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Public focus is on 2023 politics rather than pro-poor policy making

By Tabia Princewill

Our fundamental problem in Nigeria isn’t the quality of our elections; our problem lies at the heart of our understanding of democracy: we have no institutionalised forms of welfare or true commitment to equality and social justice.

When will we see that beyond APC or PDP our problem is the extreme form of capitalism we practise which legitimises prioritising the comforts, needs and financial opportunities of the rich at the expense of everyone else in society? In America, income inequality is frequently a topic of discussion.

Conversely, in Nigeria, the media and public opinion are obsessed with electoral politics, reducing our understanding of political affairs to the competition for power involving various individuals running for office; but we rarely discuss the structural issues which impede development no matter which persons or parties are in power. Doing so runs counter to the interests of some very highly placed people.

Discussions about restructuring our system only seem to tackle resource sharing, or the funds which are accessible to public officers, and not the mechanisms which are ultimately responsible for mass poverty or redistributive policies to create a fairer, more equal society.

Nigerians treat equality like it’s a bad word: we prefer token charity initiatives and drop-in-the-ocean philanthropy to discussions about systemic change which could lift millions out of poverty. Businessmen continuously benefit from strange tax waivers; states find it difficult to pay workers.

But rather than focus on these issues, discussion in the media, or amongst analysts centre on guessing who will run for President in 2023. These conversations don’t seek to uncover potential contestants plans, policies or antecedents but luxuriate in debating over their political strength.

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In the 1990s, Nigeria eagerly embraced the IMF and World Bank ideology, therefore cutting welfare and wages for those at the bottom: we’ve never recovered our social conscience since then. The IMF now admits that inequality hinders economic growth, but many policymakers in Africa are yet to respond (partly because it has been politically expedient to keep people poor and largely uneducated).

Mass mobilisation to tackle the excesses at the top was effectively killed by the military, and too few activists today are committed to addressing the disenfranchisement and exploitation at the bottom. Proof of this is: there is still little support for this administration’s efforts to widen the tax net.

Typically, in Nigeria, only civil servants pay regular taxes often because they have no choice (their taxes are deducted from source). But who remembers former Minister of Finance, Okonjo-Iweala’s, 2014 report? She revealed the then Federal Government had lost N800 billion to tax waivers and concessions granted to various businesses between 2011 and 2013.

When the government loses such sums, where do we imagine the funds for social spending(meaning the funds which directly impact you and I) will come from? Education, health, welfare and labour rights have been at the bottom of the political agenda. How ironic the poorest region on earth, Africa, is where one finds the most committed people to global capitalism and its most extreme forms of anti-people policies.

The West engages in different forms of protectionism, literally “protecting” key sectors and jobs from foreign competition, but in Africa, we prioritise foreign direct investment over building our local industries and manufacturing sectors. Often because African policymakers themselves have close ties to Western governments and to the foreign institutions who depend on Africa remaining open to being a dumping ground for their products.

When former World Bank or central bank employees run for office in Africa, we take this to mean they are competent and experienced. We don’t realise that the monetary and fiscal policies such individuals pursue are often precisely the reason for African poverty: we cannot continue to uncritically follow the global liberal agenda.

Terrorism and insecurity are products of rampant, unrestrained capitalism in Nigeria which neglects social investments in the majority of the population in favour of investments in financial circles, creating monopolies and killing competition.

Femi Falana (SAN)has often spoken out against the practice of allocating oil blocs to individuals and international oil companies. Indeed, the Nigerian economy, an extreme take on capitalist ideology, allows and encourages the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

Military governments awarded our resources to their cronies (many of whom had neither the technical know-how or will to manage them efficiently) and such habits are responsible for Nigeria (and Africa’s) difficulty in producing an entrepreneurial class which doesn’t rely on government favour, contracts or advantages to survive. In the 1970s, major infrastructural projects were funded using the proceeds from crude oil sales.

What happened from the 1990s onwards? A mixture of the local elite and foreign interests have frightened and confused Nigerians into thinking that prioritising the well-being of a very small group of people is synonymous with the interest of the majority. Although on the surface indigenous corporations compete and produce wealth, the majority of Africa’s resources are mined and traded by foreign corporations and nations who decide prices, and only pay paltry sums to host countries in the form of taxes, if and when they do pay.

Furthermore, to quote Mr Falana: “By merely collecting huge rents the oil block owners become stupendously rich while the federal, state and local governments depend on loans and bailouts to pay salaries and carry out basic infrastructural development.

Thus, by allocating oil blocks to a few individuals and corporate bodies the Federal Government has violated Section 16(2) (c) of the Constitution which provides that ‘the economic system is not operated in such a manner as to permit the concentration of wealth or the means of production and exchange in the hands of few individuals or of a group'”.

Our Constitution’s wording outlaws unbridled, unstrained capitalism! Anyone who advocates for the poor, or who believes that while businesses should be allowed the space to create wealth, they must also pay their fair share in taxes, etc., is curiously labelled “anti-business”.

There have been many strange conversations in the press regarding the false benefits of smugglingwhich some commentators defended following the recent land border closure. But we never stop to think who really benefits from foreign corporations’ activities in Africa, nor do we interrogate the ideology that makes oil wells primarily private resources empowering only a few people, the same way we don’t question our penchant for justifying illegal activities.

Our Constitution says the Nigerian state must “control the national economy in such manner as to secure the maximum welfare, freedom and happiness of every citizen on the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity”. Yet our economy is geared to do the opposite. Forget arguing over APC or PDP, let’s discuss the real effects of our economic system.

Fighting corruption

According to a recent paper by Messrs Christian Erikson and Lionel Faull, called “Obtaining Property Information Overseas” at the Human and Environmental Development Agenda anti-corruption summit in Port Harcourt, every year, the United Kingdom receives £90 billion in looted funds from Nigeria and other countries. Nick Hildyard, an anti-corruption investigator said: “The UK is a legally corrupt country”. Mr Faull added: “The fight against corruption will not succeed without a very active citizenry. It requires international solidarity, teaming up with a civil society in order to work with international organisations and make authorities accountable”. Nigerians are yet to truly make use of the freedom of information act through which they could gain access to court documents and checkmate illicit flows of money.

Sex for grades

A lot has been said about the persistence of “sex for grades” in the Nigerian educational system. Why do the same lecturers who teach students have access to their exam papers? The examination process should be anonymous (this is international best practice) in order to protect students from predatory individuals. At the heart of the Nigerian system lies an unjust power dynamic which allows exploitation and this cuts across sectors.

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