By Hakeem Baba-Ahmad
“History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.” -Abba Eban
THE crash of the Dana Aircraft last week in Lagos raises many issues regarding the manner our government relates to its citizens. It provides an opportunity to highlight basic flaws in the structure and operations of governance institutions in Nigeria, and identify critical areas where genuine improvements must be made.
Tragically, those who have paid for decades of bad governance and corruption with their lives will join the statistics which increase by the day on our collective failure to run a nation which should fulfil its potentials to be great.
Our constitution assigns our government two basic functions. One is to protect lives and property of citizens. The other is to pursue our economic well-being. Government is the totality of elected leaders, a judiciary and a public service which is the primary instrument for the pursuit of the objectives of government.
Elected leaders aggregate the needs of the citizenry; articulate them in terms of policies, programmes and decisions, and then seek to satisfy them through structures and institutions which have specific mandates and operational capacities. The three arms of government complement each other by exercising critical functions of their own, and through in-built mechanisms which limit potential excesses or conflicts. On the whole, our constitution envisages the existence of a political process built around the values of service and honest leadership; a genuinely-elected leadership transparently answerable to citizens and voters; and a public service which operates exclusively on the basis of loyalty to public interest and provision of services to the public.
Citizens are supposed to be protected from an inept and corrupt government through the unhindered application of the rule of law and a democratic system which allows citizens to reject incompetent leaders through free and fair elections. Governance is run strictly on the assumption that every elected official or public servant is answerable for his actions.
Failure or abuse will be punished by regulatory mechanisms which work, and diligence and outstanding commitment will be rewarded by a merit-based system which allows good leaders to stand out, and committed and outstanding public officers to rise to positions of leadership.
Corruption of all basic processes
So why doesn’t our system work as envisaged by the constitution? You have to start from a political and democratic system which is grossly abused in the process of producing leaders. Corruption of all the basic processes, institutions and systems create massively-disputed elections, and leaders with questionable mandates emerge, who then devote all their energy and state resources to retaining power rather than serving the public.
Leaders then plunder and mobilise state resources to retain control over sources and instruments of power. Basic rules on management of state institutions and assets are violated by people who should protect them, and political patronage becomes the hallmark of the management of the public service.
From there, the rest follow a logical pattern. State agencies are headed by political appointees whose qualifications are their potential to reinforce political control, not merit or competence. They in turn run state agencies principally by reference to political imperatives and the instinct for survival. Hallowed values of service and commitment to public interest are jettisoned for immediate political gratification and satisfaction of personal goals.
Once the political leadership is unable to live by the rules, it loses its capacity to police political appointees and the public service. In the public service bureaucracy, resistance to corruption and subversion of rules is punished, and virtually everyone else quickly learns the utility of submitting to leaders who violate rules and standards. The public service joins the assault on public resources and subversion of basic rules meant to protect public interest and public resources from a rapacious and corrupt leadership.
Government agencies undertake the vast majority of all activities of government, while ministries deal essentially with policy. There are basically two types of agencies: those which provide and maintain standards and services which government provides to citizens, and those which regulate services provided for by the private sector to citizens. The latter are empowered by the laws which set them up to set and monitor compliance with standards and ensure that citizens get good value for money.
They operate in areas such as telecommunications and aviation, where private operators have assets running in tens or hundreds of billions of Naira. In order to be effective, agencies which operate as regulators require a number of things. One is a political leadership that has a very strong commitment to public interest and the provision of quality service to citizens.
Second, they need to operate in an environment where corruption is extremely limited, or non-existent. Then they need strong professional leadership which understands the environment in which it works. Finally, they need a vigilant and active consumer–citizenry which is capable of demanding for both accountability and quality service.
In Nigeria, where the leadership deploys a very weak political will behind the fight against corruption, we have all the elements which make for failure, the type we see in the crash of the DANA airline last week, and the failure to handle our telecommunication companies in a manner that will make them render services which justify their cost.
Operators find it easy to by-pass vital regulations because of endemic corruption. Head of agencies are compromised by operators, and by a system which does not lend itself easily to the application of rules against operators. Heads of agencies are unsure of the nature of the relations between operators and Ministers.
Ministers are unsure of the nature of relations between operators or chief executive officers of regulatory agencies (who are political appointees like them) which report to them, with the presidency. Elements in the presidency are unsure over who is “overseeing” a particular sector or operator. The legislature rants and raves, and recommends sanctions which are either ignored or are settled “out of court”.
Our system fails because persons and institutions which are meant to protect the citizenry have defected to the enemy. Weak political will and lack of administrative capacity create weak regulatory mechanisms. This is the perfect breeding ground for corruption and disaster. Failures breed more failures. This is why no one has been jailed or sanctioned for all the air crashes we have witnessed which took hundreds of lives since 1992.
This is why government is unable to deal with the telecommunication companies which provides quite possibly the worst service in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. There are quite possibly hundreds of the equivalent of DANA crashes in many other sectors, but the biggest failure is that Nigerians are resigning themselves to living with them.
Nigerians must demand an answer for the inability of our governments to perform the basic functions for which they exist. The answers, however, cannot come until honest and committed leaders are voted into power. This in turn will not happen until the electoral process is made to reflect the popular will.
This will not happen unless Nigerians rise now to demand that whatever needs to be done must be done to ensure that 2015 elections are free and fair. The vast majority of Nigerians just want good and committed leaders. They will not lose sleep over where they come from, so long as they stop this free fall of our nation.