By Femi Aribisala
THERE is a cliché often repeated by all and sundry in Nigeria, in spite of the fact that it has little or no bearing with reality. This says: “Police is your friend.”
I have a feeling that the Police came up with this adage because of the popular perception that they are the enemy of the people. Rather than address the reality of widespread police misconduct, it was decided to present instead, this tomfoolery of fictitious police friendship.
But no matter what you think about Nigerians, we cannot be deemed to be gullible. We may suffer fools gladly but we are not fools. Therefore, “We the People” of Nigeria certainly do not subscribe to the deceit of “Police is your friend.” Nigerian policemen are not friendly. They cannot be our friend when their primary pre-occupation is the extortion of money from “We the People” at every possible opportunity.
But then what about the government? Can it be said in Nigeria that “Government is your friend?” Absolutely not! It is no big secret in Nigeria that the government is the enemy, and not the friend, of “We the People.” Government is an instrument by which “We the People” are robbed, intimidated and controlled by a privileged few.
Serious governments everywhere understand that small business is the engine of national economic growth. Therefore, they bend over backwards to encourage and promote business. Not in Nigeria. In Nigeria, the job of the government has been to harass, intimidate and extort money from businesses. I have been running businesses in Lagos for the past 30 years. At every juncture, the government has been an albatross around my neck.
Government in Nigeria is a captivity of the rich and the powerful. This is partly a by-product of our long stint with military government. The military seize power and hold it by force. They only have regard for the military and not for “We the People.” Their authority derives from their monopoly of violence, and from the capacity to cow “We the People” into submission.
Therefore, we have a constitution in Nigeria that does not derive from “We the People,” but from “They the Military.” Constitutional impositions of the military are then cast in stone, making them near impossible for “We the People” to repeal them.
Our more recent excursion into democratic governance has been no different. As a matter of fact, it has merely entailed a metamorphosis between military politicians and civilian politicians. The tendency has been for the military to remove their uniforms and then continue to govern in civilian clothes under the guise of democracy.
Nigerian democracy itself is bogus, defined by the manipulation of votes by strategically-placed individuals. As a result, “We the People” have become essentially irrelevant to Nigerian governments. There is little or no electoral repercussion to bad government in Nigeria. When “We the People” appeal to our leadership, they have been known to tell us to “go and die.”
A government can achieve precious little in its lifespan of four years in office. Nevertheless, at election time, its spokesmen will proclaim that it will still win the election by a landslide. When the results are announced, few express surprise when it is declared the winner by a moon slide. Elections then have only served to confirm the irrelevance of “We the People” in our so-called democratic processes.
Abraham Lincoln defined American democracy as government of the people, by the people, for the people. But what we have in Nigeria is government of the government, by the government, for the government.
In less than a year, we shall be going again to the polls. But you would not know this by the activities of our governments today. “We the People” are not being courted with policies that add value to our lives. Bill Gates came all the way from America to tell our leaders that government is no longer about projects and highfalutin statistics: government is about “We the People.” But our governments would not be moved.
Consider this. The Lagos State government decided to introduce an astronomical increase in its land use tax. This blatant contempt for “We the People” found eloquent expression, not in the government’s first year in office, but in the very year it is gearing up to renew its mandate at the polls.
Such audacity would be politically suicidal in true democracies. But not in Nigeria. In Nigeria, “We the People” don’t determine the winners of elections: “They, the government” do.
For the last three years, I have paid N360,000 as land use tax to Lagos State for a property in Victoria Island. But suddenly this March, 2018, I was served a bill of N2,600,000 for the same property. That is an increase of over 600 per cent. Please tell me: who does that?
Furthermore, I was given only a one-month grace period to come up with this financial bombshell. Then the government put a gun to my head and cocked it. I was told one-month lateness would double the amount as a penalty. Two month’s lateness would treble it.
Does this sound like a government that cares for my vote? Certainly not! It sounds like a government that has already won the election by a moon slide.
