more pitiful when set in the context of a Nigeria that has earned over $1 Trillion from oil and gas earnings since production began in 1956. On top of this, Nigeria has received billions of dollars in aid and has borrowed billions of dollars to augment its national revenues.
How can a nation that has generated so much revenue remain so poor? How can a country that has been blessed with such natural resources remain so under-developed?
Various arguments can and have been put forward for the presently wretched state of our country. They range from corruption and poor leadership, to the impact of past military intervention in governance. Some say that no meaningful development can ever take place unless we address the generation, transmission and distribution of electric power.
Others blame the poor condition of our country on the absence of sufficient critical infrastructure, including roads, schools, and hospitals.
While the reasons cited above are legitimate articulations of why Nigeria remains a poor nation, they miss the central question, which is: why?
Why do we have uninspiring leadership and corruption? Why don’t we have roads? Why don’t we have schools? Why don’t we have hospitals? Why don’t we have adequate power? Why is the country not working?
For as long as I can remember, there has always been a Federal Ministry of Education and corresponding Ministries of Education at State levels. During the entire course of my life, there has been a Federal Ministry of Health and corresponding Ministries of Health at the State level. Budgetary provisions have been made year in and year out for critical service delivery to Nigerians. What happened to these budgetary provisions? Did the monies earmarked for building new schools and upgrading existing ones go into private “1 pockets? Did monies assigned to maintaining and improving roads end up in bank accounts in Switzerland? If so, WHY?
The question of “why?” needs to be confronted honestly and without equivocation if we want to break free from our current state and move our country in the direction of sustained growth and development.
The question of “why?” is important because the opposite question – “why not?” is currently the question of choice for the “great and the good” in this country. Consider this: WHY misappropriate funds budgeted for building schools? WHY not? WHY inflate a contract to build an airport? WHY not? Couched differently, WHY do our leaders steal?
WHY not? WHY WOULD they not? WHY SHOULD they not? The answer staring is right in the face: because they can get away with it.
The question of “why not?” is based on a simple concept: getting away with it.
Who are you? What can you do? Do you know who I am? It’s the attitude and language within the circle of the untouchable; the cadre of intimates who cannot be sanctioned; the clique that feels no shame.
The word “impunity” derives from the Latin word impunitas. It means “without punishment”. No sanction for bad behavior. No punishment for misdeeds. So the Minister loots, the Governor steals, the Permanent Secretary lines his pocket, and the Service Chief has armed men wallowing in derelict barracks while he pockets monies meant for their welfare. The examples go on and on. As a result, roads don’t get fixed, schools don’t get built, hospitals don’t get the supply of drugs and equipment they need to cater for the health of the citizenry and we are all collectively the poorer for it. This cycle of vicious mismanagement and corruption is now entrenched in our body politic and is what the author and critic Peter Maass refers to when he describes Nigeria as the “eighth circle of hell…a country near collapse, corroded from within, unable to govern amid ungovernable decay…in Nigeria there are no winners, just more and more losers”.
So we know what the problem is: underdevelopment and poverty. We know why the problem persists: a prevailing culture of impunity that eliminates sanction and shame for those responsible for dragging the country into its present condition. So how do we get out of this mess?
The Nigeria in which we live today is in urgent need of accountability. The thieving Nigerian bureaucrat or politician does not realize or recognize that Nigerian citizens – you and I – are the boss. They have no respect for us and no consideration for our needs.
Again, I’m forced to ask: why? Could it be that the current socio-political structure in Nigeria provides a cozy environment that encourages disdain for and neglect of the needs of its citizenry?
The best deterrence to impunity is accountability. A socio-political system in which there is no answerability or responsibility is a dysfunctional one that by implication will be unable to provide the objective conditions for growth and development. A system in which
the culture of accountability and liability is non-existent – or, at best, is selectively administered – is a system in which the culture of impunity will prevail. And development does not and will never occur in a society in which impunity reigns.
The establishment of accountability, answerability, responsibility and liability will require a holistic and honest assessment of our polity. It will require a fundamental change in the attitude of our leaders and rulers. It will require the retooling of our value system so as to
ensure that no one, no matter how highly placed, profits from impunity.
So where do we start this daunting process?
Reform Let us not kid ourselves. In today’s Nigeria, your votes and my vote do not count. Your votes and my vote are, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. Politicians don’t need your vote to get into office – so why should they design and execute policies to make your life better? The bottom line is: because our votes are irrelevant, we are irrelevant. As long as our votes do not count, we do not count. That is why millions of our fellow citizens suffer without any meaningful mass transit systems while our leaders drive around in motorcades of bulletproof and armor-plated cars. That is why our leaders are able to undertake their medical examinations at public expense in the best hospitals abroad, while the “voters” make do with general and teaching hospitals – if they are lucky.
It is a sad state of affairs. The right to choose who should represent and or govern one is the most basic of political rights. It is a right that is central to participatory democracy. It is the primary right on which the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is founded, and should be the fundamental definition of what Nigeria is and who Nigerians are.
Every time our votes are not counted, our votes are stolen and political larceny is committed. Every time a ballot box is stuffed, an act of electoral kleptomania is perpetrated. Every time the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) publishes a fictitious voters’ register, it stoops deep and low into political robbery by providing the getaway car for thieving political crooks. Every time INEC certifies a flawed election, the Constitution is torn and democracy is raped. Every time a governor or senator takes the oath of office on the Holy Quran or the Holy Bible to defend the Constitution after an election he or she rigged, they debase the Constitution, they spit on the graves of those who fought and died for Nigeria and they mock God!
It is clear: the missing link between the Nigeria of today and the Nigeria of our aspirations is comprehensive electoral reform. When leaders contest elections based on ideas and the man or woman with better ideas wins, we will be one step ahead in our march to development. When Nigerians are able to freely replace non-performing elected leaders in four-yearly cycles, we will be two steps ahead in our march to development. When a few good men and women are truly, freely and fairly elected into office in transparent elections, corruption will significantly subside in our country.
When that day comes our country will be blessed with true leaders who possess the intellectual and moral wherewithal to propel our country forward. When that day comes, Nigeria will be spared the painful and agonizing ritual of contending with charlatans and criminals masquerading as elected officials and expecting us to address them as “Honorable”, “Distinguished” and “Excellency”.
Let us all commit to work towards genuine electoral reform. Let us then elect sincere and purposeful leaders who will honor the mandate we have given them – leaders who will guide us away from a culture of impunity to a culture of freedom, democracy and economic growth.
Roland Ewubare was the Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria from 2009 to 2011. He is currently a student in the United Kingdom.