By Tonnie Iredia
In developing societies, people in government are always unduly defensive in their public utterances; each press statement is always a rejoinder while every broadcast interview is to correct certain so-called public misconceptions. This has in fact been the thrust of our information management approach in Nigeria since the colonial times. The ongoing daily briefings on the Coronavirus clearly illuminate the point. While we hear some new things from the sessions, the segment on information is always about some materials on the social media that are declared as fake news. This is not the doing of the current information minister, it is instead a subsisting template that is designed to, at all times, see any criticism of public policy, the handiwork of a government enemy; where it is a media professional, then he must have been hired by the opposition to disparage government. Without knowing it, people in government developed a virus that makes them think patriotism resides within government circles only.
The panacea they then designed was to always close-up government by adopting a silence is golden approach – no statement, no harm. But even those who are not exactly conversant with the power of communication, must have involuntarily observed that last week’s broadcast by President Buhari has made him to be better appreciated by Nigerians today than when his handlers probably assured him that silence was perfect. What Nigerians want is not a garrulous leader but one they can directly connect with at any hour of need. Of course, it was in order that many people wanted to hear from their President and not his delegates. It was also wise that the President listened to his people and did their bidding because in a democracy, sovereignty belongs to the people. After the broadcast, some of his greatest critics including those who not long ago called for his resignation commended him. The clear lesson is that it is not everyone that criticizes for its own sake, just as not everyone is a critic all the time.
Even those who appear to be permanent critics have their place in society. Many of them are quite articulate and knowledgeable, but they are hardly recognized because most people erroneously assume that the only aspect of democracy that matters is majority rule, meaning that it is only the majority party that should form government. They are probably unaware that the principle stands on two legs, majority rule which expects those with the highest votes to form government is one leg; respect for minority rights is the other leg. As is often said, the minority may have its say but the majority will have its way. For this reason, those in government should never discourage those not in it from expressing their opinions. This is why our Constitution in its Section 39 grants everyone and not just those in government the fundamental right to freedom of speech. Whether what people say agrees with public policy or not does not matter, instead what matters is that everyone is allowed to express his opinion and that government does not criminalize political dissent.
There is so much to gain in listening to a plurality of views, as the posture offers government several options to consider in its decision-making process. No one can in all honesty argue that there are more patriotic views coming out of government than elsewhere. Indeed, if we decline to accept views from within government as patriotic, we may be able to rationalize it. Afterall, people in government are paid to support government so what they do, may well be informed by the urge to keep a job than love for fatherland. In Nigeria in particular where those in power and members of their political party alone expropriate our common patrimony, there is no sense in asking us to see any of them as a patriot. People do not have to be part of government to be useful to society. For example, if some members of the conference of political parties pick holes in how public funds are paid out to what looks like a favoured group, accountability suggests a review.
When Tope Fasua Presidential candidate of the Abundant Nigerian Renewal Party ANRP joined the team seeking to be our President in 2019, many saw his likes in the team as jokers. But a few days ago, when I watched him on national television marshalling strategies for keeping our economy afloat in these hard times, I had no iota of doubt that our President needs to incorporate such brains outside his party into his national development framework. That is what is done in some other countries where governance is not politicised and where party loyalists are not allowed to use their greed to sabotage public policy.
Only last week, an investigative report by a national newspaper exposed how palliatives procured by the Lagos state government to assist the needy during the current lock down were grossly diverted to homes of politicians. According to the report, “those in charge of the distribution of the packages were doling them out to members of the ruling party in the state.” The report cited the case of Dopemu area, close to Akowonjo where rice was being shared with ‘political party number’ meaning that if you are not a member of the ruling party the rice that was bought with public money can’t get to you. At a place called Poka, only 10 packs of water were reportedly made available while several dozens of the distributed packages made up of food, water, vitamin were cornered by local party leaders. We do not believe that there is any party leader who did not envisage what happened especially in a state like Lagos where to not ‘carry party members along’ is a criminal offence that can cost the governor his second term.
A grave implication of carrying people along by sharing state resources to only party members is that it compels government to divert funds from development projects to private pockets of one set of politicians. It is against this backdrop that this column has consistently condemned the plan of the ruling party in Edo state to veto the second term ambition of Governor Godwin Obaseki who from his inauguration showed obvious signs of a man desirous of developing the state. Except Nigerians generally stand up against those who on account of personal greed, distract those working for the people, our nation cannot grow. Today, as we face a pandemic, many of our states are stranded. The other day one state governor was seen on television pleading with the federal government to send coronavirus testing kits to his state as if the items belong to the exclusive legislative list. What do they cost and why are states unable to have theirs? The truth appears to be that the kits are not beyond the resources of a state; the main problem is that the states are broke because among other frivolities, resources have to be shared to party members.