When this impertinence resulted in widespread public uproar and demonstrations, the government decided to be magnanimous. It announced a 50 percent reduction of the charges. That means instead of N2,600,000, my bill would now be N1,300,000; an increase of over 250 per cent. The government then expects me to be extremely grateful for this generosity and to say a big “thank you” to the governor.
Let me tell you the trick here. If you want to increase the land use charge by an outrageous 250 per cent, you first do so by 600 per cent. When “We the People” scream in protest, you then reduce it to 250 per cent and demand gratitude from your captives for your magnanimity.
This government by extortion, robbery and intimidation does not end there. We woke up one morning to discover that the fee for the Lekki-Lagos toll-gate has been increased by over 65%. No discussion: no reprieve. Instead of providing potable water for “We the People,” the government has come up with a policy for taxing people who have boreholes. Imagine that!
I also received a bill from my local government that I am now to pay N240,000 per annum for car parking in front of my house. They estimated that the space could take six cars. For each space, I was then billed N40,000.
Taking a page out of the government’s extortion playbook, fraudsters and conmen have joined the fray. I got another bill that says I am to pay N200,000 per annum for radio and television license. Surely, I can buy both a radio and television for less than half that amount.
I have also been known to receive a bill for having a generator. Rather than provide adequate electricity, which would preclude the need for a generator, I was asked to pay a tax for environmental protection against the fumes of my generator. Don’t be surprised if, in the determination to milk us dry, “We the People” are soon charged even for the air we breathe.
This list goes on. Within three years, my electricity company raised my tariff by 1,236 percent; from N11,000 monthly to N147,000. Not to be left out, the banks have come up with all sorts of hidden charges designed to hemorrhage our bank balances. Soon, “We the People” may have to pay a toll for walking on the street. Indeed, because Folorunso Alakija is putting up an edifice in Ikoyi, the authorities have informed those in the neighbourhood that the road will be closed to “We the People” for the next few years.
In the context of these sharp practices, imagine my surprise when I heard that Governor Ambode of Lagos State has established a Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF). In this, a whopping N25 billion has ostensibly been earmarked for the support of small businesses in the state through the provision of staff-employment generating loans to the maximum tune of N5 million each over three years.
Does this really mean we finally have a government that pays more than lip-service to the needs of “we the people?” I needed to find out for myself.
My wife and I own Nouveau Schools, an international school in Victoria Island with a population of 100 children. A N5,000,000 LSETF loan would enable us boost the business by employing more nannies and handlers, in conformity with the stated objectives of the scheme. I put in my application and waited patiently to be surprised by this new departure in Nigerian democratic governance. No such luck!
It is now 18 months since I applied for the LSETF loan. At first, I received nary a word; not even an acknowledgment. Then for months on end, they claimed the website was being refurbished and everything closed down. Then they said my application was being processed and the board would soon contact me. How does it take 18 months to process an application?
When I raised the matter with a Lagos State official, he decided to level with me in an uncharacteristic moment of candour. Yes, he said, the government budgeted N25 billion for the scheme. But the money has been shared among the timber and caliber of Lagos State, who simply use it as an avenue to funnel funds to their friends and relatives. So much for “We the People” again.
Time running out
When and how are we going to get out of this cul-de-sac? When are we going to realise that if our governments are not truly for “We the People,” even the rich will not be allowed to enjoy their riches in peace and quiet? If we refuse to obey the dictates of “We the People,” Nigeria will remain in its current deformity of stunted development.
If we do not address the education deficit of “We the People,” Nigeria will remain backward while African countries like Rwanda and Botswana forge ahead. If our governments don’t succumb to the will of “We the People,” there will be no Nigeria down the road, but a number of fragmented and balkanized mini-states in the disintegration tradition of Yugoslavia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The Nigerian leadership are latter-day Bourbons. They are hard of hearing and hard of learning. They self-sabotage even their best intentions.