There are centuries’ worth of theorising on the idea and meaning and implications of a “social contract”, or “compact”; the body of rules and obligations that is supposed to bind the members of a society to one another and to the constituted authority of the land; spelling out the rights and responsibilities for all sides. More than five decades ago John F. Kennedy single-handedly updated that concept of a social contract with these profound words: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.’
Those words have been regularly invoked around the world since then. And rightly so. I think it’s an important admonition to live by. But there’s another perspective I’d like to focus on, especially within the Nigerian context. By allowing the second half of the challenge to overshadow the first, I think we’re doing ourselves a disfavour as a people. I think we’re not paying enough attention to highlighting what Nigeria as a country owes its citizens. It should not be out of place for citizens to seriously wonder what their country has for them. What’s the deal, Nigeria?
Citizens have a right to expect that public spending data is made available for anyone interested to see or examine. Citizens have a right to expect that the accounts of governments and public agencies are regularly audited. Citizens have a right to expect that government officials will keep open permanent bi-directional lines of communications with citizens, through as many platforms as possible. Citizens have a right to expect that public officials will not play games with official statistics and facts. Citizens have a right to expect that the military will not invent claims of successes in the fight against Boko Haram. Citizens have a right to expect that Freedom of Information (FOI) requests will be promptly and truthfully responded to. Citizens have a right to expect that government officials will, regardless of notions of constitutional immunity, submit to the same rules that guide the conduct of ordinary people.
A few weeks ago the Governor of Nasawara State was in the news, when a woman driver alleged that she was assaulted by security agents in his convoy. The case got a lot of attention on social media; the National Human Rights Commission commendably intervened, and contacted the Governor. Rather uncharacteristically (when you think of the reputation Nigerian Big Men have), Governor Tanko Al-Makura reportedly waived his immunity, and offered to testify on the case before the Commission. I watched him do this on television a few days ago. It honestly felt strange to see Governor Al-Makura doing this.
I’m tempted to commend him for this unusual display, but it occurs to me that this should be the norm and not the exception. Local Government Chairpersons, Governors, Ministers, Commissioners, Permanent Secretaries, Directors-General, and even the President – all hold office and exist on behalf of the people of Nigeria, not the other way round. If the public funds from which they derive their immense powers – get that money to dry up and watch the corridors of power empty faster than the secretariat of a losing political party – belong to the people of Nigeria, then all of these people must collectively be seen as the employers and overlords of the public officials, not the other way round.
Public officials have it too easy in this country. They get by with too little scrutiny, too much deference. Every time a Nigerian government official complains about the tone and intensity of public criticism, it occurs to me that they have no idea what their counterparts in other parts of the world have to deal with. Recall the UK parliamentary expenses scandal, and the relatively modest – by Nigerian standards – sums of money that put UK parliamentarians in trouble. For me the biggest lesson of that scandal was that politicians will get away with whatever the people permit. It’s that simple. Take our parliamentarians, accustomed as they are to getting away with murder – to Westminster, or the Capitol, and watch them adapt to the stricter levels of scrutiny that the British and Americans have come to take for granted. And try bringing British or American parliamentarians to Nigeria, and see how little time it’ll take them to relax to our relatively loose standards here.
In this accountability business, our local government chairpersons are some of the worst culprits, ironically so, considering that they’re supposed to be the closest to the people. I was recently part of a group of visitors to the Office of the Mayor of St. Petersburg, a city in the American state of Florida. It was one of the visits scheduled as part of a 3-week programme organised by the US Department of State. Our meetings was actually with the Mayor’s spokesperson, to talk about his work managing communications for the city government. (Florida, by the way, is one of the most progressive states in the US, where the concept of an ‘open’ government is concerned; its Constitution stipulates, for example, that: “All meetings of any collegial public body of the executive branch of state government or of any collegial public body of a county, municipality, school district, or special district, at which official acts are to be taken or at which public business of such body is to be transacted or discussed, shall be open and noticed to the public.”)
Just as we finished our meeting, and prepared to leave, the Mayor showed up, and invited us all to his office, where we chatted and took pictures. That was when it struck me that I had never been in my local government chairman’s office; did not even know who he or she is. (That will change, very soon, I promise). As part of this duty of holding government’s accountable, so that they produce improved levels of performance, we should encourage the different levels of government to challenge one another anytime the opportunity arises. In the last sixteen years of democracy we have seen a number of high-profile cases pitting the state and local governments on the one hand against the Federal Government: Onshore-Offshore dichotomy is one, the Sovereign Wealth Fund is another. In a truly federal system, those kinds of cases should be encouraged.
What we haven’t yet seen is local governments challenging state governments, and staking claims to fiscal independence, in any serious way. I think that our local governments should be challenging the states with the same boldness with which states have learnt to challenge the Federal Government. (The constitutional stipulation of a ‘State Joint Local Government Account’ may be the reason for the fiscal dysfunction at local government level. S162(6) of the Nigerian Constitution says that: “Each State shall maintain a special account to be called “State Joint Local Government Account” into which shall be paid all allocations to the Local Government Councils of the State from the Federation Account and from the Government of the State. By yoking the local governments to the states in this way we have effectively turned our Governors into dictators over the local governments.)
Nigeria owes all of us citizens a lot of stuff; that’s the simple truth. The only way to guarantee that Nigeria will do for us any of the countless things it owes us is by consistently putting pressure on our elected and appointed officials, the official representatives of the state – and never letting up. At the moment public office in this country is too much like a lounge sofa. We need to raise the accountability quotient, and make it closer to an electric chair.